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The Fight to Save a Land Art Masterpiece in the Heart of Mexico City

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Protestors congregate at the center of Espacio Escultórico (all photos courtesy Pedro Reyes unless otherwise noted)

Situated within one of Mexico City’s remaining areas of untouched land, Espacio Escultórico is considered by many as one of Latin America’s most significant works of land art. It recalls the early Mesoamerican site of the pyramid of Cuicuilco, with 64 hulking wedges of concrete circling the basin of an ancient, craggy lava bed now wild with plants. For decades since its creation in 1979 by six Mexican artists, Espacio Escultórico had offered its visitors a remarkable and rare view of the metropolitan area: an uninterrupted, 360-degree panorama of the skyline as seen from its ring that stretches 400 feet in diameter. Now, if you stand between two of the triangular slabs and gaze eastward, the upper half of a new eight-story building breaks the horizon, the white rectangle a blemish against the otherwise smooth sky.

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Mexican artist Francisco Toledo holding up a sign against Building H (click to enlarge)

Thousands of people, including artists, curators, museum directors, and art historians, are fighting to rid the view of that structure, saying it ruins the entire purpose of Espacio Escultórico. Known as Building H, it lies less than a quarter of a mile away from the artwork and houses the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which itself is responsible for preserving the massive, circular work: Espacio Escultórico arose out of the school’s own commission in 1977 and stands on its campus, the entirety of which is a UNESCO World Heritage SiteHelen Escobedo, Manuel Felguérez, Mathias Goeritz, Hersúa (born Manuel Hernández Suárez), Sebastián, and Federico Silva — some of the nation’s most prominent artists — had collaborated for two years to realize their design of a serene, public zone intended for meditation. The university, however, refuses to touch Building H, which now obstructs the view of distant volcanoes, one of the most beautiful Espacio Escultórico offered. Administrators say its erection was costly and that it provides necessary space for learning. They have largely ignored the objections; protestors accuse the university of skirting its duty to properly preserve the work of modern art.

Demonstrations first emerged from the student body during the building’s early stages last year, but calls for its removal are increasingly arriving from around the world, largely due to a campaign spearheaded by the Mexico City-born Pedro Reyes. In early February, after seeing Building H for the first time while leading a student tour, Reyes launched a change.org petition demanding the university demolish the building’s top four floors and rebuild the space elsewhere. As of this time of writing, it has amassed over 31,000 signatories, including Yoko Ono, Gabriel Orozco, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Elena Poniatowska, Tania Bruguera, and Francis Alÿs.

“As opposed to most land art sites that require a long pilgrimage, Espacio Escultórico is in the middle of the city in the university campus,” Reyes told Hyperallergic. “It is a free space that is open to the public, performing a very special role as a space of contemplation that is much needed in such a visually and auditive violent and chaotic city.

“The sculpture, since its beginnings, had a buffer zone of 327 hectares — around 808 acres — intended as a way to protect the landscape,” he said. “As Manuel Felguérez has expressed, the idea was always to keep a natural environment surrounding the sculpture 360 degrees, to fuse it with the natural surroundings and give the impression that you are outside the city even if you’re in the middle of it.”

Reyes estimates that removing and relocating the four floors would cost around $600,000 USD, but the university would not even have to pay for the adjustments. Artists such as Anish Kapoor, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Xavier Veilhan, Graciela Iturbide, and Felguérez himself have offered to donate and auction off their works to completely fund the construction efforts. The problem, therefore, is not really one of financial lack but rather of political will.

Aerial view of Espacio Escultórico (screenshot via Google Maps)
Aerial view of Espacio Escultórico and UNAM’s political and sciences department (screenshot via Google Maps) (click to enlarge)
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The center of Espacio Escultórico

Members of the Salvemos el Espacio Escultórico (Save the Espacio Escultórico) campaign have made multiple attempts to voice their concerns to Angélica Cuéllar, the new dean of the political and social sciences department. Department staff, however, say she is too busy for appointments, according to Reyes. Cuéllar assumed the position in May; previous dean Fernando Castañeda Sabido had welcomed Building H and then left amid the ensuing controversy.

“The problem here is that often, faculty directors measure their success in square meters,” Reyes said. “They always want to expand their facilities, which is not necessarily a problem, but in this case, the expansion was made on the expense of Mexico’s most important public sculpture, damaging world heritage.”

The department’s secretary general Arturo Chavez Lopez had offered to speak with Reyes and concerned students last week, but Reyes’s attempts to confirm an appointment went unanswered. Hyperallergic has reached out to Cuéllar and Lopez but has not received a response.

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Protestors congretate at the center of Espacio Escultórico

Attempts to hold administrators accountable for lack of care towards Espacio Escultórico is particularly tricky as Building H does not affect the work’s physical components. Protestors argue that its integrity depends entirely on its relationship to the landscape — that the piece is one with its surroundings. The university simply dismisses this as “only an aesthetic opinion by the artists,” Reyes said.

Anish Kapoor, in a video produced by Salvemos el Espacio Escultórico, describes the complicated situation as “a battle for the poetic spirit of a work.

“Art occupies more space than the space of the object itself,” Kapoor said. “That’s always true […] so when something fills that space, it just reduces the art. What it does is take away some of the poetic, kind of, unnameable qualities of a work. That’s why we are so careful about how we install a work in the museum. Why does it matter that it’s so thoughtful in its presentation? It’s simply to bring that quality that is latent in the work, to bring it poetically to life.

“A soul of a thing, that’s what we’re arguing for,” he added.

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Anish Kapoor at Espacio Escultórico

But even if the school refuses to recognize this poetic value, Building H may actually prove legally problematic. Salvemos el Espacio Escultórico accuses UNAM of three serious building code violations: failing to acquire a construction permit; to inform UNESCO of the construction; and to submit a study of its environmental impact on the surrounding, undisturbed Pedregal de San Angel Ecological Reserve — Mexico City’s largest ecological conservation area.

Although government-financed, UNAM enjoys administrative independence. Reyes said it has for decades taken advantage of this status, erecting infrastructure without attaining the proper permits as federal law mandates. Still, as per UNESCO’s provisions — specifically, articles 172 and 173 of the World Heritage Convention’s Operational Guidelines — university authorities should have notified the World Heritage Committee during the building’s early stages of any “major” work that “may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.” Since UNAM had closed Espacio Escultórico on weekends for the last couple of years, not many people could see how Building H impacted its view as the construction progressed. Requests over the past few months to open it during those non-work days, fueled by concerns over the growing number of floors, were rejected.

“The university has not agreed to open it on weekends, and we can only assume that they don’t want for people to be aware of the damage,” Reyes said. He added that UNAM rector Enrique Graue Wiechers had also not consulted the academic community at large, with the decision to build the structure made by a small group of officials. Many teachers have also not publicly expressed opposition to the building, allegedly fearing retaliation.

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A protestor playing the role of Building H, standing within Espacio Escultórico
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Protestors congretate within Espacio Escultórico

Although aware of the controversy, the UNESCO office in Mexico has so far failed to hold UNAM authorities accountable. Its representatives have “tried to get off the hook by saying they’re only an intermediary with the Paris headquarters,” according to Reyes. He describes the reaction as typical, citing their failure to prevent construction projects from overrunning the protected Oaxaca Valley.

“We are very concerned that Nuria Sanz, the UNESCO representative in Mexico, has shown a very mediocre and disappointing performance at this protection role,” Reyes said. Salvemos el Espacio Escultórico is now attempting to reach out directly to UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. Hyperallergic’s own requests to Sanz for comment have gone unanswered.

Some university members, including the director of the architecture faculty, have proposed camouflaging Building H as a compromise: the school could grow plants over it, paint it a certain color, or even cover it with mirrors. Salvemos el Espacio Escultórico rejects these suggestions as mere cosmetic solutions that would not respect the artists’ intentions.

“It would make the problem even worse,” Reyes told Hyperallergic. “Institutions [in Mexico] often rush to do damage control by creating fake stories or fake reparations that don’t solve the problem from its root.”

Aerial view of Espacio Escultórico
View of Espacio Escultórico

Now that one building disrupts Espacio Escultórico’s horizon line, protestors fear more may appear. The case presents the opportunity to establish a precedent to preserve national heritage sites, which is especially important in a city experiencing a construction boom.

“We are expecting the university to set a record that would be emblematic and positive,” Reyes said. “If the university does not set this record, the impact would be very damaging, as other sites would become even harder to protect.”

Campaigners hoping to restore Espacio Escultórico’s view believe that those with the power to remove Building H expect the protestors’ voices to die down with time. But the artists, educators, students, and more who make up Salvemos el Espacio Escultórico promise to continue the protests, with many more letters of appeal and public demonstrations forthcoming.

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Staffers at Whitechapel Gallery in London show solidarity for the movement to save Espacio Escultórico
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Staffers at Amsterdam’s de Appel arts center show solidarity for the movement to save Espacio Escultórico
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Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Carl & Marilynn Thoma of the Thoma Art Foundation show support to save Espacio Escultórico
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Architect Teodoro González de León holds up a sign against Building H

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Espacio Escultórico was considered one of South America’s greatest works of land art. This has been amended to Latin America. 

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