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date: 27 February 2020

Arai, Alberto

(b Mexico City, Mar 29, 1915; d Mexico City, May 25, 1959).
  • Kathryn O’Rourke

Mexican architect and theorist. He received a degree in architecture at the Escuela Nacional de Arquitectura (ENA) at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México (UNAM) in 1940, and studied urbanism at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in 1941–1942. In 1954 he received a doctorate in Philosophy and Letters at UNAM. Arai built relatively few buildings, but he was one of Mexico’s foremost theorists of architectural modernism. Early in his career he embraced the principles associated with the formally austere, politically engaged architecture that dominated Mexico City in the 1930s; later he became fascinated by the architecture of indigenous Mexico and its lessons for modern architects. Arai’s intellectualism distinguished him from many of his colleagues and his study of history and philosophy shaped his sophisticated writings on architecture, urbanism, and indigenous art.

Arai had a distinguished teaching career with appointments in multiple fields and at several institutions. He was professor of architectural theory at ENA from 1953 to 1959, and of architectural composition there from 1954 to 1959. For most of the 1950s he was professor of art history at the Escuela Nacional de Archivistas and Bibliotecarios, and taught courses on popular art at the Escuela Normal Superior in Mexico City.

Although it manifested in different ways throughout his career, Arai’s political leftism marked his work consistently and appealed to his patrons in Mexico’s post-revolutionary administrations. In 1938 he founded the Unión de Arquitectos Socialistas with Enrique Yañez. Two unrealized projects of the same year—the building for the Confederación de Trabajadores de México and the Ciudad Obrera de México—both of which Arai designed with Enrique Guerrero and Raúl Cacho, embodied the group’s ambition to fuse socialist ideology and formal rationalism. In the 1940s Arai worked on development projects outside of the capital, in Veracruz, Pachuca, and Chiapas.

Arai’s best-known work is the group of Frontones (or handball courts), which he designed at the Ciudad Universitaria at UNAM in 1951–1953. In these he used the volcanic stone of the area to great effect in truncated pyramid shapes inspired by Pre-Columbian pyramids. Set against a dramatic mountainous landscape, the groups of paired courts read almost as abstract works of sculpture. They attracted international attention nearly as soon as they were completed. The work embodied the ideas Arai put forth in his dense theoretical text, Caminos para una arquitectura mexicana, as well as insights inspired by his work as draftsman at the Bonampak archaeological site in the Yucatán, where he worked in 1949. The architect proposed that modern cosmopolitan viewers’ consciousness of their historical and cultural distance from ancient Maya architects, awakened when beholding ancient temples and murals, might serve as a bridge for them to interrogate their experiences of class and racial differences in modern society. In Arquitectura de Bonampak he illustrated a modern, culturally specific revision of the concept of the primitive hut, in which he proposed that Maya temples bore a plastic and theoretical relationship to the forms made in the course of shaping spheres of masa into tortillas.

From 1953 until 1959 Arai was director of the Department of Architecture of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico’s powerful agency dedicated to the scholarship and dissemination of national culture. In that post he oversaw several major exhibitions on Mexican architecture and helped shape the emerging canon of the country’s modern architecture.


  • La nueva arquitectura y la técnica. Mexico City, 1938.
  • Nuevo urbanismo. Mexico City, 1940.
  • Filosofía de la arquitectura. Mexico City, 1944.
  • La raíz humana de la distribución arquitectónica. Mexico City, 1950.
  • Caminos para una arquitectura mexicana. Mexico City, 1952.
  • El hundimiento de la ciudad de México y su posible solución urbanística. Mexico City, 1952.
  • “Regionalismo y arquitectura.” Materiales y procedimientos de construcción. Mexico City, 1955.
  • ¿Qué orientaciones fundamentales debe seguir la arquitectura en México? Mexico City, 1956.
  • “Diego Rivera y la arquitectura indígena antiqua.” Arquitectura/México (Jun 1959).
  • La arquitectura de Bonampak. Mexico City, 1960.


  • Cetto, M. L. Moderne Architektur in Mexico. Stuttgart, 1960; Eng. trans., New York, 1961.
  • González Gortázar, F., ed. La arquitectura Mexicana del siglo XX. Mexico City, 1994.
  • Noelle, L. “Introduction.” In Caminos para una Arquitectura Mexicana, vii–xiv. Mexico City, 2001.
  • Anda Alanís, E. X. de. “Alberto T. Arai: funcionalismo y prehispanismo.” Una mirada a la arquitectura mexicana del siglo XX: diez ensayos. Mexico City, 2005.
  • Olivares Correra, M., ed. Conferencias sobre arquitectura. Mexico City, 2014.
  • O’Rourke, K. E. Modern Architecture in Mexico City: History, Representation, and the Shaping of a Capital. Pittsburgh, 2016.
  • Goldman, Z. A. “Leading America through Local Modernism: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes’ (Mexico) Exhibitions and Publications on Architecture, 1950–1952.” MA thesis, Chicago, IL, Sch. A. Inst., 2017.