101 years of Mexico’s modernist explorer: Juan Sordo Madaleno

Wrriten by: Jimena Orvañanos | October 28, 2017

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Today, on what would have been his 101st birthday, we remember Juan Sordo Madaleno, one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Mexico, a movement that first reached the country in the second decade of the twentieth century.

In addition to his significant contribution to the International Style and his work influenced by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, Juan focused on the creation of a singular architecture that was much more than an established architectural style, treating the human being as the fundamental focus of the discipline. In his own words, it is for human beings that all architectural creations should be designed:

“Our Modern Architecture is characterized by a rationalism that wants to be total; a functionalism that wants to be comprehensive; this means it can sometimes appear inhuman.”
– Juan Sordo Madaleno

His father’s business in urban real estate development and the close friendship between his family and the Spanish architect José Arnal meant that Juan grew up surrounded by art and architecture, with the result that in 1934 he entered the School of Architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

He graduated in 1939 with the “Retail and Apartment Project” for the streets of Monterrey and Álvaro Obregón in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. With the construction of this building, Juan commenced his association with Augusto H. Álvarez. Together they developed an architecture with a strongly functionalist stamp, most notably in their apartment and office buildings, which included retail space at street level.

The Reforma and Morelos building is seen as one of the most representative of this partnership. Ann Binkley Horn, architecture critic for the magazine Architectural Record, described it as “one of the best office buildings in Mexico,” thanks to the symmetry of its vertical form and the apparent lightness of the slabs, combined with the floor-to-ceiling glazing, which distinguished it from a conventional 1940s office block.

Juan also embarked on a series of individual projects, designed in the purest International Style. These include the Torre Anáhuac, one of the city’s first skyscrapers; the sober San Ignacio de Loyola church; and the Bosques de las Lomas shopping mall, seen as one of the most audacious of its day. These buildings continue to form part of the collective imaginary in Mexico City.

After 1960, he worked in collaboration with José Adolfo Wiechers. This association led to a great variety of projects of different kinds, from government buildings and industrial complexes to hotels and shopping malls. Worthy of note are the Merch, Sharp & Dohme laboratories, part of his series of industrial complexes; the Hotel María Isabel, which remains in operation on Paseo de la Reforma avenue, looking over the Ángel de la Independencia monument; Palmas 555, an office building with daring irregularities; the various Presidente hotels in Acapulco, Cozumel, Cancun and Chapultepec; and last but not least the most iconic building of this partnership, the Palace of Justice.

In the final years of his career, Juan Sordo Madaleno formed the company Sordo-Álvarez-Wiechers for the construction of the Centro Bancomer in the south of Mexico City. This complex distinguished itself as a space where light and shade converged, thanks to the modular structure of the interior.

It is often observed that most of Juan’s works were the result of successful collaborations, not only with great architects, but with sculptors, industrial designers, and painters. By enabling comprehensive design its full expression in this way, he fulfilled one of the fundamental principles of Bauhaus: interdisciplinary cooperation in design.

If we examine the historical archive of Sordo Madaleno, we encounter the sculpture “The Lovers” by Mathias Goeritz welcoming visitors at the Presidente Acapulco hotel; the furniture designed by Clara Porset for the Cine París and several of his residential projects, including Conscripto 100; and works by Chucho Reyes created for the spaces in his final dwelling house, Reforma 2076.

Javier Sordo Madaleno and his sons (Javier, José Juan and Fernando Sordo Madaleno de Haro) have carried on the legacy left by the first architect in the family. Together, they have expanded the horizons of the firm, always acknowledging the greatness of its origins and the fact that Mexican architecture would not be the same without its founder.

The Sordo Madaleno Archive exists to safeguard the architectural value of Juan’s legacy, and together with all his extant works demonstrates the prolific character of the architect’s career, and the admirable proportions and design of his style, one that has endured for over 80 years.

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