Garden City

Is a new greenhouse in Mexico a blueprint for the museum of the future?

JBO-17.jpg

Greenhouse designed by Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido in the Ethnobotanical Gardens, Oaxaca, 2015

Greenhouse designed by Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido in the Ethnobotanical Gardens, Oaxaca, 2015

During the 15 or so happy years they spent teaching at Black Mountain College from 1933, Anni and Josef Albers made many trips to Mexico. Josef hated flying, so they would always drive. Travelling from North Carolina to Mexico City could take more than a week, but they enjoyed the journey. Once there, Anni loved to look at Meso-American weavings, which she regarded as telegrams from a civilization with no written language. Josef took hundreds of photographs as they roamed around pre-Columbian archaeological sites, relishing the stark geometries of monumental staircases and ruined temples. The couple’s Latin American travels, the subject of a beautiful recent exhibition at Mudec in Milan, had an immediate and indelible effect on their work. As they wrote to the Kandinskys: ‘Mexico is truly the promised land for abstract art, for here it has existed for thousands of years.’

One of the Albers’ favourite places to explore was Oaxaca, a long day’s drive south-east of Mexico City. Founded in the early 16th century, this pretty colonial-era city is today a popular tourist destination and has, in recent decades, been shaped to an unusual degree by artists. It is home to the late painter Rufino Tamayo’s jewel-box-like collection of ancient figurines and artefacts, as well as to a photography centre established by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who died in 2002 at the age of 100, following a career spanning some eight decades. The artist Francisco Toledo, known locally as El Maestro and now in his mid-70s, has done perhaps more than anyone to build   and support the city’s arts and crafts institutions. His quiet influence can be detected everywhere, from the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca to a leafy graphic-arts institute of more than 30,000 prints   and books built around Toledo’s personal trove. His children, the artists Dr Lakra and Laureana   Toledo, are also active local presences. 

One of the most compelling museums in Oaxaca takes the form of a garden. Founded in the mid-1990s, after a good deal of lobbying by Toledo and other artists, the Ethnobotanical Gardens are located in the grounds of a Dominican monastery and are designed to illustrate the co-evolution of plants and people. Spread across five sun-baked acres, the gardens have a zig-zagging, step-fret layout intended to evoke the ancient Zapotec settlements – Mitla, Monte Albán, Yagul – which captivated the Albers half a century earlier. The gardens are planted according to ecological and cultural categories suggested by the site itself, with, for example, the discovery   of centuries-old kilns prompting a section about how plants are used in the arts. There, you can find cacti that host the cochineal insect, from which we get the deep-red dye that was once more valuable than gold. Oaxaca is said to be one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, while recent archaeological digs have unearthed the earliest-known evidence of domesticated squash and corn. The gardens narrate the story of our fractious relationship with the natural world by way of towering cacti, agave, subtly perfumed ‘rosita de cacao’ and Cretaceous-era ferns. A greenhouse-cum-safehouse protects some of the world’s rarest plants from biopirates. 

When I visited in December, I was shown around by the gardens’ founding director, Dr Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg, a botanist and anthropologist – as well as curator of the nearby textile museum – with a poet’s turn of phrase. (Explaining that one tree was covered with ferocious spikes to ward off long-extinct megafauna, I heard him murmur: ‘It’s protecting itself from ghosts.’) De Ávila Blomberg wanted to show me the gardens’ newest addition, some 12 years in the making: a sleek greenhouse that looks like a hybrid of Renzo Piano’s glass pavilions and Archigram’s 1960s proposals for walking cities. Designed pro bono by Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, this is the Chicago-based architect’s first building in his native Mexico. The pavilion is defined, more than anything, by light and lightness. The small amount of energy it needs is provided by solar panels, while modular units mean that the structure can be extended, dismantled or moved entirely. The pavilion’s architect calls it a ‘machine for growing orchids’. 

It is also something of a blueprint for the museum of the future. How can you combine environmental sustainability with structural flexibility? How to balance usability and aesthetics? How to modulate light levels, humidity and temperature while, at the same time, planning for a future that cannot be known? Set within this museum-like garden, Gonzalez-Pulido’s light-footed pavilion offers several propositions to the questions that the next generation of museum planners will have to answer. A garden in the high valleys of Mexico may seem an unlikely place for such provocative thinking but, as Ian Hamilton Finlay once remarked: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.’

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer. 

Issue 178

First published in Issue 178

April 2016

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018