The Sophisticated Caveman: When Underground Was Avant-Garde

The O’Gormans in their cave-like home, 1959.
Photo: Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

In the southern Italian city of Matera, poor families have for centuries carved their homes, alleys and even churches into the chalky cliffs. Then, in the 1950s, the government, embarrassed that the citizens of a modern industrialized nation were still squatting in veritable caves, evicted the residents and moved them to cinderblock apartments. Long abandoned but also ennobled by UNESCO World Heritage statusthe rocks (“rocks”) have recently been reborn as cafes, tourist attractions, and even hostels. Life in caves is not just for troglodytes and prehistoric trolls: tens of millions of people in northern China live in yaodongs, terraced villages with canoe houses. Even in the age of windowed penthouses in the clouds, digging still has a certain primary attraction. A few years ago, Madrid-based architecture firm Ensamble Studio began transforming the hollows of a quarry on the Spanish island of Menorca into austerely livable spaces. Ca’n Terraor “house on earth”.

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

Today, O’Gorman is best known for the two houses for him and her in Mexico City which he adapted for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo – a perfect analogue for a marriage marked by mutual dependence and hostility. Fewer visitors head to the eerily wonderful Museo Anahuacalli, a Mayan pyramid covered in volcanic rock that O’Gorman designed to hold Rivera’s collection of pre-Columbian statues. In 1959, readers of Life The magazine discovered the architect through a series of photos of him and his wife playing chess at home in a mosaic-encrusted cave that could have been the setting for a Wagner opera. (This house was subsequently destroyed, which is a full-fledged saga.) This photo is spread across a wall in the Noguchi Museum, paired with an incredibly detailed tabletop model, giving us a bird’s-eye view of architecture that’s both hidden and flamboyant.

There are practical advantages to building underground, but it requires a radically different approach than working on a flat foundation. Far from the sun and under the snow, the earth maintains an almost constant temperature, which minimizes heating and makes cooling unnecessary. The basic structure is prefabricated and cheap. But a hole in the ground can also be damp, dark and poorly ventilated, qualities that cave architects regard as conditions rather than deciding factors.

By the mid-twentieth century, these voids created by eons of erosion suggested a crude alternative to the sharp folds, right angles, and simple planes of orthodox architectural practice. When you carve space out of a solid mass instead of enclosing it in a cage, you think about structure differently. Walls and tunnels can be stabilized with shotcrete, a wet mix that is sprayed onto surfaces at high pressure, forming a smooth, continuous surface and eliminating the distinction between floor, ceiling and wall. More recently, Studio Gang used this technique to transform the American Museum of Natural History’s new Gilder Center into an urban cavern.

Mathias Goeritz The Snake of El Eco (1953), reproduced at the Noguchi Museum.
Photo: Nicolas Chevalier. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY/Artists Rights Society

What’s so appealing about this Noguchi Museum exhibit is less its advocacy of the underground way of life than the glimpse it offers of an ultra-retro avant-garde, blending industrial modernism with imagined primitive mythology. The story of this mini-movement begins with Carlos Lazo, who was 41 when he was killed in a plane crash in 1955 while honing an elaborate vision of “civilized caves.” His only completed (and now defunct) work was a sunken cottage like a luxury Hobbit hole that curved around a leafy patio. Everything was hidden under a glass canopy, except for a chimney protruding from the ground. The house embodied equal parts naïve optimism and adult terror because, according to Lazo’s rather vague notions of nuclear war, it could serve 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 said, had “delivered a considerable cargo of tenderness into the very bowels of Mother Earth, where she happily unites with the light and warmth of Father Sun.” (This enthusiasm contrasts with his earlier disdain for the architect’s father, who in 1930 sparked a fight between art and architecture students.) Lazo’s Casa-Cueva de la Era Atómica was an extreme version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s insistence on integrating architecture into the landscape rather than dominating it. (Wright placed his own house, Taliesin, just below the crest of an elevation so that it was “from the hill” rather than on this.)

La Maison Bio Senosiain (1985).
Photo: Francisco Lubbert

It was built but never occupied, then dropped. The site is now a series of houses that hide behind high walls on a distinguished, gently sloping street. Likewise, Lazo was never able to realize his ambitious plans for a cliffside apartment complex or fuse his atomic-age musings with Mexican topography, mythology, and politics into a real social housing program like he had foreseen it. Instead, Javier Senosiain took up the mantle, and his dedication to Lazo’s legacy is evident throughout the Noguchi Museum exhibit. It was Senosiain who made the scale models and provided the digging instinct with an intellectual framework. His Organic House à Mexico is an ode to handcrafted construction, flowing shapes, earthy hues and sustainable design. (Well, durable except for all that concrete.) Above ground, he’s styled with a friendly monster, a surreal fusion of snake and shark. The psychedelic atmosphere is amplified in Quetzalcoatl’s Nesta biodesign theme park full of curvy, half-buried structures that make Gehry look minimalist and like Gaudí.

Alongside Lazo, O’Gorman and Senosiain is the fourth Beatle cavern: German Mexican sculptor Mathias Goeritz, who saw the light in the darkness when he visited Altamira with his prehistoric paintings. Inspired by the alliance of simplicity and movement, he realizes The Snake of El Eco, a 1953 length of painted steel that twists into straight segments. Here, a wooden replica winds its way among carvings of Noguchi, the hissing spirit of the underworld.

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

In one sense, it’s an exhibition of curiosities and entertaining experiences that reached its peak in the 1950s. In another, it’s a serious provocation. Beneath the topsoil of fantasy, you can feel the pull of a submerged counter-narrative to the skyscraper heroism of so much global architecture. Caves have always served as areas of contemplation and revelation, and an intimate and thought-provoking exhibit about them is a good place to start thinking about how humanity might dig itself out of the hole it finds itself in.

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