Espacio Publico

FIGURE 1. The Plaza of the Constitution.

"The history of Mexico is the history of a man seeking his parentage, his origins. He has been influenced at one time or another by France, Spain and the United States and the militant indigenists of his own country and he crosses history like a jaded comet, now and then giving off flashes of lightning. What is he pursuing in his eccentric course? He wants to go back beyond the catastrophe he suffered: he wants to be the sun again, to return to the center of life from which he was separated one day. (Was that day the Conquest? Independence?) Our solitude has the same roots as our religious feelings. It is a form of orphan hood, an obscure awareness that we have been torn from the All, and an ardent search: a flight and a return, an effort to re-establish the bonds that unite us with the universe."

The Labyrinth of Solitude. Octavio Paz.


La Ciudad de 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; Alameda Central y Hemiciclo; Bosque Chapultepec; La Universidad Nacional Autonomos de Mexico; Coyoacan; Colonia Polanco, especially Parque Lincoln and the beautiful boulevarded Avenida Horacio; Plaza Frederico Gamboa, Chimalistac; the surprise reproduction of Michelangelo's giant David in plaza Rio de Janeiro, Colonia Roma, and Colonia La Condesa with the equally beautiful boulevarded Avenida Mazatlan, all have within them a proliferation and variety of public urban spaces, parks and architectural jewels that must be the envy of the world. Accordingly this essay is about Mexican urban space as art, as opposed to science.

The word "beautiful" has not been applied to architecture or urban planning since architects rationalized their work in scientific terms. I suppose endless discussions as to its meaning could ensue, becoming bogged down in semantics. However, people of good will, who wish to move forward, understand the word perfectly. It is, therefore, my intention to re-introduce beautiful and, indeed, re-define the design of public urban space in terms of the subjective judgment.

A discussion on the urban spaces of La Ciudad de Mexico is a very appropriate place to introduce the subjective adjective. Within that context traditional, recent past, contemporary and the future are treated here as a continuum: holistically.

There are no secret formulas. All that is necessary is that the protagonists forgo the urge to design as isolated individuals, not an easy transformation in a liberal economic environment, to take the whole in context: or to quote the late President Lyndon Johnson's slang, "learn to walk and chew gum at the same time." That is, weigh the individual as well as the community interest evenly!

There is, however, one urban design tool that seems to be an instinctive part of Mexican city building. That is the "build-to" line. The build-to" line was devised by the New York planning department in order to maintain the integrity of the street frontage in new developments in lower Manhattan. I have taken the tool one step further in my book, 'The Canadian City' and paper 'Out from Denial' (referred to in link NANAIMO: CITY OF THE RISING STAR) by calling it an imaginary building envelope, or acronym 'IBEX.' The IBEX essentially requires that the face of the building presented to the street front follow the street face with the added amenity of delineating accumulated architectural details thereby preserving street-face continuity.

FIGURE 2. Avenida Cinco de Mayo.

Also, Mexicans' desire for privacy and security has encouraged their architects to present a continuous wall to the street. The colors of the walls change in texture and material and are invariably festooned with bougainvillea. Nevertheless, in residential areas a very satisfactory sense of street continuity is preserved which, contrary to North Figure 2. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. American sensibilities, does not feel confining. This custom seems to have encourage Mexican architects to build up to the street line, in the past, without help of any urban design tool: Avenida 5 de Mayo, the streets of Centro Historico, Chimalistac, Coyoaca and particularly La Condesa attest to this. I say particularly La Condesa because even the recent, very contemporary, addition of Casa Amsterdam follows and respects the facade continuity - set-up seventy years ago.

So, other than the 'IBEX' I have avoid technical jargon. The experiential is emphasized. I suggest the reader refers to my book, 'The Canadian City' for technicalities. In it they will find a discussion on non-normative proportions. My paper, 'Out from Denial' discusses by-law requirements and other tools of the trade.

With the above in mind therefore, I ask, why have Mexican architects, who have excelled at the art in the recent past, abandoned their strong traditions of public urban space?

Why has the inhumane scale and symbolism of such global developments as La Defense, Paris, and Canary Wharf, London, been so eagerly emulated in Santa Fe and La Ciudad de 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. And for this discussion my methodology sees Mexico's urban spaces in five separate time periods: Independence; Art deco; Modern; Global and Timeless: concluding with general comments on urban design and public urban space.