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University City and the "Plastic Integration" Movement

Ciudad Universitaria (The University City Campus)—or CU—is perhaps the most important architectural project in the country as it is a paradigm of the 20th Century modern Mexico, not only in terms of its design but also in terms of building a system for education, well-being, human coexistence, and intergenerational transmission of knowledge. The new campus for the National University was a response to the rapid increase in Mexico City’s student population in the mid-twentieth century. Its relocation on the volcanic grounds to the south of the City from its original location in the Historic Center of the federal district triggered the development of the area with an large array of modern architectural masterpieces including the prestigious neighborhood ‘Pedregal de San Ángel’ and the National University Central Library.

A competition of preliminary projects for the University City was organized, convening the National School of Architecture, the Society of Mexican Architects and the National College of Architects of Mexico. The jury decided in favor of the architects Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral’s masterplan. For the presentation of the development of the plan, as well as the independent design of each building, the architects were supported by a group of students who helped with ideas and technicalities, giving rise to a new method of education in which the intrinsic relationship between university and student was strengthened by their mutual collaboration.

The CU project was conceived and executed as a diversity of art forms in which sculpture, painting and architecture would converge in the concept of “Plastic Integration”, an artistic movement that sought to place muralism and other visual arts as fundamental components of architecture. Plastic Integration in Mexico dates from the Pre-Columbian period and can be observed in ancient temples and buildings that featured images of sacred symbology, infinite staircases and formal relations with the natural elements that were carved by hand. This style of design represented the most ancient human artistic expressions—painting and sculpture—that a few centuries later gave rise and reason to its rebirth in contemporary Mexican architecture.

Though it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that we began to see spatial design change through artistic expression, architecture in Mexico has always been intrinsically tied to artistic experimentation and has always operated as a laboratory for the development of new artistic techniques. The great muralists of the Mexican School of Visual Arts—i.e. Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco—worked under the ideological statement of "Art at the service of the people" and adorned public buildings with murals that bore socialist and anarchist imagery.

Biblioteca Central en primer plano y Rectoría en segundo
Biblioteca Central en primer plano y Rectoría en segundo

1950’s Mexico expressed a need to continue these conceptual approaches and propagated Plastic Integration through architects like Juan O'Gorman, Mario Pani and Luis Barragán who generated a body of work based on this movement. Coexisting in the field of architecture, the murals and sculptures were promoted in timely collaborations with great artists of the period like Mathias Goeritz and other such avant-gardists who began applying their notions of spatial experimentation.

The Plastic Integration phenomenon influenced almost all the buildings of the main University Campus: the Faculty of Medicine with murals by Francisco Eppens, the Faculty of Sciences and Institutes (now known as CIDI) with a mural by Chávez Morado, the University Stadium with its unfinished total mosaic by Diego Rivera, the Deans’ Office Building with murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros.

The most recognizable of these is the UNAM Central Library, an architectural project by Juan Martínez de Velasco and Gustavo Saavedra in collaboration with Juan O'Gorman that led to the creation of a spectacular 360o mural on the four facades of the library. The facades portray motifs of Mexican history and culture and are painted on a 16,000 m2 surface. The library also comprises reading rooms protected with fine travertine plates to deflect powerful UV rays and providing softer lighting for better reading. The central reading room is in direct contact with an open landscaped area and thus engages directly with the public spaces of the University.

The architectural genesis of The University City is also derived from the "super-block" model of urban design that integrates social and commercial services on the campus itself. Within its circuit, UNAM hosts classrooms, workshops, libraries, dining rooms, the Olympic stadium, various sports facilities, large open spaces and other establishments that allow for unhindered pedestrian circulation. In 2007, it is with great national pride that the Central Campus of UNAM was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its importance in the canon of modern architecture.

La importancia arquitectónica de la Ciudad Universitaria también proviene de la implementación del modelo “superbloque” de solución urbana que favorece los servicios que ofrece el campus. En su primer circuito hay salones de clase, talleres, bibliotecas, comedores, el Estadio Olímpico, canchas de squash, un gimnasio, piscina, grandes espacios abiertos, entre otras soluciones que permiten la libre circulación de peatones, sin interferencia, en completa armonía con el complejo.

Con gran orgullo, en 2007, el Campus Central de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México fue declarado Sitio del Patrimonio Mundial de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura (UNESCO) por su importancia para el legado de la arquitectura moderna.

Explanada y Biblioteca Central, Ciudad Universitaria
Explanada y Biblioteca Central, Ciudad Universitaria
Project name University City (CU) / National University Central Library
Period 1949 / 1950
Contributor CU: Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral / Central Library: Gustavo María Saavedra, Juan Martínez de Velasco and Juan O´Gorman
Location Circuito Interior S/N, Ciudad Universitaria, 04510 Coyoacán, CDMX