Cuilápan De Guerrero, Mexico. Photographer: Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

(Twenty-five year old Dutch architect) Tonny Zwollo visits a school she designed at the village of Cuilápan de Guerrero. To keep it beautiful, students work after hours on landscaping and maintenance—the girls planting flowers and the boys hauling water. In the evenings their parents attend classes run by the teachers who are sent in by the government.

Santa Domingo, Mexico. Photographer: Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

Tonny overlooking the progress of the school being built.

Santa Domingo, Mexico. Photographer: Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

On scaffold at Santo Domingo Teojomulco, Tonny helps villagers lay homemade brick she has taught them to bake. The Indians have an appreciative eye for her construction techniques, and often use them to build their own dwellings after she has moved on to other villages.

San Miguel, Mexico. Photographer: Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

One of Tonny’s young admirers steps forward at San Miguel Piedras, where a school is being built, and solicitously repairs Tonny’s pigtail.

Oaxaca, Mexico. Photographer, Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

Tonny holding her gift of an inscribed leather bag which is given to her by the many people she has been helping to construct the schools.

Santa Domingo, Mexico. Photographer: Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

Tonny issues a pidgin-Indian command over her shoulder to a group of her helpers working on a village school in the Sierra Madre del Sur.

Santa Domingo, Mexico. Photographer: Lynn Pelham, 1967. © LIFE

Tonny leading a long line of Mexican children and adults through the paths all carrying several bricks for the construction of the new school.

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The ‘Sun Maiden’ Architect: A pig-tailed Dutch girl builds schools for Mexico’s Indians
LIFE magazine, October 13, 1967

At the remote village of Santo Domingo Teojomulco in southern Mexico, a young blonde shoulders a building block and leads a party of Indians onto a weed-grown hillside. She is Tonny Zwollo, 25, a graduate architect from the Netherlands whose mission is to talk the village into building a school of her own design and then attending it. Two years ago she was hired by the Mexican government to help implement its program of rural education. Tonny so far has helped build a total of 35 schools in regions so remote that classrooms, blackboards and book learning are as great a novelty as pig-tailed blondes who speak tribal dialects with a Dutch accent. More than once Indians have called her the reincarnation of the ancient sun maiden. Tonny puts in long hours of hard work, but at least it is work—something she found it hard to come by back home in Holland, where lady architects are the novelty.

As the only female in her architecture course at Delft, Tonny Zwollo received so much heckling from her fellow students that she took a course in judo. On graduation she realized that if she hoped to make a living, she would have to go to a place where female architects were more acceptable than in the Netherlands. When cosmopolitan Mexico City turned out to be scarcely any improvement, she asked the officials in charge of the school building program to send her as far into the boondocks as possible. That is how she got assigned to the hills surrounding Oaxaca in the south, where the country is rough and inaccessible, where the Indians are renowned for their uncooperativeness and occasional hostility, and where there is no feeling against lady architects at all because most of the people don’t know what an architect is.


Learn more about Zwollo (b. 1942, Amsterdam) and her lifetime architectural work in the 2005 film and eBook, Blue is my colour, Designing as an answer to nature.

[ Images via LIFE photo archives / © LIFE ]

The National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología)—designed by the grandfather of Mexican Modernism, architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez alongside associate architects Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares—opened its doors in 1964.

Photo via the back cover of The Mexican National Museum of Anthropology (1968/70) authored by then museum director Ignacio Bernal. (171 Illustrations 26 in colour, photographed by Irmgard Groth.)