The Sophisticated Caveman: When Underground Was Avant-Garde

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

In the Southern Italian city of Matera, poor families for centuries carved their homes, alleys, and even churches out of the chalky cliffs. Then, in the 1950s, the government, embarrassed that citizens of a modern industrialized nation should still be crouching in literal caves, evicted residents and moved them to cinder-block apartments. Long abandoned but also ennobled by UNESCO World Heritage status, the sassi (“rocks”) have recently been reborn as cafés, tourist attractions, even inns. Cave living isn’t just for prehistoric troglodytes and trolls: Tens of millions of people in northern China live in yaodongs, terraced villages with dugout houses. Even in the age of glass-walled penthouses in the clouds, burrowing still has a certain primal appeal. A few years ago, the Madrid-based architecture firm Ensamble Studio started repurposing the hollows in a quarry on the Spanish island of Minorca into the austerely habitable Ca’n Terra, or “home in the earth.”

“In Praise of Caves,” a compact exhibition at the Noguchi Museum, opens unsuspected horizons in underground architecture, specifically as it’s played out in Mexico over the past 80 years. The relationship to Isamu Noguchi is tangential, but some of his stone sculptures might almost have been pried from the earth with parts left rough and others scoured to a high gloss by wind and rain. In the museum, the works hum in sympathy with the elegantly wild architecture of Juan O’Gorman, Carlos Lazo, and Javier Senosiain, who embedded modern designs in ancient rock.

Today, O’Gorman is best known for the his-and-hers pair of houses in Mexico City that he tailored for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo — a perfect analogue for a marriage marked by mutual dependence and hostility. Fewer visitors make it to the strangely wonderful Museo Anahuacalli, a Mayan-ish pyramid clad in volcanic stone that O’Gorman designed to hold Rivera’s collection of pre-Columbian statuary. In 1959, readers of Life magazine discovered the architect through a photo spread of him and his wife playing chess at home in a mosaic-encrusted grotto that might have been a set for a Wagner opera. (That house was later destroyed, which is a saga in its own right.) That photo is spread across a wall at the Noguchi Museum, paired with a fantastically detailed tabletop model giving us a drone’s-eye view of architecture that is at once concealed. and flamboyant.

There are practical advantages to building underground, but it requires a drastically different approach from working on a flat foundation. Away from the sun and below the snow, the earth maintains a nearly constant temperature, which minimizes heating and makes cooling unnecessary. The basic structure comes prefabricated and cheap. But a hole in the ground can also be damp, dark, and unreliably ventilated, qualities that spelunker architects consider conditions rather than deal-breakers.

In the mid-20th century, these voids created by eons of erosion suggested a rough-hewn alternative to the sharp creases, right angles, and plain planes of orthodox architectural practice. When you’re carving space out of a solid mass instead of enclosing it in a cage, you think of structure differently. Walls and tunnels can be stabilized with shotcrete, a wet mixture that’s sprayed onto surfaces at high pressure, forming a fluid, continuous surface and eliding the distinction between floor, ceiling, and wall. More recently, Studio Gang used the technique to mold the American Museum of Natural History’s new Gilder Center into an urban cavern.

Mathias Goeritz’s The Serpent of El Eco (1953), reproduced at the Noguchi Museum.
Photo: Nicholas Knight. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY/Artists Rights Society

What’s so appealing about this Noguchi Museum show is less its advocacy for the underground lifestyle than the glimpse it offers of an ultraretro avant-garde, mixing industrial modernism with an imagined primitive mythology. The story of that mini-movement begins with Carlos Lazo, who was 41 when he was killed in a 1955 plane crash just as he was refining an elaborate vision of “civilized caves.” His one completed (and now vanished) work was a sunken cottage like a deluxe Hobbit hole that curved around a verdant patio. The whole thing lurked beneath a canopy of glass except for a chimney poking above ground. The house embodied equal parts naïve optimism and adult terror because, according to Lazo’s rather vague notions about nuclear warfare, it could double 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 cargo of tenderness into the very entrails of Mother Earth, where it unites joyfully with the light and heat of Father Sun.” (That enthusiasm contrasts with his earlier scorn for the architect’s father, which in 1930 triggered a full-on brawl between art and architecture students.) Lazo’s Casa-Cueva de la Era Atómica 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 “of the hill” rather than on it.)

Senosiain’s Casa Organica (1985).
Photo: Francisco Lubbert

It was built but never occupied, then allowed to fall apart. The site is now a series of houses that lurk behind high walls on a genteel, gently sloping street. Lazo likewise never got to realize his ambitious plans for a cliffside apartment complex or to fuse his atomic-age musings with Mexican topography, mythology, and politics into a true social-housing program as he’d planned. Instead, Javier Senosiain took up the mantle, and his devotion to Lazo’s legacy is evident everywhere in the Noguchi Museum show. It was Senosiain who made the scale models and provided the tunneling instinct with an intellectual framework. His Casa Organica in Mexico City is an ode to handmade construction, fluid forms, earthy hues, and sustainable design. (Well, sustainable except for all that concrete.) Aboveground, it’s capped by a friendly monster, a surreal fusion of serpent and shark. The psychedelic vibe gets amplified in El Nido de Quetzalcóatl, a biodesign theme park full of squiggly, half-buried structures that make Gehry look minimalist and Gaudí straitlaced.

Alongside Lazo, O’Gorman, and Senosiain is the fourth cave Beatle: the German Mexican sculptor Mathias Goeritz, who saw the light in the dark when he visited Altamira with his prehistoric paintings. Inspired by the combination of simplicity and movement, he produced The Serpent of El Eco, a 1953 length of painted steel that writhes in straight-lined segments. Here, a wooden replica snakes its way among Noguchi’s sculptures, a sibilant spirit of the underworld.

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

In one sense, this is an exhibition of curiosities and entertaining experiments that reached its heyday in the 1950s. In another, it’s a serious provocation. Beneath the topsoil of whimsy, you can feel the pull of a submerged counternarrative to the skyscraping heroics of so much global architecture. Caves have always served as zones of contemplation and revelation, and an intimate and stimulating exhibition about them is a good place to start thinking about how humanity might dig itself out of the hole it’s in.

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