In “No. 9,” Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s most recent exhibition in the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Mexican architect Frida Escobedo uncovers the history of Todd Williams’ sculptural installation for the 1968 Olympics through photographs, historical documents, and her own replica of Williams’ installation.
The exhibit, which opened on Oct. 20, focuses on the history of “La Ruta,” a project of 19 monumental sculptural installations along a highway in Mexico City. “La Ruta de la Amistad,” translated as “Route of Friendship,” was part of a cultural project by Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics. As Mexico was the first Latin American country to host the Olympics, “La Ruta” was an attempt by the government to portray Mexico as cosmopolitan, with colossal sculptures by architects from 17 different countries. Escobedo, in “No.9,” contextualizes the ninth installation of “La Ruta,” which was created by Williams.
Irene Sunwoo, the director of exhibitions at GSAPP, invited Escobedo to be the featured artist and curator for the fall exhibition, because she thought Escobedo could give a more intimate narrative to the history of “La Ruta”—as opposed to the official narrative fostered by the government.
“I knew that she has an interest in the history of Mexican modernism and especially the history of architecture in Mexico City,” Sunwoo said. “I knew that she had that intellectual background and rigor to do something that could be much more in depth and exploratory that could resonate with contemporary architects, and especially students at GSAPP, but also could delve into the history of Mexico.”
The exhibition doesn’t say anything explicitly about the ninth installation of “La Ruta,” but rather contextualizes the sculpture through the photographs and documents and leaves it to the audience to make their own interpretations.
The exhibition begins with a map of “La Ruta,” placed on the wall facing the entrance. To the left are construction photographs of each installation of “La Ruta” in the order in which they would appear to those driving along the highway. In the middle of the gallery lies what Sunwoo calls the “main feature” of the exhibition: a skeletal replica of Williams’ installation for “La Ruta.”
The only texts present in the exhibition are archival documents. One of such documents is a letter written to Williams from Karel Wendl, the International Secretary of the International Reunion of Sculptors, asking the detail of his itinerary back to Mexico City to see his sculpture before the Olympics began. Another is a transcription of an interview that Escobedo conducted with Williams specifically for the exhibition, giving the audience an intimate look into the process that led to Williams’ creation of No. 9.
“She could’ve jammed the gallery with a lot more documents and materials, but there’s a balance between objects, images, and texts that gives just a piece of the story,” explained Sunwoo. “Even when we were developing the show, we had to remind ourselves that we don’t have to tell the whole story of something.”
Escobedo’s reconstruction of No. 9 is the main attraction of the exhibit. It is completely black, unlike the brightly colored completed model of Williams’ No. 9.
Through this replication, unmatched by the original’s colossal scale and visual significance, Escobedo brings to light the behind story in how the project was conceived—a process that could be easily overlooked by the visual grandeur and cultural significance of the monument.
“The sculptures in La Ruta presented the massive solidity and symbolized a strong bond across people and nations, yet it also had very fragile origins,” Escobedo said in her interview with Williams. “To me, this is a beautiful moment because it reveals how the process of creation was a multilayered conversation, a translation of an idea through other kinds of work.”
The show will continue to run through Jan. 19, 2018, in the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery.