Hospicio Cabañas: an architectural jewel in Guadalajara

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Hospicio Cabañas

The Hospicio Cabañas was built at the beginning of the 19th century to provide care and shelter for the disadvantaged – orphans, old people, the handicapped and chronic invalids. This remarkable complex, which incorporates several unusual features designed specifically to meet the needs of its occupants, was unique for its time. It is also notable for the harmonious relationship between the open and built spaces, the simplicity of its design, and its size. In the early 20th century, the chapel was decorated with a superb series of murals, now considered some of the masterpieces of Mexican art. They are the work of José Clemente Orozco, one of the greatest Mexican muralists of the period.

Located in Guadalajara in the central region of western Mexico, Hospicio Cabañas was founded at the beginning of the 19th century to provide care and shelter to the needy including orphans, elderly, handicapped and chronic invalids. Architect Manuel Tolsá, designed a predominantly Neoclassical complex on a monumental scale, covering 2.34 hectares. Despite its size, the hospice’s uniqueness relates primarily to the simplicity of its design, specifically its dimensions and the harmony achieved between the buildings and the outdoor spaces. The overall composition is formed by a rectangular plan measuring 164 metres by 145 metres. It contains a complex of single-story buildings laid out around a series of twenty-three courtyards varying in size and characteristics.

The hospice’s founder, Bishop Cabañas commissioned a design that responded to its social and economic requirements through an outstanding solution of great subtlety and humanity. The single-storey scale, covered passageways between buildings, and arcades traversing most courtyards focused on the comfort of its residents allowing them to move freely. The light and air provided by the open spaces were intended to promote healing. In addition, it was one of Bishop Cabañas’ objectives to educate residents through the learning of a trade. For example, the hospice’s corridors provided space for one of Guadalajara’s first printing press workshops and throughout the 19th century innumerable texts were published from this location.

The exception to the complex’s uniform height of 7.5 metres is found in along its central axis with the chapel and kitchen. The kitchen is topped by a saucer dome and small lantern. It is the chapel, however, that is the visually dominant feature of the hospice with its imposing dome rising 32.5 metres.

In the late 1930s, the chapel was ornamented with fifty-seven superb frescoes painted by José Clemente Orozco, one of the greatest Mexican muralists of the time. These works are considered a great masterpiece of Mexican art and illustrate both Spanish culture as well as Mexico’s indigenous culture with gods, sacrifices and temples. The focus of the murals is found in the chapel’s dome with the work El Hombre de Fuego (The Man of Fire) which represents the submission of humans to machines.

Source: UNESCO

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