The sophisticated caveman: when the underground was cutting edge

The O’Gormans in their grotto-like home, 1959.
Photo: Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

In the city of Matera, in southern Italy, poor families for centuries carved their houses, alleys and even churches into the limestone cliffs. Then, in the 1950s, the government, embarrassed that the citizens of a modern industrialized nation were still hunkered down in literal caves, evicted the residents and moved them into cinder block apartments. Abandoned long ago but also ennobled by UNESCO World Heritage statusthe stones (“rocks”) have of late been reborn as cafes, tourist attractions, even inns. Cave life isn’t just for cavemen and prehistoric trolls: Tens of millions of people in northern China live in it. yao dongs, terraced villages with dugout houses. Even in the age of glass-walled penthouses in the clouds, digging still has a certain primal appeal. A few years ago, Madrid-based architecture firm Ensamble Studio began repurposing the voids of a quarry on the Spanish island of Menorca into the austere habitable Ca’n Terraor “home on earth.”

“Elogio de las cuevas”, a compact exhibition at the Noguchi Museum, opens unsuspected horizons in underground architecture, specifically as it has developed in Mexico over the last 80 years. His relationship with Isamu Noguchi is tangential, but some of his stone sculptures could almost have been ripped from the ground with parts left rough and others worn to a high shine by wind and rain. In the museum, works hum in sympathy with the elegantly wild architecture of Juan O’Gorman, Carlos Lazo, and Javier Senosiain, who embedded modern designs into ancient rock.

Today, O’Gorman is best known for the pair of houses for him and her in Mexico City that he designed for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, a perfect analogue for a marriage marked by mutual dependence and hostility. Fewer visitors make it to the oddly wonderful Museo Anahuacalli, a volcanic stone-lined Mayan pyramid that O’Gorman designed to house Rivera’s collection of pre-Columbian statues. In 1959, readers of Life The magazine discovered the architect through a photo of him and his wife playing chess at home in a mosaic-encrusted grotto that could have been a setting for a Wagner opera. (That house was destroyed later, which is a saga in its own right.) That photo stretches across one wall in the Noguchi Museum, along with a fantastically detailed tabletop model that gives us a drone’s view of architecture that’s both hidden and quirky.

Building underground has practical advantages, but it requires a radically different approach than working on a flat foundation. Far from the sun and under the snow, the earth maintains a nearly constant temperature, minimizing warming and making cooling unnecessary. The basic structure comes prefabricated and cheap. But a hole in the ground can also be damp, dark and stuffy, qualities speleologist architects consider conditions rather than deciding factors.

By the mid-20th century, these voids created by eons of erosion suggested a crude alternative to the sharp folds, right angles, and simple planes of orthodox architectural practice. When you create space out of a solid mass instead of enclosing it in a cage, you think about structure differently. Walls and tunnels can be stabilized with shotcrete, a wet mix that is sprayed onto surfaces under high pressure, forming a continuous, fluid surface and eliminating the distinction between floor, ceiling and wall. More recently, Studio Gang used the technique to shape the The new Gilder Center of the American Museum of Natural History in an urban cave

by Mathias Goeritz The Echo Serpent (1953), reproduced in the Noguchi Museum.
Photo: Nicholas Knight. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY/Artists Rights Society

What’s so compelling about this Noguchi Museum exhibit is less its championing of the underground lifestyle than its vision of an ultra-retro avant-garde, blending industrial modernism with imagined primitive mythology. The story of that mini-movement begins with Carlos Lazo, who was 41 when he died in a plane crash in 1955 just as he was refining an elaborate vision of “civilized caves.” The only completed work of his (and now defunct) was a sunken cottage like a fancy Hobbit hole that curved around a verdant courtyard. Everything lurked under a glass canopy except for a chimney that loomed above the ground. The house embodied equal parts naive optimism and adult terror because, according to Lazo’s rather vague notions of nuclear warfare, it could function as a fallout shelter. Rivera, who held firm if idiosyncratic beliefs about Mexican architecture, saw it as a cosmic consummation between earth and sky; Lazo, he declared, had “delivered a considerable load of tenderness in the very bowels of Mother Earth, where she joyfully unites with the light and warmth of Father Sun.” (That enthusiasm contrasts with his earlier contempt for the architect’s father, which in 1930 sparked a full-blown fight between art and architecture students.) Lazo’s Atomic Age Cave-House was an extreme version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s insistence on embedding architecture into the landscape rather than dominating it. (Wright placed his own home, Taliesin, just below the crest of a rise so that it would be “from the hill” instead of in it’s.)

Senosiain’s Organic House (1985).
Photo: Francisco Lubbert

It was built but never occupied, then left to fall apart. The site is now a series of houses that lurk behind high walls on a graceful, gently sloping street. Lazo also failed to materialize his ambitious plans for a cliff-side apartment complex or fuse his reflections on the atomic age with Mexican topography, mythology and politics into a true social housing program as he had planned. . Instead, Javier Senosiain took over, and his devotion to the Lazo legacy is evident throughout the Noguchi Museum exhibition. It was Senosiain who made the scale models and provided an intellectual framework for the tunneling instinct. Their organic house in Mexico City is an ode to handcrafted construction, fluid shapes, earthy tones, and sustainable design. (Well, sustainable except for all that concrete.) On the surface, he is crowned by a friendly monster, a surreal fusion of snake and shark. The psychedelic vibe is amplified in Quetzalcoatl’s Nesta biodesign theme park full of undulating, half-buried structures that make Gehry look minimalist and Gaudí prim.

Joining Lazo, O’Gorman and Senosiain is the fourth Beatle of the caves: the German-Mexican sculptor Mathias Goeritz, who saw the light in the darkness when he visited Altamira with his prehistoric paintings. Inspired by the combination of simplicity and movement, he produced The Serpent of the Echo, a piece of painted steel from 1953 that twists into rectilinear segments. Here, a wooden replica meanders among the sculptures of Noguchi, a hissing spirit from the underworld.

A model of Senosiain’s El Nido de Quetzalcóatl (1998–2007).
Photo: Javier Senosiain/Organic Architecture

In one sense, it’s an exhibition of curiosities and entertaining experiments that reached its height in the 1950s. In another, it’s a serious provocation. Beneath the superficial layer of fantasy, you can feel the pull of a submerged counter-narrative to the skyscraper heroics of so much global architecture. Caves have always served as zones of contemplation and revelation, and an intimate and thought-provoking exhibition about them is a good place to start thinking about how humanity might get out of the hole it finds itself in.

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