Built over 25 years, Ed­ward James’s gar­den in Mex­ico is the per­fect mix of ar­chi­tec­ture and na­ture

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Mar­i­anna Guernieri

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

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