Sunday 29 December 2013

Mexico City top ten

I recently spent a week in Mexico City. It was my first visit but it will not be my last. I was captivated by the architecture, art, people, food, history and sheer excitement of the city. Most of all, I enjoyed exploring the city on foot and by Metro. Several times I was taken by surprise, for example the evening I was walking along Calle Palmas and thought I could hear singing. I wasn't hearing things. When I reached the junction of Palmas with Avenida Madero, there was a woman standing on the balcony of the corner music store singing operatic versions of well known songs to much applause and cries of bravo from a large crowd. She even had them joining in to Besame Mucho! So here, in no particular order, are my top ten Mexico City experiences, but remember, this is a huge city with many  things to see and do so please forgive me if you can't find your favourite amongst them.

Boats at Xochimilco
Xochimilco is some distance away from the centre of the city, but it is a truly Mexican experience. Families and groups of friends bring food and drink and hire a boat or boats together with a local version of a gondolier who steers the boat through miles of canals. Many also hire musicians and several have Mariachi groups or the Mexican version of country singers on board and when the eating is done, the tables are folded away and the dancing begins. It is a wonderful experience seeing several generations of one family enjoying the day together. For those who don't bring their own food, there are stalls along the side of the canal at embarkment points as well as floating food shops with food being cooked in small boats and sold on the water. I ate on land and had the best quesadillas of my trip - flor de calabaza with cheese. Yum. For dessert I enjoyed oblea - thin sweet wafers made from wheat flour and vegetable colouring, covered with a scrape of caramel and spread thinly with amaranth and pumpkin seeds - all for the equivalent of a couple of pounds.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is the hub of Mexico City's rich cultural life with a huge programme of music, dance and exhibitions. Building began in 1904 but was delayed many times due to political unrest and problems with the very soft subsoil. Work stopped completely in 1913, not resuming until 1932 eventually being completed in 1934. This long delay accounts for the difference in style between the art nouveau influenced exterior and the mainly art deco interior. The lobby with its dramatic staircase and galleries is imposing, but the real star of the show is the auditorium with its glass curtain designed by Hungarian Miksa Roth and made by Tiffany and Co. It consist of over one million pieces of iridescent coloured glass, weighs 24 tons and is the only one in the world. It is decorated with images of the Mexican volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. I went along to see a performance of the Folkloric Ballet. Being British I reluctantly obeyed the strict "no cameras" note on my ticket. I was the only one who did and remain angry with myself for missing out on the opportunity to photograph the auditorium. I'll just have to go again! The Palacio also has a restaurant, a gift shop and a good book shop.

Roof, Casa Barragan
Mexico City is an architectural paradise. One of the highlights of my visit was being shown around Casa Barragan, once the home of architect Luis Barragan. Completed in 1948, it also acted as his studio and demonstrates his views on the integration of internal and external spaces and the division between private and public areas. I especially enjoyed the roof terrace with its colours and their changing relationship with the sunlight. The house contains several pieces from Barragan's personal art collection, whilst his passion for music is evidenced by the large number of rooms containing turntables and the external speakers hidden behind the patio curtains facing the garden! To see inside you must make an appointment in advance for one of the guided tours which are available in Spanish and English. There are several Barragan buildings in the city and you can also visit Casa Gilardi, which is a private residence. Again, an appointment is necessary and staff at Casa Barragan can advise on how best to do this.
Detail from the lobby at Cafe Tacuba
Mexican culinary delights easily make my Mexico City top ten. My passion for desserts is well known and the sweetest experience of my trip was at Churreria El Moro at the junction of Lazaro Cardenas and Calle Republica de Uruguay, where they have been serving churros and chocolate since 1935. I made my way there after the show at Bellas Artes to find the place bursting at the seams with other post show visitors and table after table of Mexican families enjoying these warm and very sweet long doughnuts with milk shakes, coffee and in my case a delicious mug of hot chocolate. You can also buy from the window, where there was a very long queue waiting for their take-away treats. Pure happiness and something that you can enjoy 24 hours a day - El Moro never closes.

Cheating a bit on this one, I also want to mention Cafe Tacuba. Founded in 1912, as well as serving good food (I had quesadillas and soup - very good!), it is a beautiful place to linger with its stained glass art nouveau lobby, exquisite ceramic tiled interior and an art collection to admire between courses. They also have a nice cake display but for once I was too full to sample the wares! Cheating a little bit more, Jugos Canada at 5 de Mayo 47 (which doesn't seem to have a website) is possibly the best juice bar in the city. Pick the fruit you want from a long list and they will prepare your drink straight away. I had strawberry and banana. Delicious. They also serve tacos and burgers, but its the juice that's the big thing.

Detail of art deco building, Condesa.
For me, no trip is complete without viewing seeing the city's art deco buildings. Mexico City is a treasure house of this most elegant architectural style and although it can be found across the city, the main concentration of it is in the Condesa area. Developed in the 1920's and 1930's for the emerging middle class, the streets with most examples of art deco are Avenida Amsterdam and Avenida Mexico. There are also lots of gems on the side streets running off these avenues so if you are a real deco fan, you might want to set aside a whole morning or afternoon to see the area. Built on and around the site of a former racecourse, it is a great place to stroll, admire the architecture and sample some of the many excellent cafes or restaurants. I enjoyed Matisse on Avenida Amsterdam which serves good coffee and big cakes! You can read more about Mexico City's art deco buildings here.

Temple of the sun, Teotihuacan
Still on the subject of architecture, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, 47 km north-east of the city, is one of the most impressive cities in the ancient world. The site covers over 20 square km and was once home to over 100,000 people. Work began on the city in around 100 BCE and it remained settled until some time around the 8th century when it was abandoned, the reasons for which are not clear. The site includes two major pyramids - the pyramid of the sun and the pyramid of the moon. The larger pyramid, that of the sun, can be climbed but be warned, some of the 243 steps are extremely steep and the descent must be tackled carefully, but the climb is worth it for the view alone. From the summit you can see right across the valley to the surrounding hills. On the day I visited there were also many orange coloured butterflies at the top of the pyramid. Other major attractions at Teotihuacan, include a fragment of brightly coloured mural of a jaguar, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl which includes carved masks of this god and reconstructed villas with faithfully restored wall decorations. Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

Detail from Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central
Together with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera is Mexico's best known artist, both inside the country and overseas. Rivera was heavily involved in radical politics, a firm supporter of the legacy of the 1910 Revolution and together with Kahlo gave temporary asylum to the ill-fated Leon Trotsky as he fled the Stalinist Soviet Union. His beliefs are reflected in his work, including the huge murals for which he is so famous. There are many of Rivera's murals spread around the city, but my favourite is housed in a museum of it's own. Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central was originally housed in the dining room of the Hotel del Prado which was severely damaged in the 1985 earthquake and subsequently demolished. The  mural was saved and re-housed in a new pavilion in Alameda Park, known as the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. The mural depicts real characters from Mexican history and illustrates the gap and tensions between rich and poor. It originally bore the phrase "God does not exist". After this was defaced by a Christian group and the mural stored for several years, Rivera eventually agreed to remove it and it was re-displayed. Ironically, when I visited, a Christmas carol concert was taking place in the building - right in front of the mural. Rivera would not have approved! Entrance is free on Sundays.

Estudio Diego Rivera, San Angel
Still with Kahlo and Rivera, my next choice for my Mexico City top ten is the Estudio Diego Rivera in San Angel. Built between 1929 and 1931 to the designs of artist and architect Juan O'Gorman, it consists of two houses, one each for Kahlo and Rivera joined by a narrow bridge at roof level over which Kahlo would bring food that she had prepared for her husband Rivera. Rivera's house also contains his double heighted studio with its spectacular floor to ceiling window and collection of his papier mache figures, items from his collection of pre-Colombian artefacts and on the occasion of my visit a portrait of actress Dolores del Rio. The Kahlo-Rivera marriage was extremely tempestuous with many affairs, divorce and remarriage but despite this, the frail Frida was clearly willing to scale the very narrow and steep steps at the side of her house leading to the roof top bridge to make sure he didn't go hungry! To the rear of the Estudio there is a third house which O'Gorman designed for himself which is now used for temporary exhibitions.

Portrait of Dolores del Rio, Diego Rivera
My penultimate choice is the Museo de Arte Moderno which is one of several excellent museums in the Bosque de Chapultepec - a huge park a few metro stops from the centre of the city. The permanent collection includes works from all of the great Mexican artists of the twentieth century - Rivera, Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and many others. There are also frequent temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was a special exhibitions devoted to the works of Maria Izqueirdo and our friend, architect Luis Barragan. During temporary exhibitions some of the star items from the permanent collection remain on display, such as Frida Kahlo's disturbing Two Fridas from 1939 and Fernando Leal's  Zapata from 1958. The museum also has a good cafe and a very good book shop. Chapultepec is also home to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian artefacts including reconstructed sections of temples. The underrated but excellent Museo Rufino Tamayo is close by and stages exhibitions of contemporary art, but for me its Tamayo's works that are the main attraction.

Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo, 1939.
And my final choice for my Mexico City top ten is…the Metro! This might seem a little unusual but during my stay I found the Metro to be an efficient, safe and very cheap way of moving around this huge city during the day.  The cost of a single ticket is just 5 pesos - that's about 23p in Sterling and it is possible to travel significant distances across the city much more quickly than on buses or in taxis. It does get very crowded at the end of the working day and interestingly two carriages are allocated to women and children only which lone female travellers may wish to take advantage of. As with public transport in any major city, one needs to be vigilant and keep valuables safely out of view but this is no different to London, Paris or New York.

The Metro is very easy to navigate with clear line maps on display and good signage in stations. As well as the practical advantages of the Metro, I was fascinated by the presence of many musicians and people trying to sell a whole range of items in order to make a living. At almost every station, a different seller will board the carriage and offer any one of a range of products including cigarettes, chewing gum, small snacks, children's toys and during my stay, small Christmas decorations. After a brief verbal advertisement for their goods, they walk the length of the carriage and sell items to people who are interested - I did not see any of the aggressive begging that I have seen in other cities, including at home in London. And people did buy small items as well as giving a few coins to the many musicians that populate the carriages.

So that's it, my top ten for Mexico City. It has been very difficult making my choices (even though I have cheated bit!) and so I have included a few pictures below of other personal highlights of my stay. It's a place I will be returning to!

Antigua Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadaloupe
Detail from lobby, Hotel Gran Ciudad de Mexico
My favourite shop front! El Borcegui shoe shop, founded in 1865

Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros in Polanco. Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros. World Trade Centre in the background
Detail from ceiling, Synagogue Justo Sierra.
Torre Latinamericana and the Edificio la Nacional building
You might also like Mexico City - art deco treasure house and Jewish Mexico City - a step back in time

Thursday 26 December 2013

Jewish Mexico City - a step back in time

Picture of Jewish staff in clothing shop from Judios pro Herencia Mexicanos pro Florecer by Paloma Cung Sulkin 
When Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, amongst his entourage were a number of conversos, or Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in Spain in 1492. Conversos, also known as anusim, later emigrated in large numbers to what was then known as New Spain and despite the presence of the Inquisition, attempted to secretly maintain Jewish customs including the dietary laws, circumcision and keeping the sabbath. 

During my recent visit to Mexico City, I spent three hours in the company of Monica Unikel-Fasja who guided me around the city's Centro Historico including to the site of the Inquisition which operated until as late as 1820.  The Inquisition encouraged people to identify friends, neighbours and even relatives suspected of "judaising", that is, of secretly practising Judaism. Suspects were routinely tortured, tried in public and in many cases publicly burned at the stake often through evidence secured with the most extreme torture. The building that housed the Inquisition still stands on one of the corners of Calle Republica de Brazil and Calle Republica de Venezuela, facing Santo Domingo Plaza. Unusually for Mexican buildings, it has a slanted corner, the intention being that it should be visible from all directions upon entering the plaza.

There remain many Mexicans who can trace their descent from conversos.  Some have tried with varying degrees of success to be accepted into the country's established Jewish communities. Perhaps the most famous claimant to a Jewish identity through the converso link was renowned artist Diego Rivera. In 1935 Rivera wrote "My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work".

Site of the headquarters of the Inquisition in Mexico, facing Plaza Santo Domingo
Until the nineteenth century, the majority of Jews in the city were conversos but in 1865 during the short lived monarchy,  Emperor Maximilian issued an edict of religious tolerance, opening the way for Jewish immigration and open practice of the faith.

The first decades of the 20th century saw an influx of European Jews escaping the prejudice, pogroms and economic misery of the old continent. Many settled in the Centro Historico, somewhat ironically, centring on Calle Jesus and Mary. In this compact area, Jews established homes, small businesses and all of the services they needed to maintain their way of life, at the same time making serious efforts to become Mexican. Monica has many fascinating stories of this community and was generous enough to share them with me on our tour.

These include the story of one eastern european Jew who settled in the city and wrote back to a relative that he had found work, that the climate was good, the Mexicans friendly and that there was even a synagogue here and inviting them to join him. When asked the name of the synagogue he wrote back saying "the Jesus and Mary" synagogue. The relative decided not to come! The community that our enthusiastic immigrant wrote of included a Jewish school, small kosher eateries, a kosher butcher, bakeries, tailors and even a small maternity hospital set up by a Jewish woman.

Site of Mexico City's first Jewish school, Calle Republic of Colombia 16
The first Jewish school was set up in a series of rooms around a tiny courtyard at Calle Republic of Colombia 16 in 1927. The courtyard is still there. Today it has resumed its residential status, evidenced by the washing hanging across the landings, but it was easy to imagine the school back in the early 1920's, with the children gathering to be learn Hebrew and to receive religious instruction. And although Calle Republic of Colombia is many thousands of miles away from their original homes in Poland and Russia, this little courtyard must have had at least some feeling of life back home and a degree of familiarity.

Renovated courtyard off Plaza Santo Domingo
This was one of a number of courtyards we visited. In Jesus and Mary Street, Monica showed me an even smaller and darker courtyard, accessed through what is today a very small and very full clothes shop. It was here that children not attending the more formal Jewish school could take lessons from a  man who became known as "the teacher", again receiving instruction in Hebrew and Torah.

This courtyard was also home to a Jewish bakery and a small kosher restaurant run by a woman called Chana. The bakery was very important. To have the rye bread or chollah that they had been used to in Europe must have been a comfort and a reminder of home to the early immigrants. It was also an alternative to the local breads which would have been foreign to the newcomers. The restaurant occupied a tiny space in the courtyard where Chana prepared Jewish food at very cheap prices. There was no sign outside the courtyard to advertise the restaurant, but as with every immigrant community, her presence and skills became known by word of mouth - and no doubt by the aromas seeping out to the street, attracting customers in.

Some of these courtyards have been subject to renovation and are now desirable residences. One such courtyard is located just off Plaza Santo Domingo. Today it is very attractive with its repainted surfaces, cleaned up wooden window frames and many plants on the walkways. Jews would once have been residents here. Today's courtyard would have seemed very luxurious to them compared to back then.

Courtyard on Calle Jesus and Mary, once home to a Jewish teacher, bakery and kosher restaurant
At Calle Jesus and Mary 22, there was a Jewish grocers run by a woman called Sarah Makovsky. Sarah was famous for her pickles and herrings - staples of Ashkenazi Jewish diet. The shop is now long departed. Interestingly there is a statue of the Virgin Mary above the space where it was. Little things like this  demonstrate the pragmatism of the community and its desire to adapt to its surroundings and become Mexican Jews. Women feature strongly in the story of this community. One of my favourites is the owner of the already mentioned maternity hospital. She had ten beds and allowed the women to stay for two weeks - one week before the birth and one week after. There are stories of mothers declaring their stay there to be one of the most treasured times of their lives and one of the few occasions where they had much rest! How different to today's modern maternity care where mothers often leave hospital on the day of the birth.

Detail from one of the murals in the Mercado Alberto Rodriguez
As well as telling the Jewish story of this part of Mexico City, Monica sets the context of communal life  for the first half of the twentieth century and the tour included a short visit to one of the earliest cantinas in the area, primarily frequented by men who go to drink, eat and talk - and nowadays to watch the ubiquitous television that crops up in so many restaurant here (unfortunately). We also had a quick look at the Mercado (market) Abelardo Rodriguez, built in 1934 with many modern features including a day care centre and an auditorium. It is also interesting for the presence of a number of murals, commissioned by the then government and painted by pupils of Diego Rivera. The murals were intended to extoll the virtues of the 1910 Mexican Revolution and to promote the government's socialist policies. Jews would almost certainly have worked and shopped in this market.

Today, very few Jews live in this part of the city although several still work or maintain businesses here. Monica told me that she sometimes sees mezuzot in shop doorways, indicating Jewish ownership. There are also two synagogues in the area, one operating as a house of prayer, the other, gloriously restored thanks to  Monica's phenomenal work and commitment, is now a  cultural centre. 

The Monte Sinai synagogue on Calle Justo Sierra was founded in 1923 due to efforts led by Salonica born Isaac Capon of the Syrian Jewish community. Capon was responsible for many charitable works for the community and is commemorated with a plaque inside the synagogue. I understand that he died in poverty having given away much of his fortune. Many members of this community came from the lands of the former Ottoman Empire as it crumbled in the early years of the twentieth century and then completely collapsed in defeat at the end of the First World War. The community welcomed other Jews to the synagogue and both Sephardim and Ashkenazim prayed there. It has recently undergone extensive renovation which has involved losing some of the original features. The exterior is beautiful. Once covered in cement to conform with the rest of the street scape, the original facade was uncovered some years ago and makes the building stand out from its neighbours. There is still a daily minyan at the synagogue and it is possible to visit and view the interior as part of an arranged tour or with a pre-arranged appointment.

Interior, Monte Sinai synagogue, Calle Justo Sierra.
During the 1930's and 1940's, a number of the Jewish residents of the Centro Historico found themselves in improved economic positions. After years of hard work, often beginning as itinerant salesmen, not speaking or fully understanding Spanish, they managed to establish their own businesses and to gain a new confidence. Ironically, as the situation for European Jews deteriorated rapidly, their synagogues and businesses seized or destroyed, Mexico's Jews found themselves able to build a new synagogue, just along the Calle from Monte Sinai.

Mexico was not immune to the fascism that was sweeping Europe and other parts of the world and anti-semitic organisations existed and demonstrated against Jews, calling for their expulsion or for economic restrictions on them. However, this anti-semitism never achieved the kind of mass support it did elsewhere and did not translate itself into violence or national policy. This may in part have been due to the Jews' serious and genuine efforts to belong in Mexico which included the Macabbi sports club taking part in commemorations of the 1910 Revolution, the acquisition of the Spanish language and the display of the Mexican flag in synagogues - although the same approach in Europe did nothing to save the Jews.

Entrane to the Nidje Israel synagogue, Calle Justo Sierra.
But what of the new synagogue? Completed in 1941, the Nidje Israel synagogue is a large and impressive building at Calle Justo Sierra 71. However, from the outside and without the Magen Davids on the exterior door, it would not be possible to identify the building as a place of worship. This may be due to the synagogue being Ashkenazi and the history of persecution that the community well remembered from Europe which resulted in their desire for anonymity. The building was funded by one Zvi Kessel, a Lithuanian Jew whose only stipulation was that it resemble a synagogue in his home town of Shavli, Lithuania. The building was designed and construction overseen by the engineering Gerson brothers who took two years to complete their project.

The synagogue was the focus of the Ashkenazi community on the Centro Historico for many years but as they became more affluent and moved away to the suburbs of Roma, Condesa and Polanco, attendances dropped and the building fell into disrepair. A minyan was maintained for some years from Monday to Thursday through the efforts of the Herrera family, converts to Judaism, who would go from one business to another looking for adult Jewish men to make up the required ten for prayers. Eventually this became unsustainable and activity ceased. Since then, thanks to the amazing efforts of Monica in raising funds and securing appropriate expertise, the synagogue has been faithfully restored. Although it no longer holds services, it stages a programme of cultural events with the intention of increasing understanding of Jewish heritage and Judaism amongst the general population. The response has been extremely positive and the recent Chanukah celebration attracted many visitors - almost all of them non-Jewish.

The interior is stunning. Full of light and colour, my gaze was immediately drawn to the ceiling which is covered in Judaic symbolism such as the tablets with the ten commandments, menorahs and of course Magen Davids. The design is reminiscent of the folk art once found in the wooden synagogues of Lithuania, Romania, Hungary and the Ukraine. There is also a piece of naive art at the rear of the women's gallery adding to the charm. I have no doubt Mr. Kessel would be delighted with the revitalisation of his gift to the Jews of Mexico City. Work to attract more visitors continues and Monica and her small team are working with some local artists to establish a gallery of contemporary art in one part of the building.  I am sure it will be a success.

Chandelier and ceiling detail, Nidje Israel synagogue

Main hall, Nidje Isarel synagogue

Detail, stairs to the women's gallery, Nidje Israel synagogue

Detail, ceiling, Nidje Israel synagogue

Detail, ceiling and rear wall of women's gallery, Nidje Israel synagogue

There are perhaps 45,000 Jews in Mexico today, rather less than 1% of the country's population. The vast majority live in Mexico City, almost all outside of the Centro Historico. Other, smaller communities exist in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana, Cancun, Puebla and Vera Cruz. The community has produced some important cultural figures including writers Ilan Stavans and Margo Glantz, both of whom have written about Mexican Jewry. Stavans wrote specifically about the Centro Historico and Glantz has delivered readings in the Nidje Israel synagogue.

Visitors to Mexico can arrange Jewish tours by contacting Monica through the synagogue's website. There are also a number of books about the community that can be consulted or purchased from the synagogue. The two black and white pictures reproduced here are from Paloma Cung Sulkin's book Judios por Herencia Mexicanos pro Florecer which is about the second generation of Jewish Mexicans, their acceptance into society and their achievements. You can find the book at the synagogue.
Photo of Abremoishe Kisel taken with his Mexican born grandchildren from Judios pro Herencia Mexicanos pro Florecer by Paloma Cung Sulkin

Sunday 22 December 2013

Mexico City - art deco treasure house

I am just back from my first ever visit to Mexico which was also my first visit to Latin America. I am completely smitten and Mexico City in particular is right up there with my favourite cities of Tel Aviv, Moscow and Budapest. There are many reasons for this - the stunning collection of architecture, the overwhelming art collections including some of the world's best public art, the great metro system, a certain chocolate and churros outlet and most of all the warm and friendly people. More of all of this in other posts, but first architecture!

One of the many reasons I wanted to visit Mexico City was to see it's wonderful collection of art deco buildings. Although less well known than Miami, Brussels or Paris, Mexico City has some of the world's most striking examples of the style. I must also add that the pictures and information posted on Art Deco Mx also inspired my visit and I recommend at look at this site.

The city saw a major expansion in the 1920's and 1930's with new suburbs being built to provide homes for the rising middle classes who had grown wealthy enough to move out of the old centre and who wanted something modern and different. Many of the earlier art deco houses are in the Condesa area where the Colonia Condesa Racecourse began selling lots in 1927 and architects such as Juan Segura and Francisco J. Serrano were engaged to design new homes and business premises. Like everywhere else, some of this built heritage has fallen victim to developers and demolition, but much remains - too much to see in just one visit! Unfortunately, it is not possible to gain access to the interior of most of the buildings as they are residential, but occasional glimpses can be caught when residents enter or leave, revealing beautiful mosaic floors, ceilings and staircases. 

Apartment block in Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa. 1938, architect unkown.
Not surprisingly, my first stop in Mexico was Condesa, an affluent area of restaurants, cafes and very expensive housing in the south-west of the city where many of the most interesting deco buildings are located, especially on and around Avenida Amsterdam and the adjacent Avenida Mexico. 

Avenida Amsterdam is home to my favourite building in Condesa. Built in 1938, it stands out from its neighbours by virtue of its beautiful green facade and recessed entrance with geometric metal details on the glazing. Whilst I was admiring the exterior of this most attractive of buildings, one of the residents drew up in his car and asked me if I would like to see the lobby and the staircase as they were also interesting. Unable to believe my good luck I was privileged to see the spiral staircase with its black and white ceramic patterned wall tiles and an interesting ellipse effect looking up to the skylight. I am extremely grateful to this gentleman whose kindness enriched my visit. I understand that the architect's identity is unknown, so as ever, anyone with any details is strongly encouraged to let me have them!

Interior detail of apartment block on Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa,.1938, architect unknown
Still in Condesa, Edificio Casas Jardines stands on the corner of Calle Sonora and Avenida Amsterdam.  Built between 1928 and 1930 and designed by Francisco Serrano it is an imposing presence with two floors of residential property above the ground floor retail spaces. It has many interesting features including a flared entrance marquee, cantilevered bay windows and external friezes with a range of motifs, both geometric and representing vegetation. Many of the residents have placed window boxes and plants on the exterior of the building, reflecting its name as a place of homes and gardens. Serrano was responsible for several buildings in this area including Edificio Mexico. Born in Mexico City in 1900, he studied civil engineering and architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). He later taught there as a professor of civil engineering and architecture. The Serrano family has made further contributions to the built environment through his son, Francisco Serrano Cacho whose work includes the second terminal at the city's Benito Juarez airport. 

Above -and below, Edificio Casas Jardines, Calle Sonora/ Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa. 1930, Francisco Serrano.
Still in Condesa, I spotted a few more favourites. Edificio Rosa on Avenida Mexico dates from 1935 and is just what it says it is -  a pink house, or to be more exact, a pink painted art deco apartment block. With lovely Bauhaus curves, including a curved glazed corner, it was always going to appeal to me. It also has lovely stylised lettering over the glazed door which has metal detailing and pink marble effect handles!

Edificio Rosa, Avenida Mexico 147, Condesa. Built 1935, architect unknown.
Door handles at Edificio Rosa.
There are also a number of striking art deco structures in the centre of the city. The Loteria Nacional is one of the tallest buildings in the capital at 85 metres and with 20 floors and for many years was the tallest building in Latin America. Located in the Moro building on Paseo de la Reforma, it was engineered by Jose Antonio Cuevas, the foundations were laid in 1934 and work was completed in 1946. Early excavations of the site found significant amounts of water in the subsoil leading Cuevas to pioneer the elastic floating system of foundation. His ideas were met with scepticism to the extent that he was referred to as "El loco", but the building stands and has survived five earthquakes including  major events in 1957 and 1985. I particularly like the deco details above the main entrance with its metal globe and more of that stylised lettering.

Entrance to Loteria Nacional, Paseo de la Reforma. 1934-46, Jose Antonio Cuevas.
Avenida 16 Settembre is in the very heart of the city. Currently being pedestrianised, it leads directly into the Zocalo, the main square of the capital and the heart of the country. The Zocalo, is home to the Catedral Metropolitana and a number of important buildings and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987 as part of a wider listing for the historic centre. But back to Avenida 16 Settembre which in the space of a few hundred metres is home to several deco, nouveau and other interesting buildings. These include number 39 whose seven storeys include glass bricks and black tiles above the retail premises on the ground floor, recessed upper floors and a very narrow corridor access in the centre of the building that is echoed with a central recess for the full height of the building.  The narrow corridor hides the building's greatest external treasure - a beautiful stained glass window above a relief carving of a dog. Again, details of the date and provenance of this building seem have been very hard to find, but Eduardo at the previously mentioned Art Deco Mx is on the case, so I hope to be able to update this soon!

Avenida 16 Settembre, 39. Details unkown.
Lobby details, 16 Avenida Settembre 39.
Detail, Edificio Motolina,  Calle Motolina 37.
The centre of the city runs on a grid system and a number of side roads cross Avenida 16 Settembre. There are more finds in these side streets including book shops, cafes and more art deco. One of the most interesting examples is Edificio Motolina at number 37 with its chunky appearance and flattened curved pillars on the facade. This apartment building shows signs of fairly recent restoration and appears to be home to a number of businesses according to the signs in the lobby where there are also some interesting details but this was one of the few places where I was unable to take pictures - due to the strict instructions of a very suspicious concierge. You can't win them all!

I must also mention a building that has been lost. The Hotel del Prado which once stood on Avenue Juarez was once the focus of Mexico City's nightlife and one of it's fanciest hotels. Designed by architect Carlos Obregon Santacilia in collaboration with Mario Pani Darqui, it was completed in 1933 but was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1985 and subsequently demolished. The hotel was the original home of Diego Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Park which he painted in 1947. The mural was saved following the earthquake and rehoused in a purpose built pavilion in Alameda Park itself. It is free to enter on Sundays, and the mural is a must see for anyone interested in Mexican art or history. It originally showed one of the characters holding a sign saying god does not exist. Under protest, Rivera eventually removed the text and it is ironic that on my visit, a Christmas carol concert was being held there with the choir standing in front of the mural. I suspect Rivera would not have approved. The image below is reproduced from a vintage postcard I managed to find on ebay.

Hotel del Prado, Mexico CIty by Yekkes

In case anyone is worried by the lack of cakes and coffee at this point, fear not. I had a much earned pit stop at Matisse a cafe, restaurant and bakery in Avenida Amsterdam where I have to confess for the first time ever I was defeated by the size of the cream sponge wrapped in marzipan. This despite most valiant efforts.

I will end with a few more images of the deco buildings in the Condesa area (and one of the Matisse Restaurant).

See more pictures from Mexico City.

Monday 9 December 2013

Turin Part Two - Primo Levi, cinema city and Italian art deco

Turin's main synagogue, Piazzetta Primo Levi
The synagogue in Piazzetta Primo Levi is one of Turin's most striking buildings. With clear Moorish influences and four onion domes it is clear evidence of a once prosperous and significant community. Today's community numbers less than 1000. In 1931 there were a little more than 4,000 Jews in the city - not a large community and one that has been reduced over time by emigration, a declining birth rate and of course the impact of the Holocaust. Down to just over 1,400 people in 1938,  246 Turinese Jews were deported from Turin to Auschwitz in the winter of 1943. Just 21 returned, one of whom was Primo Levi, surely Italy's most gifted writer and perhaps the chronicler of the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath through his books If This is a Man, If Not Now, When? The Drowned and the Saved and The Truce

Having survived Auschwitz and the long and difficult journey back to Italy, Levi reestablished himself, writing several books and working in the paint business. His death is shrouded in mystery. He died in April 1987, falling from the interior landing of his third storey apartment. The coroner declared his death to be suicide but some family members disagreed.

The synagogue sustained damage during the war but was restored in 1949 and is today in excellent condition. Like many larger synagogues in Europe it's community uses only part of the building for regular services due to its small size with the main prayer hall being used only for special occasions.

Mole Antonella, symbol of Turin - the spire, temple and dome
Grand as the synagogue is, it might have been even grander if the building originally planned as the Jewish house of worship for the city had been used for that purpose. In 1863, the city's Jews commissioned architect Alessandro Antonelli to build a synagogue but as time went on, the scheme expanded and costs soared to the extent that the project was no longer affordable to the community and the city government too it over. It took until 1889 to complete, the architect failing to see his work finished, having died the year before. The building which became known as the Mole Antonella has a  thin spire which sits on top of a small columned temple which in turn sits on a large (very large) dome. In a further round of controversy, it lost 47 metres of the spire in high winds in 1953. It was rebuilt with a metal frame covered in stone.

Initially used as a museum of the Risorgimento (the re-unification of Italy), it is now home to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. I visited the museum whilst in Turin and enjoyed the galleries arranged around the exterior of the building and containing an excellent poster collection, memorabilia from Italian and Hollywood films, contraptions and screenings from the early days of cinema. A visit also gives the chance to see numerous classic films running throughout the museum as you explore its collections. It is also possible to take an elevator ride to the top of the building and view the city. As waiting time to get into the elevator was two hours, I passed on this occasion, but my friends stuck it out and went to the top for some magnificent views. The elevator journey includes a ride through the huge open dome overlooking the lower museum galleries. I think that might have been a bit much for me - the walk around the upper floors of the museum having left me a tad vertiginous! The museum has a good shop with lots of postcards, posters, books and cinema "stuff". I chose some postcard reproductions of film posters from 1918 and 1920, reproduced below.

Postcard of film poster for Italian movie La Contessa Misera, 1918.
Postcard advertising La Decima Musa, 1920.
The city has a long history of and love affair with film. It was here that film chromatography was first established, whilst the proximity to France meant that local filmmakers were influenced by the Lumiere brothers. Italy's first cinema screening took place here in 1896 whilst in 1914, Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria, one of the world's first blockbusters premiered here. In later years, Rome assumed leadership of the Italian film industry but Turin is still important and since 1982 has hosted a prestigious international film festival. Still on film, whilst wandering the streets behind Via Roma, I came across the wonderful art deco facade of Cinema Lux. This cinema which opened in 1934 was originally called Cinema Rex, then the Dux and finally acquiring the name Lux after the Second World War. Located in the very elegant Galleria San Frederico adjacent to Piazza San Carlo it was once Turin's most luxurious cinema with over 1,500 seats and was the work of architects Giovanni Canova and Eugene Corte. Corte, born in Geneva had studied under Jean Luis Pascal whose main claim to fame was in assisting Charles Garnier with the design of the Paris Opera.

Lux Cinema, Galleria San Frederico
No trip is complete for me without seeing at least a few modernist buildings from that most creative of decades - the 1930's. In Turin, I knew that the Liberty Style art nouveau architecture was going to be the star of my show and indeed it was, but I was thrilled to happen upon a couple of cracking modernist buildings too. Close to the Lux cinema I came upon the Torre Littoria in Via Giovanni Battista Viotti. tilt in 1933 and designed by architect Armando de Villa Mellis. It made significant use of innovative materials for the time including glass bricks, split tiles and linoleum. It was also the first building to be constructed with a welded steel support structure. Totalling 19 floors, the summit is 109 metres above ground and the tower remains one of the city's tallest buildings. It is adjoined by a cool, modernist 9 storey lower body with beautiful curves, lines and clean crisp colours. I love it! I have included pictures of two more modernist buildings in Turin, one adjacent to the Torre Littoria and another in the Liberty Style district just outside the centre of the city. I have been unable to find details for these buildings…if anyone knows about them please contact me on the blog.
Torre Littoria, Via Giovanni Battista Viotti.