Explore Mexico City
The streets that lead down from the Zócalo towards the Alameda – Tacuba, 5 de Mayo, Madero, 16 de Septiembre and the lanes that cross them – are the most elegant and least affected by modern development in the city, lined with ancient buildings, traditional cafés and shops and mansions converted into offices, banks or restaurants. When you reach the end of Madero, you’ve come to the outer edge of the colonial city centre, and should find yourself standing between two of the most striking modern buildings in the capital: the Torre Latinoamericana and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Though it seems incredible to compare them, they were completed within barely 25 years of each other.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Diagonally across the street there’s an equally impressive and substantially more beautiful engineering achievement in the form of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (wwww.bellasartes.gob.mx; Metro Bellas Artes). It was designed in 1901, at the height of the Díaz dictatorship, by the Italian architect Adamo Boari and built, in a grandiose Art Nouveau style, of white marble imported from Italy. The construction wasn’t actually completed, however, until 1934, with the Revolution and several new planners come and gone. Some find the whole exterior overblown, but whatever your initial impressions, nothing will prepare you for the magnificent interior – an Art Deco extravaganza incorporating spectacular lighting, chevron friezes and stylized masks of the rain god, Chac.
Much of the interior splendour can be seen any time by wandering into the foyer (free) and simply gazing around the lower floor, where there is a good arts bookshop and the Café del Palacio restaurant. If you want to see more of the building, you might consider visiting the art museum on the middle two floors, the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; M$35, free Sun or when there is no special exhibition on; M$30 to take photos, even with a phone). In the galleries here you’ll find a series of exhibitions, permanent displays of Mexican art and temporary shows of anything from local art-school graduates’ work to that of major international names. Of constant and abiding interest, however, are the great murals surrounding the museum’s central space. On the first floor are Birth of Our Nationality and Mexico Today – dreamy, almost abstract works by Rufino Tamayo. Going up a level you’re confronted by the unique sight of murals by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros gathered in the same place. Rivera’s Man in Control of the Universe (or Man at the Crossroads), celebrating the liberating power of technology, was originally painted for Rockefeller Center in New York City, but destroyed for being too leftist – arch-capitalist Nelson Rockefeller objected to Rivera’s inclusion of Karl Marx, even though he was well aware of Rivera’s views when he commissioned the work. This is Rivera’s own copy, painted in 1934, just a year after the original. It’s worth studying the explanatory panel, which reveals some of the theory behind this complex work.
Several smaller panels by Rivera are also displayed; these, too, were intended to be seen elsewhere (in this case on the walls of the Hotel Reforma, downtown) but for years were covered up, presumably because of their unflattering depiction of tourists. The works include Mexican Folklore and Tourism, Dictatorship, the Dance of the Huichilobos and, perhaps the best of them, Agustín Lorenzo, a portrayal of a guerrilla fighter against the French. None of them was designed to be seen so close up, and you’ll find yourself wanting to step back to get the big picture. Catharsis, a huge, vicious work by Orozco, occupies almost an entire wall, and there are also some particularly fine examples of Siqueiros’s work: three powerful and original panels on the theme of Democracy and a bloody depiction of The Torture of Cuauhtémoc and his resurrection. The uppermost floor is devoted to the Museo de la Arquitectura (same ticket and hours), which has no permanent collection, but frequently has interesting exhibits.
Some of the finest interior decor in the building is generally hidden from view in the main theatre, an important venue for classical music, opera and dance; this is under renovation until at least 2010, but when it reopens, there should be free tours (previously Mon–Fri 1pm & 1.30pm) to see the amazing Tiffany glass curtain depicting the Valley of México and the volcanoes, as well as the detailed proscenium mosaic and the stained-glass ceiling.