Porfirian Architecture: A Bit of Paris in Puebla
When Spanish settlers founded Puebla in 1531, they set out to design the “perfect” city — one that would serve, among other things, as a key transportation hub for New Spain. Located in the fertile valley of Cuetlaxcoapan, Puebla offered the newcomers ample natural resources and a strategic stop along the route from Veracruz to Mexico City.
Puebla grew quickly during Colonial times and soon emerged as one of the most important cities in Mexico. President Porfirio Díaz — who’d made his name as a general in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 — held Puebla and other cities up as examples of what he envisioned Mexico to be: a modern country on par with first-world nations like France, Great Britain, and the United States. During his presidency (1876-1880 and 1884-1911), Díaz improved the country’s railroads and telegraphs and commissioned statues and buildings. The latter blended various styles to create an aesthetic so distinct that is has its own name, arquitectura porfirista, or Porfirian architecture. Many of the public and private buildings constructed during this period took cues from European architecture, particularly the Art Nouveau and Neoclassical movements in France.
In the book Arquitectura porfirista, author Elena Segurajauregui Álvarez writes that Porfirian architecture “not only followed guidelines established by European and North American schools, but, in order to effectively apply them, in many cases the architects as well as the projects and materials [Italian marble, European granite, bronze, stained glass] were imported.” In addition, Mexican architects studied in Paris and Madrid to gain the proper perspective and skills necessary to help realize Díaz’s vision.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Puebla’s architecture and development took on the Porfirian style. Although the city’s urban plan remained intact, new gardens and plazas were created. Many Colonial buildings — stores, homes, convents — were demolished to make way for new mansions that imitated French ones. The most representative building of the time is arguably the Edificio de la Ciudad de México (2 Norte #6, Centro Histórico; pictured above). Its iron frame differs so greatly from those typical of Puebla that it inevitably catches the eye of passersby: Rather than brick and ceramic tile, it features metal, stone, and glass. The building could easily belong on a Parisian street, but thankfully it is in Puebla for visitors and locals to enjoy!
According to the UDLAP’s Capilla del Arte website, the ironwork was imported from France by the firm Schwartz & Meurer for the Lions Hermanos Company, with the intention of emulating the design of La Samaritaine, a popular department store in Paris. Since its inauguration in 1910 as an upscale department store called La Ciudad de México, the building has served as a symbol of modernism in Puebla. Today the building houses a Vips restaurant (downstairs) and an exhibition space (upstairs).
Another notable Porfirian building is the former Mercado La Victoria (5 de Mayo, between 4 and 8 Poniente). Its construction, directed by architect Julián de Saracíbar, began in 1856 in what was once the Santo Domingo convent’s garden. The market was inaugurated in 1913, and for decades served as the city’s main food distribution center. In 1999, its tenants were relocated and the market reopened a commercial shopping center. The site’s best-known feature is its stained-glass dome (pictured above), below which visitors will find a plaque on the floor that notes the latitude and altitude of Puebla. This is a common spot to take feet photos (like ours, at right).
Visitors can also observe Porfirian elements in the Palacio Municipal (Portal Hidalgo 14, Centro Histórico). English architect Charles J. Hall redesigned Puebla’s City Hall at the end of the 19th century in the Neoclassical and Renaissance styles, with beveled glass, vegetable motifs, and the use of iron in the handrails and window balustrades. Meanwhile, various private residences were constructed during the Porfirian era. Two of the most stunning are the Casa Presno (Avenida Juan de Palafox #208) and the affectionately named Casa de los Enanos, or House of Dwarves (Avenida Juárez at 17 Sur). Both homes appear very French, with metal, glass, stained glass, natural-shaped ornaments, domes, and iron rails. The Presno House is now part of the BUAP University and may be visited on weekdays, but the Casa de los Enanos is a private home that may be admired only from the sidewalk. —Vica Amuchastegui