Visual Arts programme leader, Dr. David Stent, was awarded a research grant to travel to Mexico and visit ‘Las Pozas’, the extraordinary garden built by West Dean College founder, Edward James, between 1947 until 1984. From its position high in the mountains of San Luís Potosí, Xilitla looms large in the context of James’ life and work. He worked on the former coffee plantation, consisting of some 80 acres of rain forest punctuated by a series of waterfalls and natural pools – in collaboration with Plutarco Gastélum, as well as a number of expert carpenters, masons and other local workers. From humble horticultural beginnings, keeping animals and cultivating orchids, James’ ambitions soon grew to building immense surreal structures in reinforced concrete, aiming to forge what he called an “alliance with the jungle”. Since 2007 ‘Las Pozas’ has been administered and conserved by Fondo Xilitla, a non-profit charity incorporating the Pedro and Elena Hernández Foundation, the government of San Luis Potosí and CEMEX, the worldwide cement and infrastructure company.
The research visit took place in August, timed to coincide with the Architectural Association School of Architecture Visiting School’s (AAVS) experimental concrete workshop – orchestrated by architects Umberto Bellardi Ricci, Carlos H. Matos and Kanto Iwamura – which has taken place annually at ‘Las Pozas’ since 2014. The workshop brings together an international group of students, architects, artists and researchers, and this year included Visual Arts alumnus, Lotti V Closs (MFA).
After three-days of architectural tours around Mexico City, the AAVS relocates to ‘Las Pozas’, setting up in the former carpenter’s workshop (as well as an isolated location in the jungle where James and Gastélum first settled in the 1940s). Attendees are given time to analyse and experiment with wooden formworks, taking inspiration from the exquisite examples kept at El Castillo (Plutarco’s family home in the town of Xilitla), the majority built by Don José Aguilar. Experiments are then conducted with casting techniques and the use of organic aggregates, including locally sourcing materials such as wax, clay, gravel, wood and natural dyes. In the heat and humidity of the jungle, the workshop is a challenging experience, but one that allows those involved to investigate traditions of monumental, geometric abstraction, encompassing influences of pre-Hispanic, Modernist and hybrid architectural design, in a uniquely inspirational setting.
Undertaking the first phases of a research project, Stent not only travelled with the AAVS but spent two-weeks exploring ‘Las Pozas’ and its environs, touring with locals and guides, as well as giving lectures about Edward James, not only to AAVS attendees but also to groups of workers from ‘Las Pozas’, many of whom had long-standing associations with the site and personal recollections of James himself. Since returning to the UK, Stent has also delivered talks at West Dean College and the University of Sussex to discuss his ongoing research with staff and students.Lotti V Closs graduated from West Dean College in 2014. She has since had exhibitions at Syson Gallery, Harley Gallery (The Welbeck Estate) and Nottingham Castle. Using a variety of materials to create context specific conversations around the subject of sculpture, Closs’ work incorporates a mixture of traditional and less common sculptural materials. The concrete sculpture made at the AAVS workshop continues her interest in juxtaposing form and material. Immediately after the workshop, Closs’s sculptures were included in the group exhibition Beton Machine III at Marso Galería, Mexico City.