Built over 25 years, Edward James’s garden in Mexico is the perfect mix of architecture and nature
Las Pozas — a Surrealist sanctuary deep in the forest
A nine-hour car drive from Mexico City, Xilitla (pronounced Hilitla) is one of Mexico’s 111 Pueblos Mágicos. Nestling in the subtropical mountains of Huasteca Potosina, most of its 50,000 population still speaks Nāhuatl, the Aztec language used in Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex. Along with a main square, market-place, and former 16th-century Augustinian convent, Xilitla features the Castillo, a four-level villa with a unique architectural style that escapes definition: part eclectic, part Modernist and with a touch of Art Nouveau, it has no stairs but large poles to slide down and plants growing everywhere. This remote location is where the owner, a wealthy Englishman, chose to build his Surrealist dream in the 1940s. Born in Sussex in 1907, Sir Edward James, a wealthy heir and tireless art patron, was one of the great eccentrics of his day. He came from an upper-middle-class family and studied at Eton and Oxford, where he became acquainted with great authors and artists of the late 1920s such as Magritte, Picasso, De Chirico, Ernst, Delvaux, Leonora Carrington, Tchelitchew, Brecht, George Balanchine and John Betjeman, to mention but a few. Salvador Dalí was his protégé in 1938 and with him he conceived famous works such as the Mae West Lips Sofa and Lobster Telephone. James, who had his dog’s footprints woven into the carpet of his West Dean villa, was the world’s greatest private collector of Surrealist artworks. He even called himself a Surrealist. After his marriage to Austrian dancer Tilly Losch ended, he said farewell to Europe’s cultural salons and started a new life in America. After Los Angeles, where he was introduced to mysticism, Hollywood and Simon Rodia’s monumental Watts Towers, he dedicated himself to “gardening” in Mexico. He made friends with a local guide, Plutarco Gastelum, and with him explored the country far and wide until he found Xilitla. There, he commenced his most daring project: Las Pozas, a Surrealist garden set deep in the forest, a maze of suspended walkways and terraces, steps, natural pools and waterfalls, and an architectural reverie of arches, spires, vaults and sculptures blending perfectly into the natural landscape.
The idea for the project came to Edward James when, returning from a trip to New York, he found his orchid garden, which he had tended for over 20 years, destroyed by the snow — an unprecedented event in Xilitla. He then decided he would build himself a reinforced-concrete and stone Garden of Eden. Everything in Las Pozas seems left unfinished. The houses follow no logical pattern, baffling the European visitor. James’s mark is strong and the aesthetics are welded to his spirit, forget the architecture. Edward James was no architect and, if his structures are solid, it is only because he used double reinforcements “for safety”. Today, Las Pozas is a magical place that takes a whole day to explore. Run by Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, it has now become a classic tourist sight with a hostel echoing its spirit.
Edward James auctioned off his painting collection to build Las Pozas, funding the project with what would today be a fivemillion-dollar budget. The project involved 40 workers and consists of 36 structures scattered across 32 hectares
“When I was a child I used to have the most extraordinary Surrealist fantasies. I think (…) my fantasy was developed so intensely was that I was forced to rest (...) when I should have been allowed to run around in the garden,” explained Edward James in a 1978 BBC documentary about him