In the Tepeyac AbbeyCuautitlán, State of Mexico, lives one of the most outstanding architects in the contemporary history of Mexico, recognized for his participation in one of the most important pilgrimage centers in our country and in the world: the Basilica of Guadalupe. Is about Fray Gabriel Chavez de la Morawho in 2020 was awarded the National Architecture Award medal by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Born on November 26, 1929 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Fray Gabriel began his engineering studies at the University of Guadalajara. Later, when the university opened a career in architecture, Chávez de la Mora continued his studies in that discipline. In interview for Mexico Unknown, relates that his greatest influences are also from Guadalajara and founder of the School of Architecture, Ignacio Díaz Morales; Villagran Garcia; Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, with whom he built the project for the Basilica of Guadalupe; and his own uncle, Enrique de la Mora.
Fray Gabriel Chávez de la Mora, monk and architect
In 1955, at the age of 29, Gabriel Chávez de la Mora took the habit of the Benedictine monks. He relates that it was a very natural vocation, since in his family there were already several religious and some of his fellow architects had also opted for church life.
With serenity, he recounts that talks about religious life were common among his generation friends. However, the particular Benedictine lifestyle was something that stood out in him. He initially thought that there were no monasteries in Mexico, but later he discovered that there were some foundations in central Mexico.
I think I was finishing my third year of architecture when I visited the Benedictine Monastery of Santa María de la Resurrección in Ahuacatitlán, Cuernavaca. Very interesting.”
It tells of his arrival at what would be his first monastic abode.
According to his testimony, one aspect of the Cuernavaca monastery that caught his attention was its advances in the Second Vatican Council, held in 1962, a fact that also had a direct impact on his work.
It was a great change for the renewal of the church in general, especially its worship and liturgy. Therefore, the building to celebrate the liturgical celebrations also requested a new adaptation.
In this spirit and influenced by the reformist religious movements in Europe, Fray Gabriel Chávez de la Mora built the chapel of the Benedictine Monastery of Santa María de la Resurrección in Ahuacatitlán. The construction had its liturgical correlate, as the monks began to celebrate in the vernacular, which would later be extended to the entire world by ecclesiastical legislation.
When I entered the monastery I thought that architecture was left out, it had to be at the service of the brothers and the community. It was also a small farm with chickens, cows, bees, etc. Later I continued with handicrafts, they became well known under the name of “Emmaus Workshops”. I also made different iconography that was very popular, screen printing and an alphabet with a typeface that is widely used today.”
It tells about his life in the monastery.
architecture as a service
As a service, Chávez de la Mora was entrusted with the design of the monastery’s chapel, to later be invited to participate in the renovation of the Cuernavaca Cathedral. With this he began a life of works outside the cloister. However – he confesses – his first two works are the ones he esteems the most.
Schulenburg and the new Basilica of Guadalupe
It was during his theology studies at the Tlalpan Council Seminary that Chávez de la Mora met Cardinal William Schulenburg, rector of the seminary, who was surprised by the innovativeness of his architectural work in the monastery. Later, Chávez de la Mora moved from the community of Cuernavaca to the Tepeyac Abbey in Lindavista. Schulenburg, who was already serving as the last abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, sought him out to participate in the project for the New Basilica of Guadalupe.
I moved to the North American foundation community of Lindavista in 1968. In workshops we were working for the Olympic Committee. In the Basilica there was abbot Schulenburg, who had had him as rector in the seminary. He knew that I was doing construction, so he called me to work in the Basilica.”
With a smile, he recounts that he has been working at the Basilica since 1968, as he is still called to supervise works. “I am the veteran there in the Guadalupano team”, he comments to remember that his first task was the renovation of the Pocito Chapel, which was about to collapse at the time. Later, with the help of piles, he conditioned the old Basilica.
Fray Gabriel Chávez de la Mora and the ephemeral Basilica
The titanic task would come in 1970, when an important anniversary of the coronation of the Virgin of Guadalupe was celebrated. The space in the Basilica, they calculated, was insufficient. Then De la Mora proposed a temporary project, the ephemeral basilica, which was a tent that spanned from the old Basilica to the atrium. The space was adapted for 10,000 people.
Subsequently, Schulenburg opted for a new Basilica project. There were various ideas, such as Jose Luis Benlliure, who proposed to build the temple in the Cerrito. There was also thought of building a larger structure on top of the old one, as well as demolition.
Finally, the project that prospered was the one headed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez with the accompaniment of Benliure and Fray Gabriel Chávez de la Mora. A new building would be built.
Monsignor Schulenburg unites the three of us. The first question was where to build the Basilica because there was no land. I proposed that in the part of the atrium. There were gardens, fountains and even streets. The government did participate there, it helped us unify as much of the atrium as possible. Private land was also purchased.”
Chávez de la Mora mentions.
Following the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council, the building was planned so that people could participate in the celebration.
Before it was said that one was going to ‘hear mass’, because they did not even understand why it was in Latin, nor did they even see why the columns did not allow it. We wanted them to participate in the celebration visually, acoustically and visually. A matter of dialogue.”
It narrates about the sources of inspiration of the Basilica.
The new Basilica was projected in what could be called “modern religious functionalism”, since mainly the participation of the parishioners with the priests was evoked. Therefore, a large circular amphitheater with a large presbytery was built.
It was raised in levels, that is why the amphitheater has a slight difference in level towards the presbytery for good visibility. The possibility of approaching the venerated image was also provided. In the ancient temple it was not easy to see the Virgin through the columns, the reflection of the lamps and the people. That’s why we made a passage.”
Describes Chavez de la Mora.
Among the main elements proposed by Chávez Mora are the open chapel, the pilgrim’s passage under the image and the dressing room behind the image. Likewise, he relates that it was formally planned as a temple without columns, similar to a campaign house, with the objective of unobstructed visibility.
Regarding the sources of inspiration for the Basilica of Guadalupe, Chávez de la Mora insists that it is its functionalitythat of allowing the assembly to participate.
There is no formal whim. There is architecture that we call functional that starts from the function, what that architectural space is for. There is also formalist architecture that complies with shapes projected as a whim.”
Regarding the popular theories that suggest that the new Basilica of Guadalupe is inspired by the Xicuco hill or the biblical tabernacle, Fray Gabriel Chávez de la Mora clarifies that they are elaborations of the imagination.
The importance of Guadalupanism and the future
Fray Gabriel Chávez de la Mora, who lives in the Cuautitlán monastery designed by himself, reflects that the Virgin of Guadalupe is a fundamental element of Mexican culture. He mentions that the message is unique in the world because of its antiquity and because it represents a way in which the Mexican people recovered their existential meaning after the Conquest. He thinks that it was a consolation in the face of death caused by war and epidemics.
Regarding the National Architecture Award that he received in 2020, he mentions that it is an encouragement to continue working in liturgical art. Among his new projects are the reconstruction of the Fátima Parish in the Roma neighborhood, an intervention in the Sanctuary of the Martyrs in Guadalajara and some liturgical adaptations.
Rodrigo Osegueda Philosopher by training. Contemplate the soul and imagination of Mexico.