Genius or Folly?
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Empirical
At face value it may seem like folly. But beyond its bizarre incompleteness, its exaggerated surrealistic orchids, and its concrete carcasses of sculpture, is an unimaginable outdoor museum, hidden inconspicuously in a tropical jungle high in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.
Spend hours meandering in dense, seductively growing rainforest foliage; uncover unique flowers beneath enormous hanging leaves; follow staircases to nowhere while gazing up through multiple stories of massive architectural dinosaurs: you will experience nothing short of a triple E ticket at Disneyland, as a friend and I did when we recently visited Las Pozas. Reflecting on the uninhibited awe we both had felt during our wanderings while pausing at the clear, blue-tinted pools of Edward James’ dream-creation, Kate remarked, “Who says he’s not a poet?”
Las Pozas (the pools) is the result of the creative imagination of Edward James combined with the cultural spirit and hard work of indigenous people of Mexico living in the mountainous jungle area that lured him because of its natural beauty and magical ambience. Over the course of several decades, his vision of paradise came to life as huge surreal concrete forms that rose from the rainforest surrounding gorgeous natural pools near the village of Xilitla (He-LEET-la) in the state of Huasteca, north of Vera Cruz. What remains today is evocatively fascinating: incredible sculptures that rise mystically from thick rainforest growth, perhaps one of the most underappreciated architectural feats of modern times.
James was born in 1907 in Scotland to parents whose enormous wealth enabled him to have a lifetime of privilege, and early on he became a lifelong patron of the arts. His own youthful creativity was thwarted by Stephen Spender’s critical review of his collection of poems, The Bones of My Hands. He became particularly enmeshed in the Surrealistic movement that began in the early 1920’s and was a sponsor and supporter of Salvador Dali and René Magritte. However, Avery Danziger, in his 2009 documentary Edward James, Builder of Dreams, states “… he was not a surrealist. Rather it was his life as he lived it that was surreal.”
As fond as he was of the Surrealists, over time James tired of patronage, and he began searching for his own artistic outlet. That search came to fruition when he visited Mexico in the mid-1940’s. During his travels he befriended a young man, Plutarco Gastelum, and the evolving lifelong friendship between the two was to become a driving force behind realization of James’ dream. Under Gastelum’s guidance, James purchased 80+ acres in the Mexican jungle near Xilitla.
The town sits on a green hillside amid a coffee-growing region. James was particularly attracted to the area because of its abundance of orchids. His love of nature made Xilitla an ideal location, and the work he provided over 25 years indebted him to and made him part of the community. James planted thousands of orchids on his land, but a freak snowfall killed most of them in 1962, an event that compelled him even more to continue creating an enduring Eden on earth.
Inspired in part by the surrealistic Watts Towers in Los Angeles, James’ vision began to unfold until his death in 1984. In Mexico, he found what he had been unable to find in Europe: a culture where his unusual, eccentric imagination was embraced and not ridiculed. Myth, magic, and dream, such an integral part of Mexico’s art, were coupled with a strong personal connection James made with master carpenter José Aguilar Hernandez, who built his own works of art in dozens of wooden molds that would be filled with concrete, dried, opened, and their resulting creations displayed in the flora where James’ ideas would come to life. However, until recently, Las Pozas remained safely sleeping in its own obscurity, known only to locals and to the few souls who journeyed to reach James’ surrealistic dream.
That obscurity and Las Pozas’ remoteness are part of its appeal, but reaching our destination was no easy mission. We drove from San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato three hours north of Mexico City, through breathtakingly beautiful country an additional 10-11 hours before reaching Xilitla. Encountering unfamiliar roads, steady rain, infrequently marked directional designations, and eventual darkness, we finally reached the village built on a hillside, arguably speculating about James’ geographical choice for his fantasy.
Las Pozas is impossible to imagine before you venture inside; it is so enormous in construction and has become so much a part of the jungle that it is reminiscent of ancient Mayan civilizations, a comparison not lost on James. Margaret Hooks, in her book Surreal Eden (2007), references George Collins and Michael Schuyt in their book Fantastic Architecture, in which James speculates how hundreds of years in the future, some people might come upon Las Pozas and “…attempt to determine what civilization had built them.”
Once you pass by the bright orange front door of the multi-leveled skeletal building that welcomes you to Las Pozas, you follow stone walkways and walls green with moss along Avenue of the Snakes. You must envision the structures as they are: concrete bones, without walls, without ceiling, all of them seemingly incomplete, intentionally unfinished. Unfinished buildings are what they first seem to be; in fact, they are immense sculptures, and as such complete in their own unique way. These are sculptures you walk through and on and up–interactive by nature, beckoning you to discover them.
Most walking is up–Las Pozas is angled on hills–and viewing is up since most structures tower above you. One structure has three wall-less levels, and various sets of stairs wind on top of one level. You can wander Avenue of the Orchids, peer into the Secret Garden, look inside the Houses of the Ocelot and of the Flamingos, or rest on the Plaza of the Three Crosses. Discovering Las Pozas remains thrilling as you wander along, and the feeling only intensifies as you sight the next creation emerging from the forest, another unusual vision.
Floral monuments grow out of the various structural floors or from the earth.
Curlicued metal doors open to rainforest jungle. One set of stairs of about 30 steps simply ends on the last step. Concrete bamboo protrudes from giant leaf fronds. Walking around a bend will find you staring at a previously unseen sculpture, obscured by immense foliage. If you climb upon a concrete square structure and peer over the wrought iron fence, you might see water gliding downhill from pool to pool below the waterfall. Each step is an adventure.
What continued to surprise us was that wherever we looked, we would be overcome with amazement. Mostly the structures were secreted within the vegetation so we would be walking along, duck under some enormous trees, walk up some steps, and find ourselves gazing at yet another sculpture. We’d climb over floors and climb up stairs–no use “at your own risk” signs here–and stare at an unfinished creation we hadn’t seen before. This experience repeated itself throughout the afternoon spent at Las Pozas, as most of the 36 identified concrete structures revealed themselves.
I kept returning to one that became my favorite. It had the most color of any other still visible: a 10-12 foot tall concrete orchid in red, blue, green, and yellow, faded, but still with strokes of brilliant color. Originally, many of the sculptures had been painted, but time and water have weather-beaten most shades. But with its dulled colors, this orchid still had allure, so I photographed it in different light at different times. Its image I will never forget.
The rich emerald coloring of the jungle and the pools from the multiple waterfalls also enhance the enchantment of Las Pozas. Waterfalls cascade from the hillside and form a series of seven pools of fresh, clear, water, reflecting a turquoise blue from the light. Built around the largest pool are large designed cement walls, creating different angles for viewing. The swimmable pools add a natural peacefulness to the falling waters and they intersect a tropical jungle, lush with banana palms, odd orchid family flowers, enormous ferns, over-sized dieffenbachia, and multiple varieties of philodendron, some with huge elephant-ear leaves, all richly green.
I tried to imagine the labor it took to make Las Pozas. At its busiest, close to 70 families from Xilitla had someone working on the project. The execution of the dream represented constant, arduous toiling, much of the effort uphill and energy intensive. Work was essentially by hand and over the decades it never actually was completed. But the open, unfinished sensation and the freedom associated with those feelings are part of its magic, amid a kind of jungle-gothic.
Walking the grounds, I kept feeling like I was in a museum. I suspect it feels like a museum to many other visitors, too. For what purpose is a museum, but to enjoy and appreciate art for art’s sake? At Las Pozas, embedded discretely in the jungle, huge, distinctive structures display the essence of “building” sans walls, roof, windows, carpeting, but nonetheless, they are creative sculptural renderings. Set in a tropical Mexican jungle, this otherworldly artistic display is a unique experience, its allure distinctive and enduring, its color fading, yet a romantic flair enclosing each piece of structurally remarkable work.
Edward James wanted to be an artist in his own right and he was, but even he recognized that Las Pozas would be seen as pure madness by some in Europe. But in Mexico he found a culture where anything seemed possible, so these strangely mesmerizing concrete sculptures evolved into a breathtaking feat of architecture that should have made an impressive mark in the international artistic community. Somehow Las Pozas did not achieve that possibility, though my friend Kate saw poetry in the imaginative form of Las Pozas. His poetry simply took a much different shape than Stephen Spender could have foreseen. Certainly the feeling of the poet is embedded in the sculptures. Even in Surreal Eden, Margaret Hooks raises the issue of James’ work being that of genius or folly.
As for that question, Las Pozas enters and inspires you in its own inarticulate way. Visiting there is an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had. Genius has its eccentricities, and looking at the elaborate undertaking and astounding outcome of James’ imaginings, unfinished as they may have seemed, I for one, can find no man’s folly.
In fact, I think James knew exactly what he was creating and why. At a museum in El Castillo, the Xilitla home of Plutarco Gastelum where James often stayed, is a poem hanging on the wall that he wrote about his “house” at Las Pozas entitled “This Shell”: “My house grows like the chamber’d nautilus…my house has wings and sometimes in the dead of night she sings…This house is all assuaged and waiting for that sea whose child I am…” Perhaps it was the child-like aspect of James’ surreal imagination that finally found root in Las Pozas, where he created his ingenious slice of the world, an eccentric yet highly personal imagining. Perhaps with its recent re-discovery and support by the foundation, Fondo Xilitla, Las Pozas will re-emerge as a testament to Edward James’ enduring vision. For what we can see today in his unfinished garden of Eden is even more engaging than it was originally.
In the last 35 years it has evolved its own unique identity–a rich green enchantment, a mystical ride, though lacking the glitter, the hype, the technology, and the merriment of Disneyland, a concrete jungle of poetry no less magical.
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