PRINT September 2013


Jorge Pardo’s Tecoh

Jorge Pardo, Tecoh, 2012, Tecoh, Mexico. Photos: Jody Asano.

ACCORDING TO JORGE PARDO, “to be an interesting artist, you really have to understand your relation to other forms of production.” In other words, art’s others need not be its antitheses; artworks should not derive their meaning or value from opposition to other crafted or manufactured goods. Above all, artworks should not simply deny the potential to function, this being the first rule of a mythic autonomy à la Kant’s “purposive purposelessness,” but rather extend function itself into the realm of the speculative. This at once synthetic and analytical predisposition has led Pardo through various experiments with the materials, tools, and techniques of industrial product design, toward projects that have assumed increasingly architectural proportions. The first bona fide residence in his corpus, 4166 Sea-View Lane, 1998, is one that he in fact occupied as a home. He refers to this work as “a house that is also a sculpture,” and much the same could be said for Tecoh, a sprawling building complex completed last year in the Yucatán, only here the scale of the “sculptural house” is substantially expanded, as is the suggestive indeterminacy of its purported use.

The artist’s initial mandate was furnished by his patrons, Roberto Hernández, the former CEO of Banamex, and Hernández’s wife, Claudia Madrazo, whose longstanding interest in the region has largely been centered on philanthropic matters of preservation and revitalization. As Pardo explains it, “They fell in love with the region and then they started buying up all these abandoned haciendas, trying to figure out how to preserve them. . . . One way you preserve a hacienda is to turn it into a hotel.” The couple had already converted several historic structures before they approached Pardo for the site of Tecoh, originally an agave farm that later became a factory where sisal fibers were produced. However, while Hernández and Madrazo’s previous projects brought increased prosperity and stability to the small towns in which they were located, they mostly did so by creating a service economy revolving around the hotel. “I’m not so interested in that model,” declares Pardo. “I don’t have a problem with it; I think it’s a very reasonable model, but I wanted to work with their program a little more eccentrically.”

Accordingly, Pardo conceived Tecoh as a folly of sorts, but in so doing he dismissed neither the social and historical problems that come with its territory nor his clients’ demand that he somehow resolve them. He resisted the organizational protocols of the hospitality industry,particularly those governing the relations between leisure and work in its buildings, in favor of a more open-ended design that might instead enable the questioning of those relations. For instance, what if this building could take advantage of local expertise in concrete construction, glassblowing, and the production of tiles, and thereby employ the community as a creative, rather than only caretaking, force? As it presently stands, Tecoh is a temporary destination for students and scholars, members of the philanthropic and business worlds, invited by the artist or his patrons to gather and discuss precisely such questions. This informal think tank is hosted in an elaborate configuration of semidiscrete units, with a main house, three guesthouses, and twelve palapas, together able to accommodate up to twenty-five in total at any one time. The compound also includes a large pavilion with a kitchen, three pools, and an expansive garden designed by longtime Pardo collaborator Ivette Soler. All these various structures fulfill the conditions of sheltering in a decidedly luxurious manner, yet their very excesses and eccentricities simultaneously exceed the elevated standards articulated by most design magazines, as if asking: What else can architecture do?

First, it can operate as a perceptual mechanism that somehow recalibrates the relation between inside and outside, or between phenomenological and psychological experience, thereby producing new ways of being—a different version of “you.” Pardo here takes a cue from the expansionist legacy of postwar American art—from Minimalism to Earthworks—which stretched open the conventional frameworks of the aesthetic encounter to include the embodied presence of the beholder. These are of course models that have fed directly into relational aesthetics as well, a movement with which Pardo is more typically aligned, and yet his continued insistence on the importance of form, and noninstrumental form at that, signals a key point of divergence. This is made especially evident in Tecoh: Here, the work’s freely experimental production process dictates its finished state more than any considerations of use. Before or beyond questions of function, that is, Pardo treats each building as a compositional entity into which the visitor is absorbed as a dynamic element. As we pass between these buildings, perspectives dramatically narrow, then broaden; from rooms painted mint green to those painted cadmium red, we travel through changing temperatures and atmospheres. Walls submerged underneath optically vibrating patterns of colored tile meet the solidity of smooth concrete at jarringly irregular angles. Ceilings and rooftops are broken into faceted planes reminiscent of Cubism and origami. Scattered throughout is a surplus of Pardo’s signature works: his lamps, those categorical shifters that nod to the painterly image (light) one moment and sculptural object (form) the next, without ever ceasing to be the domestic appliances they basically are. In its totality, Tecoh might be described as a three-dimensional abstraction that unfolds before its inhabitants in a kaleidoscopic heightening of perceptual awareness and functional interaction.

The closest precedent for Tecoh is perhaps Donald Judd’s Marfa, Texas, where working methods developed inside the contemplative context of the studio and gallery were likewise occasionally dispatched to pragmatic ends. Pardo has mined what Charles Harrison famously called Judd’s “not-painting/not-sculpture” formula—in which a work of art is neither because it is both—for the best part of his career, but, in contradistinction to Judd, his hybridized outcomes undergo no stabilizing reduction. Pardo’s break with the streamlined logic ofMinimalism is registered most vividly in his tendency toward ornamental profusion, which in Tecoh is pushed into overdrive. And, however perversely, it is in the literally superficial form of this ornamentation that the artist meets the deeper structural imperative of responding to the historical, social, and cultural conditions of the site.

THE HACIENDA that first occupied Tecoh’s location was originally constructed by the Spanish and reached its apex of productivity in the 1920s and ’30s, concurrent with the rise of American geopolitical power. During this period, its product, sisal, was worked into twine employed mainly for bundling up the agricultural goods such as hay and wheat that the US began exporting worldwide in ever-greater quantities. Following the introduction of synthetic fibers in the postwar years, however, this economic collaboration dissolved. The farm gradually went fallow and the factory became a ruin partly reclaimed by the surrounding jungle, never to be replaced by another sustainable industry. Pardo feels that the “region is so charged historically that it’s almost tragic to propose a reframing of it,” but though he does not explicitly address this sensitive backstory, neither does he ignore or occlude it. In effect, it would seem that this troubling history of domination twice over is at once inscribed into and deflected by Tecoh’s overwhelming decor.

On his first visit to the site, Pardo was deeply impressed by the opulent overabundance of vegetation, which induced a kind of sensory overload. But he was equally struck by the ways in which this rich jungle landscape had been absorbed into the vernacular building tradition, primarily in terms of decorative surface motifs based on tropical plants, though these were also of course influenced by imported visual grammars. Of the site’s original buildings, only a single ceilinged room—fronted by a somewhat ostentatious, Spanish-style arched stone gateway with a row of protruding steeple-like forms tracing the curve of its upper edge—had survived intact, and it is largely from these imposing ruins that Pardo took his inspiration. Various motifs were brought from the site and reworked in a studio that had itself been transplanted to the Yucatán for the length of the project. “There was a real folding of the studio into the site,” explains Pardo. “It produced a second order of complications that constantly had to be negotiated. We would prototype something as simple as a floor panel or three-dimensional tile ourselves and then have it manufactured locally. These things were different, but you could see that the one could still be threaded through the other, through that kind of indigenous craft.” In this way, ornament becomes a means of reflecting, and in turn reflecting upon, the cultural sediments and surfaces that make up any built form.

In addition to Marfa, then, we might turn to Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, 1969–72, as a model for understanding the operations at work in Tecoh. Smithson approached that building, also located in the Mexican jungle, as a palimpsest of ad hoc quick-fix decisions executed over time, driven more by the laws of economic necessity and colonial incursion than by any overarching design intent. By emphasizing the perpetually unfinished condition of the hotel, Smithson raised fundamental questions about sites, both spatial and temporal, inviting us to speculate on their past and future from a perspective that can be fixed only arbitrarily in the now. A similarly destabilizing temporal element is evident in Tecoh, which was constructed piecemeal over a five- to six-year period. “We worked on one building and then another,” Pardo recalls. “We tore lots of things down and then we rebuilt them without any sort of master plan.” This contingent process folds together the typically separate moments of planning and construction, and it is here that the project departs most forcefully from any architectural precedent, proclaiming its status as an open work. This dilated making factors directly into our experience of the result. In Pardo’s words, “Tecoh is processional; it’s not obsessed with totality. It’s like a parade where you have to wait for the experience to unfold.”

COMBINING SOBER COMMEMORATION and delirious celebration, the parade is an apt analogy for Tecoh’s ornamental take on the social and historical conditions of the site. Pardo has always claimed that his work oscillates between the “poetic” and the “sinister,” suggesting that he attends equally to the liberating emergence of new formal languages and to the obstinate resistance of old ones. Inasmuch as Tecoh responds to a mandate to preserve the local culture of the Yucatán while also revitalizing its economy, it is perhaps more emphatic in its social orientation than any of the artist’s prior projects. Moreover, the possibility that these twinned imperatives might be in conflict is implicitly acknowledged in the final form of the work. Tecoh’s recklessly inventive, cross-pollinating design is anything but strictly preservationist or archival. And although between forty and fifty people, many from the immediate area, are currently employed to maintain and administer the grounds, the project’s function as a source of revenue for the community is no less oblique: “It still doesn’t really know what it wants to be,” claims Pardo, raising his rejection of programmatic design to a program in itself, a means of perpetually anticipating unforeseen outcomes.

In the meantime, however, Pardo suggests that one could think about Tecoh as a kind of portrait, in the vein of Las Meninas, of the relation between the artist and his patrons. The project stems from their conversation about the successes and failures of cultural interventions and philanthropic works; it is a conversation that continues, leading to no final solution but rather to a desire to manifest the problems of cultural preservation within a building that itself preserves. This conversation is ultimately as important as the architecture itself. “The question for me,” says Pardo, “is how does a building become discursive?” One way is to have it serve as a venue for symposia, which is one of the functions that has been tested in Tecoh so far, but Pardo clearly wants this discursiveness to extend beyond any specific program or event, to infuse the site on a more existential level. “It’s a place where you go with a particular topic, and then you disperse that topic within the place, which always returns you to the question of: Why is this place here?” For the artist, the essential point of interest is the influence of the built form on what can be thought and said within it.

In Tecoh, this influence amounts to a visceral, material confrontation with many of the same social and political issues that have animated Pardo’s entire career. From the start, the Cuban-born Pardo has consistently plumbed every discrepancy that could imaginably obtain between the so-called third world and the first. The contentious conflation of “the raw and the cooked” that has characterized so many of his earlier works is now a status quo condition of global capitalism, of course, and here Pardo addresses this condition directly. What is the long-term impact of such cultural crossings on both their producers and consumers? In every transaction, the artist reminds us, something is gained and something is lost, and in this respect, Tecoh might best be understood as a perceptual mechanism that allows us to measure exactly what is at stake.

Jan Tumlir is a frequent contributor to Artforum.