The areas around the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Rectoría (administration building) offers a unique view, where one can see monumental art by different artists, all of it created in the same time period: 1952.
Five years ago this grand array of art and architecture was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as "an outstanding example of the application of the principles of 20th Century modernism merged with features stemming from pre-Hispanic Mexican tradition . . . . one of the most significant icons of modern urbanism and architecture in Latin America".
Approaching the Rectoría from the south on Insurgentes Avenue, David Alfaro Siqueiros' tile mosaic is the first of the artistic statements to come into view. Be it on canvas or murals, Siqueiros liked texture in his art. On the south side of the Rectoría he took a bold step towards his goal of producing three-dimensional mural art by including curved surfaces of faces, arms, hands, and pencils emerging from the wall.
Three-dimensional mural art sounds like a contradiction in terms, but Siqueiros achieved it a decade later in the Siqueiros Polyforum, when he incorporated metal sculpture into his mural art.
An untiled smaller Siqueiros mural on the north side of the Rectoría is less attractive, but has a clearer message. The hand, fingers, and pencil point to a list of dates: 1520, 1810, 1857, 1910, 19??, referring to the conquest of Mexico, proclamation of independence, laws of reform and new constitution, revolution, and the next social upheaval. Back in 1952 who ever thought we would live to see the year 2000? The open-ended date has been restored many times after students painted in the date of the next upheaval.
Just north of the Rectoría is the library building designed and decorated by architect and muralist Juan O'Gorman. As it was a library building, O'Gorman put in very few windows. Except for vents in the stairwells and translucent onyx in the lower-floor reading rooms, the entire building is covered on the outside with natural stone mosaic.
The west and south sides of O’Gorman’s library are visible from the Rectoría. The west portrays the university shield and university life. At first glance, the shield appears to be framed by a double-headed eagle; however, it is two different majestic birds. The Aztec eagle of the Mexican shield and the South American condor are on either side of a map of Latin America--the western hemisphere sans Canada and the United States. The letters BN and HN in the top corners are abbreviations of the collections housed in the building: Biblioteca Nacional (national book library) and Hemeroteca Nacional (national periodicals library).
On the south side of the library building O'Gorman gives us views of European life. In two large circles he presents the European views of the universe. Ptolemy's theory positions the earth in the center of the universe, contrasting with Copernicus' revolutionary theory where the earth is one of many planets in the solar system, all part of a much larger universe.
The opposite side of the library building portrays the Aztec view, with the island of Mexico-Tenochtitlan as the center of the universe, connected by canals to the rest of its known world.
Each side of the library building is a perfect rectangle. A cardboard box could have been the maquette for its design. It has become the emblematic building on the university campus, photographed in every Spanish language textbook you've ever had.
When proud Siqueiros -- upset over being eclipsed by young upstart Juan O'Gorman – was asked what he thought of the library building, he replied "Juanito has given us a "gringa vestida de China Poblana,"” He implied it could have been a building taken from Manhattan and just dressed up Mexican -- as the China Poblana. (The China Poblana wasn't Chinese at all, but likely a captive slave brought from India as a child, who, because of her intellect and beauty, became a sensation in Puebla during the viceroyalty period.)
Across Insurgentes Avenue lies the university stadium. Its stone mosaic is Diego Rivera's rendition of the university shield flanked by athletes. Under it all is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. The stadium was refurbished for the 1968 Olympic games and a dish for the Olympic flame was added above Rivera's mosaic. The shallow chromed dish always makes me think of another artist; James Metcalf.
Born in New York, Metcalf died earlier this year in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan. As a sculptor and metallurgist his search of ancient techniques led him from Paris to Mexico where he found them in Santa Clara. Craftsmen there were using a pre-hispanic design of bellows and technique for shaping copper ingots heated in charcoal fires to produce the copper kettles used throughout Mexico known as "cazos de Don Vasco".
Shortly after the conquest Vasco de Quiroga allowed copper production to continue in Santa Clara, but insisted it be to produce a Spanish designed kettle. By applying ancient techniques to produce modern design, Metcalf put Santa Clara del Cobre "on the map" of artistic metallurgic production and was commissioned to make a hand-hammered copper bowl for the flame in Olympic stadium.
Hopefully you’ll be on the UNAM campus someday soon. Enjoy seeing these very different works by three of Mexico’s great muralists.