[a banded system of road, canal, poplar allée, pedestrian path, another canal, and another allée create the formal east-west axis along the northern edge of Parque General San Martin]
At the western edge of Mendoza there is a huge park. Central Park huge- nearly the exact same size, in fact. The original design was by French emigre Carlos Thays, projected in the late 1800's. In the post-Alphand/Haussman years, the second generation French landscape urbanists such as Thays, Forestier, and André fanned out across the Americas in a very similar fashion to OMA progeny today. The idea for the park, however, was not his.
The concept of a huge green belt to the west of the city to decrease floodwaters and mitigate against the dusty, hot winds coming from the Andean Cordillera dates back at least to the 1880's in discussions by politicians and sanitation engineers trying to give shape to the growing city. And really, it is an outgrowth of the indigenous Huarpes and colonial-era patterns of infrastructure and settlement, which banded agricultural fields and tree windbreaks to the west of the main population center to mediate these effects. Seen this way, the park is really meant to be an infrastructural membrane, mediating exchanges between the city and the surrounding desert and mountains to the west, as well as functioning as a leisure gathering space for the whole city. It is a space of civic expression as well as environmental performance.
[the alameda in 1880, along one of the original indigenous Huarpes canals exhibits the same street section as can be seen today- forgive the weird compression, it is due to my posting this from an ipad with limited image editing capability]
Irrigation as Site Strategy
Enjoying a densely forested park in this area means irrigation, and effort. But mostly irrigation. The entire park is irrigated by gravity-fed canals which come in off the main Guaymallén Canal, which dates back to the Huarpes era. The gravity-fed canal system places certain demands on the landscape- in order to irrigate the whole thing, the network must be laid out carefully along the topography, never with negative drainage nor spaced out too far (because the irrigation works via sheet flow), but also not rushing downhill too fast, or it would move through without irrigating all areas. Intersections in the network are control points for flow rate, with tiny sluice gates that can be raised and lowered by hand articulating each moment.
When overlaid on the park topography this irrigation logic creates a set of specific forms running along the topographic lines of the park. These forms are then used to lay out primary and secondary roads in the park, as well as primary and secondary pathways. Because these canals are often wet, they are lined with poplars and plane trees, while interior zones tend to be more heterogeneous. Linear landscape elements- road, canal, tree allée, pedestrian walk- are often banded tightly together, all according to the logic of irrigation. This finely tuned approach that is sensitive to the instrumental and material aspects of real landscape reminds me of the contemporary work of Teresa Gali-Izard, with circulation and planting strategies influenced by the radii of sprinkler systems.
[Patterns of Exposure, by Laura Willwerth at the University of Virginia]
The net effect is a lush, well-managed oasis with an intelligible and differentiated forestation strategy. Tree-lined paths wind along gradual slopes often accompanied by the sights and sounds of gently moving water. This language can be understood as an extension and interpretation of the unique street section that is common throughout the city. However, this landscape is not only a key cog in the irrigation network, it also plays a major role in the potable water system.
Along the major east-west axis the park, situated amongst cultural institutions including schools, a university, a soccer stadium, a cycle track, and an open-air theater sits the Alto Godoy potable water treatment facility of Aguas y Sanitarias Mendocinas. The facility is the second largest in the city and provides the population with about .7 cubic meters/second of potable water (which seems to be about 15% of the supply, by my rough calculations). This current facility is consistent with early drawings for the territory in the late 19th century.
This function was not strange for early parks. Central Park functioned not only as a recreational pleasure ground and device for structuring and stimulating future urban growth, but also as a green belt protecting the local water supply, with the Central Park Reservoir (now Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir) located in the center. However, it is a rather curious to see today, with a major infrastructural facility not merely adjacent to a municipal park, but situated right in the middle alongside other major cultural institutions.
[the canals often have small weirs adjacent to tree pits to create temporary pooling, and the bottoms here are often partially porous with hand set stones that are not grouted in place- many small details of this type assure that the system functions well]
The Promise of Pragmatism
This park has had a history of this sort of pragmatism. The original plans drawn up by Thays show a large semi-circular botanical garden with radial pattern to be situated right beside the main entry. However, drawings done a few years into the project show that while the strong geometry was maintained the function of that zone had changed. It was now labeled 'vivero', or tree nursery. Coupling this with the fact that the park still has a public nursery which it boasts is the oldest cultural institution in the park, it's not hard to deduce that they are the same. Perhaps the exigencies of trying to reforest an 800 acre chunk of desert in 1900 in a frontier town with no viable nursery industry had mandated that the botanic garden be done away with in favor of a propagation nursery? A solid bet. The fact that the vivero maintained the original geometry and siting of the botanic garden is strange, and compelling. What would it have meant to pass through the ornate gates adorning the northeast entry and then immediately see the inner workings of the tree nursery before then moving on to the sinuous pathways, fields, and newly planted forests?
This landscape offers a concrete object lesson regarding the integration of productive and infrastructural processes in public parks, a topic germane to many of the discussions in design and urbanism today. In a frontier town living on the edges of environmental feasibility, we have European design concepts and indigenous infrastructural networks put into experimental action by a rough and sustained pragmatism. It brings up interesting questions of performance, aesthetics, and control that allow us to take the discussion beyond theoretical to empirical and study actual effects, drawbacks, and potentials of these ideas. Today the Alto Godoy plant is visually interesting, but fenced off and screened by plantings. In addition, this use of the land comes with an opportunity cost that may only make sense when the infrastructural service being provided is incredibly vital and culturally understood, as in the case of drinking water provision in a desert.
[the canals in the park are of three main sizes: primary canals, like that pictured above which often do not have pathways alongside, secondary canals which are controlled with a sluice gate like you can see in the bottom right, and distributary canals, which might often be nothing more than a small depression running through a field or wooded area]
The tree nursery has been moved to a back corner of the park and is little visited, though still operational. The former grounds of the botanic garden-turned-tree nursery is an ill-defined forested area, representing a missed opportunity for orientation and spectacle at the interface of park and city. These shifts can be understood as the result of the expansion and implementation of 20th century engineering and planning paradigms that sought to separate uses and prioritize efficiency, and the general turn of parks from infrastructural landscapes to symbolic, social spaces.
These are being questioned now, and alternatives are being tried. But some of these old ideas are great and necessary- for instance, the ability to secure the drinking water supply is pretty important, even if it means putting up a fence. Nonetheless, history and current situation of the Parque San Martin offers some pretty strange and compelling lessons in what the current drive toward performance might look like, and what might work well.
[a peak into the water treatment plant; i'm not sure what the vent pipes that can be seen in series here do, but they create an ordered field condition amidst scattered shrubs and trees; a bit further to the right are the large landforms with the giant distributor pools that can be seen from aerial photos]