Historic Preservation as the Future from the Perspective of the Present in the Past

May 26, 2016

The history of architectural preservation is very recent; however its limits—like those of cities—have expanded exponentially in the last hundred years. In his essay "The Modern Cult of Monuments" published in 1903, the art historian and critic Alois Riegl wrote that a monument may or may not have an artistic value, but that it invariably has a historical value. Cities (built in different political, social and aesthetic contexts) certainly comprise a set of historical values, not that everything should be considered a monument, but this idea has made us ask ourselves what of history we have preserved in cities, for what, and at what point do we make the decision to preserve something?

For the government of pre-revolutionary Mexico at the beginning of the last century—a political dictatorship that celebrated culture but repressed public discourse—the criteria for determining what constituted the country’s cultural heritage was based solely on the remains of civilizations that preceded the Spanish conquest. An example of this is found in the pyramids of Teotihuacán, the first archaeological site in the country, inaugurated in 1910 by Porfirio Diaz to celebrate the Centennial of Mexican Independence with the intention of exalting national identity in a time of crisis. Today, the pyramids are one of the most visited tourist attractions around the country’s capital.

Largely as a result of mass destruction to the built environment caused by the world wars, as of 1945 UNESCO—an organization with current authority in more than 195 countries, including Mexico—created criteria to define and protect world cultural heritage, which is broadly defined by UNESCO as those monuments, sites, or buildings with outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art, science, aesthetics, anthropology, or ethnology.

However, the definition of patrimony has not been exclusively the determination of government or international organizations; the private sector and the tourism industry have also been interested in the conservation of sites that tourists pay to visit, and governments have been pressured to respond to the economic interests of investors.

In 2008 Rem Koolhaas noted that time reveals another important aspect in the history of architectural conservation. In 1818, structures built 2000 years ago were considered of sufficient value for preservation (as in the case of Teotihuacán); but only a century later, the interval of passed time was reduced to 200 years, and by 1960, buildings constructed only 20 years earlier were qualified for architectural conservation.

However, the steady expansion of the boundaries of conservation is not always on par with the ability of the authorities to take responsibility. Conservation of the built environment should not only consider structures, but their context. Recently in Mexico City, a group of people publicly denounced the authorities' neglect of the National Autonomous University of Mexico—whose campus was built in 1952 and registered in 2011 in UNESCO’s World Heritage List—in allowing the construction of an eight-story building within the perimeter of a protected buffer area. This building affects the landscape surrounding the Espacio Escultórico (Sculptural Space) of the University, a space inscribed within a circle 120 meters in diameter marked by 64 prisms at its limits that reveals the landscape and the original topography of the south of the city, and which represents, according to a published document, one of the most important works of Land Art in the world and, along with the Satellite Towers, is one of the most important monumental sculptures in the country. The construction inspired the community to issue a petition demanding the demolition of the top four levels of the new building as the only solution for "restoring the integrity of the artistic work.”

Cases like this oblige us to reflect critically on the future of the built environment, and the possible responsibilities and limits of preservation. What is being preserved, by whom, and for what purpose?

The modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi thought that conservation had not only a political purpose, but represented a means to new social practices. The significance and form of those practices must emerge from everyday culture, be directed toward the social dimension of the built environment, and respond to present needs. Acknowledging the instability of cultural values ​​would help to understand the quotidian. For Bo Bardi, history only made sense as part of the transformation of the present. She said, "it is necessary to consider the past as a historical present, still alive."[1]

In that sense, and in order to reflect on our commitment to conservation, it is worth understanding time as the simultaneous existence of past experiences in the present, projected into the future.

In Mexico City, as in many of the cities that developed or were born in the course of the last century, the modern movement had a great influence on how the urban environment was constructed in form and substance. Relevant for their aesthetic, social, and political value, a large part of these architectural works have been cataloged by national and international institutions with the intention that they be preserved. However, many others, no less valuable, have had less resistance to change and the passage of time, or to political, social, aesthetic, and economic instability.

What follows are four examples that serve as an exercise for reflection on the transformation, adaptation and preservation of our environment. For this purpose I have included archival material, both images as well as verbal descriptions, published around the time these works were constructed. In contrast to this first approach, I accompany each case with a description of my contemporary experience of visiting each of these spaces, followed by a recording of the sounds set within them. The intention is that readers build their own images of this space, based on past experience, to reflect on what might be in the future.

Note: In order to appreciate the auditory content presented below it is recommended that you use headphones.


1. Casa del Moral, Calle General Francisco Ramírez 5, Colonia Ampliación Daniel Garza, Mexico City. By Enrique del Moral, 1947–1949.
Currently home to LABOR, contemporary art gallery

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Enrique del Moral, Casa del Moral, 1949. View of the main bathroom. Photo by Enrique del Moral
Enrique del Moral, Casa del Moral, 1949. View of the main bathroom. Photo by Enrique del Moral

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View of the dining room and covered terrace. Photographer unknown
View of the dining room and covered terrace. Photographer unknown

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Photo of the living room. Photographer unknown
Photo of the living room. Photographer unknown

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Top: Photo of the patio. Photographer unknown. Bottom: View of the patio from the bedroom. Photographer unknown
Top: Photo of the patio. Photographer unknown. Bottom: View of the patio from the bedroom. Photographer unknown

In a certain way, this house is as much a kind of self-portrait as a particular interpretation of a cultural tendency, as it clearly reflects the nature of the artist’s own leisure, as well as his elegance and discretion. The experience of moving through this construction is intense, involving turns, circles, transitions and the strong contrast of light and shadow.

The materials are texturized and robust and include deep ochre walls, wood floors with wide slats and deep grooves, louvre windows and grates, rough bocks of masonry, alabaster screens that emit an amber light and volcanic stone in a concentrated black color on some of the terrace floors.

Visitors to Casa del Moral are guided quickly, though indirectly, to the more public spaces: the living room and the dining room, which are directly adjacent to the garden, the main unifying element connecting all the spaces. Nevertheless, there is a constant sensation that many other private lives exist behind these walls, screens and divisions, and just a quick review of the house’s set-up is enough to understand the subtle ways that its hallways and stairs are arranged to ensure privacy and mark off the different “zones” of the house: the kitchen area next to the small patio that gives access to the complex, the master bedroom with its little secret garden and its study upstairs in the back of the room, and the guest apartment above one of the staircases next to the entryway.

In fact, this is in no way a typical idea for a patio; it’s more similar to a sort of labyrinth experienced as a set of unfolding layers, some tangible and visible, and others invisible or merely implicit.

The experience involves separations, compression and expansions, and apparently reveals a deep fusion of certain characteristics of Cubist space with others that invoke, at a great historic and geographic distance, the spatial complexity of Moorish architecture.[2]

On Friday morning you leave behind the Constituyentes metro as you walk along the avenue of the same name. At your left, on the corner of General Francisco Ramírez, you see the first façade on the street, painted blue. You ring the bell, someone answers, and you reply that you wish to visit the gallery.

One second later, the door is buzzed open and you push through it, closing it behind you. You see no one; the hallway is wide. There is only one path to the gallery’s main room, but still you hesitate. At the end of the path is a small patio, and at the other end of the patio you see the entryway to the main gallery, a garden full of tall trees to its right. On the left side of the patio, behind a window, you recognize the person who opened the door. You wave, he responds and then returns to his workspace.

You pass through the door at the end of the patio to arrive at the entryway, take a flyer from the shelf and continue towards the gallery. The exhibit’s principal piece hangs from the ceiling, almost in the middle of the room. The whole interior is painted white, except for the floor and the art. At the highest part of the right-hand wall there are windows, and behind the windows you see foliage from the trees in the garden. Through the trees, daylight projects onto the gallery’s concrete floors, mixing with the shadows cast by the artworks hanging from the ceiling. 


2. The Building of the Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, Colonia Tabacalera, Mexico City. By Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, 1950–1951.
Currently Le Meridien Mexico City, a 4.3 star hotel

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Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos, 1951. Views of the front and back exteriors of the building. Photos by Guillermo Zamora
Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos, 1951. Views of the front and back exteriors of the building. Photos by Guillermo Zamora

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Interior and exterior views of the nursery for the children of employees. Photos by Guillermo Zamora
Interior and exterior views of the nursery for the children of employees. Photos by Guillermo Zamora

Originally conceived as an office building, when it neared completion it was acquired by the federal government to be adapted and occupied by the Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos (Department of Hydraulic Resources). For this reason it does not feature all the characteristics that should be found at the site of a department of the nation.

It consists of 22 floors, including the two floors of the basement. The lot’s surface area measures 750 square meters (over 8,000 square feet), of which 690 square meters (7,400 square feet) are taken up by the ground floor, with upper floors of 320 square meters (3450 square feet) in area, combining for a total of 11,000 square meters (118,400 square feet) of available space. To that we must add approximately 1,400 square meters (15,000 square feet) provided by the two basement floors—where the archives are kept—and another 350 square meters (3,770 square feet) of offices on the ground floor, for a grand total of 12,750 square meters (137,240 square feet) of space for use by the department’s many offices and bureaus.

In the basement, which has a ventilation system to bring in fresh, filtered air, we find the Assembly Room with the capacity to hold 240 people. The two top floors of the building are reserved for the children of the women who work at the Department: the nursery, the playroom and wide outdoor terraces with appropriate safety barriers.[3]

You walk along Paseo de la Reforma, and at your left you find the new Plaza building. You cross Calle Ramírez and pass the threshold of the only building standing on this triangular block.

You leave the revolving glass door behind and look up at the ceiling, which is three stories tall. From the center hangs a decorative piece made of spheres. You look again, and you realize that the spheres are carved, and lit from within.

You look down, and the floor is made of marble. The stairs to the mezzanine and their handrails are also marble; the material reflects the shine of the lights in the lobby (as well as the silhouettes of the three women chatting in the middle of the space). The security guards dress in black; they are large men—rather tall and strong.

You climb the central stairs to reach the bar. A musician plays for a couple seated there; the rest of the space is empty. The men dressed in black follow you. 


3. Autos Francia, Calle Serapio Rendón 117, Colonia San Rafael, Mexico City. By Félix Candela. 1952.
Currently Bodega Aurrera, a supermarket

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Félix Candela, Autos Francia, 1952. Interior view. Image taken from the magazine, Calli, Nº 2
Félix Candela, Autos Francia, 1952. Interior view. Image taken from the magazine, Calli, Nº 2

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Félix Candela, Autos Francia, 1952. Interior view. Image taken from the magazine, Calli, Nº 2
Félix Candela, Autos Francia, 1952. Interior view. Image taken from the magazine, Calli, Nº 2

The structural form is that of an umbrella—units sustained by just one support—with a rectangular floor plan, blind perimeter walls and aerial illumination provided by differing levels in the roof. 

 

Here the rhythm of forms and light attains maximum intensity, given that the contrast between the surfaces of the roof is much more pronounced by their rigid lines and well-defined edges. The columns, of vast importance in this design, extend into the roof and repeat themselves obsessively through the room, giving the sensation of a strange and military formation executed with discipline.

The use of exposed concrete, emphasizing the lines generated on the surface, is an unmistakable display of a fine sense of materials and their natural textures.

There exists a danger of losing all sense of scale, since no internal element impedes the excessive proliferation of forms, but at all times one encounters extraordinary visual possibilities.

This is why we are faced with great incongruence upon viewing the exterior perimeter wall that marks the border of the built area.

The exterior appearance of the structural system is minimal, limiting the façades to serve simply as curtains that define the constructed area, creating a pronounced imbalance by denying any suggestion of the visual richness of the structural volumes or the highly nuanced internal spaces within.[4]

 

 

8:30 p.m. You turn to your left toward a wide, dark street, with a section of sidewalk that’s been blocked off by a construction site for several months. You step down from the sidewalk and walk on the street, weaving among the double-parked cars, and you return to the sidewalk—that’s just how Calle Serapio Rendón is. You pass by a hotel with a tourism bus parked in front. To your left you see the entrance to a nearly full parking lot, lit by neon lights hanging from the ceiling, some burned out. At the end of the parking lot you recognize the supermarket entrance by its glass doors. You’re inside. The ceiling is an extension of the roof of the parking lot, or the roof of the parking lot is an extension of the ceiling of the supermarket. No one looks up at the ceiling. Everyone’s attention is focused on the products and the prices printed on yellow labels. The green signs for sales and promotional offers hang from the ceiling, just like the neon lights and the security cameras (at least one per aisle). There’s an aisle for cleaning products, one for chips and sodas and one for canned goods. The bakery is at the back, to the left of the fruits and vegetables. A scale also hangs from the ceiling. You return to the glass doors of the entrance, and in front of them there’s a line of boxes. The checkout lines are long. You keep heading straight toward the exit.

 


4. Plaza de Las Cinco Torres, Boulevard Adolfo López Mateos, Ciudad Satélite, Mexico State. By Luis Barragán, Mathias Goeritz and Jesús Reyes, 1958.
Currently the Torres de Satélite.

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Luis Barragán, Mathias Goeritz, and Jesús Reyes, Plaza de las cinco torres, 1958. Photograph of a maquette and an illustration by Mario Pani explaining the entrances to Ciudad Satélite. Images taken from the magazine Arquitectura, México, Nº 60
Luis Barragán, Mathias Goeritz, and Jesús Reyes, Plaza de las cinco torres, 1958. Photograph of a maquette and an illustration by Mario Pani explaining the entrances to Ciudad Satélite. Images taken from the magazine Arquitectura, México, Nº 60

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Aerial view of the plaza and a frontal view of the completed towers. Images taken from the magazine Arquitectura México, Nº 60
Aerial view of the plaza and a frontal view of the completed towers. Images taken from the magazine Arquitectura México, Nº 60

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Frontal view of the towers during construction. Photographer unknown
Frontal view of the towers during construction. Photographer unknown
The two monumental plazas at opposite ends of the intersection of the highway and Ciudad Satélite maintain the speed of passing traffic. The width of the four lanes that pass the city is 60 meters, without counting the restricted areas … the monumental nature of the two entrances, north and south, to Ciudad Satélite, symbolizes the irrepressible human resolve that emerges in great matters that may appear small but that show us the presence of spirit and dignity in human works.[5]

 

 

You pay the driver with a 20-peso bill, and he gives you 10 back in change. You take the first seat on the right of the bus. It’s Friday and traffic is heavy. An hour later you exit the bus on the access road of the highway, near a pedestrian bridge. “This is the stop,” you hear, before stepping off the bus. In the distance you see five towers. One blue, one white, one yellow, one red, and another white. You walk toward them. It begins to get dark and the headlights of passing cars start to shine as you reach the median. From here, the perspective is different. You turn your gaze upwards to find the top of the tallest tower, but it’s not enough—you’d have to see them from the lowest and closest possible point. You look for a way to cross the avenue, but the flow of cars and buses is constant. You continue along the same sidewalk to see the other side of the towers. You find a route to reach the other side, the only point of access—it’s exclusively for the use of automobiles. 

 

 

[1] Quoted in Lina Bo Bardi and the Architecture of Everyday Culture, Zeuler R. M. A. Lima, November 2013.
https://placesjournal.org/article/lina-bo-bardi-and-the-architecture-of-everyday-culture/#
taken from a lecture at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Sao Paulo, April 14, 1989. Transcribed by the Institute Lina Be and P. M. Bardi (ILBPMB)

[2] Curtis, William J.R. (1997). “The General And The Local: Enrique del Moral’s Own House, Modernity and the Architecture of Mexico, Edward R. Burian. Trad. A.

[3] Arquitectura México. (1951). Edificio de la Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos, [electronic version]. Arquitectura México. Vol 33, 136–171.

[4] Candela, F. (1960). 3 fábricas de Felix Candela, [electronic version]. Calli. Revista analítica de arquitectura contemporánea. Vol 2, 13–23.

[5] Pani, M. (1957). México. Un problema. Una solución. Ponencia presentada en la SAM, [electronic version]. Arquitectura México. Vol 60, 198–232.