Thursday, July 3, 2014


Estípite columns
Starting in the early 1700s an ornate baroque style, variously known as Churrigueresque or barroco estípite—so called after the complex, sculptural column or pilaster that was its signature feature—swept into Mexico from Spain, revolutionizing altarpiece and church front design and ushering in a heady period of innovation among Mexican architects and designers.
   This creative wave evolved and crested later in the century across Mexico, eventually morphing into a phase known as anástilo, or "supportless" in which structural elements had almost dissolved into swirling fields of dense Rococo ornament, primarily in altarpieces but also in late baroque facade design. 
   Such an extreme development led in turn to a reaction. Under the influence of the Real Academia del Arte, inaugurated in Mexico in 1785, a return to classical architectural tenets became virtually mandated, signaling a return to the leading role of the column in architecture and altarpiece design alike.
   Nevertheless, given the traditional Mexican penchant for decorative surface treatment, an intermediate style emerged in a loosely related group of buildings that, while returning to the primacy of the column, retained a traditional vocabulary of baroque elements. 

As long ago as 1971*, the scholar Jorge Alberto Manrique coined the term neóstilo, translatable as "new support,” for this movement, grouping together several distinctive but previously inadequately classified Mexican buildings. 
   Although some of these structures, primarily churches, reflect regional variants, their unifying feature is the re-introduction of the column or pilaster as a central feature of the facade, albeit in a wide and often highly eclectic variety of forms. 
   In fact far from adhering to any strictly classical ordering of columns, neóstilo buildings made free, often playful use of an array of earlier styles of support like Salomonic (spiral) or Plateresque columns, some even retaining the estípite in its more structural forms. 
These were often interspersed with plain and fluted columns or colonnettes, along with such hybrid supports as the tritostile column common to Oaxaca, mixing and matching different elements in the facade or even within a single column.
   Although sometimes viewed as a transitional phase between Baroque and Neoclassical, this unorthodox melding of architectural elements in several key buildings is better seen as constituting a distinct and unique phase in Mexican architecture and design—a brief moment in which an imaginative variety of forms emerged and blossomed, before succumbing to the often dead hand of the neoclassical imperative. 

In this new series we illustrate a handful of the best known and most distinctive examples associated with this architectural phase, starting with the extraordinary hillside chapel of El Pocito.
© Carolyn Brown
El Pocito (The Chapel of the Well)
In 1777 construction began on an elaborate new church over the sacred spring on the hill of Tepeyac, overlooking the basilica of Guadalupe just outside Mexico City. 

Designed by the eminent Mexican architect Francisco Antonio Guerrero y Torres, its oval plan with radiating domed chapels was loosely based on the Pantheon of ancient Rome.  Despite this homage to the designs of antiquity, the exterior and interior appearance of El Pocito is anything but classically correct.

© Niccolo Brooker
Curved exterior walls and convex facades of dark red volcanic tezontle contrast with ornate entries cut from white chiluca limestone—a traditional Mexican technique—to create its dynamic spatial and visual appearance. 
   This effect is further animated by the use of lobed and polygonal Moorish doorways, scrolled baroque pediments and spiky, star shaped windows, which combine with tiled parapets, Gothic like pinnacles and sinuous ribbed domes to create a dazzling experience for the viewer.
© Carolyn Brown
These effects are carried into the Pantheon like interior where the dizzying rise of its painted dome, accentuated by expanding wavy ribs, angel filled murals and obliquely lit from the bristling neo Moorish windows, contrasts with the staid arcades of paired Corinthian columns below.

Although many consider El Pocito as the last major baroque church completed in Mexico, it may be more usefully viewed as a prelude to the innovative neóstilo phase in Mexican architecture.
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry.  
color images courtesy of Carolyn Brown and Niccolo Brooker.   all rights reserved

* MANRIQUE, JORGE ALBERTO, "El neóstilo: La última carta del barroco 
mexicano"  Historia Mexicana, 79, vol. XX, enero-marzo, México, 1971.

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