AUDACIOUS MAY SEEM LIKE THE BEST WORD to describe both the work and the personality of Teodoro González de León.
The last time I saw him he was both amused and deeply touched as he looked again, after more than sixty years, at the drawing that symbolized his daring entry into the world of architecture. When he was a twenty-year-old architecture student, he and his classmate Armando Franco decided to draw an alternative master-plan proposal for the University City UNAM in Mexico and show it to the university authorities. Against all odds, the drawing became the basis for the most important design of the country in the 1950s, one that gathered all of the most important Mexican architects and engineers of the time.
In March 2015, González de León’s drawing now hung on a wall of the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the opening of the exhibition “Latin America in Construction.” He pointed at one detail sketched in pencil and said to me, smiling, “Look how we drew all the small formations of lava!” At that point, I understood that the most important factor in shaping the final design was the lava landscape of El Pedregal. While helping the curators locate the Mexican material for the exhibition, I was lucky to find the drawing in an archive at the UNAM. For many years, González de León had claimed that he and Franco (who became his first associate) were the original authors of the master plan, but no one really believed him until the unexpected discovery of this drawing and the publication of the book Living CU 60 Years: Ciudad Universitaria UNAM 1954–2014 at around the same time in 2015. In this publication, the full story of the master plan was explained by historians Elisa Drago, Jimena Torre, and Alberto Pérez-Méndez. This long overdue recognition was welcomed by both architects—I remember that during a book launch event for Living CU, I watched Franco reach out from his wheelchair and hug González de León, and some tears escaped them both.
If his early audacious moves operated between several established languages of architectural modernism, González de León found his own. His buildings of the 1970s through 1990s were always used as examples for several generations of architectural students despite the fact that he never wanted to be a professor. His triangular plazas and his roughly surfaced buildings with sloping walls reminded us young architects of ancient Mexican ruins but also showed us shocking new combinations of volumes and open spaces. An inventor of great gestures in the urban landscape—more than functional or comfortable buildings—he always claimed that he was responding to the city. His audacious buildings—in a way similar to his paintings, which are similar to those of Le Corbusier, for whom he worked for eighteen months—are big, heavy sculptures inserted into the urban fabric, solid volumes that emerge from the ground in unpredictable combinations. The singularity of those forms established them almost immediately as urban landmarks. No one but he could have convinced so many clients, whether the state or private investors, to erect such huge structures that defied all preestablished forms.
He was also an intellectual who read Octavio Paz, listened to contemporary classical music on a daily basis, and kept working until his final day; a cultivated man who thought that being an architect was not a job but a way of living. Soon after the country celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he died suddenly, during the night of September 16, when, as Mexicans, we celebrate our independence. He will not be able to see his last works finished, but their constant presence in the city alongside all the others that precede them will not allow us to forget him.
Cristina López Uribe is a professor in the school of architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and editor of Bitácora journal.