Exhibiting Function: Terence Gower’s Polytechnic

Craig Buckley and Leonardo Diaz-Borioli

Excerpted from Ciudad Moderna: Terence Gower Videos, Turner/A&R Press, Mexico City, 2006


The polytechnic is divided into four sectors. This much is announced by a clipped voice: crisply articulate, vaguely English. Four shapes—marked out in neat blocks of colour—appear punctually, as if brought into being by the voice that names them. For a moment the scheme hovers as an axonometric plan in front of us: an asymmetric network of lines extends outward connecting the parts. Fade to black. Some piano music, quiet and repetitive. A sequence of images: the view of a building across a vast plaza, a crowd of undergrowth beneath a staircase that seems to float upwards unassisted, paneled interiors modulated by an equally quiet and repetitive rhythm, long couches shining white, large plants in spherical, clay containers. A long view of buildings receding into the distance, whose repetition seems infinite. In the foreground young trees coming into bloom. Not a soul in sight save for two men in white shirts tending to a bed of foliage in the foreground. It must be early afternoon; the shadows have all retreated beneath the buildings. After some time we are told: the campus was built according to the latest construction technologies.

Despite the crisply denotative voice, the grainy documentary images, and the suitably anonymous modernist music, Terence Gower’s Polytechnic is only apparently a documentary. The Polytechnic is a documentary evacuated of all the functions we expect from such a genre: historical narration, didactic function, and the illumination of detail. Instead we are told interior and exterior walls are made of prefabricated panels, open web trusses enable longer spans, the unusual form of an auditorium is determined by its function. Such comments are architectural commonplaces. If they apply to this set of images it is because they could apply equally well to a thousand others. Through the documentary format The Polytechnic choreographs an extended sequence of stills while studiously withholding anything that would index the actual history of the building in question. In a move that is both coy and consistent, Gower withholds the information not to insist that it doesn’t matter, but rather to flesh out a world for The Polytechnic latent in the images on which he lingers. The complex rejoins our world only at the end gaining specificity in the form of credits for the building, its architects, and the photographers who produced the images that Gower has appropriated.[1] The Unidad Zacatenco of the Instituto Politecnico Nacional (IPN) was built on the northern fringes of Mexico City between 1957 and 1964 by a team of architects lead by Reinaldo Perez Rayon. In The Polytechnic what would present itself as the story of a building is in fact the story of a book. This becomes clearer when one understands that Gower’s initial encounter was not with the complex itself but with an image in a catalogue on twentieth-century architecture in Mexico. Drawn to the buildings for their combination of rigorous functionalism and suggestive exhibitionism Gower located a 1964 monograph produced by the Mexican government that lavishly detailed the IPN in the pristine afterglow of its recent completion. The sequence of images that make up The Polytechnic are drawn in their entirety from this monograph. It is this object rather than Perez Rayon’s building itself that forms the project’s real centre of gravity. In its montages and stoppages, The Polytechnic allows us to see that the images of the IPN are no mere supplement to the building, but fashion and produce it, not only for an international audience, but intimately, crucially describing the IPN’s vision of itself as a utopian project.[2]


Without explicitly aiming to do so, The Polytechnic powerfully draws attention to this vision as a governmental narrative of progress and modernization through technology, a narrative particularly characteristic in the period following the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938. The book’s first words go to Mexico’s then Subsecretary of Technical and Superior Education, Victor Bravo Ahuja, who introduces the IPN not as a building but as a moment of evolution in the planning project of the state, a moment of overcoming outmoded illusions: “The idea has long been abandoned that industrial progress leads to the simplification of labor and that it therefore follows that in order to incorporate the broad masses of workers into the economic life of the country it is sufficient to provide them with minimum instruction and a short apprenticeship. On the contrary, the latest industrial processes and advances are making more and more demands on skilled workers, professionals, and subprofessionals inasmuch as the progress achieved has given rise to the need for constantly higher levels of technical and cultural preparation.”[3] Keeping the country’s labour power useful required education, itself seen as the “…optimum realization of [our] own natural and human resources for the basic improving of living conditions of the Mexican people.”[4] Ahuja’s introduction served not only to inscribe the complex within a narrative of modernization, but to underline a crucial part of the IPN’s program: according to Perez Rayon, a combination of the rapid, almost explosive growth of the student population and the unpredictable changes demanded by technical education. In order to address this program, Perez Rayon conceived a complex with maximum elasticity: a series of model buildings crafted from a prefabricated system (each including classrooms and drafting studios, administrative offices, an auditorium, a library and a snack bar) that could be expanded indefinitely.[5] On the surface of things, this strict, repetitive, and elastic grid structure combined the benefits of economic optimization (by taking advantage of existing industrial production) and allowed for the reconfiguration of existing units as well as the addition of new model buildings.[6] In this image of strict modulation Perez Rayon and Bravo Ahuja discover a fit between their respective domains. Both in the building itself, and more noticeable in the monograph of the IPN, the site of this fitting is conspicuously displayed: images detail not only the system of prefabricated construction but dwell upon the aesthetic effects produced by such a rigorous regularity. Whatever opposition ordered the separation of functional imperatives from exhibitionist tendencies reveals its profoundly compromised logic not simply in the images, but in the making of the monograph itself. Luxurious and thorough, the monograph testifies to deep-seated desire for display that commingles with this functionalist project, adding a further dynamic to the narrative of modernization of labour sketched in the monograph’s introduction.


It is Gower’s studied restraint, even ambivalence, to the monograph’s overt narrative that allows the intensity of the accord between the teleological visions of Perez Rayon and those of Bravo Ahuja to manifests itself. Gower’s first use of an image from the IPN monograph—in the ongoing work Funccionalismo (2002-present)—consists merely of an enlargement of a view of several of the model classroom buildings retreating identically into the distance. It is a quiet polemic that has likely left many viewers scratching their heads. In subtle ways it works to detach the image from its architectural, urban, and temporal context in order to foreground the status of the image as a serial object reconceived primarily for the purposes of display. Gower has not only selected the image but induced its travel, versions having been installed in Boston, Havana, Mexico City, and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles the image was casually propped against a gallery wall flanked by twin planes of colour. Conceived as a reference to the predominance of photo murals deployed in the architectural exhibitions of Mies van der Rohe, the work’s rigidity, polish, and propinquity to more or less arbitrary coloured panels endows it with an object status absent from the photo mural. Both precious and casually propped up, the work uses a strategy of display that drifts promiscuously between contemporary retail display and installation practice. In Havana the work was mounted on a tubular system of scaffolding developed for that city’s Biennial.  Enlarged to the dimensions of a billboard, the work hovered between the registers of art and advertising. Ostensibly exhibiting one prefabricated, modular system attached to another, it conjured up the internationalist legacy of the modern movement (a legacy whose complex history has left traces connecting Havana, Mexico City, and Los Angeles) only to leave it hanging, a billboard whose referent is not made to speak of any place in particular.[7] The traveling image retraces the undeniable importance of reproductions in the dissemination of architectural modernism, in which buildings assumed their importance to an architectural and lay public through the deliberate and careful crafting of images. Plugged into a different “international” system of circulation, the image of Perez Rayon’s complex gains the ambivalent honour of being admitted to the realm of contemporary art: it has become an immobile section, standing for “any-place-whatever,” whose referent remains a charged emblem fated to the legacy of its own utopian, universalist ambitions.


In the Mexico City installation of Fonccionalismo, Perez Rayon’s campus appears on the steps of The Laboratorio Arte Alameda: the first image visitors will encounter as they enter the Gower’s exhibition. Installed inside the museum at the same scale and on an identical structure, The Polytechnic shares the ambivalence of Fonccionalismo, yet it goes beyond that work, not only in selecting images to set in motion but in creating stoppages within this field. If The Polytechnic re-presents the more obvious meaning latent in the IPN monograph (the utopian project of an enlightened state putting architectural design in the service of the people), it also works to misdirect such a significance, to turn the images themselves over to more obtuse meanings. The obtuse is the name given by Roland Barthes to a blunted, supplemental, hard-to-name domain of photographic meaning.[8] This third meaning—opposed to both obvious and symbolic meaning—is a dimension that lies close to artifice and disguise. Such an obtuse meaning arrests the force of the obvious meaning, posing the question not of the building itself but of the images as signifier of a functionalist practice of display. In this tenuous dialogue between the reader’s eye and the author’s intention, the obtuse marks a slippage, a signifying accident, a slight erosion that eats away at what the images mean to show.[9] For Barthes this was also the domain of the filmic, a dimension that could only, paradoxically, be grasped by the spectator through still images.[10] If Barthes found the revelation of film’s essence in its stoppages, Gower twists this insight, extracting a film latent in the still photos of the IPN monograph; an extruded film that allows the still images to be read, post-facto, with the same fascination Barthes found in Eisenstein’s film stills. Orchestrating these stoppages of the still image, Gower grants his own desire for the optimism contained in the images of the IPN and simultaneously, fortuitously, creates in a field in which an obtuse function can take root.


The obtuse detail is by nature unpredictable, but can be discerned in many of the places where the modularity of Perez Rayon’s functionalism puts itself on display. It appears in the image of the administrative complex, in the view through the glass façade across the vast plaza. The regular series of mullions not only articulates the transparency of the façade but becomes a frame through which the complex deploys a measured gaze upon itself. This modularity that organizes the façade is a principle unifying the entire complex. This extends not only to the classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls, and staircases whose steel flights are flaunted, illuminated at night, and whose landings become viewing platforms from which one can look back upon the building. In a typical interior, the same incessant rhythm structures all. In this world it is not the large plants, the shining white couches, nor the cleverly placed students absorbed in their reading that mark out the obtuse. The obtuse takes hold in minor details, like a brilliant, oversized circular door handle, apparently the only thing in this modular universe that marks a section of wall from a doorway.


Such concerns appear in the narrator’s deadpan attention to the latest construction technologies, accompanied by an animated parade of successive modulated vertical panels. Abstracted to the level of graphic design, the sequence of wall and window modules displays the operative role of the monograph in exhibiting the IPN’s narrative of progress through technical development. Both the monograph and The Polytechnic further illuminate this detail through subsequent images of neatly stacked wall panels awaiting the male technicians who will install them. Here the obtuse resides with the technicians: in the oversized glasses, the gleam of a watch-face peeking out from the sleeve of a stark white lab coat, and above all in the clothes and tidy dress shoes worn beneath the lab coats. Here the Subsecretary of Technical and Superior Education’s narrative comes full circle; not only is it a building that will transform labourers into future technicians, it is a building that will be assembled from neat stacks of prefabricated modules by technical workers in crisp white coveralls.


If the latent narrative of progressive modernization through education surfaces into the present through Gower’s The Polytechnic, it is also a narrative that would have been familiar to many of the book’s contemporaries. A significant precedent would have been the architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez’s projects for the Comite Administrador del Programa Federal de Construcción de Escuelas (National Committee for School Building) (CAPFCE) both at the level of program and through the intense display of functionalist design in public marketing campaigns and architectural publications. The IPN’s prefabricated model classroom units are reminiscent of Ramirez Vasquez’s CAPFCE scheme, a system that flaunts its ability to be multiplied ad infinitum as the nation’s educational demands increase. Similarly, CAPFCE’s publicity materials foreground the project’s ease of assembly juxtaposing images of local labour (barefoot workers preparing the earth with heavy concrete blocks) with images of government labour (technicians in coveralls and boots erecting the steel framework). It is in details characterizing local labour and governmental workers that one grasps the making of a teleological narrative at the level of the image, of which the IPN constitutes a further stage. These images project an evolution where labour originates in physical work, done barefoot, passes through technical supervision, done in overall and boots, and culminates in assemblage done by professionals in lab coats and dressing shoes.


The obtuse blunts the governmental narrative in quite ordinary forms, moments where the everyday realities of Mexico appear within the frame of technological progress, a realm hygienically separated from everything mundane. The Polytechnic confronts the viewer with the image of a snack bar at the IPN, in its corner a fridge bearing an enlarged graphic of an ice-cream cone. This simplified caricature of an ice-cream cone troubles the monograph’s efficient depiction of the IPN, its presumably strident colour and its whipped contour intruding on the orthogonal black and white spaces. Next to it, the snack bar’s wood-paneled counter leaps out from the overwhelming regularity of the steel, glass, and asbestos making up the rest of the complex. While ostensibly showing the glass and steel framing of the model snack bar, the unit becomes an unwitting container through which the ordinary intrudes in the monograph and in the video. This intrusion of the ordinary gains depth and becomes the obtuse in multiple planes. In the monograph it works from behind the glass, as it were, scattering the state’s phantasmatic discourse of hyper-hygienic modernization; in The Polytechnic it interferes with the rationalist steel frame and glass panels, shattering the nostalgia that at times seems to mark Gower’s work; and on the screen’s surface it disrupts the gaze of the spectator who may find himself sharing the nostalgia with the artist. Such a nostalgia, driven by the impossibility of a narrative of total modernization, is figured in the utopian modernity of the deserted diving platforms reflected in the surface of perfectly still water, diving platforms designed, published, and screened for everyone it seems, but the diver himself.


The Polytechnic oscillates between a detached equanimity and a gaze that almost palpates the cool, clean surfaces that the monograph takes such care to show. It is an oscillation that subtends Gower’s method of minimal intrusion, a method preoccupied with a reflection on how one might craft means of display for this world of existing reproductions. This double vision somehow resists the temptation towards a historicist fetishism as well as clichéd narratives of failure. It is a quiet polemic on behalf of the directness and optimism of a seemingly foreclosed modernism, one that passes indirectly, conducting itself through the powers of the obtuse. Locating itself resolutely in the domain of images, The Polytechnic fashions a complex whose doing and undoing remains unfinished.



[1] Reinaldo Pérez Rayón was the lead architect on the complex,  collaborators included: Santiago de la Torre Rayón, Antonio González Juárez, Raúl Illán Gómez, Pedro Kleimburg Selenetz, Juan Polo Estrada, Hermilio Salas Salinas, Ricardo Rena Uribe, Juan Antonio Vargas; along with engineers: Francisco Guerrero Villalobos, Francisco Martínez Rico, Adrián López Páez, Felipe Meza del Razo, Manul Novoa Nava, José Julio Díaz Espinoza, Jesús Cornejo Romay, Guillermo Soto Tinoco. The monograph lists the following as photographers: René Sagastume, Federico Espinoza, Guillermo Ordorica, Gabriel Reyes, Guillermo Zamora, Arturo Horiuchi.

[2] The role of publicity in the production of modern architecture has been persuasively argued by Beatriz Colomina through the case of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, see “Publicity,” Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 141-200.

[3] Ing. Victor Bravo Ahuja, Unidad Profesional del Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Zacatenco, Mexico (Mexico: Fondo Editorial, 1964.) n.p.

[4] Bravo Ahuja, Unidad Profesional, n.p.

[5] Reinaldo Perez Rayon, Unidad Profesional quote from monograph…

[6] At least one commentator has questioned this claim. Alberto Perez-Gomez argues that all of the materials used at the campus were produced especially for it, suggesting that the IPN adopted the modular style of Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus without benefiting from any existing techniques of mass production. Alberto Perez Gomez, “Mexico, Modernity, and Architecture: An Interview with Alberto Perez-Gomez” Modernity and the Architecture of Mexico ed. Edward R. Burian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997) 46.

[7] The year of the IPN’s completion was also marked by the Jornadas Internacionales de Arquitectura (International Architectural Conference) timely organized just after the seventh congress of the Union Internationale de Architectes (International Union of Architects) (U.I.A.) in Havana by U.I.A.’s Mexican chapter. See Alberto Gonzalez Pozo, “Notas Internacionales” Arquitectos de Mexico 6:21 (1964) 4-8. See also Architectural design 1963 Sept., v. 33.


[8] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Some Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills,” Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill & Wang, 1988) 44-68.

[9] Barthes, “The Third Meaning” 58.

[10] Barthes, “The Third Meaning” 57.