An Inca fort once stood on the site of Mendoza, and the Huarpe Indians had a well developed agricultural system long before the first Spaniards passed through around 1550. It is the future rather than the past however which makes Mendoza one of the most interesting cities in the world. If our planet is to survive cities will need to become more like Mendoza.
"Cuyo" is an Araucanian Indian word meaning "sandy land". The Rio Mendoza sweeps out in braided, ever-changing patterns across the Cuyo on its way from the Andes to the vast central plains of Argentina. Without the waters of the Rio Mendoza nothing would grow in this arid land.
The Huarpe Indians built a canal to divert water away from the shifting banks of the river to a place where they could irrigate their crops. When you live close to the land you understand the futility of trying to freeze the banks of a river or the edge of a coastline into one moment in time, even if the vast resources needed for such a foolish venture were available. Over hundreds of years the river bed must have shifted thousands of times, but the Indian canal and the development of the Indian irrigation system remain as the urban design generators of Mendoza.
In 1561 the Spaniards who had come across the Uspallata Pass from Chile following the old Inca road established a settlement which they named after Don Garcia Hertado Mendoza, the Governor of Chile. Elsewhere in Argentina Spanish colonial urban design is too intellectually arrogant to acknowledge the significance of place, but to ignore place in Mendoza is to die in the desert.
The new settlement was not on the same site as the Indian settlement, but was symmetrically located on the opposite side of the canal. Perhaps the founders were openly too arrogant to admit that the Indians were right, while remaining in their hearts too cunning to assert that the Indians were wrong.
In 1861 the buildings of Mendoza were destroyed by an earthquake, and a new city centre was established. However the urban design pattern of the five new squares was much less significant than the fact that the irrigation network and the relationship to the canal were retained.
An irrigation channel still runs down both sides of every street in Mendoza, and as the water flows along it nourishes the roots of the thousands of trees which provide a leafy canopy over all the public spaces of the city. The trees create a microclimate, so that the architect for an individual site only needs to develop the potential provided by the urban design. The irrigation grid of Mendoza lies diagonally across the fall of the land so that water can be directed along any part of the network of channels. There is both choice and life.
When agricultural land was converted to urban use there was no need for any radical change. The microclimate needs of people in the desert are very similar to the microclimate needs for crops, and it was the microclimate and the spread of the leaf canopy which determined the scale of the blocks.
Even more astonishing than the ecological empathy of the city at the scale of the block is the concept of an immense ecological park to modify the hot dry winds blowing down from the Andes, rendering them cool and moist before they reach the city. The vast forest to the west of the city was first developed in the 1920s, and planting is still continuing.
There have been moments of anguish of course. Totally inappropriate Beaux Arts concepts were imported into Mendoza by architects when proposals were put forward for the design of the Civic Centre. Ecologists such as Roberto Stravato are fighting to restore what has been lost. Roberto is also fighting to extend the ecological park after a period when its brilliance was not recognised by planners who were too busy imitating somewhere else to find the time to understand their own place.
Then of course the architects of the sixties and seventies totally ignored their own heritage as they imagined they were in Greece, Rome, or almost anywhere except Mendoza. The irrigation channels were bulldozed and the trees destroyed to fit in endless monotonous rows of tedious public housing. Even the Spanish colonialists were not so ruthless.
Today there is a resurgence of awareness of vernacular urban design. Designers are discovering the joy of reading the text of their own place. A group of architecture students in Mendoza are beginning to gather the oral history of a hundred year old house owned by the ninety four year old grandmother of one of them, as a first political move in working to save the house, so that it will be there for future generations to read.
The thought processes of the people of Mendoza are quite different from other people in Argentina, and it is impossible not to suggest a correlation between the way people think and the urban design of their city.
The urban design of Mendoza is based on co-operation rather than competition. If one person is selfish enough to tip foul waste or toxic chemicals into the irrigation channels the entire network would be polluted. Mendoza is an astonishing contrast with a city such as Bagdad, where the rich live upstream and simply send their waste down to the poor who live alongside what has become a sewer. When questioned about the fact that the poor in Mendoza live upstream from the rich the planners could not follow the significance of the question.
The trees of Mendoza are on the public domain, but they are cared for by the private individuals who live alongside. The blurring of the edge between public and private and the practical development of concepts of stewardship extends beyond trees to architecture. In Mendoza each householder paves the footpath in front of their houses. The result is endless variety, the visual destruction of boundaries, and a superb quality of floorscape texture.
It is the breakdown of community and the development of conflicts between people which reduce a very rich country to poverty. In the context of Argentina Mendoza seems more like another country than another city. It is no surprise to find that Pablo Marquez, the Minister for the Environment, is an architect.
The campus of the School of Architecture in Mendoza is one of the most humane, friendly and dignified university environments to be found anywhere in the world. The three faculties surround a courtyard and the students move their drawing boards out onto the wide terraces to be in the fresh breezes close to the tall trees.
The campus is at a pivotal urban design location at the edge where the ecological park meets the city. It is also at a pivotal moment in history, at the edge where ego-architecture which isolates us from nature is giving way to eco-architecture which integrates us ever more closely back into the natural world which gives us life.
Further up the Cuyo to the north of Mendoza is the Valley of the Moon. It is an inhospitable place. It never rains and the dry winds sweep down the valley. Fossils are everywhere. They are the only memory of a rich and luxurious place which once teemed with dinosaurs and hundreds of other extinct species.
Argentina is a country where there is very little middle ground. The rich are rich and the poor are poor, except in Mendoza. In the debate about the future of cities there also often seems to be very little middle ground, except once again in Mendoza.
Mendoza was born from the need to survive in a harsh environment, but gives no hint of hardship to the visitor relaxing in the cool breezes beneath the leafy trees. The ecological city of the future is also being born in the harsh reality of the ecological collapse of the planet.
Anyone who is less than optimistic should take a trip to Mendoza.