Diego Rivera’s Utopian ‘City of the Arts’ Debuts 64 Years After the Artist’s Death

The Anahuacalli Museum has expanded its campus to create a community art center first envisioned by the Mexican muralist in 1941

A view of the front of the Anahuacalli Museum, as it looked in 2006
A view of the Anahuacalli Museum's main "temple" structure, which was inspired by Aztec architecture and completed in 1964 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Diego Rivera is perhaps best known today as the muralist who chronicled Mexican history in vivid color on a huge scale. In frescoes such as The History of Mexico (1929–30), which sprawls across the stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City, Rivera painted individuals acting out pivotal scenes from the nation’s history, with an emphasis on the resilience of Indigenous people and their ongoing class struggle against a mostly European-descended elite.

These grand murals offered a bold new visual language for a government reinventing itself after the decade-long Mexican Revolution. Yet the murals paled in comparison with another one of Rivera’s ambitious plans: the so-called Ciudad de las Artes, or City of the Arts, which failed to come to fruition during the artist’s lifetime.

Rivera’s idea first took shape in 1941, when he purchased land in Coyoacán, a southern suburb of Mexico City. In essays and sketches, the artist outlined a utopian plan for a community center featuring workshops, performance spaces and galleries where Mexicans young and old could connect with arte popular, or Mexican folk art. Unfortunately, Rivera died in 1957 before seeing the project through. 

This past weekend, the City of the Arts opened to the public more than eight decades after Rivera first articulated his vision for the parcel of land where it now stands, reports Anna Lagos for El País. The roughly 64,000-square-foot complex features 13 newly constructed architectural spaces, including plazas, a dance hall, galleries, workshops, new offices and an extensive archive. At its center is the Anahuacalli Museum, which opened in 1964 and derives its name from the Nahuatl word for “house surrounded by water,” notes Tessa Solomon for ARTNews.

After Rivera’s death, a team including architect Juan O’Gorman and the artist’s daughter, Ruth Rivera Martín, built the Anahuacalli as a “temple” for his enormous collection of more than 50,000 pre-Hispanic artworks. The museum’s design drew inspiration from the pyramids of Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec Empire; its unique structure was constructed almost entirely out of dark volcanic rock from the surrounding terrain, per Amah-Rose Abrams of Artnet News. (Viewers can take a virtual tour of the site as it looked prior to the renovation through this website.)

“The City of the Arts is a very ambitious dream. It’s Diego Rivera’s manifesto, … a project that has a certain level of utopia and prophetic ambition,” art historian Cuauhtémoc Medina tells El País. The author of a book about a failed utopian city envisioned by one of Rivera’s teachers, Gerardo Murillo (Doctor Atl), the scholar says Murillo’s ideas likely inspired Rivera’s own designs.

Acclaimed Mexican architects Mauricio and Manuel Rocha, of the firm Taller de Arquitectura, oversaw the renovation and expansion of the existing museum complex.

“[This was] one of the greatest challenges of my career,” Mauricio tells El País. He adds that the architectural team sought to create designs that were “in harmony” with the area’s unique volcanic terrain.

A major highlight of the space is a new archive that preserves and displays Rivera’s extensive collection of pre-Hispanic art. Members of the public will eventually be able to schedule visits to the space, which features rows upon rows of concrete shelves and drawers that allow viewers to study works up close, per El País.

“The idea is that people see the pieces that Diego accumulated from a very young age,” Rivera’s grandson, Juan Coronel Rivera, tells El País, per a translation by ARTNews. “The central axis of the new square becomes the [collection], a kind of temple of contemplation of Diego’s thousands and thousands of pieces.”

All told, the massive construction project required six years of planning and construction and cost $960,000 to complete. Festivities kicked off this weekend to coincide with the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, reports Paola Loera for Chilango.

Museum director María Teresa Moya tells the Heraldo de México that future plans for the compound include concerts, exhibitions, dance performances and a ceramics festival.

Moya adds that the new City of the Arts is, “in my opinion, the most interesting work of cultural infrastructure ... in the Mexican Republic in the last 20 years.”