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Art deco may have been the time when Mexican culture took hold but the 1950's and 60's were the glory years for architecture and architects.

FIGURE 10. Torres Satelite.

Torres Satelite: arq. Luis Barragan in collaboration with artist Mathias Goeritz Figure 10. Sculpture? Urban space? architecture? Public urban art? The five Torres are all of these! I remember admiring them 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 de-centralize, the then, as now, fastest growing City in the world.

Nuclear Laboratory UNAM: Felix CandelaFigure 11.. This dainty little creature started life as a laboratory. What is it now? A storage shed! In any event it was, in its time, 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.

FIGURE 11. Nuclear laboratory UNMA.

UNAM campus Figures 12 - 13.: that is the area completed in 1952 between the Central Library and medical school is even more beautiful than Coyoacan. UNAM is one of the great urban, spatial experiences of our time. Space flows gracefully through enclosure to openness.

The over-all planning concept was lead by arq. Mario Pani assisted by arq. Teodoro Gonzales de Leon and arq. Armando Franco (both, students at the time!). Of course, many architects contributed. Juan O'Gorman designed La Biblioteca Central; Felix Candela, the nuclear laboratory, Figure 11, and many continue to today.

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?

FIGURE 12. UNAM Campus.

There is an even greater achievement in the integration of UNAM's urban spaces: that is in the parks, playing fields and small intimate areas to study, meet and contemplate. The gradient, across these urban spaces, rises to the west causing the campus to roll consonant with the long swell of and ocean current: buildings seem to riding like graceful liners. I cannot estimate what the total grade differential must be. But the well-designed parks and spaces, the skilled handling of the gradient differential, cause me to forget I am climbing.

Where else in the architecture of recent times has human functional need taken precedence over bland financial and administrative quasi-restraints? Yes, at UNAM 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.

FIGURE 13. UNAM Campus.

Another uniquely Mexican development is the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Churubusco Figure 14.. It was opened in 1995 after construction started in 1992. Needless to say this is a complex of educational buildings for dance, music, film, visual and plastic arts.

This complex has a very sensual appeal mainly because of its vivid colors: orange, violet, yellow and white. In its architectural form it is an inevitable spatial response the current concept of liberal democracy that has engulfed the world and is now rolling over Mexico.

FIGURE 14. Centro Nacional de las Artes.

Essentially the concept is the work of over-all planner architect Ricardo Legoretta. Legoretta also designed the main building; architect Teodoro Gonzales de Leon designed the music school and Enrique Norten, collaborating with Ove Arup structural engineers, designed the theatre school and auditorium.

I interpret Legoretta's concept as of a structured lineal main building, running east to west as shown in Figure 15., the site plan. This is the geometric axis of the concept. It holds, or is supposed to hold, together disparate and individually designed accompanying buildings that in turn define spaces from the interstices between. Some spaces are hard to recognize.

FIGURE 15. Centro Nacional de las Artes: Site Plan.

But I suspect the landscaped spaces were intended to follow a freedom of form in the liberal democratic manner: That is within a loose geometry individual designers can do pretty much what they like. And, indeed, that is exactly what has happened. Other architects contributing have essentially done their own thing, to the detriment of the original idea. This lack of respect for the concept is particularly evident in the 'hi-tech' theatre and dance schools Figure 16. to the west. Still, free-flowing spaces are generated, contiguous and complementary to the geometric axis. And, in my opinion, to a great extent this has been achieved to a very beautiful effect.

Of course more buildings will be added in the future, then maybe Legoretta may be able to retrieve the geometry of his defining concept.

FIGURE 16. Centro Nacional de las Artes.

Another defining element in the spatial concept, which obviously was beyond control of the planners is that it is totally isolated from its surrounding urban functions and activities. This is the result, I conjecture, of a western attitude to real-estate law. Every plot of land, every function has to be defined in legal terms: that is there has to be a clearly defined boundary between land titles. A metal perimeter barricade, together with main traffic arteries, surrounding CNA emphasizes this legal isolation.

Over all this is a beautiful urban development. Many of its negative aspects can be traced, not so much to its inherent deficiencies but more, to current contemporary yearnings for a romanticized past that probably never existed. Images of old colonial developments are firmly implanted in our minds. We tend to judge all other developments from that datum. We are accustomed to those images: they have become habitual. Accordingly contemporary development such as CNA are at a disadvantage from very their beginnings.

CNA is, for better or worse, the expression of modern liberalism. As emphasized in the previous paragraph the concept is in stark contrast to the colonial urban spaces so beloved of 'ciudadanos' today. But the comparison is misleading. We may admire the colonial past from this distance but I guarantee no one today would tolerate its restrictive life-style.

To judge this complex, then, with a subliminal image in our minds eye of, say, Santo Domingo or Plaza Hidalgo or Plaza Jacinto is to miss the point. All three were built in different times under different circumstances: although that is not to say we cannot learn from them.

Despite the afore mentioned, with UNAM particularly in mind, Mexico has an immense wealth of good and unique contemporary urban developments. And for some obscure reason Mexican 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.

Accordingly, my opening question remains: 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 Mexican architects and planners cause to pause. Why has the wealth of previous experience been ignored?

There is little point, however, 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 (Figure 17).

Surprisingly, the over-all planner for this development was Ricardo Legoretta: the over-all planner and architect for the CNA. Surprisingly because, whereas he paid some respect for urban space at Churubusco, at Santa Fe it is totally forgotten.

Santa Fe Commercial Center, the neighboring mixed-use development and the surrounding condominiums, exemplify Mexico's sally into 'global' or more appropriately, 'homogenization.' Remember Brazil, with John Cleese and Robert De Niro? Doesn't this developments have the same grotesquely, inhumanely, mammoth scaled, imagery depicted in that movie? This development expresses the ignorance of liberalism at its worst.

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 persuade ourselves that vision is inappropriate!

Nowhere is this more evident than in the dearth of public urban space, the brobdingnagian scale, badly sited buildings and wasted land at Santa Fe: God knows, the sheer banal ugliness! What in heaven's name was Legoretta thinking of?

Edifice Calakmol stands out. It is the office building enclosed by large circles, designed by arq. Augustin Hernandez, on the left of Figure 17.. It is as if a foreign object of dubious distinction has been grafted onto a haphazard collection of buildings in the hope that some sense of architecture could be retrieved from the mess. That has not happened!

GLOBAL.1970 to today: and, apparently, the future.

FIGURE 17. Edifice Calakmol. Santa Fe DF.

Arq. Augustin Hernandez had an extensive exhibition of his work at the Palacio de la Bellas Artes during January 1998. Judging by that exhibition he is obviously magnificently talented. Furthermore Mexico has given him many opportunities to exercise his talent.

Hernandez owes much to Paulo Soleri's Cosanti, Black Canyon, Arizona. The same play of geometric forms is evident in both works. Similarly, the inhuman scale. And it is in the scale of their work that both Hernandez and Soleri fall short.

It is palpably evident that this geometry at a small scale, as in Hernandez's small residential work on display at the Palacio, cannot be transposed to a larger scale evidenced in the Edifice Calakmol: nor in his other massive projects such as the Heroic Collegio Militar. Similarly the aesthetically pleasing small caste bronze bells, at Arcosanti, and the Arcosanti buildings themselves, Scottsdale Arizona, is not replicated in the incongruous scale at Black Canyon.

Both architects demonstrate an antediluvian compulsion to put ego ahead of architecture. And, of course, have no concept of placing their work in the context of public urban space.

Public urban space at Santa Fe? 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!

Ironically, solitary taco stands pop-up, inappropriately. Will they last? Or will their potential clientele opt for the 'international restaurants' behind security guards? Ambulantes 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.

Reading the semiotics particularly of the circular facade, on the left of Figure 17., I muse, how similar the form is to the Porfiriato inspired Monument to the Revolution. The monument started as the dream of a megalomaniac. The circular facade in Figure 17. encloses only an innocent office function. Still, I find the allusion revealing.

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 liberal homogenization.

La Biblioteca y Hemeroteca Nacional is a massive un-scaled building totally isolated, unrelated to anything let alone its ungainly and similar remote neighbors. The sculpture garden meanders as though the works of art are dumped there for storage.

Santa Fe, and to a lesser extent the CNA, are the victim of development without incrementalisation: one architect / planner taking on a mammoth project, more than he can handle, especially if he is also designing some of the buildings, and losing control. But then this brings up the paradox of modern liberal planning: i.e. control. Ostensibly, the motivating idea of liberalism is, indeed, freedom. But this is certainly not evident in the physical environment resulting from that ideology: especially in the way the CNA is fenced off!


Plaza de Las Tres Culturas Figure 18., as its name implies, encompasses three epochs: pre-conquest; colonialism and global.

FIGURE 18. Plazas de las tres Culturas.

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, evidently accommodating a population of over 1,000,000, 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 in well designed urban spaces, incrementally, each act of individual development together adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

FIGURE 19. Composite impression of the Basilica Guadelupe and surrounding campus.

The cluster surrounding the Basilica de Guadeloupe also encompasses several eras. The Basilica Figure 19. designed by arq. Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, in the late 1960's, 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 y Mayor Correo is used.

And now that the ambulantes (street vendors) 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?

Palacio de las Bellas Artes Figure 20.. La Palacio, El Torre Latinoamericano, the beautiful art deco Bank of Mexico and other art-deco buildings and modern buildings surrounding the plaza are yet another example of accreted public urban space.

FIGURE 20. Palacio de las Bellas Artes and Torre Latinamericano.

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, Figure 21., 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 innocuous within the scope of such internationally recognized public urban spaces as the Plaza del la Constitution, although not inconsequential, it is a treasured part of the neighborhood.

FIGURE 21. Rinconada Jesus.

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. Being the hole in the donut may be a reason why it is not part of our contemporary development pro-formas: essentially it cannot be quantified, cannot be price-tagged and, accordingly, cannot be traded. In a liberal market economy that is anathema!

It is the hole in the donut: a big chunk of nothing. And as such it can only be defined by the surfaces with which it is enclosed, their relationship, and the interstices between. That is why the 'IBEX' is so important.

Useful public urban space develops incrementally. That is, it evolves, over time, in small manageable pieces. Hipodromo Condesa has evolved over time. Although the concept and layout was carried out in the latter part of the 1920's the actual form of the buildings accreted over time; indeed it is still accreting. And nowhere is there a more beautiful example of public urban space to emulate.

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.

And to add to that trick contemporary architects must respond to the social conditions of liberalism with far more imagination. Architects must find 'UNA GEOMETRIA DE CAOS.' In other words they must do intentionally what Ricardo Legoretta appears to have done unwittingly: establish a spatial axis from which a host of free ideas can emerge within the theme.

Nevertheless, putting geometry aside, whether it is chaotic or conventional, final judgment of an urban space must rest on the subjective bias of the beautiful. So far as Legoretta's CNA is concerned he has achieved that. Geometric patterns that relate, on paper, in two dimensions are irrelevant when the experience of walking through the spaces is a sensuous as Legoretta's CNA.

Theories not withstanding therefore, architecture and urban design, in the right hands, are an art that defies all rules. The success of UNAM, that is the area between the Biblioteca Central and the Medical School, is exceptional in that it vaulted over both incrementalism and the geometry of chaos: it was built virtually all at once by one authority holding one land-title. It certainly has a geometry but hardly chaotic. And as for 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 of liberalism, we have chosen to interpret the woes of the city principally as moving people, i.e. the proposed new Metro line. Mexicans seem to be constantly moving from there to where but never really being here. Yet La Ciudad de Mexico was essentially built for the pedestrian! And it is likely that the lack of appreciation of this fact that drives 'ciudadanos' into their cars.

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 and cars, to say nothing of freeways. The best transportation planning is to plan for public urban space: 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, the hole in the donut, is looked 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. Casa Amsterdam is evidence enough that they will not lose their individual design prerogatives!

Urban design of public urban space is the future for architects: especially Mexican 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 neighborhood 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."

What the hell is urban design, anyway? Succinctly, urban design is the creation of public urban space. It is that matrix of nothingness we spend a good deal of our urban life within and surrounded by. If, then, it is that simple then why are our cities in the twenty-first century so void of it? Because the history of western development over the last two-hundred years, or more, is the co-option of the commons: be it closure the laws of the eighteen and nineteen centuries, privatization of the money supply, privatization of public services, NAFTA or pending privatization of fresh water.

La Ciudad de Mexico has recorded 12,000 recognizable urban plazas officially. This essay has described but a few: albeit the best and most interesting. Mexicans know how to build cities.

FIGURE 22. A map of the Federal District of Mexico.

The map in Figure 22. gives a general idea of the layout and relationships of the various colonias and delegacions (municipalities) comprising DF. It is interesting to note the scale of the map. Taking the east-west cross section at Centro, DF is approximately 20 km across. For the city with the largest population in the world that is very small: very densely populated. Now, of course the population also spills out into Estado de Mexico but still even that development is dense and does not match the profligate land-wasting sprawl of North American cities. Let's hope Mexican architects and city planners don't give up on their tradition at this time when it is needed more than ever.

So, may a re-appraisal of La Ciudad de Mexico's public plazas result in more beautiful public urban space throughout the cities of the world!


This essay was written in December of 1997, at the behest of the chairman of Collegio de Arquitectura UNAM in response to my request to teach in La Collegio.