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The area is defined by a natural tropical garden that gradually lost its original purpose over time. It is a mesophilus mountain forest formed by framboyanes or "flamboyant" trees, mocoques or "shaving brush" trees, and palos de rosa or rosewood trees. Giant ferns are among the many other species found there that possess great natural beauty. From 1944 to 1960, this was the site where Edward James and Plutarco Gastélum Esquer, his friend and administrator, chose to assemble hundreds of birdcages and animal pens without any previous planning --in addition to minimal infrastructural works so that they could live on site. Moreover, James housed his enormous collection of orchids there, channeling water from Las Pozas stream to form basins that would allow him to enjoy the current between dams and pools. These edifications were built from scratch via a kind of spontaneous architecture intended to be both functional and aesthetic.
Later on, however, between 1960 and 1984, Edward James himself -in keeping with a project that was already surrealist in nature-built a large number of dwellings, as well as the huge, assembled concrete structures that dot the landscape. These provide shelter only for the individual and collective dreams of all the visitors and residents who have taken refuge there -- or those who've lost their way, given that (and this must be made very clear) none of these buildings is useful, at least not if one tries to understand them in a superficial sense. Rather, these are petrified dreams for all who pass by. There are doors that cannot be opened, stairways that lead nowhere, buttresses that push up against nothing, a library without books, a heterodox movie theater crowned by two gigantic columns, beams that sustain no weight but still traverse the flagstones in the most chaotic way imaginable, reclining like enormous serpents and holding only a single flowerpot on top. There is a structure known as the "House of Three Floors" that, nonetheless, has five. In fact, nearly all of these spaces have names: Saint Edward's Plaza, the Summer Palace, the Cinematographer, the Flamingo House, the Bamboo Palace, or the Deer House, among many others.
This overflowing, excessive architecture represents the materialization of willpower, the constructive aspiration to build stunning, surrealist surroundings using permanent materials that were far from utilitarian; that had no function other than the sole, sublimated function of beauty. This actually makes sense, once we learn who Edward James was.
The main promoter and builder of Las Pozas, Edward James was a poet, playwright, and prolific epistolary author. He possessed a large fortune, having come into two inheritances1, and he was aligned with the surrealist avant-garde movement. In 1935, together with painter Salvador Dalí and architects Christopher Nicholson and Hugh Casson, he became involved in the creation of a series of surrealist spaces inside Monkton House --a residence within his enormous property at West Dean Park, England. This work, concluded in 1939, features a singular helicoidal stairway, undulating decorations on the inside walls, some valances that simulate drapery over the windows, and halved bamboo stalks crowned by floral capitals2.
In June 1936, James became one of the collectors who loaned artwork for the first open exhibition of surrealism in London3. He was likewise a patron to Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Leonora Carrington, and Pavel Tchernichev, among many, many others whom he maintained financially and from whom he bought art. He went on to sustain a vast correspondence with these artists. Also in 1936, he published three articles in Minotaure, the quintessential surrealist review4. However, it must be stressed that he was not in contact with André Breton, the leader and theoretician of the movement; he was merely a sympathizer and patron.
In light of the events that led to the outbreak of World War II, Edward James became an evader. He didn't have what it took to remain in Europe and, by resisting there, to become a "savage." On the contrary, he preferred to leave England behind, seeking out a place of innocence. From that great flight, from his self-determined exile, he achieved his greatest feat. He went, both geographically and culturally, as far as he could. He arrived in Mexico in the year 1944, by invitation of his friend, Geoffrey Gilmore. He continued his travels there until he discovered Xilitla in the southern part of the state of San Luis Potosí.
1 From his father, James inherited West Dean Park, an enormous, 12,000-acre property near Chichester in southern England. James also inherited a considerable amount of money following the untimely, albeit aristocratic demise of an uncle who was crushed by an elephant during a hunting expedition.
2 Neil Bingham, Christopher Nicholson, Royal Institute of British Architects, 1995, pp. 44-45. Interview with Sir Hugh Casson by Xavier Guzmán Urbiola, October 4,1994, casette recording.
3 Surrealism catalog, 1936. James loaned Cabeza paranóica by Salvador Dalí (1935), and Cabeza de mujer by Pablo Picasso (1934).
4 "Trois sécheresses", No. 8, June 1936, pp. 53-56. "The marvel of minuteness", pp. 20-24, and "Le chapeau du people et les chapeaux de la Reine", were published in No. 9, October 1936, pp. 54-59. All three are found in Minotaure, Ed. Albert Skira, Paris.
Cultural criteria (i):
The architecture raised by Edward James at Las Pozas must be considered surrealist; it is representative of said movement due to its creator's antecedents, its heterodoxy, and its obvious appeal to dreams and the subconscious.
It is an architecture that has been "wasted" in an unprecedented fashion. It is expensive, gratuitous, disorderly, and irrational. It is an architecture built without preparation, through automatism. Like surrealist automatic writing, it seeks only liberation, free association, and beauty. Sixty-eight local masons came to work at Las Pozas and were paid weekly for their collaboration on this construction, contributing their ideas to the compound and enriching it with their solutions. Therefore, we ought to consider that sixty-eight families in Xilitla made a living from the singular feat that was accomplished by these workers: masons, bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, etc. In this sense, even today, the hillside where the La Conchita Ranch is located exudes man-hours. The buildings are vividly laden with this activity -this labor-, one that is linked to cultural and artistic activities and is potentially capable of humanizing and transforming the world without resigning itself to accentuating economy, order, efficiency, rationality, and, above all, the value of architecture as merchandise. All of which makes this an exceptional and, at the same time, unique case, because once again, we stress here that Las Pozas wasn't built in order to complete a site for later use. Rather, building was done in order to create free associations, for people to gain an understanding of themselves, to attain happiness, and do something beautiful without caring whether a building was being completed for its functionality, or for its monetary value.
Therefore, the product of said labor (as well as the work itself and the way in which it was organized) was sui generis, given that it manifested what was at the time a non-conformist, surrealist stance with regards to the values on which the Western world was founded as a whole.
These structures are an emotional, moving kind of architecture; and, at the same time, they are architecture-sculptures. They are constructed caprice, as we Spanish-speakers say --"folly", according to the English. They represent the surrealist movement as a unique architectural masterpiece of the human creative genius, making them unparalleled.
Cultural criteria (iii):
For years, Edward James encouraged collaboration from his workers. He came from the kind of experience where he had sponsored and provided incentive for creators like Nicholson, Casson, and Dalí. However, at Las Pozas, his interlocutors and the recipients of his generosity were local masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths. He dialogued with them, he proposed ideas, and he paid them for their work. The masons themselves, upon executing said work, enriched it with their personal interpretations and contributions.
This dialogue with workers who were accustomed to looking at their surroundings and their labors from a traditional, local, folkloric, and agrarian perspective was fomented by Edward James in his capacity as an intellectual, and as a knowledgeable patron who was already the owner of a vast collection of surrealist art.
It can be stated that surrealism as an art form, unlike previous avant-garde movements, upheld free association and correlations between opposing references. But in addition to psychoanalysis or Marxism, it also aspired to change the world, and its tenets have survived until the present day. Mexico welcomed Breton when he traveled here expressly to meet with Leon Trotsky. They drafted, together with Diego Rivera, a manifest: For an independent revolutionary art. In later years, those who espoused the surrealist aesthetic, including poets of the stature of Octavio Paz, would write some of their most important works. Indeed, "Obsidian butterfly" appeared in the Surrealist Almanac and was later published in a fundamental book: Eagle or Sun?1 A surrealist substratum has permeated Mexican culture since then, and has been kept alive through English and Mexican artists such as Leonora Carrington2 who, not coincidentally, were close to James, overflowing from there into other creators.
Therefore, an exchange of values and artistic proposals can be seen in the edification of structures and in the folly of Las Pozas that is, in this case, transgressive. This site belongs to a learned surrealist tradition that, decanted and enriched by local popular culture over a set period of time (1944-1985) was and still is today a singular, inimitable testimony to amalgamation, the collaboration between a patron and a series of Mexican workers culminating in the edification of a place that is unique in the world and, therefore, extraordinary. These exceptional structures bear witness to a rich, varied, and singular cultural tradition.
1 The poem appeared in 1950, and the first edition of Águila o sol is from 1951 by the Fondo de Cultura Económica.
2 At the time these lines are being written, Leonora Carrington is 91 years old and remains fully active and creative.
Following the death of Edward James in San Remo, Italy on December 2, 1984, construction at Las Pozas was interrupted and the Gastélum family inherited the property. They maintained this private space with great affection, lending it a public character so that it might be visited. They were also vigilant that its spirit not be altered, or the structures within deformed.
Just recently, in the year 2007, the Pedro and Elena Hernández Foundation acquired Las Pozas with the objective of maintaining the property, restoring it, and conserving its public character. The zone where it is found has been declared a Cultural Heritage Site of the State of San Luis Potosí1. On a municipal and state level, this limits any attempt to construct either on the site itself or its bordering properties, in order to protect the structures built there as well as the integrity of the natural gardens.
Currently in progress is an attempt to declare Las Pozas as an Artistic Monument on a national scale via the National Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes or INBA), the institution dedicated to such pursuits.
Also in progress is the rescue of a section which, once it has been duly fumigated, catalogued, ordered and stored, will go on to form part of the Edward James Archive in Mexico (his main legacy is in England). This will be comprised of letters, drawings, original books, photographs, and recordings of interviews, etc. with many of the actual participants in the structural feats of Mexico. For the time being, this is not in the hands of the Pedro and Elena Hernández Foundation. However, any work that will be carried out to rescue the structures and the garden must strive to join forces in order to compile said archive. This would better guarantee the authenticity of the architecture of Las Pozas and the integrity of its natural surroundings through carefully documented interventions towards conservation.
1 "Decreto administrativo mediante el cual se declaran Patrimonio Cultural los inmuebles conocidos como Las Pozas y El Castillo ubicados en el Municipio de Xilitla, San Luis Potosí", in Periódico Oficial del Estado Libre y Soberano de San Luis Potosí, special edition, November 18 2006, 4 pages and 3 maps.
James's work can be compared to the architecture of Antonio Gaudí, which has already been declared a World Heritage site. However, the Catalonian architect had a profound knowledge of structure and stereotomy. He possessed his own aesthetic vision and, as an educated architect, his buildings and compounds were previously projected --although on the other hand, like any professional, he left some room for improvisation, in order to find optimal solutions during the construction process.
Due to its singularities, it is perhaps more fitting to establish a comparison between Las Pozas and analogous building compounds, like the so-called Ideal Palace raised by mailman Ferdinand Cheval in the south of France between 1879 and 1922. Likewise, similarities can be drawn with the Watts Towers in California, built by Italian immigrant Simón Rodia around 1940.
In these two examples, as in Las Pozas, we find spontaneous constructions carried out by empirical architects without any previous planning, or through heterodox projects of enormous appeal that, in the opinion of Peter Weiss, are "expressions of the soul," petrified dreams, given that "as Nature, they grow, in the hands of their creators, because they have to grow; their beauty is unconscious, they unfold, they become complicated, they produce new offshoots and they do not adulate anyone."1
However, unlike the above examples, the work by Edward James at the Las Pozas Ranch is enriched by the strong amalgamation between an unconventional Surrealist tradition and local folk traditions.
1 Peter Weiss, "El gran sueño del cartero Cheval", in Informes, Madrid, 1974, pp. 36-37.