Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I can't recall a previous opportunity to use the words 'sublime' and 'divine' in the same sentence without seeming ridiculous. But today, after visiting the Capilla de las Capuchinas by renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragán, I have it.

When the door to the chapel was opened, my eyes welled up with tears. This is something that has happened to me with other art forms, but never architecture. The space Barragán created has a sublime beauty that suggests a divine presence. A few tears and a dropped jaw seemed the only possible responses.

What Barragán has created is an intimate theater for prayer. His clear visual poetry is filled with optimism for a world beyond our own that might really exist. The architect's trademarks are all here: contrast of low, shadowy spaces with high, bright ones; the use of reflected light to create Rothko-like colors (the chapel glows with a light that simultaneoulsy suggests both sunrise and sunset); the sensitive mix of natural materials. "Even the temperature of a room was important to him," the young nun who guided us said, as we stood in the small, dark, chilly anteroom of the chapel.

The chapel is located at Miguel Hidalgo 43, just a few blocks from the main plaza of Tlalpan.
Click HERE for map link. There's a metrobus stop (Insurgentes Linea 1, 'Fuentes Brotantes')
within walking distance. If you drive, there is a public parking lot at the corner of the plaza along Miguel Hidalgo.

You must call and make an appointment to visit the chapel--open weekdays only.
Telephone (55) 5573-2395.
Donation 60 pesos.

Beyond the chapel, Tlalpan centro is worth a visit for its charming main plaza, the bustling market (eat HERE), and a cultural center with art exhibits (sometimes). It's a bit like Coyoacán or San Ángel, but smaller and less crowded. Even though you are within the limits of the Distrito Federal, you'll feel like you're in a small provincial town.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

LOOKING AT MEXICO CITY: Neglect, Decay and Disintegration

Buildings with tilted walls, crumbling facades, rusting metalwork, broken planters, cracked and bulging sidewalks are common sights in Mexico City, the effect often heightened by proximity to some gleaming new high-rise. There is a notable tendency here to let things go to wrack and ruin, financial investment be damned. Depending on the mood I’m in, I can see it as a charming reminder of the temporal nature of life, or an indication of a complete lack of civic pride. But there's no denying that decrepitude is one of the characteristics that defines this city. Learning to appreciate this quality, like one would the nicks and scars on a piece of antique furniture, is necessary in order to fall in love with Mexico City. 

Among the most remarkable examples of this phenomenon is the high-rise Edificio Insurgentes (Insurgentes 300, between Zacatecas and Guanajuato), known by many here as the Canada Building, for a huge sign that once adorned it. Inaugurated in 1958, it was the most fashionable address in its day for the offices of politicians, doctors and lawyers. Now its a veritable urban ghost town. 

Its heyday lasted about 10 years, and then things started to go downhill. The earthquake of 1985 was the nail in the coffin, but a fire, and the murder of a tenant didn’t help. Spirits of those killed in the fire supposedly haunt the 15th and 16th floors.

Elevators no longer work, graffiti covers much of the ground floor, and upper floors are a hodge-podge of slapdash additions and makeshift alterations. In 2012 the city ejected the remaining tenants and closed the building. Rumor has it that it was being used as a halfway house for illegal immigrants from Nicaragua.

Take a look from across the street to fully appreciate the weirdness of this once grand edifice.

I think all this physical instability helps create a flexible and resilient culture. If you can't trust the ground under your feet, you must seek security elsewhere, preferably from within. Mexicans are the most Buddhist-like of westerners, embracing instability, change, decay and death as normal parts of daily life. Perhaps the remarkable calm one experiences here (at least as compared to my former hometown, New York City) is a result of this acceptance. The phrase ni modo (literally “no way,” sort of a resigned shrug) is more often heard in response to situations beyond one’s control than anything more aggressive or confrontational. A popular song by the beloved ranchera composer José Alfredo Jimenez has the refrain “no vale nada la vida” (life is worth nothing), sung to a sweet and lilting waltz melody. Mexicans of all ages know it by heart.  

                                     More images of decay in Mexico City: 

                                                Calle Puebla in Colonia Roma Norte

                                               Insurgentes and Niza in the Zona Rosa

                                             Abandoned penthouse in the Zona Rosa 

                                               Abandoned store, Calle Bucareli, Centro

Broken sidewalk


Torre Insignia (abandoned)

And this from one of my readers: 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


If you're a fan of Mexico City's Centro Histórico like I am, there's a new book out that you will want to add to your collection:

'MISCELÁNEA: Guia del comercio popular y traditional del Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de Mexico' by Marie-Aimée Montalembert and Ángeles Reunes. 

A true labor of love, this 768-page tome puts the Centro under a microscope and studies every little nook and cranny. The focus, as the title suggests, is popular (in its Mexican sense 'of the people') and traditional businesses, many of which have been around for ages and have been run by the same family.

Are you looking to concoct your own perfume? Bronze-plate your baby's shoes? Repair your juke box? Dress yourself in a complete mariachi outfit? Find a good Goth bar? Buy a life-size statue of Saint Eulalia, or learn where to find a prostitute? It's all here, and lots more. The amount of research put into this 11-year project is simply astounding. And there are lots of personal anecdotes and bits of history that make this book much more interesting than the yellow pages.

The graphic design is impressive, with information divided by street and neighborhood. Excellent maps are provided. There are hundreds of great color photographs that may change the way you look at the Centro. Images are beautifully framed, giving and order and logic to what can often feel like visual chaos when you're in the midst of it--I had no idea that all that plastic junk from China could be so beautiful! Even if you don't read Spanish, the photos alone take you on a remarkable and intimate tour of the Centro.

The book is available at all major bookstores in Mexico City (Ghandi, Porrua, etc.)--be sure to ask if you don't see it.

In San Miguel de Allende, you can buy the book at Abrazos, Zacateros 24