Text and photographs by Glenda Puente
The context in which modern architecture developed in Quito was one that not only fostered a reinvention in the building realm but also throughout the arts.
Detail of Palacio Legislativo mural by Luis Mideros.
Literature, music, sculpture and painting were being redefined as international exposure by means of travel began to influence the way in which techniques and motives were thought about amongst Ecuadorian artists of the time. In addition, socio-political revolutions in Latin America were something that inevitably influenced the subject matter to be depicted in the arts. In Ecuador, art as a social protest was clearly an issue in painting, as the Indigenista movement actively propelled such ideologies during the mid twentieth century. However, these paintings had little to do with the architecture of the modern movement; rather, the art encountered in mid-century buildings is usually in the form of low and high relief murals with themes pertaining to evolution and progress.
Large scale muralism came to be as buildings of great scale began to rise throughout the city of Quito. These buildings arrived with modernity, prior to this, public art of great magnitude was an unachieved venture. What was not new was the quality of stone and woodwork that artists in the country were capable of achieving, as is evident throughout the historic center in Quito, where the embellished window frames, entrance porticos, colonnades, and courtyards are ever present. Compared to other Latin American countries, modernism arrived late in Ecuador. Up until the 1940s, architecture was still ornamented with wood and stonework, a layer that was strictly superficial and decorative as it did not perform any function within the structural composition of the building, but this “sculptured” layer was seen as part of an architectonic style rather than art applied to the building. Many buildings of the early 1900s were in fact modern in terms of construction, but had to be covered with ornamentation to maintain their colonial appearance due to social and political pressure.1 It is only after modernism had gathered full acceptance that there begins to be a notion of what is building and what is art applied to it.
It should be said that acceptance of modern architecture in Ecuador, especially in Quito, was a slow process. Initially it was neither well received nor appreciated by the general public because of aristocracy’s strong ties to Spanish colonial traditions. The biggest criticism against modernism was the alleged lack of connection to the traditional way of building. For this reason, the first attempts of modernism within the historical district received utter disapproval, forcing modern buildings to be located in what then were the suburbs, outside the historic center. The creation of a new university campus for the Universidad Central del Ecuador (UCE) located about a mile and a half outside the historic district boundaries, as well as a plan to develop several buildings to host the XI Conference of Pan-American Chancellors of 1960, represented two of the greatest opportunities to push forth the movement in the late 40s and early 50s. These buildings were conceived under modern paradigms but not without allowing a layer of locality to be intermixed through the use of local materials, as well as mural art. The latter made straightforward addresses to the social and physical environment of Ecuador, expressed by scenes of labor and ideals of progression. Murals differed from painting, which at the time made stronger claims against social oppression by depicting scenes from life in the fields and its hardships as it was common to do under the Indigenista movement. Different from Mexico, where Muralismo Mexicano was a direct claim against social injustice, murals in buildings of the modern movement in Ecuador did not specifically aim at creating a social remark or protest. What is similar is the radical focus placed on the Indigena. Indigenous people were the main figures within the scenes, as opposed to secondary characters appearing as subservient of a more important figure. It can be said this change was inherited from Mexican muralism, where the masses became the hero of monumental art; the focus was no longer on gods, aristocrats and heads of state, and this was groundbreaking in the history of art.2
The main figure of Ecuadorian mural art is Jaime Andrade. He studied under Camilo Egas, an Ecuadorian artist known for revolutionizing the art world, not only within Ecuador but throughout Latin America, having introduced the theme of Indian politics to art.3Egas along with artist Oswaldo Guayasamín played a great role in the creation of the Indigenista movement in the mid 1920s. Egas taught Andrade in a seminar on Mural Composition at the New School for Social Research in New York.4Egas was a prominent figure in New York, becoming director of the Department of Art at the New School in 1934, position he held until his death in 1962.5He also partook in the New York fair of 1939 by collaborating on a mural for the Ecuadorian pavilion.6It was in New York where Egas met Orozco, who along Diego Rivera, was a leader of the artistic movement “Mexican Muralism”. Egas differed from his contemporaries in that he was not a social realist, meaning his work does not denounce Indian’s misery.7Nonetheless Egas greatly influenced both Andrade and Guayasamín, but the latter, who actually worked with Orozco in Mexico in 1943,8took his art towards a socially committed thematic in a more direct way, as most of his works were in fact associated with social protest.9
Detail of UCE Auditorium mural by Jaime Andrade.
UCE Auditorium mural by Jaime Andrade.
Andrade’s first commission related to an architectural application of his art was for the interior of a house designed by architect Carlos Kohn, one of the main figures of the early period of modernism in Ecuador. His work was carefully inserted in the interior of the modern house, complementing it with two sculptural elements that immediately became the focus within the space. One element was a chimney piece for the fire place, depicting Andrade’s usual theme of men at work, the second element was a column rising from a half wall at an offset that allows it to be appreciated through all around. His first grand scale mural for a work of architecture was granted after winning a competition to intervene within the newly constructed campus of the Universidad Central del Ecuador (UCE). The mural’s narrative greatly symbolized the ideologies of the recently emerging university which had just begun the construction of its new campus under architect Guillermo Gatto Sobral. Together they picked a site for the mural Andrade proposed; an exterior space surrounded by the administration building and the university auditorium facing an open axis in which Gatto Sobral would later position the school of Economy in order to counteract the mural.10 This mural took about 5 years to be completed. The composition is a perfect balance of scenes from the history of humanity within a horizontal band that gets interrupted by a vertical band and together form a symmetrical cross carved into a stone wall. There is a strong rhythm within the piece as the human figures depicted walk or lean towards one of the sides. On the left portion of the mural children appear as symbols of progress and evolution, walking firmly along grown men and women, while on the right side men impede the progression of civilization, as a representation of reactionary institutions that fight against the betterment of society as a whole in order to keep the privileges of the few.11The vertical section is carved at a deeper level and is subdivided into three sections, the bottom one depicting the primitive man in his beginnings moving towards the top section depicting man and machine. This mural is one of the best examples of good integration of architecture and mural art. The mural does not overpower the building, but at the same time it is impossible to disregard it. The message is simple; it is the story of civilization, tough beginnings of human labor ending at present times, the era of the machine.
The mural for the university was not the last large scale mural Andrade was commissioned. During the growth of the modern movement the minister of Public Works was Sixto Durán Ballén, he knew of Andrade’s work and asked him to collaborate on other buildings being erected at the time. Durán Ballén was a very influential figure and at the same time a firm believer that architecture does not work alone but rather it should be a fusion of many arts such as painting, muralism, stained-glass, or sculpture, regardless of the size of the project.12During the 1950s Durán Ballén was over sighting the construction of several buildings that would serve during the XI Conference of Pan-American Chancellors. These buildings would get a lot of foreign exposure; therefore, there was a great interest in applying modern designs to their constructions, as well as artworks that would represent locality to the visitors’ eye. One of the buildings in this group was the building for the Instituto Ecuatoriano de Seguridad Social (I.E.S.S.) designed in part by Gatto Sobral who had already held a professional relationship with Andrade for the auditorium at UCE. For this building Andrade did an internal and an external mural. The exterior one is made of stone but is different from the exterior one in the UCE auditorium, in that at the I.E.S.S. building there is no contemplative space surrounding it. At the time of its construction there was no fence around the building’s block, and the mural could be appreciated at eye level from across the street. Today it gets lost in the midst of public vendors, traffic and a fence that does not allow viewing it at a distance. As far as theme goes, again, the mural resembles the ideologies of the institution commissioning it, portraying a subject matter of work and effort, exemplified by field workers and fishermen. The building was of extremely large proportions for the time,13so a relationship to the ground meant to be achieved by setting the mural literally on ground level. Andrade did not officially belong to the Indigenista movement, but unlike the UCE auditorium mural, the I.E.S.S. mural depicts human faces having traits and physical qualities of the Ecuadorian indigenous man.
Detail of I.E.S.S. mural by Jaime Andrade; left corner.
Detail of I.E.S.S. mural by Jaime Andrade; right corner.
Another mural artist that gave expression to a building of the modern movement was Luis Mideros. He is the author of the extensive mural on the façade of the Palacio Legislativo, the building where the senate meets. The work is a great piece of high relief carved in stone. In this case, the mural is the inevitable focus within the building’s composition. It spans the full length of the frontal façade with a sole interruption in the center to allow the entrance lobby to emerge. The two halves are then further divided into different scenes depicting “industry and development”, “the founding fathers of the nation”, “the men and women of the nation”, “the fight against the conquistadores”, among others. Mideros’ work resembles that of an Italian contemporary called Vico Consorti. Consorti is probably best known for his sculptural panels casted in bronze for the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s Basilica.14He is also responsible for the high-reliefs at Ponte Duca d’Aosta, the bridge that enters the Foro Italico. The scenes of battle depict human struggle in a similar way the Mideros mural does, and it especially relates to a work for a portal arch of a villa in Quito where the figures are almost completely extracted from the base plane. The arch, now siting in park El Ejido, was once the entry of the mayor’s villa. The high relief is of amazing quality and depicts a mythical theme as it belonged to a private property and not a building of the modern movement.
Work of Luis Mideros.
Work of Vico Consorti.
Detail of Palacio Legislativo mural by Luis Mideros.
Another great mural is that of Oswaldo Guayasamín at the UCE law school building completed in 1958. Guayasamín is one of the most well-known Ecuadorian artists, and, as mentioned before, officially committed to the Indigenista movement; his art has always been a straightforward address to Indian suffering. There is little information known about the ideas behind this mural but surprisingly so it does not suggest his signature theme of Indian oppression. The work is titled “History of man and culture” and it was conceived under the cubist style in terms of composition and color use. It depicts quasi human figures that seem victorious, with representations of water, sun and crops in rectangular frames around the jubilant figures alluding to the Ecuadorian environment. The building is a work of Gatto Sobral and follows the norms of strict European rationalism. The mural covers 150 meters of an otherwise somber building.
These examples of mural art applied to buildings of the modern movement share one thing in common, which is to promote ideals of modernity rather than raising awareness on social injustice. The approach taken goes in hand with ideas of progression that inspired the buildings the art was placed in. Modernity in Ecuador was a liberal kind of movement that aimed at breaking out of the preconceived framework society had been living in for a while. Rather than creating conflict, the arts and the architecture of the time aimed at joining the country, in order to fervently move forward as a whole and towards a cohesive ideal.
Detail of UCE Law School mural by Guayasamin.
View of UCE Law School facade.
Glenda M. Puente is the president of the Florida chapter of Docomomo US and is Adjunct Professor at Florida International University School of Architecture.
4. Quito 30 an?os de arquitectura moderna, 1950-1980. 2003. Quito, Ecuador: Pontifcia Universidad Cato?lica del Ecuador, Facultad de Arquitectura y Disen?o. Page 47
5. Greet, Michele. 2009. Beyond national identity: pictorial indigenism as a modernist strategy in Andean art, 1920-1960. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
6. Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
7. Andermann, Jens, and William Rowe. 2005. Images of power: iconography, culture and state in Latin America. New York: Berghahn Books. Page 100
8. Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Page 90
9. Oxford University Press, and John Onians. 2004. Atlas of world art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 268
11. Ibid., Page 88
12. Entrevista Sixto Duran Ballen Quito 30 an?os de arquitectura moderna, 1950-1980. 2003. Quito, Ecuador: Pontifcia Universidad Cato?lica del Ecuador, Facultad de Arquitectura y Disen?o. Pg. 66
14. The basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican by Maria Beltramini, page 491