Friday, March 11, 2016

Water, Origin of Life on Earth. Cárcamo de Dolores and the Fuente de Tláloc, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City

Water, Origin of Life on Earth
I recently spent 3 months traveling in Mexico, including 2 1/2 weeks in Mexico City, one of the world's largest.  I've been told that there are at least 24 million people in the metropolitan area now.  The place has changed enormously since I was last there 30 years ago.  While the sprawl is immense, the city has also risen upwards.  There are highrises everywhere, gleaming glass towers to corporate commerce.  The city is also filled with gems, so many of them that many people who live there have never heard of some of them.  I rented a room on airbnb in the Roma Norte neighborhood and my hosts were always curious to hear where I had been each day.  By far one of the most amazing and obscure monuments in the city is the Sistema Lernas reservoir project in Chapultepec Park, the largest urban park in Latin America.  There is a brief mention of it in my guide book, and it sounded interesting, so I made the long trek across the park from the better known area off Avenida Reforma, crossing freeways and circumnavigating a large amusement park with roller coasters.  What I discovered blew me away.

An elegant Beaux Arts Building contains a water tank as part of the Lermas Project

In 1943 a monumental water supply project was completed for Mexico City, diverting the Lerma River through tunneled pipelines to a series of reservoirs built in a section of the city's largest park, Bosque de Chapultepec.

Elegant towers mark the center of each round reservoir
The first thing I came upon were a series of four round reservoirs planted with large masses of agaves, cacti, and aloes.  The plantings are obviously a recent addition with a low water usage replacing what were once expanses of lawn.

Columner cacti and Agaves  planted en mass on top of each reservoir
When the system was first installed, the reservoirs were ringed in sculptural cascades and incredible mosaic serpent canals that formed Uroburos style rings around each tank.

A Mixtec style rattlesnake swallowing its tail in the style of an Uroburos winds around each reservoir tank
Water once flowed inside a canal in the body of each serpent
A series of toothed openings appear to have been cascades for water filling pools inside of the peremeter serpent canals
The Valley of Mexico is perhaps the most dramatically altered urban landscape in the world.  At the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519, the Mixtec (Aztec) capitol of Tenoctitlan was an island inside a great lake laced with canals and connected to the surrounding shoreline by causeways.

A mural of the Mixtec (Aztec)  capitol of Tenoctitlan in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, by Diego Rivera
With the arrival of the Spanish the dams constructed to protect Tenoctitlan were destroyed along with the city and its great ceremonial pyramids.  Drainage of the lake began but the new colonial capitol of Mexico City was plagued by frequent and lasting floods until a massive drainage project was undertaken in the early 20th Century.  This made for dramatic environmental changes to the basin and much of it became semi arid, with the extinction of many native species.  Only a few remnants of the the original aquatic environment exist today, most notibly the canals at Xochimilco, which remain an important agricultural production area within the metropolitan area and a prime example of what the region once looked like.

A canal at Xochimilco
The canals are a popular recreation area with hundreds of decorated boats that are poled around while mariachi bands serenade the passengers.  The boats were once decorated with flowers grown along the canals, but are now painted with garish flourescent colors.  The historic center of Mexico City and Xochimilco were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  Examples of the traditional agricultural practice of floating island gardens called Chinampas can still be seen here.

Trajinera boats are modeled after Prehispanic vessels called Acallis.  They ply the canals at Xochimilco carrying tourists.
Today Xochimilco is an important center for the cultivation of ornamental plants and flowers and several streets are dedicated to small plant nurseries.  The canals and the ecosystems they support are under significant threat by urban expansion, the ever dropping water table, and pollution.

A street lined with small plant nurseries

Drainage of the lake basin is the cause for another significant problem for the city.  It is sinking.  In the past 100 years some areas of the city have sunken as much at 42 feet.  Many old buildings tilt noticably, especially heavy historic stone churches in the center.  Approximately 70% of the urban water supply is pumped from the aquifer beneath the city and it is estimated that the land on which it is built is now sinking at a rate of as much as 8 inches a year!  This puts lower parts of the city at great risk of flooding during the rainy season and requires a substancial pump system to remove waste water from the valley.

The dramatic slant of Iglesia de Santa Veracruz in the Centro Historico of Mexico City is caused by the sinking former lake bed.
In 1943 construction began on a system to divert the waters of the Lerma River to a series of 4 reservoirs in Chapultepec Park that orignally were built to receive water from the Xochimilco and Chapultepec Springs in 1909.  It took 8 years to build a 14 kilometer long underground aqueduct from the Lerma river through the Sierra de las Cruces Mountains.  A second system from the Cutzamala Basin in Michoacan State was built as demand for water in the city increased requiring a huge pumping system to carry the water to the higher altitude of Mexico City.  The system today provides 30% of the city's water needs.

Information signs describing the function of the water storage system
The Edificio Carcamo, with four valves and a meteorological sensor at the entrance
To commemorate the project, the Edificio Cárcamo, designed by the architect Ricardo Rivas was built in the form of a domed Roman temple.  Rivas asked the reknowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, at the age of 64, to paint a mural inside a square tank connected directly to the water works inside the building, that would be partially filled with water.  Thus the water from the system would be received with great honor by the many depictions represented in the murals.  The mural is a blending of natural, scientific, and cultural  themes combined with engineering and the social politics of water use and distribution in a truly holistic and profoundly telling work of art.  The space is astounding.

Executed in 1951, Rivera used paints with a polystyrene base to create the extraordinary waterproof mural, El Agua, Origen de la Vida en la Tierra, Water, The Origin of Life on Earth, which covers 272 square meters (nearly 3,000 square feet).

One face of the mural honors the engineers who designed the project, lined up over the four gates that channeled the water in to the four reservoirs
Diego Rivera painting portraits of the engineers who worked on the project,  taken from an interpretive plaque
The inspiration for the floor of the mural originally came from a visit by Rivera to Russia where he was introduced to the theories developed by the Russian scientist Alexander Oparin, who suggested that life on Earth originally formed in a gradual chemical evolution of carbon based molecules in the primordeal soup of the seas.  The theory surmises that the formation of the most basic of organic compounds eventually led to the evolution of more complex molecular organisms that over time developed in to biologic orderliness, cell growth, thus conforming to the laws of survival of the fittest and natural selection as suggested by Charles Darwin.

The Origin of Life
The central circle on the floor of the mural is a microscopic view of the moment when matter interacts with electrical energy to form organic compounds that harbor the first inklings of life, that over time develop in to living organisms.

A biological list of the various organisms within the mural, The Origin of Life
The surrounding floor is decorated with a variety of living organisms inspired by a natural history book written by the German biologist Ernest Haeckel, who suggested that all life was derived from a common ancestor.  Diego Rivera kept a copy of this book for reference throughout his life.

Floor of the mural, The Origin of Life on Earth
Aquatic life forms in the process of evolution
As life continued to evolve from the most simple of organisms, to those that produced their own food through photosynthesis, they released oxygen in to the atmosphere, creating a more favorable environment capable of supporting ecosystems.  Life forms became mobile, eventually moving to land in the form of algaes, which over time manifested in to the earliest plants.  The walls of the mural depict the progress of life as it diversified on land.  It is a remarkable pictorial representation of the concepts derived from these theories that inspired Diego Rivera to depict them so beautifully.

The flowing current of water and an array of organisms, entering the tunnel that once connected the tank to the water system

Life at the threshold between water and land
The evolotion of higher forms of life and the transition to land

Part of a Crab,a  Jellyfish, and a Turtle and a Snail

On opposite sides perpendicular from the the tunnel that connects to the water system are an African Man and an Asian Woman as representations of early humans.  They are partially submerged in the water, connecting the aquatic world to the cultural aspects of how humans use water.

An African Man stands partially submerged, representing early humanity
On the opposite wall stands an Asian Woman representing a later evolution of humanity

Across the the panel of engineers and the four water gates are paintings of workers constructing the tunnel that transports the water to the system and provide it to the people of Mexico City.

On either side of the connecting tunnel are depictions of the engineering of the water system

The uses of water are expressed in scenes of agriculture, hygiene, and pleasure.  The system provides water for the cultivation of plants, quenching thirst, washing, and filling swimming pools.

A spigot and hose brings water to a garden
Diego Rivera's daughter is depicted swimming, representing water providing recreational pleasure in a swimming pool
A photo of Diego Rivera and assistants working on the mural
A common aspect of Rivera's murals are his representations of social strata, its economic and cultural divisions and resulting injustices.  There are Marxist elements subtley integrated in to the paintings addressing inequality and the need for social change.  The design of the mural is ingeniously circular, which softens the square shape of the basin's corners and blends the many concepts depicted in the mural harmoniously.

A worker providing water to an Indigenous family to quench their thirst

On the opposite wall a worker offers water to the bourgeoisie, represented by a pious woman

An unusual detail  of a boy street performer in the mural painted by Diego Rivera
Because the mural was partially submerged, and its polystyrene paints a new and untested technology, the mural suffered significant deterioration within a decade of its dedication in 1951.  It wasn't until 1992 that the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes decided to undertake a restoration of the mural.  The amazing evolutionary paintings on the floor and lower walls had all but been erased by the water, and needed to be reconstructed using remaining lines, sketches and photographs after the tank was drained.  But even after the restoration the mural was all but forgotten and the building remained closed for most of the next two decades.  In 2010 the murals and building were again restored and are now maintained as part of the Mexico City Museum of Natural History.
A photo of the Origin of Life with water in the tank
If the murals were not astounding enough on their own, the senses of hearing are given an extraordinary gift through what is called the Lambdoma Chamber.  This installation was created by the Mexican artist Ariel Guzik to symbolically replace the essence that was lost when the physical presence of water was removed from the tank to restore the murals.

The artist used the Lambdoma matrix, which is originally attributed to the Greek philosopher Pythagorus around 500 BC to create a mysterious and intoxicating aural experience inside the domed building of the Cárcamo.  It is hard for me to explain but  what essentially it is is a mathematical table of multiplication and division that has a direct relationship with musical intervals in a harmonic series.  These intervals can be translated in to frequencies of audible sound.

A Lambdoma Table
 The concepts intended to be audibly expressed are abstract but honor the intentions of the mural, and the integral whole of the water system as a metaphor of veins flowing through the urban organism in the form of distribution pipes.  The work combines a sonority sensor which reacts to the flow and volume of water in the system and the thermal noise wavelengths it produces, with two sets of pipes that produce harmonic and subharmonic sounds.   There is also a system that collects meteorological signals to control the texture of the sound, as well as a beautiful art deco control panel with rock crystals and tuning forks imbedded in a diamond shaped panel.

This may all sound very confusing unless you are an acoustical scientist but the fact that Ariel Guzik constructed this magical device in this beautiful domed space with its marvelous acoustics speaks for itself.  It is an audible homage to the miraculous substance that is water.

Artists renderings explaining the systems that regulate the Lambdoma Chamber

                           The amazing sounds created by the Lambdoma Chamber

And this is just what you find inside the Cárcamo de Dolores.  Step outside the glass doors and you find yourself in the midst of a monumental sculptural mosaic fountain of the Precolumbian God of Rain and Water, Tlaloc.

The Fuente de Tláloc from inside the Cárcamo
The Fuente de Tláloc and the Cárcamo
 A giant head with two faces, one gazing at the Cárcamo and one directed toward the sky sprays water across the pool like rain.  The sculpture is embedded with a variety of colored stones in a painterly way.  Water flows from the gaping mouth much like the tunnel connecting the mural to the water system inside the building.

The head of the Mixtec (Aztec) God of Rain and Water, Tláloc
The face turned towards the sky is depicted in the style of the Aztecs, with round eyes, two intertwined snakes forming his nose, and jaguar like fangs.

The second face of the God Tláloc is directed to the sky
A terraced ampitheater like slope remeniscent of a stepped pyramid faces the fountain opposite of the Cárcamo providing a vantage point for viewing the entire form of the diety.  It is a ceremonial space that was no doubt designed for the dedication of the water works.

The stepped pyramid like slope facing the Fuente de Tláloc
A photo of a photo on a placard of the Fuente de Tláloc taken from above showing the entire mosaic
Diego Rivera intended the pool to be visible from airplanes arriving in Mexico City.  The water reflects and connects to the sky and clouds, and the water spraying from the head mimics rain and connects water with the air.  His body is meant to resemble the outline of mountains from where Tláloc was worshipped.  Underneath his left leg is a mosaic of a Quetzalcoatl, or plumed serpent, one of the most important and frequently depicted Mesoamerican dieties, who bestowed maize as a source of sustenance to mankind according to regional mythology.

The pool as a mirror of the sky
 Tlaloc is one of the oldest and most revered of the pantheon of Gods worshipped in Mexico.  Ceremonial shrines have been found buried in the pyramids at Teotihuacan, the oldest of the great civilizations to be built in the Valley of Mexico where the city today resides.  He was probably derived from the ancient Mayan God Chaac, or an earlier Olmec one.  The patron diety of farmers, Tláloc is the bringer of rains that sustain agriculture and he also represents fertility.  But with rain comes thunder and lightning, hail, and floods, so the God was fearsome as well.  In Aztec mythology, the four corners of the universe were marked by "the four Tlálocs".  The most important shrines were built on mountaintops, where powerful priests conducted ceremonies to appease the God.  These were also destinations for pilgrims bearing offerings.

This abstract ceramic depiction of the rain God Tláloc with a symbol of the four corners of the universe, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City
Tláloc is usually depicted with bulging eyes and jaguar like teeth.  Jaguars skulls and bones have been found at the shrines at Teotihuacan and are believed to be the ultimate sacrifice in that culture due to their stature of power.  The heron, being a water bird, is also associated with Tláloc and priests often wore heron feather headresses during ceremonies.

Another ceramic plaque representing the Aztec God of Rain, Tláloc, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City
Maize, or corn, was the primary crop in Precolumbian agriculture and corn stalks were also used in rituals along with water vessels bearing the God's image.  In the sculpture's left hand Tláloc holds four kernels of corn surrounded by a mosaic of clouds and lightning.

Ceremonial water vessels bearing the image of the Rain God Tláloc, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City
Flowing forms in the mosaic represent springs and rivers, and fish and snakes swim through the design on the bottom of the pool in which Tláloc sprawls.  

A mosaic fish at the bottom of the pool of the Tlalock Fountain
I was entranced by the murals and sounds inside the building and had a hard time leaving.  I was the only one there under the watchful eye of a guard.  When I finally did step out the door, the fountain spraying from Tláloc's head suddenly stopped.  It was then that I realized that the guard was waiting patiently to lock up the building for the day.  As soon as the fountain stopped a flock of black birds landed on the hand bearing the corn kernals.  It was a magical moment of quiet with the end of the splashing water from the fountain.

In the God's right hand he bears two beautifully rendered cobs of ripe corn which were picked from the mosaic maize field depicted at the bottom of the pool.  Maize continues to be the most important staple of Mexican cuisine and the cultivation of corn over the ages represents sustenance.

Two ears of corn in Tlálocs right hand

Part of the mosaic representing a field of maize on the bottom of the pool surrounding Tláloc's right hand

The sandals the God is wearing bear symbolic imagery on their soles, combining mythology and the purpose of the water project in to an abstract expression.  On the right foot an eagle transports water over the mountains.

On the left sandal the eagle finds a route under the mountains for the water to flow.  The eagle stands on a cactus and the water takes on the form of a serpent, which alludes to the design found on the Mexican Flag.  This image is derived from the myth that led the Aztec people to found their capital in the Valley of Mexico.

Mosaic on the left sandal depicting an eagle on a cactus bringing water under the mountains

And with this ends a laborious essay on an incredible and little known gem in the vast, epic expanse that is Mexico City.  It inspired me to do a great deal of research in order to understand it better, and it inspires me to bring the richness of meaning that I strive to incorporate in to my own work to a higher level.  Thanks for reading this.  It was a lot of work but a pleasure to do.  And I took all the photos, Jeffrey

A painting of the symbol of the nation of Mexico, an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its beak in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

A man hole cover displayed outside the water tower, Chapultepec Park