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May '13 - Feb '16

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    UNAM - 50 years of modern architecture at the National University

    Alec Perkins
    Jul 4, '13 1:39 PM EST

    UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is the second oldest University in all of the Americas. Up until about seventy years ago, the University occupied a series of palaces and buildings in the historic center of the city. However, the powers that be decided that they would rather not have a bunch of university students running around the ancient palaces. The removal of a major center of young liberals from the historic center of protests and political power was also probably a huge factor as well.

    At any rate, the kids had to go, so a new, massive sprawling campus was designed from scratch out on the lava fields the the south of the city. It was designed and built in the 1950s by the cutting edge Mexican modernists of the time. In fact, it was recently declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its extensive Modern architecture.

    Pilotis and murals abound. There is a massive central quad to end all quads, which steps up and down all through the center of the campus. Like any university in the US, the quad was filled with students studying, throwing footballs (in Mexico? what?) and frisbees, lounging, making out, practicing group dances, holding protest rallys, napping, etc.

    A notoriosly politically active place, while I was there I watched a group of masked students put up posters on the administration building, which they had taken over in protest to planned tuition hikes.

    It feels like a modernist city from the 60s with covered walkways, buildings on stilts, brisoleis, everything on a huge scale. The highlight of coruse is Juan O' Gorman's iconic library from 1953, which is covered with a massive mural of Mexican themes blending Aztec with Scientific.

    I missed seeing the the famous "cosmic ray" pavillion designed by the Spanish structural engineer/architect Felix Candela, apparently cut from the same mold as Pier Luigi Nervi.

    Instead, I headed south, past the playing fields, to the south campus, a kind of Phase II to UNAM. The south campus is much more recent- it looked like it was constructed within the last 10 years. It's much smaller than the main campus, with more specialized public cultural buildings. It's also much more rugged with a number of smaller concrete paths and plazas linking the buildings in a wildly undulating landscape of lava rock and native scrub forest.

    MUAC, the university museum of contemporary art, was built in 2008 by Mexican Teodoro Gonzalas Leon, a major architect in the Mexican history from the 1950s onward. His style has definately changed with the times, moving from the concrete brutalism of the national auditorium and Museo Tamayo:

    In some ways, I can't belive it's the same architect. There is the continuity of emphasis on pure geometric forms, as well as the formal kink of blending one pure form to another at corners.

    At any rate, MUAC is what I think of when I think of architecture pornography. Massive, Ando-esque slabs of nearly reflective concrete, acres of glass, flooded with daylight. Not a glimpse of color or a lick of paint anywhere. Vast, empty spaces devoid of anything other than a single white chair. Inhospitable, inexplicable courtyards. Modern art museums seem lend themselves to this kind of spatial masturbation. I took pictures of nothing everywhere.

    Where it departs from the Ando model it gets more interesting, mostly in a sort of discovery / interpretive center. It is a single large space defined by a massive curving suspended concrete wall, creating a single band of glass (look ma, no mullions!) below, which looks out onto the natural landscape and lava rock gardens. Huge, circular skylights create blinding circles on the floor, where you can sit on large poofs with your friends and read about modern art, or whatever you do in these kind of spaces.

    The musuem store is pretty cool, a branch of the MoMA in New York, and downstairs, there is an overpriced restaurant with an entirely glass floor floating above the lava bed.

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Urban and architectural explorations from Mexico City to Stuttgart Germany through the eyes of a iterant architectural designer

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