So in cruising around the internets recently, in particular scouring the National Geographic website for a new background for my phone, I came across a picture that demanded a story to accompany it. So I dug a bit. The image came from a place called Las Pozas in Mexico, and the story of how Las Pozas (“the pools”) came to be is just as odd as its remarkable surrealist architecture.
The story begins with Edward James. A British poet and artist, Edward was born in August of 1907 to William James and Evelyn Forbes. Edward’s grandfather, Daniel James, had left a fortune to William, which ensured that Edward would grow up wealthy, attending Eton, Le Rosey in Switzerland, and then Christ Church, Oxford. In the process, Edward became entangled in the emerging artistic movement of the time, Surrealism, which eschewed rationality and reality in favor of the irrational and fantastical following the First World War.
Edward was an avid proponent of the movement, collecting art from a variety of artists including Hieronymous Bosch, Paul Klee, and Picasso, among others. He sponsored Dalí throughout 1938 and allowed René Margritte to stay in his London house to paint. Edward himself actually appears in two of Magritte’s paintings, Not to be Reproduced and The Pleasure Principle: Portrait of Edward James. He also redesigned Monkton House, a portion of his family’s West Dean Estate, into a surrealist dream home, replete with Dalí’s Mae West Lips sofa and lobster telephone. As a patron of the arts Edward James was immensely important in the development of Surrealism, but his own greatest artistic triumph lay in the Mexican jungle in the state of San Luis Potosí, at Las Pozas.
Las Pozas begins with orchids. Edward acquired the plantation in 1947 and for ten years he used the area to raise orchids and house exotic animals. But then something strange happened, something utterly befitting Las Pozas’ fate as a surrealist wonderland. It snowed. The 1962 snowfall was so unprecedented that, according to a seemingly apocryphal quote, the locals told Edward that his flowers had been burned by white ash falling from the sky. The freak frost killed off Edward’s impressive orchid collection, leaving him to consider his land’s potential anew.
And so he began a 22 year long effort of building a “Surrealist Xanadu.” Between his orchids’ death in 1962 and James’ own demise in 1984, he spent millions of dollars constructing 36 surrealist sculptures, usually sporting names like House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six or the Staircase to Heaven. The mind-bending concrete pieces blend with the lush Mexican foliage to create a unique and bewitching world that looks like a lost civilization built by a madman. Since James’ death, Las Pozas has become fairly well known for its strange mixture of landscape and architecture which work together to boggle the mind and defy rational expectations of what buildings are and all that Surrealist fun.
In 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernandez, the cement company Cemex, and the government of San Luis Potosí (where Las Pozas is located) bought the site for $2.2 million and established the Fondo Xilitla (pronounced shee-leet-lah) for the preservation and restoration of the sculptures. Las Pozas has also, as you can expect, been featured in a fair amount of photography projects, including the National Geographic piece that sparked this whole thing for me and a fashion shoot with Tilda Swinton for W magazine.
It’s worth noting that I had a lot of trouble picking images to accompany this, largely because the place is just so damn gorgeous it was tough to choose. I highly recommend looking the place up. Here’s some more info on Edward James and the site for Las Pozas: