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Mexican minimalism: the Camino Real Hotel Polanco by Ricardo Legorreta

by Ana Carolina de Souza Bierrenbach e Federico Calabrese

Compasses Magazine

After half a century of operation, the Camino Real Polanco Hotel in Mexico City is still a dense and stimulating architecture. In July 1968, the hotel, designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, opened its doors. It was the first project executed by the architect for the Camino Real Hotel chain, which also includes the buildings of Ciudad Juárez (1966), Cancun (1975) and Ixtapa (1981). For the realization of the Mexico City hotel, Legorreta counted on the advice of the architect Luis Barragán, the artist Mathias Goeritz and on the collaboration of other professionals.

One of the highlights of the hotel is the relationship that the building establishes with architectural traditions, beginning with the architect’s decision to maintain scale and principles of the pre-existing construction of the site, the former Cowdry Hospital, dating from 1886. Legorreta limits the height of the hotel complex to a maximum of 6 floors and adopts the same architectural principles for certain parts of the hotel: the guest rooms are often surrounded by carefully created intimate courtyards, usually including plants, water mirrors and other equipment. He uses the same concept to create the hotel’s front courtyard, which has a similar logic to that of the previous one for accessing the old hospital, but adopts a distinct, pentagonal shape. Such solutions are also related to those used by the religious and domestic architectures of the Mexican colonial period.

The buildings that overlook the pool area receive a peculiar treatment, with a differentiated slope and with a polished stone coating, referring to the architecture of the Mexican pyramids. For these buildings, Legorreta creates rhythmic and deep terraces, which provide intense effects of lights and shadows. The other buildings have purer volumes, sometime with terraces, sometimes delimited only with glazed plans, but always maintaining a rhythmic dimension in their composition. This induces the magazine «Progressive Architecture» to call such architecture «minimalist». However, over time and because of technical problems, Legorreta decides to renounce such stones and to plaster the walls of the buildings, which acquire yellowish and white tones, with more rough textures. Such an intense use of colours is an element that is taken up from Mexican traditions. In fact, on the walls of the hotel, strong and contrasting colours, such as yellow, pink, violet and blue, predominate.

In addition to the guest rooms, the hotel has other important areas, which include the reception, bars, restaurants, meeting and conference rooms, as well as administration, services and an ample parking space. It is noteworthy the ability of the architect to articulate all these areas, creating intricate paths, with corridors of different sizes, alterations of levels, overcome with ramps or stairs of different dimensions. In the guests’ private areas, the corridors feature indirect lighting and, at their intersections, have extensive panels with leaked elements that allow the view of the interior courtyards, offering a pleasant break for guests in the long corridors. In public areas, stairs have different dimensions, smaller or more monumental, articulating spaces in non-linear ascending paths. The presence of a series of artistic pieces is an important part of the architectural conception of the hotel. In the access courtyard to the hotel there is one of the most striking pieces, which has an intense architectural character: a huge lattice authored by Mathias Goeritz. The main element is a fountain, made by Isamu Noguchi, which presents different aquatic movements: during the day the steams are convulsed, during the night they are more behaved. At first, the lattice was painted black and the walls surrounding it were white. Later on, Legorreta considered this black and white space very formal, serious and conceptual and decided to change the colour of the lattice to pink and the colour of part of the surrounding walls to yellow, following the trends of Mexican colours.

The ascension route mentioned above is punctuated by the presence of artistic pieces: in the main lobby a mural by Rufino Tamayo stands out; after the first flight of the monumental staircase, Mathias Goerritz’s Golden Mural occupies the entire length of a wall. Further up, in the centre of the hall, there was Calder’s stabile, and at the end of the sequence of the broad stairs, there is the mural 16 divinations of a Hindu astronaut by Pedro Friedeberg. Such a mural ends the monumental course, but at the same time, due to its illusionistic effects of depth, makes it infinite. The design of the hotel’s interiors is also carefully thought out. For that, the interior designers Charles Sevigny, Peter Andes of the Knoll firm, among other professionals, are associated to the project. It is interesting to note that the magazine «Progressive Architecture» states that initially there is a «Miesian touch» in the interior design, even though it is linked with another «Mexican touch», especially given by the colour palette used. Besides this, some old pieces are also added, such as chairs, mirrors and, delimiting the main entrance of the hotel, an old wooden door of the 17 th century.

To complete its conception, the professional responsible for creating the logo of the Mexico City Olympics, Lance Wyman, is summoned to create the visual identity of the hotel, with the collaboration of Peter Murdock. These professionals created the logo, the signs and the uniforms of the hotel employee, based on pre-Hispanic elements. With a 50-year history, the Camino Real Polanco has undergone a series of transformations – mainly carried out in 1985 and 2005 – to be adapted to the current hotel demands, both in its most private spaces and in its more public ones. Among the most striking spatial transformations, there is the change in the position of the hotel reception, which is currently further from the lobby than the initial situation, affecting the original perception. Another significant change was the elimination of the previously existing tennis courts on the rooftop of the building, for the creation of a large conference room and a terrace. Other relevant changes occurred with the removal of Calder’s stabile and Annie Albers’s tapestry. There were also some interior design updates, with more contemporary aesthetics, less flamboyant than the 1970s, but preserving its essence by keeping the contrasting colours initially used in the interiors. But the modifications did not significantly affect its main features, such as its spatial and architectural relationships and its artistic details, allowing guests to have an impacting experience dating back to the late 1960s. However, it is interesting to notice how that experience is not connected anymore to the “minimalist” hotel of the first moment, but to a hotel that is much closer to the well-known features of the more vibrant and coloured architecture of Ricardo Legorreta.

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