The Pavilions of Xilitla

In the early 1940s, the wealthy English poet and surrealist patron, Edward James, travelled in North Eastern Mexico with a former Army sergeant named Roland McKenzie. They were searching for wild orchids high in the Sierra Huasteca and had stopped to bathe in the Santa Maria River. As James watched, his traveling companion emerged from the water only to be immediately covered by a cloud of blue and yellow butterflies settling upon his wet body. This suitably surrealistic vision affected James profoundly. Not only did it confirm his desire to settle permanently in Mexico, it also underpinned the location of what would be his most ambitious and enduring creation: the concrete structures of his garden of ‘Las Pozas’, just outside the small town of Xilitla. James would attempt to cultivate orchids here for some twenty years before beginning to build in concrete from 1962, the site expanding until his death in 1984. What is being proposed is that an etymological link to the founding image of the butterfly—both in the Latin papilionem and the French pavillon—provides a means by which to think about Edward James’ jungle creations as the Pavilions of Xilitla.

Pavilions have a complex currency in the practices and discourses of art, design and architecture. As well as definitions concerning free-standing, subsidiary structures, pavilions are also associated with exhibition, leisure and commercial interests. If the pavilion is devoid of a stable ‘type’, it instead assumes an array of associative qualities: temporary, contingent, ceremonial, ornamental, fantastical, hybrid and so on. Pavilions are changeable, adaptive, and might be seen as peculiarly rhetorical—potent, even “embattled”, structures that embody or provide shelter for idiosyncratic views on the world.1 Often dismissed as frivolous or insubstantial, pavilions nonetheless symbolise a shadow to architecture proper, a minor sideline to the discipline that can take on attributes of radical experimentation that major architecture cannot.2 The origins of the pavilion in the butterfly wing-shaped shelters of military campaigns soon became absorbed into the aristocracy through its role in Medieval and Renaissance pageantry. Symbolic of power, property and status from the beginning, pavilions became linked to wealthy individuals, appearing in palatial gardens, villa parks and country estates. Modified according to aesthetic taste, such pavilions would provide structure in garden design, places of refuge or shelter from the sun. They would also serve as belvederes, framing specific views or marking routes through open space. Such image- and space-making qualities already suggest something of the pavilion’s uneasy relation to divisions between inside and outside, or between natural and manufactured space. Pavilions would soon become established sites of popular recreation and public entertainment. The landscaped parks of the Regency and Victorian eras saw pavilion-types proliferate into lodges, gazebos, menageries, bandstands, follies, conservatories, summer and glass houses, and so on. Pavilion design became ever more elaborate and eclectic, incorporating mixtures of various styles and motifs. Edward James’ pavilions in the Mexican jungle owe something to this spirit of ‘sampling’, as his designs absorbed references to classical and arcane symbols, from Doric columns, spiral staircases, cornucopias, open platforms, gothic arches and mushroom canopies, curlicues and decorative fronds, fake balustrades and buttresses, heraldic emblems, flutes and trefoils, and so on. Such amalgamations are a signature of Las Pozas, as indeed are the blurred boundaries between sculpture and architecture, between house and garden. Not only did James’s pavilions embrace ambiguities between interior and exterior, but also between artwork and dwelling.3

From the nineteenth century, pavilions became associated with International Exhibitions, Fairs and Festivals. Edward James had direct experience of pavilion-making at New York’s 1939 World’s Fair through his collaborative relationship with Salvador Dalí. At the very end of a period of sustained patronage of the artist, James was heavily involved in the development of Dalí’s Dream of Venus, a surreal pavilion designed by Dalí and installed at Flushing Meadows in Queens. The creative boundaries of their collaboration are still debated but James certainly served as one of the financial backers for Dalí’s subversive vision, which involved mermaids swimming in an aquarium, surreal objects, costumes and sets incorporating his signature motifs: grand pianos, lobsters and mannequins. Yet if James carried over the influence of Dalí’s beloved Antoni Gaudí from the experience, his pavilions in Xilitla would certainly not adhere to any commercial display model: they are contemplative rather than mercantile, labyrinthine rather than regimented, inspirational rather than didactic. Yet the pavilion’s capacities as a mode of display still seem important. If it is not in relation to commodities, political propaganda, global marketing or kitsch entertainment, what do the pavilions of Las Pozas contain or put on display?

The origins of Las Pozas are rich and recur throughout James’s life. The most common sources include Ferdinand Cheval’s Palaís Ideal, built between 1879 and 1912, a source of fascination for André Breton and the Surrealists. James’s financial backing of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles also points to sympathy with what might be called ‘naive’ or ‘outsider’ art. Yet James came from a cultured (if traditionally so) background, was well travelled and, as inadvertent collector and patron, had been immersed in the art world since his youth.4 Las Pozas was the culmination of his lifelong desire to establish a sanctuary or refuge; a ‘Garden of Eden’, however irrational, fantastical or useless it might seem. The image of a fantasy city had first occurred to James during childhood, Inspired by an unknown painting on the wall of his night-nursery (christened, according to Margaret Hooks, ‘Seclusia’). This walled city would be the focus of escapist dreams, leaving behind the claustrophobia of an Edwardian upbringing.5 James would later elaborate on his “dream-vision” in Reading into the Picture, a poetic text published in 1936. He speculated at length upon Seclusia’s manifold sources—describing it from the outset as a “composite place, never to be located on any map or in any century.”6 This composite nature connects to the melded styles of the pavilions of Las Pozas, as well as confirming the influence of the capriccios or architectural fantasies painted by Hubert Robert or Gustave Moreau. At the same time, James acknowledges his awareness of the romantic taste for picturesque ruins, referencing the sham versions installed at Potsdam and Versailles, as well as those rendered by Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa or Giovanni Piranesi. Yet James’s admiration for such “hoary ruins, billowy with ivy, blotted out here and there with festoons of shadow” paled in relation to the possibilities for new structures: “how much more invigorating are new foundations haunted with future hopes and the smell of fresh cement!”7 Of course, the pavilions of Las Pozas embraced the use of reinforced concrete, which suggests connections not only with industrial design but the archetypal modernist pavilion. Although far from the cool, minimal aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1923), for example, there are still correlations that can be made: an engagement with experimental materials and form; utopian aspirations; dialogue with openness and transparency; questioning the necessity of walls and ceilings, all conventions of architecture. There is also the attempt to capture spaces in which nature and architecture, garden and sculpture, merge or become difficult to distinguish from one another. But from the belvedere of the Las Pozas pavilions, what do we look out at? Is the viewing position intentionally enfolded, perforated or made complex through the absorption of the unique subjectivity of the architect? Or is it the physical environment? Although James acknowledged the “megalomania” of building such concrete towers, his process was highly collaborative.8 Alongside his companion and guide Plutarco Gastellum, James worked with local craftsmen to pioneer innovative construction methods that would make his ideas a reality. Wooden formwork would be laboriously crafted for each concrete component—each building being gradually poured into place. Rebar spokes would point from section-ends as if to suggest an unending process. James would work on several structures simultaneously, adding elements as they came to him, more in the spirit of bricolage and improvisation than any considered architectural process.

Even though he was untrained, James had much experience with projects of exterior and interior design. In collaboration with Dalí, he had transformed Monkton House, a hunting lodge on the West Dean estate, turning Edward Lutyen’s original design into a Surrealist extravaganza. The array of references feeding into Las Pozas is astounding, suggestive of the pavilion’s role as a lens through which cosmopolitan diversity can be focused in one place. In his text on ‘Seclusia’, James lists various ‘models’ that, for one reason or another, fell short for his fantasy city: Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, a picturesque medieval town in Bavaria; his alma mater the University of Oxford;  San Giminiano, a hill town in Tuscany with striking tower houses across its skyline; the elevated city of Perugia; Orvieto, perched on a flat shelf of rock; the fortified towns of Carcassonne and Aigue Morte; Albi and Salzburg. James enthuses about the Spanish city of Toledo, his affection rooted in idealised landscape by El Greco. But as well as real places visited and remembered, James also cited the generic Renaissance City of Paradise, even fantasies like Shangri-la or Xanadu. More interesting, perhaps, are his references to the Palace of Aladdin, made both in Reading into the Picture and in an interview from 1978. It is worth noting in relation to Las Pozas that the Genie is instructed to leave the palace unfinished in order that the Sultan may have the honour of completing it.

Given that James remarked: “how often is it the case that either the vegetation or the architecture is disappointing! Seldom are both at their best together,” the importance of organic forms in the design of the Las Pozas pavilions cannot be overstated.9 There is further precedent in James’s unrealised project, developed with the architect Sir Christopher Nicholson, for an ‘Artichoke Pavilion’, a free-standing structure destined for the grounds of West Dean that would present part of James’s art collection suspended within a transparent sphere. Already this interest in transparency is suggestive of Xilitla and the modernist pavilion. In another unrealised commission, this time a design for a ‘Tower of the Holy Spirit (House for Edward James)’ made by Pedro Friedeberg in the early 1960s, an eight-storey structure is topped with a transparent ‘aviary’ in the form of a dodecahedron, a feature lifted from Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations for Luca Pacioli’s early 16th century treatise, The Divine Proportion.

One finds similar concerns for transparency, albeit from a different perspective, in the work of American artist Dan Graham, whose pavilion structures become both viewing lenses and performative spaces, blurring the edges between inside and outside. Through the use of two-way mirrors, such that the pavilions become transparent and reflective at the same time, Graham aims to make spectators both subject and object of an immersive experience. Within this there is an inherent critique of the modernist pavilion’s claims for the transparency of glass, soon hijacked by corporate opacity, as well as commentary on the technologies of surveillance and the ‘blank’ spaces of civic architecture (kiosks, bus shelters, foyers, and so on). In the pavilions of Las Pozas, there are alternative images that link to images of other contemporary artists, giving us insight into the projective influence that Xilitla embodies beyond its amalgamation of those of the distant past. If James himself included homages to individual artists such as Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Wassily Kandinski (and if Melanie Smith’s 2010 film Xilitla suggests echoes of the work of Robert Smithson or Dan Flavin), might we also recognise the gaping divested architectures and apertures of Gordon Matta-Clark; the minimal abstractions of James Turrell or Donald Judd; the inaccessibility of Michael Heiser’s own city complex in the desert? We might think that the pavilions of Las Pozas possess status as temples, especially given their context in the landscape of a Mayan and Aztec heritage perhaps less prominent than that of James’s Europe. Extending a role from early garden design, the constellation of pavilions, , might serve to distribute myths and narratives around the landscape, moving subjects around on vertical and horizontal axes, in disorientating involutions of constructed and natural space.

If there is dialogue between horizontal and vertical in James’s ‘pavilion-stacks’, the predominantly celebratory, upward gestures of Las Pozas might be usefully contrasted with those of the near-forgotten early Futurist artist and writer, Gilbert Clavel. Plagued by ill health, Clavel recuperated and settled in Positano on the east coast of Italy in 1919. With the help of local builders and his artisan friend Enrico Lietz, Clavel began to convert a 16th Century Saracen watchtower on the cliffs between Sorrento and Amalfi into a private underworld. Instead of building up and out, Clavel burrowed down into the rock, blasting out chambers with dynamite. Obsessed by ancient Egypt, mineralogy and mythology, Clavel had wild plans for his subterranean network, including converting a natural cavern into a vast egg-shaped concert hall, relating its form to his own removed testicle.10 All chambers in some way mirrored his disfigured body, as if the whole complex were an emblem of his desire to change his body for a new one. Noted critic and philosopher, Siegfried Kracauer, in a 1925 essay for the Frankfurter Zeitung, not only described Clavel’s honeycomb of passages as Gekröse (‘chitterlings’ or ‘mesenteries’), but claimed that the project had “nothing in common with human architecture”.11 Whilst both Clavel’s excavations and James’s light-filled constructions share a mixture of narcissism and nostalgia, even the “ornamental expression of a child”, they also appear to share a feeling for architecture and landscape both apart from and entwined with human desire.12  A sense of the combination of what is earthly and what is otherworldly is given in an image of the event that led James to expand his ark-like sanctuary for flora and fauna into an evolving exposition of concrete pavilions. In 1962, a freak frost and snowfall destroyed up to twenty thousand of the wild orchids James had gathered. Local people described their terror at the sight of ‘ashes’ falling from the skies. This suggests that the concrete forms of Las Pozas would emerge from a something like a post-apocalyptic, inhuman landscape. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the pavilions appear both ancient and futuristic, both ruined and renewed. A futile battle against mortality would in fact produce structures that were just as impermanent but on an entirely different timescale. When James wrote in Reading into the Picture, again musing on his composite city of ‘Seclusia’, “there is nothing like a great loss to fire new initiative”, he already prefigured his transition from patron to artist.13 When he then asked himself: “how can my city be (...) both united, fantastic, and retain the charm of the unselfconscious?” his answer would only come decades later in a constellation of pavilions subservient to no ‘main’ structure except the encroaching jungle itself.14


1. Robinson, J. (2014) ‘Introducing Pavilions: Big Worlds under Little Tents’, Open Arts Journal, Issue 2 (Winter 2013-2014) []

2. Critic Sylvia Lavin bemoans the fact that the art pavilions of Biennales, etc. are no longer sites of visionary radicality, but are rather disconnected from any “advanced cultural and historical project” and reduced to “party decor”. [Lavin, S. (2012) ‘Vanishing Point: The Contemporary Pavilion’, Artforum International 51.2 (October), 212-219]

3. Curtis, P. (2008) Patio and Pavilion: The Place of Sculpture in Modern Architecture. London: Ridinghouse, 9.

4. James was careful to emphasise that he was not interested in establishing a collection of Surrealist art, and that it ‘accidentally’ resulted from his intention to support living artists, giving them means to continue making work. This commitment to providing creative sanctuary carries over not only to Xilitla but also in his establishment of the Edward James Foundation and West Dean College in 1964 and 1971 respectively.

5. Hooks, M. (2007) Surreal Eden: Edward James and Las Pozas. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 16.

6. James, E. (1940) Reading into the Picture. London: Duckworth Press, xix.

7. Ibid., xiv.

8. A comment made in Patrick Boyle’s documentary The Secret Life of Edward James (1978) UK: ITV Films

9. James 1940, xvii.

10. Cf. Tanaka, J. (2012) ‘The Chthonic Architecture of Gilbert Clavel: A Study on the Relationship among Architectural, Geographical, and Bodily Imagination’. Tokyo: Misuzu Shobo.

11. Kracauer, S. (1987) ‘Felsenwahn in Positano’ (‘Cliff Folly in Positano’) in Straßen in Berlin und anderswo. Frankfurt am Main: Das Arsenal, 49.

12. Reeh, H. (2004) (trans. Irons, J.) Ornaments of the Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 145.

13. James 1940, xiv.

14. Ibid. xviii.

First published in Artichoke House by George Charman, 2014.