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May 7, 2012

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Ruta de la Amistad, or Road of Friendship

Posted by Norma Barbacci, Program Director for Latin America, Spain, and Portugal
World Monuments Fund
“Signs”/“Señales” by Mexican sculptor Ángela Gurría

A few months ago I visited the “Ruta de la Amistad” in Mexico City, and fell in love with this collection of monumental sculptures which were commissioned for the 1968 Olympics to symbolize world brotherhood and friendship, as its name “Road of Friendship” implies. The 22 sculptures represent 17 different countries and were built by 19 artists, some well-known such as Calder, and some by young unknowns like Grzegorz (Gregorio) Kowalski, a 22-year-old sculptor from Poland who was invited by mistake, when the Mexican organizers confused him for another more famous sculptor of the same last name.

They were installed along the southern edge of the city, on the volcanic stone fields formed 1,600 years ago by the eruptions of mount Xitle (“navel” in Nahuatl). This area, also known as “El Pedregal de San Angel,” is where Luis Barragán, the famous Mexican architect designed his most famous development in the 1940s. The 14-kilometer-long sculptural corridor is the longest, and contains the largest Calder work in the world: the 24-meter-tall “Sol Rojo.” The Red Sun stabile is located in front of Azteca Stadium, placed at the center of a psychedelic blue and white field of concentric circles, which is now obscured by street vendors and thousands of soccer fans coming to the games. Another of these fantastic creations, the “Disco Solar” by Jacques Moeschal from Belgium, representing a Maya “sun” symbol, was erected on top of the hardened lava flow that covered a 2,000-year-old pyramid built by the Cuicuilco culture. This layering of building and destruction evokes the building of Colonial Mexico City over the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city of Montezuma.

The sculptures symbolized a time of optimism and struggle toward racial integration and democracy, a message clearly represented by the sculpture of Angela Gurria of Mexico, who built two equal white and black elements standing together, and by the sculpture of Gonzalo Fonseca from Uruguay, who represented the oppression of dictatorship in reinforced concrete.

After years of urban sprawl and lack of maintenance, the sculptures have retained their modernity, but suffered physical deterioration and lost much of their original rural context. Most were swallowed by public roads and bridges, or were subject to vandalism and abuse such as the piece by Clement Meadmore of Australia, which was illegally appropriated by a private school that built an enclosure around it, and blatantly used its shape as its logo.

In 1994, a small group of citizens formed a “patronato,” or trust, for the protection of the “Ruta de la Amistad,” and through sheer determination and the support of private and public funding were able to restore 17 of the threatened sculptures. However, the cultural route as a whole is threatened by a complete lack of legal protection and, most recently, by the construction of an elevated toll highway, which will seal the doom of many of the pieces unless they are relocated to a friendlier environment.

The “Ruta de la Amistad” was included in the 2012 World Monuments Watch in the hopes of raising international awareness towards the plight of this important collection, and to obtain public support for the designation of the site as a national landmark. The proposed plan includes relocating the 10 most threatened sculptures to two large parks contained within the highway ramp system, the recovery of their lost volcanic landscape and native species, and the development of an urban agriculture project on empty public lands to feed the city poor, an ambitious socially and ecologically minded project, quite in keeping with the original spirit of the 1968 Olympics.