Thursday, February 11, 2016

City Woven by Amnesiacs

A few years later, in another part of the city, Barragán became involved with another subdivision. Backed by former President Alemán and other powerful investors, the Satellite City was the project of Mario Pani.24 Begun in 1954, this covered over 2,000 acres and was intended to house some 200,000 people. It was obviously much less exclusive than El Pedregal, but still decidedly middle class and automotive in orientation. Fresh off his success at El Pedregal, Barragán was invited to design a promotional symbol for the project. He in turn invited his friend, the German émigré artist Mathias Goeritz, to collaborate. The Towers of the Satellite City were designed and built in 1957-1958.25

Drawing on the Charter of Athens and on then-recent satellite projects in Europe, Pani's Satellite City was one of many housing developments built at that time to ease Mexico City's growing pains. It was located alongside the city's main northbound highway, fourteen kilometers northwest of the Zócalo. According to Pani, the Satellite City when completed would be “absolutely self-sufficient.... a truly autonomous urban entity.”26 Its various sectors and super-blocks were carefully zoned to provide areas for habitation, recreation, education, civic and commercial functions, and parking and transportation. If these last took up a seemingly disproportionate share of the development's space, Pani said it was because this was “the epoch of the automobile,” and the Satellite City was “a city of the epoch.” He called it “a truly modern city... a city of the future, a city of tomorrow that we are beginning to build today.”27 In all of this the project was comparable to the University City, but if its functions were more genuinely diverse, its architectural forms were notably more homogeneous. According to one observer of the 1980s: Probably no section of the capital seems less identifiably Mexican than the endless sprawling neighborhoods of characterless middle-class homes in Satellite City to the north. The zone is a monument both to the middle-class Mexican's desire to own his home and to his fascination with the American way of life. Beside the multi-lane highways are huge shopping malls that are reachable only by car. The architecture of most houses could be described as modern utilitarian, although wealthier families have followed the American example of building homes around the golf courses and private clubs. 28

The towers designed by Barragán and Goeritz stand on a traffic island at the development's southern edge, surrounded by twelve lanes of blacktop. They are five in number and wedged-shaped, with their sharpest angles pointing back toward the city center. Made of reinforced concrete, hollow inside, they rise from a flat concrete-paved plaza, from 34 to 54 meters high, but as their site slopes downward toward the city, they might seem taller when approached from the south. Originally they were to have been much taller, as high as 200 to 300 meters, and accompanied by two additional towers. One was to have been used as an observatory, the others as water tanks. The ground was to be terraced and landscaped with steps, lawns, and a fountain or reflecting pool; the design was scaled back for economic reasons. According to the original scheme, two were left neutral in color and three were painted with plastic paints: one red, one yellow, one blue. Collectively they look like a somewhat miniaturized skyscraper city, or a vastly over-sized model of one, but either way they read as evident representations of buildings rather than buildings themselves. They share this aspect—the representation of modern urban architecture—with O'Gorman's painted Ciudad de México, but there the comparison ends. Where O'Gorman placed at the center of his painting a wide boulevard filled with people and cars, the Towers of the Satellite City present a peculiarly lifeless and abstract face. The space immediately around them is almost always empty. They are a quiet and all-but inaccessible center hemmed in by billboards and speeding cars, not a distinct place so much as a sign or symbol of something beyond themselves.

According to Pani, the towers stood for “man's untamable urge to transcend to great things...the spirit and the dignity of human works.”29 Goeritz called them a “plastic prayer.”30 More prosaically, they were advertisements. At El Pedregal Barragán had demonstrated his ability to turn otherwise undesirable land into valuable real estate and this, along with his friendship with Alemán, seems to have been the main reason for his having been invited to participate here. The towers—unavoidable elements of verticality and dash in an otherwise almost unrelentingly flat, monotonous landscape—beckoned would-be exurbanites to come, to stop and to imagine the possibilities of life in a newer, cleaner, safer, more exclusive “city outside the city.” They were, in effect, advertisements for urban flight.
In the chapter on "critical regionalism" in his book, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Kenneth Frampton illustrated the work of Barragán with just one image: the Towers of the Satellite City.31 One would be hard-pressed to find a less regionalistic, less inherently Mexican design in Barragán's oeuvre. The towers grew from earlier projects by Goeritz which were themselves inspired by the medieval towers of San Gimignano, Italy, and by the modern ones of Manhattan. Barragán contributed his fascination for the haunting plazas of Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico, and his interest in Corbusian tower blocks.32 At El Pedregal he had showcased the native landscape; he echoed it there in the rambling, abstract, cubic forms of the houses that he built on his own and with Max Cetto. Patios, open-beamed ceilings, and rough stone walls referred discreetly to the site and to Mexican architecture of the colonial past. None of this sort of historical or geographical situating enters into the Satellite City project. Its five faceless concrete towers could be almost anywhere, anytime. What they evoke is not so much the dynamism of the modern city but an obscure reminiscence of a city of the past, or many cities, seen through the filter of memory and the flickering of the mind's eye. They are, say, New York in the 1920s, when Barragán saw it for the first time. They are the city left behind.
Nostalgia,” said Barragán, “is the poetic awareness of our personal past, and since the artist's own past is the mainspring of his creative potential, the architect must listen and heed his nostalgic revelations."33 With the Towers of the Satellite City there is no longer that sense of history—of specific shared experience, of justified violence, hard work, and future promise—that fueled O'Gorman's painting. There is instead a vague nostalgia: history with all pain (save the poetic variety) removed; in other words, a kind of forgetting, a flight from the tough truths of present and past, and a failure to imagine—or a disinterest in engaging— the future.34 Approaching the towers from the south, seeing them in all of their miniaturized mock urban splendor, one might not be amiss in thinking of another towered structure of the 1950s: Snow White's palace at Disneyland near Los Angeles. Both are castles in the air, icons of escape from cities growing recklessly.

This is an excerpt from the text "Settings for History and Oblivion in Modern Mexico, 1942-58," by Keith L. Eggener in : Jean-Francois Lejeune (ed.), Cruelty and Utopia: Cities and Landscapes of Latin America, Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2003

25. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Pani was lead planner at the University City, and designer of numerous prominent office buildings, schools, city plans, hotels, and public housing projects. See Louise Noelle Merles, “The Architecture and Urbanism of Mario Pani,” in Edward Burian, pp. 177-89; and Mario Pani: la visión urbana de la arquitectura (México D.F.: UNAM, 2000).
26. G. Nesbit, “The Towers of Satellite City,” Arts and Architecture 75 (May 1958): 22-23; and Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, “Luis Barragán: Urban Design and Speculation,” in Federica Zanco, ed., Luis Barragán: The Quiet Revolution, pp. 158-59, 252.
27.Mario Pani, “México: Un Problema, Una Solución,” Arquitectura México 60 (December 1957): 217.
28.Ibidem: 222, 225
29. Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), pp. 388-89.
30.Mario Pani, “México: Un Problema, Una Solución”: 225.
31.Federico Morais, Mathias Goeritz (México, D.F.: UNAM, 1982), p. 37.
32.Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992), pp. 318-20.
33.Luis Barragán, "Cómo Deben Desarrollarse las Grandes Ciudades Modernas: El Creciemiento de la C. de México," Zócolo no. 3,123 (12 Oct. 1959): sec. 4, p. 1. On his interest in De Chirico see Eggener, pp. 77-81.
34. Luis Barragán, “Barragán on Barragán”: 31.