MEXICO CITY — On Oct. 12, 1968, Mexico City inaugurated its Olympic Games, the first ones in Latin America. Its cultural olympiad included a trail with works from well-known sculptors from all over the world at the south of the city.
Two thousand years ago, the Xitle volcano erupted in that area, covering everyting with lava.
"But now, we can see a huge mall, we can see a lot of hotels, we can see a lot of cars, even a church, and also a very prestigious suburban zone," said Carla Juárez.
She is talking about the current surroundings of "La Ruta de la Amistad" — "The Route of Friendship" — one of the largest sculpture trails in the world, with works from prominent international artists such as Alexander Calder and Todd Williams.
"The Route of Friendship" was created for the 1968 Mexico City games to embellish the roads that connected the Olympic facilities. But little by little, the 22 sculptures were devoured by the growth of the city.
“I think the main challenge has been the lack of control and lack of urban planning in the city,” said Luis Javier de la Torre, president and co-founder of the board of trustees for "The Route of Friendship," a civil organization created to restore and preserve these monuments.
De la Torre thinks the sculptures were abandoned as a result of the government’s inefficiency and corruption, as well from some developers.
"There are no rules for urban growth, everything is given according to the economic needs or economic interests of the builders and the government," De la Torre said.
But now, the civil group has been able to rescue 80 percent of the artworks with the support of government officials and private and public donors, such as the World Monument Fund and the U.S. Embassy.
"'The Route of Friendship' should be an example of the importance of civil commitment to fight permanently on the preservation of something that is not owned by the government, but by ourselves as citizens," De la Torre said.
A Tour Around The Route
Juárez, cultural coordinator of the project, gives me a tour at some of the renovated sculptures along with a visiting group from the Architectural Association School of London.
We start a few blocks away from one of Mexico City's busiest highways with a tall and hollow teepee-like structure called "La Torre de los Vientos" — "The Tower of Winds."
"We are going to go in, it’s very echoey — and careful with the head!" Juárez instructs me, as we walk inside the work of Uruguayan sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca.
And in fact, the reverb is so powerful, that the organization has already used it as an experimental audio art lab. They want the "Route of Friendship" to become an enjoyable place for everyone visiting, with activities such as DJ nights or contemporary art showcases.
They are also rescuing the semi-arid landscape with gardens. And details are so important, that they are trying to bring back the original 1968 sidewalks, with drain lids designed by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
“It’s very inspiring from us as Europeans and Americans coming here, with the real energy and movement at the moment, which we don’t have in other cities,” said Umberto Bellardi Ricci, visiting teacher from the British architecture school.
Bellardi considered that these monumental sculptures from the '60s provide lessons for today’s architecture — and politics.
An example stands a few steps away.
“It's a sculpture that is black and white, with sort of curved columns,” said Bellardi.
The 60-foot-high monument is called "Signos," — "Signs" — by Mexican artist Ángela Gurría. South Africa was left out of the 1968 Mexico Olympics due to its segregationist policies. The sculpture is an abstract symbol against racial discrimination.
“I think it’s as strong and powerful today, as you’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter movements or other movements in the U.S.,” Bellardi said.
Another sculpture recently rescued was also controversial, but for different reasons.
It looks like a black, 23-foot-tall, broken chain ring, called "Janus." It was built by Australian-American sculptor Clement Meadmore and for decades decorated illegally the patio of a private school.
“Little kids used to have lunch on it — well, not on it, but around it,” said Juárez, giggling.
It took 16 years for "The Route of Friendship" organization to finally rescue it, restore it and relocate it.
“It was kind of a legal battle, but it was proven that the sculpture belonged to Mexico City,” Juárez said.
And as the 50th anniversary of the Mexico 1968 Olympics approaches, De la Torre and his team prepare to celebrate with more finished restorations, special exhibits and the official declaration of "The Route of Friendship" as part of Mexico’s cultural heritage.