Torres de Satélite – The story behind

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: Octavio Alonso Maya Castro, CC BY-SA 3.0

What is it?

The Torres de Satélite or Satellite Towers are a collection of sculptures installed in the Ciudad Satelite district of Naucalpan in Mexico State, a few kilometers outside Mexico City.

They are considered among Mexico’s first large-scale urban sculptures. The monuments were conceived in 1957 by the famous Mexican painter Jesús Reyes Ferreira, architect Luis Barragan, and sculptor Mathias Goeritz.

Initially, the installation was supposed to consist of seven sculptures, with the tallest tower standing at 200 meters tall. However, the team in charge faced budgetary constraints that meant they could only create five buildings, with the tallest standing at 52 meters tall and the shortest at 30 meters tall.

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Its design is attributed to all the three creatives who came up with the idea for the towers. They would meet every day and speak for hours about the project, which would function as the gateway to the new urbanization or subdivision of Ciudad Satélite.

The Satelite Towers were officially inaugurated in March 1958 and became an emblem of the newfound and modern Ciudad Satélite.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Gerardo Sánchez [Gero]

Ciudad Satélite or Satellite City

Ciudad Satélite or Satellite City was founded in 1957. It was initially conceived as “a city outside the city1 , a solution to the increasing population of the upper classes of Mexico City and is considered one of the most prominent architectural projects of the 20th century in the country.

It was initially imagined as a commuter bedroom community, with developers hoping to maintain a green belt between the area and Mexico City, but its explosive development and spikes in property prices made this unsustainable.

Video: Commercial for Ciudad Satélite

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One of several commercials that were made for Mexican television in order to promote the then fledgling Ciudad Satélite

The project was pioneered by the Austrian architect Herman Herrey, who was known for his expertise in road planning. Herrey’s system, called “circumferential traffic”, was adopted and it included not having a single right angle, which made it possible not to have traffic lights in the development.

When this urban development was being planned with the infrastructure of the streets, the conception of the Torres de Satélite began.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: Octavio Alonso Maya Castro, CC BY-SA 3.0

Initial ideas

The idea of building satellite cities surrounding Mexico City was seen as an absurd idea and no one was ready to entertain it. But as a condition, then President of Mexico, Miguel Aleman, asked to install a representative monument that would function as a gateway to the new city, entrusting the project to Luis Barragan through Mario Pani. Barragan, in turn, invited Goeritz while Jesus Reyes joined later.

Original plan of Ciudad Satélite (Satellite City), conceived by Mario Pani
Original plan of Ciudad Satélite (Satellite City), conceived by Mario Pani, image: public domain

The former president requested the towers be erected even before the houses were built. Thus the initial Ciudad Satélite project was left as a grand mirage since the city had already rapidly expanded, joining Mexico City, thanks to the famous Satellite Towers.

Luis Barragan initially wanted the towers to include a fountain to commercially market the installation. The fountain would convince potential home buyers that the city had enough water. This original idea of a fountain led to a rumor that there could be an observation point in one of the towers, and the other towers could be transformed into huge water reservoirs.

After dropping the idea of a water fountain, Barragan came up with a new design, using seven towers, each colored differently – red, blue, yellow, pink, and three brown. Barragan did the plan of these seven pillars, but the idea didn’t come to fruition due to financial constraints.

Mathias Goeritz designed the five pillars, which would later be brought to reality. Barragan was out of the country, so it is believed that Goeritz had worked on the design alone. According to Goeritz, Barragan only knew of the model two hours before it was presented to Aleman and Aguilar.

Mathias Goeritz - Model, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015
Mathias Goeritz – Model, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by luis_e_carranza
Mathias Goeritz - Model, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015
Mathias Goeritz – Model, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by luis_e_carranza

Goeritz said2:

I would like to see my blocks standing still, huge, like buildings in an open landscape, so that people could see them from afar.

Luis Barragan, on the other hand, declared3:

I went to see the land at the exit of the road to Queretaro, with a very steep slope […], we had to do something there that would be a symbol of the city and above all that was on the scale of the city. A point of reference, something that would tell everyone where they were, both day and night. […] Even now, when the days are clear, the Satellite Towers are visible from a good part of the city.

The two, the architect and the sculptor, fought against each other to demonstrate the authorship of the installation. Nevertheless, they were 100% committed to the project from start to finish.

Aerial view of <em>Torres de Satélite</em>, 1958
Aerial view of Torres de Satélite, 1958 , photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Xineohp Zeu
Aerial view of <em>Torres de Satélite</em>, 1958
Aerial view of Torres de Satélite, 1958 , photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Xineohp Zeu

Design & size

In the design of the towers, the five isosceles triangles are emblazoned within another giant triangle. The perimeter of the latter coincides with one of the sides of the red, blue, and white towers.

The yellow tower is located on the axis of the giant triangle and in the middle of the other towers. However, the largest tower passes tangentially through one of the apices of the shorter building, specifically through its northeastern vertex. This arrangement allows for the continuous changing in the platform’s perspective as your approach on foot or by car.

Due to their height, the Satellite Towers are as tall as medium-sized buildings. The construction used reinforced concrete to help anchor them safely to give the towers outstanding rigidity to counter the force generated by strong winds.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City.
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: Octavio Alonso Maya Castro, CC BY-SA 3.0

Colors

The colors were Barragan’s idea and were inspired by surrealist paintings and Bauhaus, although sculptor Goeritz also had the desire to paint the buildings in different shades of orange. However, due to pressure from investors and constructors, he changed his mind. It was decided that three towers each would be painted yellow, red and blue and two in white.

Mathias Goeritz - Geometría, installation view, Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara, Mexico, 2015
Mathias Goeritz – Geometría, installation view, Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara, Mexico, 2015, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by xun reborn

Once the concrete had dried, the colors were applied – one red tower, three white towers, and one yellow tower. But at the end of 1958, an arbitrary decision was reached and one of the white towers was repainted blue.

This happened without the blessings of Mathias Goeritz, who felt that the tower would not contrast perfectly with the blue sky. Moreover, Goeritz had planned to add flutes and whistles on top of the buildings to produce sounds like wind toys. Eventually, the idea was discarded by the financial backers.

Mathias Goeritz - Sketch of Torres de Satélite, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015
Mathias Goeritz – Sketch of Torres de Satélite, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by luis_e_carranza

Luis Barragan said4:

Color is a complement to architecture, it serves to widen or shrink a space. It is also useful to add that touch of magic that site needs. I use color, but when I design, I don’t think about it. I usually define it when space is built.

So I visit the place constantly at different times of the day and I begin to ‘imagine color’, to imagine colors from the craziest and most incredible.

I return to painting books, to the work of surrealists, in particular De Chirico, Balthus, Magritte, Delvaux, and Chucho Reyes. I review the pages, look at the images and paintings, and suddenly I identify a color that I had imagined and then I select it.

In 1966, Goeritz was asked to provide an opinion on the colors he would like the towers painted again. He suggested orange tones since that would perfectly contrast with the blue sky as a complementary color. Thus, the first restoration of the construction saw them painted orange.

Mathias Goeritz - First note of the Towers (Primer apunte de las Torres), 1956, gouache on paper, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015
Mathias Goeritz – First note of the Towers (Primer apunte de las Torres), 1956, gouache on paper, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by luis_e_carranza

However, the orange-colored vinyl-only lasted for two years, and the buildings turned gray. This called for a new restoration, but this time, using the original colors of the towers.

The colors of the towers provide them with a touch of naturalness and expressive power and incredible sculptural plasticity, character and personality.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: Octavio Alonso Maya Castro, CC BY-SA 3.0

Meaning of Torres de Satélite

As you come closer to the towers, you pass them and finally leave them behind, creating a geometry sensation and a continuous change where the image of the buildings is not the same.

According to the Official Journal of the Mexican Federation5, the main official government publication in Mexico, the towers present “a high degree of innovation since it marks the beginning of a new plastic proposal known as minimal art or minimalism. The sculptural conception of the Satellite Towers aims to be a combination of spirituality and communion between architecture, painting, and sculpture by combining surreal elements that alter the perception of the sky and the environment, establishing itself as true urban art.”

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City.
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: Octavio Alonso Maya Castro, CC BY-SA 3.0

The movement of cars in both directions surrounds the towers, thus highlighting their monumentality. The sheer incline of the ground around the installation elicits a sensation that the construction is pointing to the heavens.

But the distance at which we view the buildings plays an essential role in the composition. If you stand in any particular direction – east, west, north, or south, you will feel like you are standing before five parallelepipeds of varying sizes and heights.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City.
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: Octavio Alonso Maya Castro, CC BY-SA 3.0

Inspiration

The towers were inspired by the Towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany, Italy and previous sculptures that Goeritz created in which he made several elements of vertical wooden that were non-geometric.

Towers of San Gimignano (Torres medievales de San Gimignano), Tuscany, Italy
Towers of San Gimignano (Torres medievales de San Gimignano), Tuscany, Italy, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by matteopenzo

Goeritz also said6:

Later, in 1956, I traveled through Italy with Ida Rodríguez and I was seduced (..) by the emotional architecture the two leaning towers of Bologna ). There I think my idea to build towers came out, and it was Reyes, as always, who gave his opinion about the colors.

Due Torri di Bologna (Two Towers of Bologna), Italy
Due Torri di Bologna (Two Towers of Bologna), Italy, photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Pixel Quadro
Mathias Goeritz - Typewritten sketch Bolognese (Boceto mecanográfico a la boloñesa), ca. 1960, referencing the Towers in Bologna, Italy, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015
Mathias Goeritz – Typewritten sketch Bolognese (Boceto mecanográfico a la boloñesa), ca. 1960, referencing the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers in Bologna, Italy, installation view, Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, 2015, photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by luis_e_carranza

Also, it is believed a friend of both Goeritz and Barragan had given them an idea for creating something resembling the New York Skyline, with the profile of the buildings at twilight.

New York Skyline, shot from the East River
New York Skyline, shot from the East River, photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Alex E. Proimos

Different perspectives

The Satellite Towers are designed to be viewed from moving vehicles at a certain speed. But the audience can also view it on their feet by climbing up an inclined platform. As a result, the installation does not only become a place of passage but also a place for recreation and meeting.

Moreover, these towers do not go unnoticed by anyone who comes to this place. Goeritz was an artist with a spiritual sense, and he believed that geometric figures of triangular shapes would be something perfect.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0

By bring triangular figures into longitudinal form, it became a prism. Then, by walking towards the sculpture and up the platform, the towers point skyward, bringing the installation to the fourth dimension.

Goeritz said7:

The Satellite Towers for me were painting; they were sculpture, they were emotional architecture… For me, romantic absurdity within a century without faith they have been and are a plastic prayer.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0

Once you are on the platform, the view of the towers is entirely different, resulting in a dynamic and changing sculptural work.

The set is distinguished by the use of representative materials of the contemporary architectural avant-garde such as reinforced concrete and color range representative of Mexican popular taste. On the other hand, the striated of the towers, obtained with the formwork boards of the concrete, gives them a certain quality of naturalness and strength. Finally, the set is raised on a large concrete slab that presents a slight inclination, which allows the principle of the fourth dimension to be enforced since the prisms seem to modify their size as the gaze travels in the place.

José Miguel Hernández Hernández8

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0

Final words

The Towers of Satellite are a cultural heritage, albeit living commentary of a the residential development of Ciudad Satélite (Satellite City).

The towers stand out superbly in the urban fabric as a witness to the large-scale construction of buildings in the surrounding. They do so in an uncontrolled way, which in the process influenced an outstanding project of “city outside the city” that Mario Pani had masterfully planned.

Today we have a superb authentic emblem of the historical magnitude that has survived in high note through the years, preserving its intrinsic dramatic qualities intact.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0

The towers stand as one of the best examples of contemporary architecture and art, contributing to their own identity in the area. They demonstrate that architecture must be a true visual spectacle as well as a permanent force.

In popular culture, the towers have appeared conspicuously in the surrealist film The Holy Mountain9 by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Because they are an urban and artistic landmark, the towers were declared in 2012 as artistic heritage by Mexican President Felipe Calderon10, thus cementing its importance in the history and culture of the city.

Torres de Satélite, Mexico City
Torres de Satélite, Mexico City, photo: ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0

Footnotes

  1. https://mxcity.mx/2016/10/la-historia-satelite-sueno-urbano-mario-pani/
  2. https://books.google.de/books?id=jB_fDQAAQBAJ&lpg=PT181&ots=hytW6S1NNx&dq=%22me%20gustar%C3%ADa%20ver%20mis%20bloques%20parados%2C%20enormes%2C%20como%20edificios%20en%20un%20paisaje%20abierto%2C%20para%20que%20la%20gente%20los%20pudiera%20ver%20desde%20lejos%22&hl=de&pg=PT181#v=onepage&q&f=false
  3. https://e-archivo.uc3m.es/bitstream/handle/10016/29952/12_aquitectura_gor_CII_2018.pdf
  4. https://www.academia.edu/44930588/Hesitate_Slowness_and_Solitude_in_A7_Highway
  5. https://dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5278305&fecha=21/11/2012
  6. https://antwerpconnection.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/32/
  7. https://iteso.mx/web/general/detalle?group_id=170502
  8. https://www.jmhdezhdez.com/2015/07/torres-de-satelite-mexico-barragan.html
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holy_Mountain_(1973_film)
  10. https://www.excelsior.com.mx/2012/11/21/comunidad/870932

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