NOVEMBER 30, 1997.


Wow, my hotel monthly rate has just gone up a whopping 17%. I though of moving but when I looked around I decided, for the time being, I’ll hang in. It’s really a nice place, very convenient and the people are great. When I first checked ‘Let’s Go Mexico 1996’ it was rated at M$75/day. Now it’s M$120 (I pay M$105 as a time-server): an increase average of over 20%/year. Inflation here is running at 16/18%/year. I shouldn’t grumble. And I wont.

But I’ll rant a bit. The Vancouver Sun headline on the web says “Asians pulling out of real estate.” Where the hell has it been? They’ve been doing that for three years. Adam Smith warned, 200 years ago, against basing an economy on asset inflation. Now Vancouver is about to pay the price, like heavily! Just before I left those numbskulls at Fort Bombast wishfully rezoned some chunks of downtown real estate for 750-foot hi-rises: aping Kuala Lumpur, I suppose, (of all back-waters, for God’s sake!). So now we’ll have to live with yet more speculative mud-hole for another 30 years!

Aw, who cares I’m living in sunny Mexico!

At the beginning the month, we had the Days of the Dead: November 1 & 2. I visited various state’s displays in Coyoacan. All over DF not just in Coyoacan, restaurants, the Metro, department stores contributed. The Hotel set up a table in the lobby. The staff, many guest, me included, placed our sugar skulls in remembrance.

This uniquely mexicano celebration is, sadly, gradually being absorbed into that great consuming, globalization and it look more like Halloween (there we go again, forget international, think homogenization!). A mother accosted me on the street toting her youngster, trick or treating. I guess the advantage Halloween has over the Day of the Dead is that you can ding your neighbours.

Anyway I have been busy this month, sort of distracted from Alligator no. 7 for November. I actually have a tentative foot in the door at UNAM. They asked me to put down some ideas in preparation to meeting the dean del Collegio de Arquitectura. I don’t know how far this will go. Still, this is why I came here so I may as well follow through.

Accordingly, this month’s Alligator is a cop-out.

Oh, but I just want to digress for a moment. I met another young mexicana, an architect. Wow, I thought, at last I’ve got a window into the architectural business here. Well, it turned out she works for the housing department for the city.

She lost her job at the end of November. She doesn’t seem to mind.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who won the governorship of the city last July, has been squirreling through the PRI’s administration in preparation for the take over December 5. The whole city administration is in chaos including my architect friend’s housing department. It turns out Cardenas’s take-over team cannot account for 600 priista jobs on the city’s pay roll. No body knows what they have been doing, only that regular pay-cheques have been going out.

We should set his squirrels to work in Vancouver’s City Hall; I’ll bet they’d unearth more than 600 there!

Anyway, I visited her office. Needless to say I had to negotiate a phalanx of security. God only knows why, there was nothing to bomb. It reminded of that community oriented institutions back home, the CBC and Vancouver Sun. If they are so beloved of the community why do they have to hide behind security guards and electronic gadgetry? Who would bother to disrupt them?

Oh yes, I got carried away. Her office was a cubicle surrounded by private directors’, commissioners’ and all kinds of big shots’ offices. When I got to her desk it was blank. No work! It didn’t look much like an architect’s office, either: no computers, print-outs, drawing boards, paper, sketches, felt-pens, catalogues, building codes. It didn’t look like much work was being done whatever it was supposed to be. Admittedly, the administration is in flux, but this looked like a permanent state of affairs to me. I think the phalanx of security is to make sure we commoners don’t cotton-on to what is not being done in government offices. I have a feeling my mexicana arquitecta amiga is one of the 600: a priista!

So, here’s the cop-out, the essay I wrote on Mexico’s urban spaces, less the fourteen illustrations that accompanied the original: -

Espacio Publico Urbano

Tengo mucho abriles. Entonces, tengo mucho que ver antes muchas vece.

La Ciudad Mexico is one of the great cities of the world. It is very beautiful: at least in those areas developed prior to the architecture of globalization. Centro Historico, the Alameda Central Hemiciclo, Bosque Chapultepec, The National Autonomous University of Mexico, Coyoacan have within them a proliferation and variety of public urban spaces, parks and architectural jewels that must be the envy of the world. Mexicanos know how to build cities. Accordingly why, now, has the strong Mexican tradition of architecture and public urban space been abandoned?

Why has the inhumane scale and symbolism of such global developments as La Defense, Paris, and Canary Wharf, London, (which, incidentally, was the demise of its developers) been so eagerly emulated in Santa Fe and La Ciudad Satelite, to name but a few of D.F.’s recent developments? You’ve seen one you’ve seen them all!

Such questions are germane but not appropriately answered here: another place, another time! They do, however, set the context.

For this discussion my methodology sees Mexico’s urban spaces in four separate time periods: Independence; Modern; Global and Timeless: concluding with general comments on urban design and public urban space. Needless to say, after only seven months in DF, I do not presume to be an expert. You have asked! I answer, expecting an engaging dialogue.

Independence. 19th century.
Mexico’s is part of a European urban tradition dating well before Baron Hausmann’s Paris or John Nash’s Regency London.

The Plaza of the Constitution, the Zocalo, Centro Historico,
Dozens of bicitaxis on the zocolo.
adheres to that European tradition despite its many transformations. Of those transformations, the parterre of some sixty years ago was far more appropriate for a humane city than it’s current guise as a vast wind-swept military parade ground. Yet, while lacking in human scale, appropriate for its military function, it makes up in grandeur that, clearly, is a part of mexicano’s psyche, as evinced by its constant and popular use.

And yet as an interesting anecdote aside I am intrigued by the way people seek relief from the glaring Sun on this vast expanse by congregating in the only, if meager, shade there is in the shadow of the flag pole in the centre. Maybe the parterre with shade trees may, one day, be re-introduced!

Plaza y Portales Santo Domingo, Centro Historico. Dilapidated it is. The plaza is busy dawn to dusk for business and pleasure. It is far more than a picturesque tourist attraction. Printers, working from their unique wooden stalls, and their customers, bring it alive.

Plaza Domingo has a scale and use that makes it one of the cities great urban spaces. Proportions, scantlings, height of buildings to width of plaza, are appropriately humane. Tactile, somatic experiences abound. This is what has attracted me to Mexico: the way public urban space is scaled, varies, inter-weaves and is connected: Santo Domingo, in contrast, and connected, to the Zocalo demonstrates.

Mesones @ Correo Mayor, Centro Historico. Streets are as much a part of urban space as are zocalos and plazas: as this intersection demonstrated by the widening of the sidewalk on the Southeast corner. The streets are narrow and congested but clearly popular.

Plaza Hidalgo y Jardin Centenario, Coyoacan. Is this a hippie market? It is certainly a picturesque tourist attraction on weekends. No matter, it is a colonial model worthy of the attention of contemporary urban designers.

Trace a path from Jardin Centenario, across Plaza Hidalgo, along Higuera to Plaza Conchita and to the park beyond Fernandez Leal. It is an experience, moving through somatic sensibilities, space - scale - aroma - sound - touch - light, of a well designed urban ambience.

A wise government decision in 1932 decreed that streets be paved with textured cobblestones and historic buildings be preserved. We benefit, today, greatly from that decision in colonial and 19th century developments such as Centro Historico and Coyoacan.

Such places can inform modern urban designers, as well, in the way they have accreted incrementally. As a contrast to today’s homogenization and unlike today, or indeed Georgian London of the 18th century, no one developer took over these vast areas of land, imposing their singular style. The whole was accreted by individuals contributing to the unified entirety.

Modern. 1950’s.
The 1950’s and 60’s were the glory years for architecture and architects.

Torres Satelite: Arquitecto Luis Barragan. Sculpture? Urban space? Architecture? Public urban art? The five Torres are all of these! I remember admiring these architectural sculptures from the architectural magazines in the 1960’s. In those days Satelite was, emulating the new town programme in the U.K., an idealistic new town designed to accommodate the then, as now, fastest growing City in the world.

Nuclear Laboratory UNAM: Ingenerio Felix Candela. This dainty little creature started life as a laboratory. What is it now? A storage shed! In any event it was, in its time, an advancement in the art of thin-shell reinforced concrete construction. As I recall, at its thinnest, the reinforced concrete shell is only 6mm.

The two preceding examples are, however, single edifices designed by individual architects, still deserving of recognition. Public urban space is more complex.

UNAM campus. Area between the Central Library and medical school. Even more successful than Coyoacan UNAM is, in my experience, one of the great urban spatial experiences of our time. Space flows gracefully through enclosure to openness.

The judicious juxtaposition of tall buildings to low as they surround and define the pedestrian urban spaces and the integration of arboreal landscaping is very satisfying. Where else has public art, murals, so boldly become as an integral part of architecture?

And there is an even greater achievement in the integration of its urban spaces as parks, playing fields and small intimate areas to study, meet and contemplate.

The gradient, across these urban spaces, rises to the north causing the campus to roll consonant with the long swell of and ocean current: buildings and spaces seem to riding like graceful liners. I cannot estimate what the total grade differential must be. But the well-designed parks and spaces cause me to forget I am climbing.

All the concepts of the international style of art and architecture have been so well demonstrated! And yet there is an identity that is still uniquely Mexican. Nowhere is this more evident, anywhere in the world, than on the campus of UNAM.

Global. 1970 to today: and, apparently, the future.
And for some obscure reason mexicano architects and planners have given that uniqueness up.

I call current architecture ‘Global’ to distinguish it from the great previous styles of architecture: ‘Modern’ and ‘International,’ as exemplified by the UNAM campus in the vicinity of the Central Library. Current architecture has no connection to environment, context or tradition: accordingly, it cannot be international and must, therefore, be seen as homogenizing.

My opening question still is, Why, now, has the strong Mexican tradition of architecture and public urban space been abandoned? I cannot answer the question, but the chasm between what they are capable of and what they do now should give responsible mexicano architects and planners cause to pause. Why has the wealth of previous experience been ignored?

Nonetheless, there is no point waxing nostalgic about the past, be it colonial Coyoacan or UNAM? Life was different then. But that is no excuse for what is happening in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe commercial centre, the neighbouring mixed-use development and the surrounding condominiums exemplify Mexico’s sally into ‘global’ or more appropriately, ‘homogenization.’ Remember Brazil, with John Cleese and Robert Dinero? Doesn’t this developments have the same grotesquely, inhumanely, mammothly scaled, imagery depicted in that movie.

The modern movement, as exemplified by UNAM, bore, essentially, the same economic and - to a lesser extent - social conditions as we face in the 90’s. Many of those architects, urban designers and planners are still practicing. Certainly their vision, talent and architectural expertise lurks unappreciated in silent professional corners. Yet somehow we have persuaded ourselves to the contrary!

Nowhere is this more evident than in the dearth of public urban space, the brobdingnagian scale the wasted land in parking at Santa Fe: God knows, the sheer banal ugliness!

Public urban space? Well, other than blacktop and paving, there isn’t any. Indeed, when I innocently mounted a raised sidewalk surrounding one of the buildings I was unceremoniously shoo-ed away by a security guard. Some public! Some space!

Reading the semiotics particularly of the circular facade, on the left of figure 10, I muse, how similar the form is to the Porfiriato inspired Monument to the Revolution. This monument started as the dream of a megalomaniac. The circular facade in figure 10 encloses only an innocent office function. Still, I find the allusion revealing.

Ironically, solitary taco stands pop-up, inappropriately. Will they last? Or will their potential clientele opt for the ‘international restaurants’ behind security guards? Ambulantes (street vendors) seem so inappropriate there!

I visited the complex on a Saturday afternoon: a popular shopping time for ciudadanos. And while, at that time, Centro Historico is alive, maybe even congested, Centro Commercial Santa Fe is dead. What does that say for the viability of such monstrous architecture? Its financiers will claim such judgment is premature. I doubt it. Given experience elsewhere such space-less, antediluvian contraptions are doomed.

Much the same can be said for the southern campus at UNAM. Contrasting wildly the sensitive interlocking UNAM urban spaces previously mentioned this area has been developed, obviously, in the era of globalization. The Biblioteca y Hemeroteca Nacional is a massive un-scaled building totally isolated, unrelated to anything let alone its ungainly and similar remote neighbours. The sculpture garden meanders as though the works of art are dumped there for storage.

Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, as its name implies, encompasses three epochs: pre-conquest: colonialism and global.
Pre-Columbian, Colonial and Modern culture meet.
1520 Cuauhtemoc made his last stand:
1968 Diaz Ordaz order the Tlatelolco massacre.
Plaza de Las Tres Culturas is more a park that a public urban space for it is remote from daily life activity. Nevertheless it is part of a dense residential development and as such needs mention. Development, albeit unwittingly, started before the conquest. This is where Cuauhtemoc fought his last battle. From the ruins of his temples the Spanish erected the presently standing colonial Templo de Santiago. Our era contributed the architecture of globalisation.

So here are three architectural periods demonstrated in one public urban space. The point to note is that while the global architecture has few redeeming qualities, indeed it is quite thoughtless, as a whole this plaza is a beautiful public urban space, supporting the theory that good urban space adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The cluster surrounding the Basilica de Guadeloupe also encompasses several eras. The Basilica designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez is the crowning glory on what can only be called an ecclesiastical campus. The campus is an urban space in that it is used as such but hardly in the sense that the corner of Mesones and Mayor Correo is used.

And now that the ambulantes have been banned something is missing.

Interestingly none of these building have any academic relationship to one another. All stand in pristine isolation; especially the stand-alone clarion. Even the building materials differ. There are seven major ecclesiastical structures, with park, paving, waterfall and sculptures. Yet within the interstices and the buildings there is unity. Perhaps happen chance has a part to play in the design of public urban space?
Torres Latinoamericano: Circa 1959.
The tallest structure South of the Rio Bravo.
Palacio de las Bellas Artes. La Palacio, El Torres Latinoamericano, the beautiful art-deco buildings and modern buildings surrounding the plaza are yet another example of accreted public urban space.

At the beginning of this century in the United States many cities recognized the need to beautify their urban environment. The effort was called the city beautiful movement. It was preceded and inspired by the Chicago Worlds Fair. The environs of Palacio de las Bellas Artes and the Alameda preceded the fair and perhaps had some effect on its outcome!

I have called the three previous examples timeless because their components transcend one period. All three accreted over many, sometimes hundreds, of years. And as each successive component was added somehow the previous work was appreciated, recognized and complemented.

Rinconada Jesus. Rinconada Jesus is an apt conclusion to this embryonic over-view of La Ciudad Mexico’s urban spaces. Situated in Centro Historico on the corner of Pino Juarez and Republic de Salvador it is a typical pedestrian haven in a busy urban environment. Small and inconsequential within the scope of such internationally recognized public urban spaces as the Plaza del la Constitution, although not innocuous, it is a treasured part of the neighbourhood.

And thus the art of urban design is the creation of public urban space, no less so in Mexico than anywhere else. Public urban space is, metaphorically speaking, the hole in the donut. It is the spaces between buildings in which, for better or for worse, we spend most of our urban time.

Urban space is defined by the surfaces with which it is enclosed, their relationship, and the interstices between.

Useful public urban space can only developed incrementally. That is, it evolves, over time, in small manageable pieces. Santa Fe commercial centre is an example of what happens when the complete development is taken on at once: what not to do! The trick in urban design is to co-ordinate incremental individual acts, over time, into a cohesive whole.

UNAM, that is the area between the Biblioteca Central and the Medical School, was an exception on a number of counts: it was built virtually all at once by one authority holding one land-title. Under normal circumstances this is anathema to incremental development. I can only conjecture, therefore, that its success was due to a national idealism current at the time but certainly non-existent today!

Furthermore, in this global phase, we have chosen to interpret the woes of the city principally as moving people, i.e. the proposed new Metro line. We seem to be constantly moving from there to where but never really being here. Being here is what public urban space is all about. Encouraging people to stay in one place, providing amenities, living, work and recreation all within a walk able distance surely is more realistic than commuting thousands from the suburbs on expensive mass transit.

The best urban developments in the future will allow for mixed use zoning were jobs, living and recreation etc. are all within easy reach. Job creating industry is not the polluting nightmare it once was. People and work can co-exist.

Thus urban space and its associated functions can take priority over Metro lines, to say nothing of freeways. The best transportation planning is to plan of no transport at all. Obviously to do this in total is unrealistic. Goods have to be transported, people have to move. But too much emphasis has been placed on movement and not enough on urban repose.

Given fictitiously escalating land prices, the mirage of economies of scale, public urban space is looked upon in current development pro-formas as an item well down in the list of priorities. It should not be so! I contend public urban space is not a luxury. Indeed, in an age of high-density urbanization it is a top priority necessity: an amenity that makes life possible under crowded conditions.

Architects designing public urban space must eschew the one-off, stand-alone, architectural treasure and set up conditions that encourage the design of buildings in relationship, especially as they surround and define their contiguous urban spaces. Urban design of public urban space is the future for architects: especially mexicano architects for they have so much to work from!

In conclusion I would like to quote from my paper, ‘Out from Denial,’ *

“Urban design combines political persuasion and spatial vision. It is the art of coalescing many disparate vested interests into cohesive physical, spatial and environmentally sustainable relationships. Scale and familiarity come into play. The scale of an urban environment depends on the humane manner in which its designed and the economic circumstances of its underpinning. Familiarity can come from frequent use of a stable neighbourhood and security of tenure. Economic underpinnings can be affected by who owns what, therefore who decides what, and where is work in relation to where to live.

“Spatial vision is expressed as art: the composition of lighting effect and our movement within it’s spectrum, and the way we convert technique and motivation into public urban space.

“The practice of urban design consociates architecture and urban planning. It co-ordinates architectural design movement and activity into predetermined forms. The urban designer co-ordinates separate acts of development into a whole that adds up to more than a sum of its parts.” ”

Talking of homogenizing the Day of the Dead. Christmas hit about six weeks ago replete with window displays covered in snow (SNOW here?), Santa Claus and all the gross commercialism that goes with it!

The PRD (Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’s crowd) lost over 600 community organizers, murdered, since its beginnings 8 years ago. 200 this year! Mexicano politics, obviously, isn’t good for the health. 200 this year, already! A whopping escalation eh! Makes it hard to believe much is changing!

Roger Kemble
Hotel Isabel
Centro Historico
La Ciudad de Mexico DF.