The Museum of the International Baroque Pays Restrained Homage to Over-the-Top Art

A showy but quiet institution to celebrate very unquiet art.

Photo: Charles Mahaux/Getty Images
Photo: Charles Mahaux/Getty Images
Photo: Charles Mahaux/Getty Images

Every once in a while, a city gets exactly the museum it needs. Bilbao used its Guggenheim to complete a post-industrial transformation. The Museum of Modern Art boosted New York’s 20th-century aspirations to be the ultimate modern metropolis. Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology unites flabbergasting evidence of all the ancient cultures on which the nation rests. And as of 2016, the city of Puebla, two hours south of the capital, has its Museum of the International Baroque, an ode to a long-lived movement that swept across oceans and bubbled up on Mexico’s high plateau.

Mexican goldsmiths, ironworkers, ceramicists, masons, builders, painters, plasterers, musicians, writers, priests, aristocrats, and congregations all had a hand in shaping the baroque in the Americas. Yet rather than have a Mexican architect reinterpret that legacy, the museum turned to Toyo Ito, a Pritzker Prize–winner who comes from a part of the world that never absorbed the European assault of religious fervor and decorative raptures: Japan. Ito was a surprising choice for other reasons, too: He had hardly worked anywhere in the Americas (a plan for a new Berkeley Art Museum foundered in the 2008 recession). He was also best known for two virtually opposite projects: the White U House of 1976, a single concrete curve, sepulchral and opaque, that was built for his sister and demolished in 1997; and the Sendai Mediatheque, from 2000, so weightless and clear as to be practically vaporous. Neither suggested that he would be the ideal architect to honor an art of violent movement and cinematic shafts of light. Somehow, though, the commission yielded an effortlessly expressive vessel for an alluring institution.

Ito’s challenge was to evoke baroque architecture without mimicry or glitz, to design a contemporary local shrine to a long-ago global phenomenon. And he had to capture Puebla’s glory on a site far from the colonial downtown, in a park enlaced in highways and bordered by office blocks. If he succeeded in doing all that, it’s because he depends on a baroque sense of theater. After dark, the exterior’s curved and folded walls billow like curtains illuminated by footlights. Inside, each chamber offers a new scene, another opportunity to be bowled over by artifice and light. Painted ceilings pried from European palaces hover overhead. Gowns and embroidered waistcoats glimmer behind glass, rather like a wild window display I saw downtown, where giant stuffed bunnies stood shoulder to shoulder with mannequins in elaborate headgear, leathers, and incandescent floral prints. At the center of the architecture gallery is a triumphal arch, an edible-looking confection of scarlet, lime, and fuchsia paper made by Humberto Spindola for the opening in 2016. This is a museum of excess.

There’s a certain slyly subversive quality to the displays of manuscripts, ceiling frescoes, foods, scientific instruments, silverware, home furnishings, and scenes of Monteverdi opera and Shakespeare performed in Spanish. Here, a formerly colonized people have placed the colonists’ culture on display, as if to acknowledge with a hint of surprise that Europe such an advanced civilization in the 17th and 18th century.

Poblanos need no introduction to baroque splendor: it saturates the city. Years of feverish renovation have wiped away decades of industrial gray, revealing facades of exquisitely gaudy talavera, or ceramic tiles. Sugar-white trim frosts fanciful turrets and sets off palacios painted in lemon and teal. Bell towers and cupolas alternate rhythmically across the skyline, harmonizing with the peak of a distant volcano. The over-the-top quality of the past spills into the present, too—in the amplified come-ons from lurid stores along Calle 5 de Mayo, in the clusters of balloons for sale along the Paseo Bravo, in the festive jangle of the Zócalo.

Ito distilled all this muchness into a quietly flamboyant design. The walls of the museum are curved sheets of bright white concrete standing on edge like curls of lemon rind. Unlike Frank Gehry’s neo-baroque compositions of scrolls, ribbons, crumples, and whorls, Ito’s design flaunts its orderliness. You can’t grasp the whole structure from any one perspective, and certainly not from the front, but once you enter and walk through, it doesn’t take long to understand that it’s an enfilade of squarish galleries circling an open court, with a second story above—the same structure as any viceroy’s palace downtown. From its plan to its details, the architecture abstracts the muscular urgency of baroque art. In Bernini’s sculptures, heroes and their victims corkscrew their bodies or grapple in a swirl, sometimes circling a hectic void. In ceiling frescoes, like Andrea Pozzo’s Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius, angels gyre towards the agitated skies as if being sucked up by a tornado. Solomonic columns twist around themselves like rubber bands. In Ito’s building, the same forms multiply, though in more muted form: the conch-shell plan, in which rooms twirl around a fountain with a vortex at its center, the main staircase that coils up from the lobby towards the (superb) restaurant; the conical atriums shooting up towards a glowing skylight like some heaven-bound soul.

Despite these affinities, Ito’s museum is no pseudo-baroque knockoff. On the contrary, it’s a smooth-shelled container for a style that gloried in texture, complexity, shadows, and theatrical effects. The building finesses one of the most antiquated but persistent ideological battles: between architects who disdain ornament as self-indulgence and those who relish it as an opportunity for expressivity or branding. Both sides share the assumption that whatever you affix to a wall is an arbitrary choice and has little inherent meaning.

Baroque artists, on the other hand, didn’t distinguish between ornamentation and content. All those superhero-like saints and bursts of gilded sunshine, that Edenic foliage and fluttering drapery—each figure, prop, and set had a role to play in the worldwide opera of Catholic cosmology and the Church’s earthly triumphs. From Palermo to Manila and St. Petersburg to São Paulo, the faithful of three continents may have lived in cramped and insalubrious quarters but they could feel truly at home in a sumptuous chapel, where artists and divinities tried to win over their fickle-souls with a never-ending spectacle.

In Mexico, indigenous people merged their religions with that of their conquerors, and the fusion yielded places of worship so dazzling as to be surreal. From the outside, Santa Maria Tonantzintla in San Andres Cholula, a village at the edge of Puebla, looks like a modest country church. Cross the threshold, though, and the effect is hallucinogenic. The interior is barnacled from floor to vault in putti with arms raised in entreaty or celebration, men in plumed headgear, feathered snakes, corn motifs, and cornucopias of local fruits like huaya, pitaya, and mamey. The Madonna of Guadalupe fuses with the mother goddess Tonantzin, and a paternal God with a faint resemblance to Papa Hemingway is accompanied by a host of Aztec-looking seraphs. Rome dispatched artisans to saturate the non-Christian world with the power and profusion of its imagery; indigenous people in Mexico responded with the 17th-century equivalent of hold my beer.

The church of Santa María Tonantzintla in San Andres Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. Photograph by Candida Hofer, on view at Sean Kelly through March 16. Photo: Candida Höfer, Iglesia de Santa Maria Tonantzintla I, 2015. C-print. Paper: 70 7/8 x 86 5/8 inches (180 x 220 cm). Framed: 72 7/16 x 88 3/16 inches (184 x 224 cm). © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York

But Ito operates in a different world. The modernist tradition he emerged from had obliterated the idea of encrusting walls with statues, scrolls, pilasters, or anything, really. The century-old commandment that facades must be seamless and textureless, or at least simple and abstract, remains in force, partly because it provides stylistic cover for the cheap and the plain. (One common way to challenge it is with perforated metal screens, as Herzog & De Meuron did at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, for instance—or as Ito did in a vaguely Gaudí-like apartment building in Barcelona.) “The only thing we have left in modern architecture is gesture; we don’t have dress,” a noted American architect recently told me. He meant that however complex the form he gave to a building, he would almost invariably wind up cladding it in glass. All else would be costume and pretense.

Without getting fussy, Ito provides a reproach to that timidity. Joy, grace, detail and judicious idiosyncrasy—these qualities, so deeply baroque and in such short supply in today’s architecture, sometimes resurface when you need them most.

A closeup of Santa María Tonantzintla’s over-the-top detailing. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
The Showy but Restrained Museum of the International Baroque