The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.” This aphorism is one that we’ve all heard several times in our lives. But it is easier said than done. There are not many who would live life as if each day is their last. Cramming each day full of wondrous new experiences, persevering through hardships, pain, and suffering to embrace life with defiance which seems almost fantastical.
For me, the revered Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has not only lived up to this adage but perhaps even surpassed it. An artist beyond compare, with a bold, vivid, and dynamic style, Kahlo overcame tremendous personal suffering to achieve what many can only aspire to. Through her art she explored the issues of gender, class, race, and identity, striving to inculcate the spirit of Mexico in everything she created. As a painter, Kahlo had a strong sense of self-identity, so what then if she had exchanged one form of art for another? If Frida Kahlo was an architect what sort of buildings would she design? Let us try and figure out.
Kahlo’s paintings are renowned for their dream-like style, depicting her intense feelings and emotions successfully. Her surrealist style could perhaps be compared to the greatest proto-surrealist architect who has ever lived, Antoni Gaudi. From Casa Mila and Casa Batllo to Park Guell and Palau Guell, several of Gaudi’s works seem to mirror Kahlo’s style. With their multi-colored flowing facades and nature-inspired designs, in some parallel universe, Gaudi’s structures could have been designed by Frida Kahlo herself!
Architect Frida Escobedo has always tried to exhibit people’s emotions and relationships through her design. Several of her projects, including the La Tallera gallery in Cuernavaca, Mexico, pay homage to her Mexican roots in their style and design. Frida Kahlo, who stood by her Mexican heritage staunchly, would undisputedly have approved of buildings designed by Escobedo. Could her architectural approach have mirrored her namesake? I believe yes.
Then there is the Forum of Saint-Louis designed by Manuelle Gautrand in Saint-Louis, France. With its bright rust-colored façade, which changes colors with the movement of the sun, the structure has a rustic charm and changeability which would undoubtedly have appealed to Kahlo. Another bold and beautiful structure is the sublime Maison Bernard renovated by the talented French architect Odile Deq. The bold color scheme and the unique façade never fails to draw attention. The organic structure and the original architect’s intentions were respected by Deq in her renovation. The building might seem outrageously flashy to some, but it stays true to the owner’s desire and the architect’s intention. Kahlo, whose paintings never shied away from portraying the tumult of her emotions, would have approved of this free-flowing structure. Her painting, Viva la Vida, Watermelons has an almost identical color scheme. Maison Bernard with its blood-red exterior could be a physical translation of her painting.
Another building stands true to Kahlo’s ideals. This is the Ordos Art & City Museum in the Gobi Desert. This amorphous structure, inspired by the dunes of the desert where it is located, has a majestic presence. Its stark, windowless exterior can seem unapproachable and even otherworldly, but it protects a completely disparate interior. With its disproportionate internal heights and cocoon-like spaces, the interior of the building can seem almost as alien as its exterior, but in a markedly different way. This building can be a reflection of Kahlo’s life, a strong and seemingly impenetrable exterior masking an interior teeming with emotion.
Many of Kahlo’s paintings exhibit her pain and distress. From the wounded deer to without hope, her paintings act as windows to her soul, showing her disillusionment with life and her broken-down spirit. Buildings by Frank Gehry, such as the Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT, and the Dancing House in Prague are chaotic by their very appearance. Rather than being “put-together” to speak, these structures look like they are falling apart. There is nothing stable about them, it seems as if one good shove could make the structure collapse in a heap. Yet for all that, these buildings are mesmerizing. There is beauty in imperfection and peace in chaos. Teetering walls, swerving columns and colliding façades cannot mask the architect’s creativity. The ever-changing palate of materials could almost reflect the ever-changing circumstances of Frida’s life. There are highs and lows, dips and bulges, acting as a metaphor for life. These structures prove that in life nothing goes as planned. There is uncertainty at every turn. Not even the hotchpotch of materials can mask the intrinsic dynamic appeal and vitality of these structures. As Frida proved time and again, we cannot insulate ourselves against pain. We can conclude with another apt apothegm by Seneca, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”