January 2005 — Las Pozas is a place in our minds as much as it is a surreal unfinished architectural fantasy created by Edward James in the jungle of Mexico near the town of Xilitla, San Luis Potosi.
As we wandered around Las Pozas a few days ago, I was more fascinated than delighted, giving myself over to the total weirdness rather than trying to make sense of it. It doesn’t make sense. It is not supposed to, not on any rational level. Surrealism is enigmatic by its very nature, and Las Pozas could not be more enigmatic.
The place calls out for photography, and Kelly and I kept passing our digital camera back and forth. Here’s a a photocollage where I played with a few of the images. There is a whole page of photos of Las Pozas of Edward James here.
Who was Edward James?
Born in 1907 to an aristocratic and extremely wealthy British family, James grew up in a time when the world was falling apart. The First World War killed the men of the generation before his. His adolescence was described as being spent in a continous state of distress. He became closely allied with surrealists, and helped Salvador Dali and others to create by helping them financially. He married a ballerina but they were soon divorced, with no children, and he never remarried. He left Europe in 1940, going to the United States and then to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1944. There he met Plutarco Gastelum Esquer, who worked with him for many years. Plutarco married in 1956… he, his wife, and their four children were like family to James. Edward James lived until 1984.
I would love to read a good biography of James and Las Pozas… the best I found was this article on James.
The Creation of Las Pozas
In 1945, Edward James first came to Xilitla, and two years later he bought land there and began building. He cultivated thousands of orchids but after an unusual severe freeze, he put his attention on the architectural fantasies. He often left Xilitla to gad about the world.
Construction went on for decades, supporting as many as 65 families at a time and ultimately costing something around five million dollars. Things didn’t get finished before others were begun. Edward James lived in one of the buildings at times, and at other times, lived in nearby Xilitla, at El Castillo, built by Plutarco. (You can stay at El Castillo as a guest now, as it is a bed and breakfast.) See my blog entry on Xilitla, just before this one.
We bought a very nicely done magazine/book in English and Spanish, called Las Pozas de Edward James, Xilitla, San Luis Potosi (only 40 pesos, about $3.70 at present, with color photos… contact information for the publishers is email@example.com, I don’t know if they read English.) From it, we learned many more details.
One interesting fact is that in 1952 in Xilitla, Edward James met Carmelo Munoz Camacho, a local builder, who became his architect and creator of many of the forms and methods used at Las Pozas. I got the impression that he was essential to the creation of this place, which might otherwise have been little more than a surreal fantasy in the notebooks of James.
Our Explorations at Las Pozas
After paying a small entrance fee, we followed what seemed to be the only way to go, though I did notice a small walkway going uphill that I remembered later. We walked along past a small river, more of a creek on this January day, and came to one of the many pools for which Las Pozas (“the pools”) is named.
Then began my own encounter with surrealism. For as long as I can remember, I have had dreams of having to climb strange and impossible flights of stairs, never with railings, always dangerous. In some dreams I have succeeded, in many others I have not and have awakened in a sweat. Now, wide awake at Las Pozas and wearing my comfortable sandals instead of my better-gripping walking shoes, I had to climb a series of steps that were straight out of my dreams, like some form of Jungian initiation.
I did it.
Later, I was relieved to discover I would not have to go back down that way. There were several other ways to enter the maze that is Las Pozas, ways that were much easier walking. But my having done it turned out to be a kind of Jungian ritual that put me into a deeper connection with the mystery of the place. The steps in my photo-collage above are not the ones I climbed… but they are a striking part of Las Pozas, and they capture my dream feeling.
There are maps of the layout of Las Pozas, and much as I adore maps, I was glad we didn’t discover that fact until we had been there a couple of hours. Not having a map put me more into a surreal frame of mind!
I loved being in the jungle, where many plants we know as houseplants were running wild. I loved hearing a Mexican woman singing from atop one of the multi-storied structures that I wouldn’t climb. (Jungian initiation or no, I still made a lot of choices about where I would go.) I enjoyed sitting with Kelly in the restaurant there, eating a meal and talking about houses we could design inspired by Edward James. Kelly is working on one now, which will eventually find its way onto his site of ecological house plans.
I thought how much fun it would be to have a flying dream over Las Pozas. On a more realistic level, there are cabins you can stay in at Las Pozas itself, and that would be great fun too, I’m sure. Maybe at full moon! For practicalities of getting there, see my blog entry on Xilitla.
This article attracted a lot of comments on the old blog, so I am going to see if they will survive cutting and pasting. I was thrilled to hear from the family of Carmelo Munoz Camacho!
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