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September 02, 2017

How Mexico City Built Its Stature As A Bold Centre Of The Modern World

Text by Michael Snyder

Marked by revolutions, the capital emerged stronger after each upheaval. We track down its network of neighbourhoods that speak volumes about its rich heritage

Growing up in the US in the 1990s, all I knew about the destination was smog and sprawl — features I principally associated with Los Angeles, that beast of a city over on the other coast. It was not, as far as I knew in those days, a place you’d want to go. It was huge but un-urban, blighted by pollution and violence, impressive in its sheer bigness but not a whole lot else. Cut to 2017 and Mexico City has developed an entirely different reputation as an international capital for food and art, as the next coolest city in the world. You may have heard it being referred to as ‘the new Berlin.’

You could be forgiven for believing that the metropolis has experienced some sort of evolutionary spring forward in terms of net hipness. But, as I discovered shortly after moving here last year, walking through the city’s complex network of neighbourhoods reveals artistic and cultural achievement that predates the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, a city of revolutions and rebellions; one that has absorbed more than its share of destruction and always come out stronger. The story is inscribed in its Aztec foundations, tilting colonial churches, and colossal modernist monuments. Mexico City is not the new anything: it has always been a place of explosive dynamism and violent creativity.

The physical and temporal starting point here is the Zócalo, the vast public square that was the ceremonial centre for the Aztec City of Tenochtitlán — once the largest urban centre on earth and, following the conquest, the political and religious heart of New Spain. Standing at its centre, flanked by the graceful facade of the Palacio Nacional and the soaring belfries of the 18th-century Metropolitan Cathedral, you’ll feel the immensity of Spain’s ambition. Walk toward the north-east corner of the square and you’ll also feel the magnitude of Spain’s barbarity as you cross the recently opened pedestrian bridge over the foundations of the Aztec Templo Mayor, the site of ritual sacrifices that the conquistadors obliterated in a thoughtless show of parochial power comparable to the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan.

A few blocks north, the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education (open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) houses three storeys of Diego Rivera’s most accomplished murals, moody evocations of mountains and deserts and grandiose depictions of Mexico’s socialist revolution.

Head right out the building’s entrance and take a left down Calle San Ildefonso past the fortress-like facade of the former college of the same name, built in the city’s characteristic rust-red volcanic rock. Then, turn right at Correo Mayor and left onto the bustling pedestrian street called Moneda. Stop at the Museo Ex Teresa Arte Actual, a former church sinking at a dizzying angle into the city’s unstable soil, one of many visible testaments to the region’s tumultuous seismic history. From there, continue down Moneda toward the Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad and right onto Alhóndiga into the section of the historic centre that contains the spillover from La Merced, one of the city’s largest and oldest markets.

After lunch at Roldán 37, catch an Uber to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, once a satellite city of Tenochtitlan, now a neighbourhood just north of the colonial city. The plaza itself consists of a labyrinthine network of Aztec foundations overlooked by a spindly 16th-century Spanish church and the towering modernist facades of the Tlatelolco housing projects, built in the 1960s by Mario Pani, one of Mexico’s most important 20th-century architects and a pioneer of public housing in the Americas.

From Tlatelolco it’s a quick drive (or a 20-minute walk through a charming but admittedly dodgy neighbourhood called Colonia Guerrero) to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, arguably Mexico City’s most impressive contemporary structure. Designed by Alberto Kalach and inaugurated in 2006, the library’s soaring modular interior holds 5,80,000 volumes, art spaces and auditoriums, and artworks by major Mexican artists like Gabriel Orozco. From here, walk a few blocks east to the beautiful central plaza of Santa María la Ribera, the next stop for gentrification as the local cool kids move north from the confines of Condesa and Roma. Take a seat and enjoy the bustle around the Moorish Kiosk before grabbing a drink or a quick bite at one of the nearby cafes and restaurants.

Start your Sunday morning early at the twin museums (National Museum of Anthropology and Tamayo Museum) at the northern edge of the Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s majestic answer to Hyde Park. The former is overwhelming in scale, presenting remnants of ancient Meso-American cultures in a space-age building from 1964, while the latter, devoted to modern art, occupies an elegant, horizontal structure that crouches modestly amidst the greenery.

The home of Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century architect, Luis Barragán, winner of the second Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1980, lies at the other end of the Bosque de Chapultepec. Unremarkable from the outside, the house’s interior encapsulates Barragán’s singular fusion of hacienda architecture with modernist austerity. Next door, the Archivo de Diseño y Arquitectura holds a modest but worthwhile collection of quotidian objects, while Galería Labor across the street is one of the city’s most consistently interesting contemporary art spaces.

Throughout its modern history, Mexico City has taken great pains to fashion itself as a centre of the modern world, a centuries-long process that perhaps reached its zenith with the construction of the University City, a new campus to house the National Autonomous University of Mexico, better known as UNAM. Built in the 1950s by a consortium of the country’s best architects, it is, in effect, a city within the city, centred on a cluster of buildings: a powerful apotheosis of Mexico’s 20th-century identity, in all its bold, complex beauty.

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