- Shaping Terrain: City Building in Latin America ed. by René Davids
Most often, initial forays into the studies of Latin American cities begin with an introduction to the sixteenth-century Discovery and Settlement Ordinances, or the so-called “Laws of the Indies.” This was Spanish city-building on a massive scale, and it consistently sought to reproduce an urban rectilinear grid, centered on plazas and defined by aspects of power and control. Although this influence might appear to be one-way, René Davids and the volume’s contributors acknowledge a reciprocal quality of influence on urban design, and, despite their rigidity, the Laws and later architectural and urban designs were in many cases adapted to the natural and social landscapes. Through various timeframes, pre-colonial, colonial and more modern urban landscapes and in various cities throughout Latin America (Mexico City, São Paulo, Caracas, Santiago among others), the common thread is the argument that urban and architectural design emanating from centers of high culture in Europe was influenced by the dramatic “violent and sublime landscapes” (p. 80) in the New World and thus sets the stage for the essays in the volume.
The contributors guide the reader through a series of well-crafted essays, each one easily standing alone as a case study of a particular architectural form in a specific urban setting. Collectively, however, they remind the reader of the very premise of geographical space, of site and situation, and elaborate on topographical and human imperatives influencing the landscape. The authors remind us that urban morphology is intertwined with, not isolated from, physical and social geographies.
By introducing three overarching themes—buildings, terrain, and form; cities and water; and hills, infrastructure, and social order—the authors connect specific architectural examples to urban social, sacred, and physical space. The three themes are then integrated into a discussion of pivotal moments in city building practices, the architect’s personal perspectives, and broader political goals of national identity or progress. These urban landscapes symbolize where topographical factors coincide with socioeconomic divisions, where sacred space lays the foundation for megacities, or where the acceptance or rejection of European influences defines the architectural style. Each essay is a lens by [End Page 172] which to focus on the diversity of Latin American urban landscapes, often starting with the oldest threads of the urban fabric.
Davids’s analyses of Mexico City and Panama City illustrate that fragments of both the colonial and the indigenous city are profoundly important to mediating social and spatial relations in the modern city. Mexico City’s deep roots in precolonial urbanization, and in no small measure, the influence of indigenous sacred space, are synthesized in modern social and architectural influences. Davids illustrates this fusion with the discussion of the siting of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) on a cosmologically significant volcanic landscape (p. 22) and its controversial murals that depict cultural roots and more contemporary populist messages. Panama’s university design is the antithesis of UNAM. Its architecture purges any reference to the vernacular or the city’s historical geography, despite the country’s national identity being intricately woven into its physical geography. Panama’s vision and political agendas, at the time of the university’s construction, embraced the tenets of modernism and sought to create a different context in which the city and country were perceived internationally. This theme is again introduced by Gonzales et al., who describe the aspiration of Caracas to advance its reputation as the “capital of Latin American modernism” (p. 49), as seen in the city’s designs and unfinished projects. In Caracas, the social transformation and progressive ideals informed the creation of urban space and the city’s idealized role as a mediator between agrarian society and the “developed cultures of the modern world” (page 49).
Also evident in the adaptive quality of the Spanish model is an evolution from an ideology of conquering nature to being shaped by its...