Diego Rivera's Anahuacalli is located in the village of San Pablo Tepetlapa (19°19'22.59"N 99° 8'38.12"W), on the edges of El Pedregal and near to the colonia of Coyoacán in Mexico City. It forms a compound situated on a small hill with the main building commanding a position astride its summit, obviously the most important building in the vicinity. The landscape is completely subordinated to this imposing building which is always seen rising from its site; alien albeit superficially of the same material. The surface of this and the smaller structures is the same of lava stone found everywhere, bristling with grotesques, gargoyles and figurines, some of which squat on the horizontal articulations of plinth and pyramid.
Around a large, square terrace fifty metres across whose very flat surface is precisely divided by a tiny running step, are five buildings. The principal building of three storeys is sited on the southern side, and the four smaller, lower pavilions make discontinuous walls around the remaining edges. The ground between the buildings is carefully treated and planted, physically transforming as the official definition of the museum as a representative of Mexican cultural changes. Between 1997 and 1999, for example, an area planted with inappropriate foreign red irises was razed and covered by a more authentic rust-coloured tepetape ground punctuated by indigenous agave plants.
Falling away from the paved central plinth and the castle-like walls of the buildings is a wild and overgrown ground, mostly green lichens, shrubs and trees with sharp focused specks of red flowers - an uncultivated reminder of the lost qualities of El Pedregal. This arrangement of the topography evokes various spatial references embedded in Mexico's architectural history, from the complex ground works of Monte Albán to the open churches of the 16th century. With ceilings lined with polychromatic stone mosaics and light entering through thin sheets of flesh-coloured onyx onto crowds of strewn and organised artefacts the experience of entering the museum is one of radical readjustment. Staircases pressed between massive walls lead to more conventionally lit galleries and rooms on the upper floors. These are lined with box-like vitrines containing thousands of imprisoned objects, their aesthetic value emphasised above all other. At the core of the building, radiant with the light from a huge North-facing window, is Rivera's studio, unfinished cartoons still in place.
Some time in the early 1940s Frida Kahlo gave the titles for a plot of land that she owned as a gift to her husband Diego Rivera, who started to build upon it in the summer of 1942. Although the housing of his collection of pre-Columbian and popular Mexican artifacts for posterity was most important to him, he also dreamed of making a special place, a strange kind of ranch, for Kahlo and himself to protect them during the war. "Here we planned to raise our own food staples, milk, honey, and vegetables, while we prepared to build our museum. In the first weeks we erected a stable for our animals." he said.
This dream of a romantic, bucolic life belonged to a dramatic, if unnecessary and rhetorical flight from a war torn world. Anahuacalli was, according to Kahlo, "something permanent in a world gripped by death and destruction." While the war could be read as a metaphor for other personal traumas, Rivera was fascinated with the potential of El Pedregal’s lava bed at the edge of Mexico City as an inhabitable place. This was an experiment at living in a seemingly uninhabitable landscape, an escape from the city, contemporary civilisation and the war.
Rivera once said, "they think this building in the Pedregal is my tomb because it is completely Mexican." Anahuacalli became a state museum in 1964, seven years after Rivera's death, as Kahlo promised in a letter requesting funds from the Mexican Government to help pay for its construction. In exchange for sponsoring this house for Rivera's vast collection of precolumbian artefacts she offered that the building and its contents remain the property of the Government, provided that Rivera could live (at the top of the pyramid) and work amongst his idols until his death. Rivera, too, referred to this situation in his autobiography, saying "My plan is to give the museum to the state, providing it appropriates the money needed to finish it …If I cannot arrange a mutually satisfactory agreement with the authorities, I shall dynamite the building with my own hands rather than have it put to some stupid use at odds with the purpose for which it was built."
Rivera's emotionally expressed ambitions for the building's purpose have been reflected in the many functions that have been applied to it in various writings on Rivera. Mostly defined in relation to some facet of his mythologised personality rather than in any modernist programmatic sense they have included such definitions as residence, studio, tomb, pyramid, monumental folly. These multiple definitions reflect the way that Rivera compartmentalised his life amongst his several domestic environments, Anahuacalli being the most personal. His San Ángel House nearby (designed by Juan O'Gorman in 1932) was where he apparently entertained his models and was where he died; Kahlo's blue house at Coyoacán was the site of their married life, and when she died in 1954 he presented it to the Mexican nation.
Rivera's interest in building Anahuacalli was essentially materialist, reflecting the importance of the physical remains of Mexican history in his work. Formal description of Anahuacalli by Rivera was made in terms of Style. It is a composite of "Aztec, Mayan and 'Rivera Traditional'," he said, similar in figurative references to the new wing which he constructed at Kahlo's blue house in Coyoacán. This self-conscious visual classification was indicative of Rivera's role as historian of his own work, and Anahuacalli as such was a deliberate manifesto rather than merely a personal project. The inclusion of precolonial culture within the Mexican present as an artistic programme was clearly important to Rivera. Various commentators concur: Herrera called the building a bizarre gloomy temple, whilst López Rangel described it as a monument in the sense of Aldo Rossi, in that Rivera was consciously drawing from a latent collective memory in constructing the appearance of the building.
In his formal intent Rivera articulated his position in relation to the idea of function and its interpretation in the rationalist architecture of Mexican modernism of the 1930s and 40s. Post-war Anahuacalli was part of a post-Functionalist, post-internationalist polemic. "Neutral, corbusien functionalism intoxicates us and leaves us in agony because it is neither more nor less that the architecture of imperialism. Let us say that the conceptualisation of Anahuacalli was related to the autonomy of Mexico and of Latin America," he said, turning his back on the North and the West.