Central University City Campus of the UNAM
The Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) is a prominent example of 20th century modernism.
It encompasses university buildings, sports facilities such as the Olympic Stadium, Cultural Center, and Central Library. They are surrounded by vast open spaces, esplanades, and gardens. Modernist elements such as reinforced concrete were combined with local volcanic stone that is also prominent in pre-Hispanic structures. Murals on the main campus were painted by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Community Perspective: The UNAM is easily accessed by metro from Mexico City Center and it is still bustling with students. Expect no signboards so come prepared. The mural arts are the highlight.
Map of Central University City Campus of the UNAMLoad map
I visited this WHS in December 2021 on a sunny morning. The most iconic building of the Central University City Campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is the central library. Just next to it, on the terrace leading to the Rectory Tower building, is the UNESCO WHS inscription plaque, just opposite the tunnel leading to the stadium. Like other Mexican WHS, there are no information boards to help guide visitors, not even in Spanish, so you need to come prepared on what you want to see and some background information.
The OUV of this WHS lies in the dynamic fusion of Mesoamerican motifs and revolutionary ideals. The UNAM is an independent university founded in 1910 and built over the succeeding decades with contributions from many leading artists and architects. Apart from the main university buildings, there is a sculpture park with monumental earthworks built around lava flows. The university is one huge quadrangle, entered from above with long wide rows of steps leading down, almost mimicking the urban spaces of the Aztecs, with legible propaganda displayed on the university buildings.
The university's designs were influenced by functionalism, which at one time informed anthropology, psychology and the sciences. In a nutshell, it is the theory that all aspects of a society serve a specific function and are necessary for the survival of that society. This holistic regard for the past holds great meaning in a place with such archaeological evidence of pre-Colombian greatness.
Besides the UNESCO WHS metal plaque, education is portrayed as an act of defiance and in itself a revolutionary act, by a striking mural by David Alfaro Siquieros of a giant hand with a pencil which embodies the revolutionary expression also present in Brazilian Modernism, and several dates from 1520 to 19??. The dates represent significant historical dates which match up with Mexican historical events, such as the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1520 or the defeat of the Spanish troops by insurgent forces in 1810. The Rectory Tower next to this mural is a pretty ordinary high rise building like many others on campus with the exception of a decorated pop-out room about half way up, also decorated with a mural by Siquieros. On the rear side of the tower is another mural with bas-relief by Siquieros.
The most striking building is undoubtedly the Central Library. The mural by Juan O'Gorman, who worked with Gustavo Maria Saavedra and Juan Martinez de Velasco, is a cosmic view which spans the atomic age, European culture, and pre-Colombian history as a continuum, each with equal importance. The north wall depicts the pre-Hispanic past, the south wall depicts the colonial past, the east wall depicts the contemporary world, and the west wall depicts the university and modern Mexico.
The murals are made by thousands of colored tiles brought from all over Mexico. The murals on the south wall of the UNAM Central Library were inspired by the representation of Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility in the ancient Nahua-Culhua religion, visible in the murals from different viewpoints. Another aspect of functionalism is the emphasis on direct experience and applied fieldwork, as opposed to an educated elite writing second-hand memoirs based on hearsay, working from 19th century ivory towers. In a way, the Aztec motifs are still real and immediate, even though the Aztecs themselves no longer exist as a sovereign nation.
The School of Architecture at UNAM offers undergraduate and postgraduate studies in architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism and industrial design. The red and white building was designed by the architect Jose Villagran, and is situated 180 degrees from the Central Library. It undulates like a cosmic snake and uses brise soleil to control the sun's heat instead of relying on energy-intensive cooling systems. It really reminded me of Le Corbusier's buildings as well as some of the modern buildings of Olivetti in Ivrea, Italy. There is an excellent mural by Jose Chavez Morado surrounded by a small quaint tree-lined garden which should not be missed before heading to the quirky looking concrete laboratory known as the Cosmic Ray Pavilion with yet another moving mural called La Superacion del Hombre Por Medio de la Cultura. Another interesting facade is that of the Chemistry Building with the periodic table on its glass facade.
I really enjoyed my visit at the UNAM and it really is a great half day trip that goes well with the countless murals in Mexico City.
La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) is a very (if not the most) important university in Latin America, and its campus is gigantic. I honestly had not realised how big it was before exiting the train at the Universidad metro station. Because it is tremendously HUGE! I was expecting some clear paths leading to the center of the campus from the metro station. I only stumbled on a confusing maze of street vendors and food stands before only hitting fences. After some walk, I found a map of the campus and though: Great! I'll be able to find my way around it. Mistake. It was only the map of the Facultad de Medicina Veterinaria y Zootecnia UNAM (Faculty of Veterinary Medicine UNAM), that alone has more than 20 buildings!
Nevertheless, I still made my way to main sights of the core zone. Despite the peaceful ambiance and the blooming Jacaranda, I was disappointed. As important as this university is, it did not appear special or unique to me. La Biblioteca Central, even though it might look like a giant owl or an oversized ghetto blaster, is an amazing piece of art and a valuable WHS. It is very beautiful and the murals made of thousands of colored tiles represent an extraordinary construction effort and a highly creative and innovative feat by Juan O'Gorman. Sadly, nothing else on the campus really stands out. Some buildings are worth mentioning: el Auditorio Alfonso Caso is notably beautiful. Unfortunately, the mural “El pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al pueblo. Por una cultura nacional neohumanista de profundidad universal” on La Rectoría building was under scaffoldings and could hardly be seen. But again, none are outstanding. The same applies with the Olympic Stadium, which is singularly built with local volcanic stones, but is mundane to see from the distant fences.
I also visited other UNAM sights in the buffer zone and was again disappointed by them. For example, the botanical garden (Jardín Botánico IB-UNAM) and the ecological reserve (Reserva Ecológica del Pedregal de San Ángel) were rather small (at least the parts we are allowed to visit) and not very well maintained compared with other gardens I've visited in Mexico. I also walked to el Espacio escultórico de la UNAM. Most of the sculptures are intriguing and fun to walk around but are far from jaw-dropping. The main sculpture, described by a traveller I met as her highlight of Mexico, is a 13-m wide circular platform with an outer diameter of 120 m. It supports 64 4-m high triangular pieces, and its center is filled with crushed volcanic stone. I think it was very impressive and represent a nice piece of land art, but I think she still overestimated it.
Logistically, I spent about half a day walking around UNAM. Walking is the key word here, as, as I already told, the campus is gigantic. However, twelve bus lines (Pumabús) also run around the campus, and I took one to come back at the metro station. These buses are free to board and have a frequent schedule. I combined this half-day trip with another one in Coyoacán, to see TWHS Frida's blue house and visit the historic neighborhood. Similarly, this part was interesting without being fantastic. Among the six days I spent in Mexico City, this one was, by far, the dullest.
We nearly missed this one, wandering through from Copilco metro station we were met by a series of locked gates, seeming to show the whole campus could was out of bounds. Fortunately a local shop employee was able to direct us to a back entrance. This meant our first impression wasn't that great, though the tatty looking student union office covered in revolutionary left wing leaflets and graffiti certainly did bring a nostalgic and knowing smile to my lips.
Finally in the main precincts I was actually more impressed than I thought I would be. It felt familiar, however there was evidently something a little special about it. Obviously there are was the huge mosaics on the library. They are more intelligible as a history of Mexico up close, looking less like a giant owl than I had previously thought. However it was the quality of some of the other buildings that really grabbed me. My highlight was the post graduate centre and attached Auditorio Alfonso Caso elevated on slender piloti. The sheer amount of building sized mosaics dotted around the campus really started to make an impression.
My wife reflected that this was the WHS she felt most "dragged" to Mexico City, however she was happy to see the large Rivera mosaic on the Olympic stadium across the road, and I got another tick on yet another list. If you are heading there outside term time try the entrance next to this stadium on ave. Insurgents as it seems guaranteed to be open.
For me the quality of the modernist architecture was really impressive and elevated the site beyond just a standard university campus.
[Site 7 : Experience 4]
I fell in love with this campus the more time I spent within its boundaries. Firstly, there are several dominant murals, but there are also several "hidden" ones that I stumbled across completely by accident. The buildings really compliment each other, and though often of eclectic designs really are stunning taken as a whole.
During my visit, there were several students playing Quidditch. (Yes, that Quidditch!) The sky was blue, the weather was very pleasant, and I had all these structures and murals largely to myself.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
From Luis Barragan House, I continued my modernist journey to UNAM or Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, another UNESCO listed modern architecture site in Mexico City, by metro. I started from Copilco Station, but since I arrived almost 5 PM, there were no students for me to follow for direction; I had to walk to the direction where students came from instead. Luckily I found the gate of the university and the car park area of Faculty of Medicine. The university was in full swing with late evening activities like group studying, meditation class, English club, drama play rehearsal, soccer, basketball etc. At first I was quite awkward to walk around as I felt that it was not a place for tourists, but after watched those students for a while, it reminded me my university or even high school times, and that made the visit more personal than I thought.
The first interesting building I saw was the Cosmic Ray Pavilion, since there was a basketball competition on the foreground of this interesting looked building, the whole area was full with spectators and team supporters, so I only saw the pavilion from the other side of basketball field, but still I was able to admire the nearby giant mural of Franciso Eppens, the corn is probably the think that I like most from this mural. The next one was the mural at auditorium; personally I did not like this one for its strange depictions, but it is still a nice art. Then I was in the large open area, the most impressive site I saw was the very long building for university classrooms, this building probably the longest university building I have ever seen. The famous central library building and the Rector Tower were my next places to see. These two buildings and surroundings are the true highlight of my trip. The library wall is really beautiful with pre-colonial style mural, while the mural on the rector tower is very eye-catching. I also impressed the stone walls and stairs that look like the ancient ruins of Maya or Aztec. Then I crossed the street and saw the really interesting designed Olympic Stadium.
All in all, UNAM is a collection of nice designed buildings with interesting art works. The building complexes in some aspects look very strange as I believed all those architectures who designed the building tried to put their signatures at least in one building, resulting in an interesting mix of many types of modernism from straight lines, curve and cubic forms, but strangely that it turned out to be harmoniously look good. The mural arts also help the university complex looks more interesting than other modern styled universities. Anyway if you are not interested in architecture or plan to study here, visiting UNAM is just a strange idea to travel far from Mexico City centre to see university, but again if people can travel from London to see university in Oxford and Cambridge for beautiful buildings there, UNAM which is equally impressive but in the different architectural style can be a good idea, so why not?
From the Copilco metro station, it is not immediately clear which way you have to go to the university campus. The station lies in a built-up area and I did not see any signs directing to the UNAM. But I did notice lots of medical students in white coats and decided to follow them. In about 5 minutes we duly arrived at the Faculty of Medicine, the first complex of the university area. It's a bit strange to walk here as a tourist as all the other people around you are staff and students. But you can just walk in and the general atmosphere is very relaxed.
The first great murals already are at this Faculty - rising up enormously behind your back! And at the edge of a basketball field where students were playing, I noticed right away one of the more famous structures of the campus: the Cosmic Ray Pavillion by Felix Candela. There are no information panels or any other signs that will guide you around the university and I forgot to print out a map. That proved to be no problem though: from the Faculty of Medicine you just head out straight ahead and you will pass all the highlights and end at the Olympic Stadium. I started walking on the right-hand side and took in the other side on my way back to the metro station.
The central area is occupied by a landscape garden designed by Luis Barragán. This part of the campus clearly has seen better times: the grass has been trampled over and over, and people walk their dogs there. It has plenty of benches to sit on, but a persistent smell of urine drove me away. Fortunately, at the end of this large field, the two most impressive buildings are located: the library and the rectory. The library is impressive from all sides. Its design is much Aztec-inspired and feels somewhat familiar after having seen the Templo Mayor in the city center yesterday.
I finished at the Olympic Stadium. It really does look like the volcanic cone that it was meant to emulate. From the stadium, I walked back to where I started and passed several more interesting reliefs and murals. The whole place is a quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of most of Mexico City, and to me, it looks like a pleasant place to study. Fortunately, it still is in active use as a university, I would not know what would have become of it when it has lost its purpose.
Although it was only inscribed in 2007 it is somewhat surprising to see that this easily accessible site in an easily accessible city still hasn’t been reviewed almost a year later. When I first visited Mexico City in 1971 it was inconceivable NOT to go out to see it, since the Library building in particular, with its O’Gorman mosaics, was a world famous iconic building occupying much the same space in “world consciousness” as the Sydney Opera House does today. However, much time has passed since those days only 3 years after Mexico hosted the 1968 Olympic Games and had received a degree of exposure since unrepeated (Indeed the Olympic stadium is part of this inscription). I had felt unable to do a review based on visits 36 and 25 years earlier but went back yet again during our trip round Central Mexico in Mar 2008 to assess how time had treated both the site and my perception of it.
“Modern” architecture (if a building designed at the start of the 1950s can be described as “modern”!) tends in my experience often not to survive time particularly well – either physically (e.g one cries to see the state of the buildings in Brasilia) or aesthetically. But we visited on a sunny Saturday morning, the concrete was light, the grass was green and the Jacaranda trees were in full flower – the architecture was being given a helping hand by nature! Students in cloaks and mortar boards were lining up, presumably for graduation ceremonies – a reminder that a complex such as Ciudad Universitaria should really be measured against its prime function of providing a good environment for study and research rather than in terms of its “architectural wow factor”. Only alumni and current students could comment on that but on this sunny day I certainly didn’t find the place “oppressive” despite its size – the walking distances were not too great and buildings’ external condition looked reasonable without too much flaking concrete.
Much of the architecture - low concrete buildings with a lot of pillars, covered walkways and the occasional cantilevered lecture theatre - reminded me of my own UK university buildings from the late 1950s. Unless you are particularly interested in this sort of structure or in the planning of such complexes then the main reason you would go would be to see the more famous buildings – unremarkable boxes in themselves but made “iconic” by the art work which covers them.
First the Refectory, with its “sculptural painting” by Siqueiros titled “The People for the University. The University for the People” (photo). Today its social realism and overt support for a discredited political systen makes it seem very passée. (Siqueiros was jailed for leading a failed attempt, using machine guns and explosives, on the life of Leon Trotsky and was later to receive the Lenin Peace Prize!). On the other hand O’Gorman’s mosaics on the Library (photo) are very “Mexican” – and that perhaps is the problem. Now its novelty has passed, this building is situated in an architectural cul de sac of its time and country which didn’t really lead to other things (whereas eg The Sydney Opera House speaks a universal language and heralded the use of new shapes in architecture). For us this had already been a “holiday of murals” and we had seen what we felt were better, more powerful/memorable works by Siqueiros and O’Gorman (see later) as well as Rivera and Orozco elsewhere in the city and in other buildings in Central Mexico.
In conclusion - if you have time after doing the “essential” sites in the city centre/Teotihuacan and are interested in Twentieth Century art and architecture then certainly spend the 4 pesos return on the Mexico underground (40 cents US!) to get out there (Line 3 to Copilco or Universidad – the former is actually closer to the main buildings). The nearby Coyoacan area also has some interesting sights, pleasant restaurants etc etc. If you are short of time then I personally think there are better things with World Heritage connections to see in the suburbs – e.g the already-inscribed Casa Luis Barragán and (as second choice!) the Mexican T List site of the Rivera/Kahlo houses designed by O'Gorman who was both artist and architect. AND if you REALLY want to get into the WHS-related Murals of these 2 artists then O'Gorman has another one in Mexico City's T List site of Chapultepec Castle,
whilst Siqueiros has work there as well and also in the T List site of San Miguel Allende (in the "Bellas Artes")!!
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