City as a Palimpsest
Issue #5: Wildcard
Welcome! I'm Nanya, development economist, poet, wanderer. You can learn more about who I am and what I’m up to right now here, and about this newsletter here. If you got this from a friend, consider signing up!
I hope your week has been warm, restful and colourful. If you celebrate Persian new year, Nowruz Mubarak to you! What a joyful time of year.
You may already know this newsletter is meant to be a creative experiment, and one that I hope will become more of a conversation than a one-sided broadcast. In the spirit of newness (and in response to requests for more photos from my travels), this issue of the newsletter takes on a different form from the usual — more photo essay than long, textual account.
I hope you like it as much as I enjoyed making it.
(Heads up! If you are using Gmail and this email gets cut off, please click on the link below the email that says ‘View entire message’ to see the complete essay.)
Palimpsests | Mexico City
Palimpsest: a piece of writing material on which the original writing has been erased to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
Palimpsest comes from the Greek roots palin + psáō, which mean ‘wipe anew/scrape again’. The word was originally used for writing materials such as wax tablets or scrolls made from animal hide, which were expensive to produce and had to be reused. It has since been adapted to mean anything reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
I think about erasing and rebuilding a lot. All the greatest cities in the world are palimpsests, living Etch-a-Sketch boards of the dynasties that have unfolded along their banks.1 The city I live in, Mexico City, was built by the Aztecs over a lake surrounded by volcanoes. This city, which they called Tenochtitlán, was razed and built over by the Spanish. Some of my favourite, tree-lined neighbourhoods are a lovely hodge-podge of Spanish neoclassical buildings, gilded, geometric Art Deco, curlicued French pastiche from the Porfirio days, and repurposed warehouses turning into shiny, hipster coffee shops. Ah, gentrification.
Building and rebuilding over a body of water has consequences. Buildings are sinking, pavements are crumbling, irreparable sinkholes appear out of nowhere in the middle of the street as pieces of tar decide to join their underworld brethren. But still, the construction continues. Cycles of architectural fads are set in wax and melted at random. As the city builds taller and tighter to fit more people into smaller spaces, ceilings are getting shorter, and the price of architecture and human life are getting cheaper. And still, amongst it all, we are all building higher, one storey at a time, in an effort to reach the sky.
Here are some photos I took of the city so that you can experience it with me: history and modernity, home and around, sky and ground. This beautiful, perpetually changing city.
In return, I ask if you could share with me a photo (or more!) of the city you live in. I’ll share them here next time.
“But what if the City were a growing neoplasm, across the centuries, always changing to meet exactly the changing shape of its very worst, secret fears?”
― Thomas Pynchon
City of cities.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico, gothic/baroque/neoclassical, sinking at the rate of 38-51 centimeters (15-20 inches) a year. You can roll a bottle down the sloped floor of this sinking building. A bit of poetic justice towards colonialists who decided to build castles in the air with no thought for improving the foundations of the city built centuries before them.
City of Aztecs. City of tourists.
City in progress.
Chapultepec Castle, French construction, overlooking the shiny parts of the city.
City of culture.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), theatre and home to some of the country's most historically important murals. The dome of this iconic Mexico City building changes with the light of the sun, and though it looks neoclassical/Art Nouveau from the outside, the interiors are lavish va-va-voom Art Deco/Art Nouveau.
City of history.
Kiosco del Moro, Moorish dome.
City of Moors | City of more | Cuidad de amor.
A cosy nook in a cantina in the historic centre.
City as a phoenix.
Art Nouveau door, crumbling 1950s mosaic exterior.
City at sunset.
Baroque church, historic city centre.
“I will never lose the love for the arriving, but I'm born to leave.”
― Charlotte Eriksson, Empty Roads & Broken Bottles: in search for The Great Perhaps
City of squeeze.
A vecindad, a common Hispanic housing setup with a row of houses in a gated community overlooking a central courtyard. Vecindades, or conventillos, are sometimes thought to be lower income housing complexes, in some cases with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, but the amount of embellishment on some of the ones I've seen around leads me to doubt that.
City as interior.
Library in an old Spanish house.
City of forever (re-)construction.
A room I once had, one of the last times I unpacked in a long time.
City of salt-and-pepper light.
City of desert flowers.2
Neighbourhood Art Deco/Art Nouveau.
3. Upwards | Bright Lights
“Cities are architecture plus space and time.”
― Peter F. Smith, The Dynamics of Delight: Architecture and Aesthetics
City of stars.
Modern downtown Mexico City: the Estela de Luz (right most), BBVA tower (inner right) with funky spiral staircases visible from outside, Torre Reforma (innermost left) and the Torre Mayor (curvy building, middle left). 3 4
City of architecture.
A few steps away, the Rufino Tamayo museum, a stunning piece of modern architecture with rotating experimental art exhibitions.
The Cineteca Nacional, a modern indie/foreign cinema complex with plenty of open green spaces and the occasional veggie burger-selling college dude outside.
City of drainage.
Also in the neighbourhood, sculptor Sebastián’s El Caballito, a steel structure resembling a horse’s head. Built on a prestigious roundabout to take care of drainage vapour exhaust and look good doing it.
“A city without some form of a transect is like a country without a constitution; It is a breeding ground for spatial anarchy.”
― Archimedes Muzenda, Dystopia: How The Tyranny of Specialists Fragment African Cities
One of the city's many tree-lined bike/walkways.
City of glass, green and open spaces.
Weekend rollerblading in the park, under the Estela de Luz.
City of art.
Erase and redraw. Is there anything more palimpsesty than graffiti?
City of UFOs.
Shoots and scores. 🌱 🏀
An events dome made from the repurposed 20 litre water jugs that are the city's water lifeline.
5. Infinite | Eternal | Perpetual
“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self; the heavenly by the love of God.”
― Augustine of Hippo, City of God
City in love.
City of water.
We started with what happens when you pave over a city recklessly (what you build literally falls in on itself). We end with a glimpse of how Mexico City used to be in pre-hispanic times of water trade. Xochimilco, one of the last remaining waterways/neighbourhoods where indigenous communities can preserve pre-hispanic agriculture on floating land (called chinampas) and trade via water canals. 5
City as one.
From seas to skies.
I have long believed that the world’s greatest cities, especially those with ancient blood running in their veins, have something in them for everyone. You bump into something historic on every corner - something that has seemingly always been there, or that will go on to hold memories for future inhabitants who will walk on the very same ground as you. Cities are palimpsests.
But our fascination with cities and their very real power as nexuses of employment, transport, culture and economic growth means they have been getting successively more crowded in recent years, building taller and tighter to fit the dreams of all the beings that live in them.
This leaves me questions. As we try to build ever-taller, fly ever-higher, layer by layer, are we trying to reach the sky? Or just what lies beyond? In the process of building one wax floor at a time, are we building a tower of Babel? And did we stop to fix the sinking floor first?
As cities like Mexico City groan, squeak, expand and (literally) sink under the weight of all this growth, it becomes more important to work on the problems they have first before looking upwards. Easy and inexpensive solutions include using data to understand citizens’ needs, creating multiple-use public spaces, finding ways to generate less waste and smarter ways to process it, and using the resources we have (municipal and city budgets, but also data and local talent) to make the city more accessible for all citizens. 6 We are all living in this palimpsest, we should all have the right to walk around in it too.
Share with me 🗺
Share a photo of the city you’re in with me! Hit reply, attach a photo or ten, share a few words if you want to. I want to know a bit more about where you are, what you’re seeing out of your window, your favourite building/rooftop in the city, your favourite tree in your neighbourhood.
What did you think of this format?
I wish I could take credit for being the first person to have had this thought, but others have had it before me. For example, Lyonel Trouillot, whom, during research for this piece, I found wrote “Les villes sont des palimpsestes” for his novel ‘Ne m'appelle pas capitaine’.
Fun fact: When I was growing up in Syria, we had a bush of these exact flowers below our house. When I lived in Delhi, too. Maybe I’m chasing them, maybe they’re chasing me.
LEED-certified Torre Reforma shares the record for being the Latin American building with the most elevators (35). It has garden spaces on nearly every floor, a greywater recycling program, light-saving sensors in areas that receive natural light, and a light frame that doesn't put as much pressure on the city's foundation. Because of its shape, the shadow it leaves on its neighbour buildings lasts no more than 25 minutes a day.
Torre Mayor, also LEED-certified, is renowned as one of the safest buildings in the world. A skyscraper built and tested to resist earthquakes of up to 9.0 on the Richter scale, it also has the continent's highest and safest heliport, puts less strain on the electrical grid as it balances its electricity use over three different city grids, and holds a world record for no serious accidents or deaths having taken place during its construction.
The public area is a jangle of brightly coloured boats where rowdy partygoers can buy beers and snacks from smaller boats nearby. But this is just a small part of a much larger UNESCO-protected aquatic ecosystem. The ecosystem is held together by willow trees, called ahuejotes, which stop soil erosion and maintain an aquatic environment that encourages the breeding of otherwise dying endemic water animals - acociles, Montezuma frogs and my favourite, axolotls!
I’m a big fan of low-tech, high-data solutions for smart cities. If you are too, let’s talk!