Ellos olvidan -y pisotean- esa su otra ilustrada faceta: la de defensor del patrimonio. Afortunadamente, Juan Pedro Posani en 1998 (el mismo año de la declaratoria del parque como Bien de Interés Cultural de la Nación) cuando era director del Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural publicó en esa institución las Cartas a Miranda (1796), haciéndole -ahí sí-, justicia: rescatando la correspondencia que el filósofo le escribiera, donde se refleja la importancia que tenían para nuestro prócer el patrimonio, la defensa del lugar original de los bienes culturales y la preservación de su legitimidad en el tiempo.
¿Qué pensaría Miranda hoy si se enterara de que se quiere “honrar su memoria”, haciéndole un museo que desfigura un bien cultural declarado que califica como candidato a Patrimonio de la Humanidad, forzando a contranatura su genuino proyecto, y sentando el consiguiente precedente nefasto para las generaciones futuras? ¿Qué pensaría frente al antimonumento, que dedicándose a su gesta iluminadora condena sus espacios al foso oscuro de un lago, a una segunda Carraca, porque los promotores y los que lo diseñaron se sienten tan culpables de lo que están haciendo que se han visto obligados a enterrarlo, a desaparecerlo de la vista debajo del agua, a ocultar la evidencia de su crimen patrimonial?¿Qué pensaría de quienes, al querer celebrar supuestamente su gesta, hacen atracar al Leander en medio de un burlemarxiano paisaje moderno, un contexto harto bizarro y lejano a su realidad histórica, aquel paisaje en la Vela de Coro donde una vez ondeó la mirandina bandera y donde las arenas de las horizontales playas son perennemente barridas por el viento?
Muchos han manifestado su complacencia ante la iniciativa de honrar la memoria del Precursor de la Independencia de Venezuela en alguna parte de Venezuela… Pero hasta ahí. El asunto se complica cuando analizamos la naturaleza arquitectónica del “homenaje” que se pretende construir y su instalación forzada dentro del ámbito de un patrimonio moderno protegido, que no es solo patrimonio de Caracas y de Venezuela, sino de toda América y del mundo. Y ahí viene a relucir otra verdad: el que las historias no se sustituyen, y el que la historia de la Caracas moderna es también motivo de orgullo y de responsabilidad para los venezolanos.
No, señores del Proyecto Leander. Háganlo bien. Nada que empiece mal termina bien. ¿A quién se le ocurriría en el mundo desfigurar una obra de Burle-Marx de semejante importancia, desvirtuando su condición original de museo ambiental y botánico único en su especie… para hacer un parque temático? ¿Cómo justificar el confinar la gesta mirandina a un sótano, en las vecindades de la furia impredescible de las aguas subterráneas circundantes, cómo justificar el ir contra la comunidad arquitectónica nacional y contra los usuarios, tan orgullosos del Parque del Este y tan preocupados por su abandono y deterioro actuales, a violentar el paisaje sui generis del sitio, a hacer que toda la obra -que nadie se explica porqué no podría ser motivo de un mayor y mejor expuesto museo al aire libre-, sea un perverso hueco, que lo único que tiene seguro en su futuro son filtraciones lloviendo sobre los documentos y deshumidificadores repartidos a granel entre el concreto para evitar que se enmohezcan las colecciones…?
Es bueno recordar que en los años 1970s, cuando se instaló la Nao Santa María en el Lago 9 el maestro Burle-Marx manifestó repetidamente su disgusto por ese hecho, al que calificaba de una “barbaridad” que arruinaba el diseño y la coherencia del Parque del Este. Claro, entonces era la década oscura de las ciudades –no solo en Caracas-, cuando la memoria urbana era golpeada y obviada por completo. Circa 1970 en la ciudad no se había entendido aún la importancia de la conservación del patrimonio moderno. Ahora, queridos amigos, sí.
¡Bravo por la madurez urbana de Caracas! Sí, señores: el sol del Leander y de su bandera mirandina deberán brillar. Pero no a costa de la ciudad de Caracas. Ni de sus, como dijera el mismísimo Generalísimo, “monumentos de arte”. A estas alturas, toda la nación entiende que el absurdo e inconsulto antimonumento solo puede honrar la memoria del Generalísimo si es reformulado en otro sitio, a mayor escala, para que respire con orgullo a cielo abierto y sobre todo, eso sí: con el consenso de todos.
El Proyecto Leander (o mejor dicho, su versión arquitectónica actual, la del sepulcral y carcelario antimonumento) pronto se hundirá por sí sola… Más temprano que tarde solo será recordado como una pesadilla pasajera que amenazó por breve lapso con sembrar de ruidosos y antiestéticos chillers y obstrusivas cercas las inmediaciones del magnífico Lago 9, espejo irrenunciable del Avila.
Publicado en: Opinión, EL NACIONAL. Caracas, martes 23 de Septiembre de 2008.
The Anti Monument
I. Green Caracas
Venezuela´s capital city has a magnificent modern heritage. Nevertheless, this nowadays is a nuisance for many. The puissant city that came to be considered as one the capitals of modern architecture in Latin America, using the money earned by petroleum’s revenues to call from all over the world the best artists to take part in its construction, today has no idea of what to do with the architectural jewels left behind by the golden era.
Inside a context of confusion, Caracas urban development goes on, overpowering, splashed with recurrent scandals that flood the newspapers every day. Among the most talked-about and polemic cases of the past three years, one in particular affects directly the modern heritage of designed cultural landscapes: the Parque del Este (1959-1964, by Roberto Burle Marx), one of the city´s greatest treasures and of the most important works of modern landscape architecture.
Built upon the agricultural fields of a colonial hacienda, this work is the testimony of a traditional city betting to transform itself through the best modern art of the time. The park has been functioning and being preserved for decades. Only now that it is already more than half a century old, the city moved from the necessary topic of its conservation to the drama of the struggle for its integrity and the safeguard of its very existence.
In the new geography of Great Caracas, the suburban condition and the relative location at the east of the city of this modern landmark has changed completely since the 1950s. It passed from being periphery to being center, as the expanding city finished populating the Caracas valley. Where there was practically nothing, only haciendas and agricultural fields, now the park is surrounded by the urban fabric.
If today one takes a glance to Caracas from the air, the presence of this work is perceived immediately amidst the city… as is the lack of green open spaces and of public spaces in general in the rest of the metropolis. Caracas has not enough of them and, worse, has none in the barrios that constitute half of the city. With five millions and a half of inhabitants for the Great Caracas (official figures by 2007), this means less than four square feet of open green space per capita (while global average is at least 30 square feet per capita).
Within the Venezuelan context, the most fragile patrimonial goods are those of landscape architecture. A landscaping design or a park tends to be seen like “soft” architectures or like an empty “land” ready to be re-used, susceptible of being reverted from its condition, or of being freely intervened… Therefore, the Parque del Este, for being a wide open green territory with a limited percentage of built surface, and especially because it is a poorly understood modern work of art, in the last decade it has been mercilessly unappreciated, receiving strong attacks on its physical integrity. Actually, in spite of its legal protections, it is severely under threat.
Parque del Este´s plan
2. A Masterpiece
The Parque del Este, located on the lands of the Hacienda San José-La Ciénaga (i.e.“The Marsh”, thus called for its flooding terrains, placed close to a creek), is Caracas public park of highest use, with three millions and a half visitors a year. According to Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University, Venezuelan Anita Berrizbeitia, author of a book about the park, “it is considered, together with the Parque do Flamengo in Río (1957-1964), as Burle Marx’ s most important public work”.
This story of this park is legendary. Nature lover and major Caraquenian architect, Carlos Guinand Sandoz, was the original promoter of the park idea. By the middle of the 1950s the national government had decided to build on these terrains a fair park called “The Caracas International Exhibition”, which was being designed by architect Alejandro Pietri. Guinand Sandoz, who was the project’s landscaping consultant, after the fall of the dictatorship, dedicated himself instead to enthusiastically promote in this place his dream of a big park. The new president, Rómulo Betancourt, convinced by Guinand’s proposal, ordained the construction of the park. To that effect a work commission was organized with Guinand as head. This commission hires Burle Marx, who takes charge of the project with the collaboration of John Stoddart, Fernando Távora, Julio Pessolani and Mauricio Monte, a team that was already working in Caracas.
The decision of hiring Burle Marx ratifies the modern will of the city, and expresses the town’s 1950s artistic atmosphere following the construction of the Caracas University City (since 2000 a site in UNESCO´s World Heritage List), by architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva. Burle Marx, highly esteemed for his art work, was mainly known among the Venezuelans for having designed in Brazil “gardens and public landscapes that showed an unprecedented synthesis of the aesthetics of modern sensibility, of the Brazilian cultural traditions and an evocative and inventive use of tropical plants. His work offered a vision of public gardens and landscapes that was unquestionably unique for the American tropics, and an ecological approach to the practice of landscape architecture”. And exactly this was what was sought for the Caracas modern park.
The park Botanist, Leandro Aristeguieta, recalled how once put to work on the 190 acres of land, Burle Marx defined “ecological environments and gardens, incorporating the widest possible number of native ornamental species that would be used as cultural expression”. To meet with the requirements of his proposal, the Parque del Este Commission had to accomplish numerous botanical excursions to the country’ s diverse natural environments in order to collect species.
The design was of great beauty and understanding of the land’s original intense vegetation, following “a free design principle of a bucolic landscape in which the ornamental species were introduced and placed after an adjustment process, or transplanted from distant regions”. It primarily comprised three spaces, as Berrizbetia puts it: “an open, fluid, gently, wavy landscape of disperse shade trees and grass fields of subtle topography, popularly used for picnics and as a playground. Secondly, a forest landscape, spatially dense with winding roads, used for walking and for quiet contemplation, and third, a sequence of paved gardens with intimate patios that refer to the colonial past of Venezuelan culture, and that expose plants, ceramic murals and fountains. In each one of these spaces visitors encounter the rich variety and exuberance of the tropical flora”. It goes without saying that the new aesthetic and landscape became immediately emblematic.
The works in Parque del Este continued uninterruptedly until 1964, and, after decades of intense use, the Institute of Cultural Patrimony designated it as a Good of Cultural Interest of the Nation in 1998. This designation comprised the protection of all of its environments, from “the ecological gardens, xerophyite, hidrophile and humid tropical forest; the formal patios with jardinières and water fountains; the fauna collection; the gardening school and nurseries; the planetarium; the Museum of Transportation, the lake to row” and also an object alien to the original design, regretfully introduced in the lake in the 1970s against Burle Marx’s will, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria.
Model of the Leander Project.
3. The Threat: A Fake Ship
In the last years, the use of the park has increased wildly, bringing it almost to a collapse. This has eroded the frontiers of its protection. The alterations of the original project multiply, the superficial flora is almost totally lost and, as its epic drifts apart in time, day after day it seems more susceptible to bigger transgressions. Such is the case of all the illegal constructions that proliferate today, kiosks, structures, railings, being the biggest and most critical of them all one known as the Leander Project, under construction since mid 2008 on Lake 9.
One wonders how a situation like this could have ever been allowed in such a fundamental work in the history of modern landscape architecture. It all began, evidently, with the mistake of building the Santa María vessel on Lake 9, and mistakes are paid expensively. During the 1970s, when the vessel was installed, Burle Marx repeatedly declared his displeasure for a fact that he described as a “barbarity” that ruined Parque del Este’s coherence and design. Of course, those were obscure decades for all cities –not only Caracas-, when urban memory was beaten and obviated and the importance of modern heritage conservation had not been yet fully understood.
The rampant abandonment of the park took, among other things, to the ship’s rot, thus becoming unusable. Without ever being removed, it was a daily deplorable spectacle. Is in this context that in 2006 a group of followers of Venezuela’s Independence hero, generalísimo Francisco de Miranda, within the political milieu of the Bolivarian Revolution (that, as is well known, is detractive of all empires, among them the Spaniard), convinces the President of the Republic of replacing Colon’ s ship with a replica of the Leander, “the ship of freedom”. With this ship Miranda arrived to the Venezuelan coasts to free the country, so in this way, also, according to this group, a “debt with history” would be paid in the Parque del Este.
The matter would not have become more if one boat was merely substituted by another of equal characteristics. The 1998 declaratory included the protection of this element on Lake 9, and this decision could not be undone by anyone. A ship floating on the water can always be removed, and is a reversible intervention. The problem is that with the huge budgets managed by Venezuela’ actual government, temptation was too big, and from a simple ship the project evolved to an ambitious building that affects the lake area and all of the park’s designed cultural landscape. A scandal.
The community didn’t do anything against the project until right at the beginning of the works, justly because the whole city believed that the intervention was limited to the changing of one ship for the other. But when at the middle of 2008 a huge fence was raised, blocking the park’s surface, the users were astonished. They understood at once the gigantic reality of the project. It was then when the civil protests began.
Because of the park’ s patrimonial status, the Leander Project was conceived as an underground museum under Lake 9, linked to a huge ten-story high superficial construction that mimics the new ship, a real “building” done in metallic structure and lined in wood that is presented as state of the art technology. In the section of Lake 9 that would have the museum underneath, it will be no longer possible to row. The truth is that once the new cultural attraction opens, this theme park menaces with turning the whole park into its backyard.
The ostensible “patrimonial” subterfuges, whatsoever, were enough to issue a construction permit for the Leander Project by the same Institute of Cultural Patrimony that issued its designation in 1998. It is needless to say that a huge controversy was unleashed. Until now, the legal actions against the Leander Project’s permit have been lost in court. In September 2009 the World Monuments Fund included the park in the 2010 Watch List of Heritage at Risk.
It is necessary to add here that Francisco de Miranda, during his prolific and exemplary life, was one of the greatest patrimony advocates of his time, being considered as an “ideologist of the conservation of cultural goods”. During his years in France he was the remarkable interlocutor of Antoine Quatremère de Quincy, the great philosopher of conservation and the celebrated author of the Dictionnaire Historique d´Architecture, through his legendary Letters to Miranda (1796). A small detail just a few know… starting with the Leander Project’s standard bearers.
What would General Miranda think today if he found out that to “honor his memory”, they are building him a museum that disfigures a designated cultural good that qualifies as candidate for UNESCO´s World Heritage List, forcing contra natura its genuine project, and placing the consequent pernicious precedent for the future generations? What would he think in front of this anti monument, that being devoted to his illuminating deeds condemns them to the dark pit of a lake, because the developers and the designers feel so guilty of what they are doing that have been obliged to bury it, disappear it from the eyesight and to put underwater and hide the evidence of their patrimonial crime?
The matter complicates if one analyzes the architectural nature of the “homage” that is to be built within the realm of a Burle Marxian landscape. Nobody in the world would even think of disfigurating a Burle Marx work of such importance, spoiling its original quality as a unique environmental and botanical museum… to do a theme park. Neither of confining the mirandine’s heroic deeds to a basement, in the vicinities of the surrounding subterranean waters’ unpredictable fury (the marsh). Nor it is also justifiable to outrage the site’s sui generis landscape, turning the whole work -that no one understands why it cannot be the subject of a bigger and better exposed open air museum-, into a perverse hole, which the only thing it has for sure in its future are leakages pouring on the documents and multiple dehumidifiers to keep the collections from rusting.
Today, the safeguard campaign of the Parque del Este, a universal jewel of landscape architecture, the most important public work of Burle Marx, the Gardener of America, continues. The Leander Project sooner or later will -hopefully- only be remembered as a passing nightmare that threatened for a short period of time with its noisy and unsightly air conditioning chillers and blocking fences the vicinities of magnificent Lake 9, the unalienable mirror of the Avila mountain.
Published in: theurbantimes.com/ London, September 7th, 2010.