Background and considerations for architecture and sculpture
in public spaces:
Brief Historical Review

Carlos Rodal

Urbis amatorem . . .

II. A brief historical review

Our first view of the rise of civilization comes from Mesopotamia nearly 6000 years ago. There we find the first public sites, where open spaces were organized around ziggurats (stepped buildings created with terraces and ramps). Egypt followed with its monumental architecture featuring palaces, pyramids, granite carvings and obelisks, all of which would influence subsequent cultures. Then came ancient Greece with its temples, agoras, marketplaces, and sculptural representations of the gods.

The Romans, who inherited their culture from the Greeks and the immense scale of their architecture from the Egyptians, contributed with their own inventions: the pozzolana-based cement that we know today, as well as the use of arches and columns, sometimes as commemorative monuments. The Romans established the basis for many of the customs that still hold today, such as the bathroom, indoor running water, and glass windows.

Because of my own heritage and the deep affection that I hold for the civilizations that came before us in the region now known as Mexico, I would like to present the case of Mesoamerica in greater detail. I will follow along the same general lines, giving examples for greater clarity and pausing along the way to examine the area of present-day Peru, where splendid cultures have arisen through the centuries, with special emphasis on the Mochica and Inca cultures.

1. Roman Forum

Turning our attention back to Mesoamerica, it is important to point out that these cultures developed without outside influences, as they remained isolated by oceans throughout the time of their development, which was not the case in the areas now known as Eurasia and Africa. But first, it is fundamental to recall the importance of beauty in the activities of those ancient peoples, and emphasize its role as one of their basic values; in short, the hub and touchstone of their lives. In the classical sense, beauty can be understood as a perfect balance between humanity, nature, and the creation of art, which abounds in both quantity and quality, ranging from utensils and decorations to highways and monuments, and which encompasses customs and aspects of daily life such as celebrations, attire, and cuisine.

The dawn of the Olmec civilization—considered the mother culture of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations—nearly 3000 years ago has left, among a large number of prototypes, immense stone heads as a representative sample of their skill. Later civilizations developed the ability to form urban centers, which began to appear around 200 A.D. and are known as proto-urban capitals.

At the heart of these early urban areas were spaces known as ceremonial centers. These cities are remarkable for the sheer immensity of both their spaces and their structures, all of which were characterized by unity as defined in plastic terms (such as the use of panels and inclines), by their functionality, and by optimal organization of their various parts. The following elements are particularly notable: plazas, courts for ballgames, public gardens, marketplaces, highways, pyramids, palaces, colonnades, steles, sculptures, mural paintings, reliefs, codex and ceramic.

These elements formed the building blocks for the remarkable, advanced urban centers and societies of their time. For this people, community life in outdoor spaces was a fundamental part of their development as individuals and as a society. Some of these cities grew into great metropolises. This was the case with Teotihuacán, Palenque, Tula, El Tajín, Monte Albán, Chichén Itzá, and Tenochtitlan, which were inhabited by the following cultures respectively and in chronological order: the Teotihuacanos, the Mayans, the Toltecs, the Mixtecs, the Maya-Toltecs, and the Chichimecs.

2.Tula Warriors. Hidalgo, Mexico.

Then came the mix of races, or mestizaje, and our colonial history: New Spain ruled by the strict “Indies Ordinances,” a set of specifications originating from Spain (and questionable in my mind from both a theoretical and practical standpoint) for the foundation of settlements, which included such elements as the central placement of the cathedral facing the main square, the government palace to one side, and a series of perpendicular roads aligned with the cardinal directions.

3. Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacan, Mexico

However, with regard to the arts, and to architecture in particular, the multifarious Peninsular (Moorish, Jewish, and Christian) plastic arts tradition became fused with the local indigenous art, as can be observed in the Plateresque art of the sixteenth century and later in the very unique Mexican baroque style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Examples of a public nature can be found in palaces, columbariums, alleyways, and squares, while religious examples can be seen in convents, open chapels, and temples with towers and cupolas. Many of these monuments include enormous depictions of crosses and saints, either carved into the atriums or appearing in relief on the facades. Some of the most notable cities include Mexico City, Puebla, Taxco, Guanajuato, Morelia, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, San Cristóbal, and Mérida.

Once it gained its independence, Mexico basically continued to follow the same norms given by the Indies Ordinances, with additional Neoclassical influences from France and England. This time period continued to exhibit some coherence in order, rhythm, and scale among the different towns.

We now make a leap in time to modern Mexico, specifically the second part of the twentieth century, where a double-faceted phenomenon is occurring; this sort of phenomenon is not unique to Mexico and generally tends to occur in “developing” nations. First, the tendency to adopt modern styles from Europe and the United States with their “possible utopia” ideals and the international school movement and to transfer them into regional cultural contexts, but with limited success, given the difficulty of incorporating these styles in an authentic rather than a contrived fashion, strained budgets, the physical size of the cities, and corrupt bureaucracies.

Second, as a result of a population shift from rural to urban areas and the population explosion resulting from technological, industrial, scientific, and economic advancements, cities have begun to see unprecedented growth, which leads to serious planning problems. This, in turn, brings about monstrous, uncontrolled expansion, producing “cities within cities” with large swaths of poverty, which are eventually torn from the fabric of urban society. These areas are characterized by inequality in the distribution of services compared to other regions of the urban spread, lack of respect for the environment, destruction of priceless historical structures, lack of integration between new construction and existing styles, discontinuities in the transportation infrastructure, increased travel cost and time, poorly overlapping land use, and deficient infrastructures.

All of these characteristics are brought about in large measure due to speculation on the demand for land, the seeking of personal benefit, consumerism, obsession with the automobile, and a body of university graduates who are poorly prepared to carry out professional work, all of which push the value of human beings far into the background. A large measure of responsibility falls on federal and local government administrations, which have lacked political will and/or issued unsound urban planning and regulation policy, placing the economic benefit of powerful special interests before the common good. However, it is important to remember that there are always honorable exceptions and that such people frequently help to avoid complete catastrophe. These anomalies have had a drastic negative impact on communities.

Severe cultural deterioration can be observed in our society and in the quality of life of that society, which, together with environmental damage, affect the personal well-being of all, but especially that of children. Despite this negativity, our recent history reveals many valuable examples of anonymous, community, and individual projects carried out with talent, care, and effort, where the prime focus has been the physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of human beings. One that is worthy of mention is “La ruta de la amistad” (“the way of friendship”) a large-scale reinforced concrete sculpture project carried out in 1968 by several artists from various countries. It was proposed and co-directed by architect, sculptor, and painter Mathias Goeritz and was constructed along a section of the south Mexico City beltway.

These reflections and references provide a brief synopsis of past achievements that will allow us to consider the present situation much more clearly. Our ancestors continue to communicate with us and do so through a rich cultural heritage, thereby granting us a “memory,” so to speak, of things to come. We have been entrusted with this priceless treasure, which must be preserved and commended to this and to future generations with good will and a generous vision, just as was done by those who have gone before.

I believe that public spaces must, as such, strive to become functional works of art. Therein lies, in large measure, the difference between cities: the extent to which they foster culture and enhance the quality of life of their inhabitants, regardless of the size of the urban spread, or social and economic conditions.

Continuity of artistic expression in Mexican culture has remained the only uninterrupted community activity for the last thirty centuries—an extraordinary aspect of our history and of human history as a whole. As I observe the renewed interest sparked by these ideas among professionals involved in architecture and the plastic arts, I remain optimistic that this tradition will continue throughout this infant twenty-first century. May this always be the case.

Translated by Alan Lambson & Wesley Krueger