The work Functionalism analyzes the universalist principle of Modernism, the idea of a single architectural solution which could be applied to any problem, anywhere. Reinaldo Pérez Rayón’s design for Mexico City’s Instituto Politecnico Nacional, loosely based on Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago is, on the surface, a perfect illustration of this principle. Its modular functionalism seems endlessly reproducible, and its neat rows of classroom buildings seem to herald a well-ordered future, attainable through efficient building technology. Guillermo Zamora’s photograph of the Polytechnic—reproduced in Functionalism—is like a banner for Modernist ideals of universalism and social progress through design.
Yet there is something exaggerated about the photograph. The scale and perfection of the complex feel ominous, like those familiar images of the huge “mass ornament” spectacles orchestrated by the Mexican and German governments in the 1930s. In the same way, the Polytechnic photograph is a carefully orchestrated display, set up to impress the viewer with the form of the complex as much as with the ideology behind its construction. In fact, much of the technology we see on display in the Polytechnic photograph hadn’t yet arrived in Mexico in 1963, and many of the machine-produced, modular elements of the complex were in fact made by hand. Mexico has always enjoyed a large pool of inexpensive, skilled labour, which means an I-beam is less costly to assemble by hand than to extrude with advanced metal-working technologies. What we see in the photograph of Functionalism is an idea of progress.
Functionalism brings the Mexico City Polytechnic to Havana in a kind of metaphorical universal(ist) tour. The piece is installed at the historical site of the Congreso Mundial de Arquitectos (International Union of Architects’ World Congress)—Juan Campos y Enrique Fuentes’ Pabellón Cuba. The photomural, attached to the 4D scaffolding structure, appears to be some kind of ghost or forgotten remnant of the 1963 conference and exhibition (The use of the photomural was a common display strategy in Modernist architectural exhibitions.) In keeping with the CMA’s theme of an international exchange of architectural ideas, the photograph of Pérez Rayón’s 1963 Polytechnic Institute brings Mies’ universalist ideas back to Havana: Mies designed a headquarters building for the Bacardi company for Santiago de Cuba in 1957, but the project was halted by the Cuban Revolution. Mies went on to design a version of the Cuban factory for Mexico City a few years later, located not far from the city’s Polytechnic Institute. The Mies/Cuba story doesn’t end there, but goes on to become an excellent illustration of the experimentation with the universal application of building forms: When invited to design the New National Gallery for Berlin in the early 1960’s Mies is said to have told his draughtsmen “Let’s give them the Bacardi building from Cuba.”