By Alfonso Fierro
The story of Doctor Atl’s Olinka is the story of a failure. Olinka was meant to be a city for artists, intellectuals, and scientists – a place where they could work independently and collectively, in a space detached from the modern world. Dr. Atl was a disenchanted revolutionary and a landscape painter. He became well-known for his “aeropaisajes” (landscapes from the perspective of the sky) that express the telluric force he found in nature, as well as for his harsh criticism of Mexico’s transition to capitalist modernization after the Revolution. Olinka is a direct product of these times. It is also the project that occupied Atl during the last decade of his life (1952-1962). He worked relentlessly, perhaps in vain, trying to find a place for his utopian city. From Chiapas to Jalisco, from the Santa Catarina range to Tepoztlán and finally to the “Cerro de la Estrella” close to Mexico City, Atl was never able to muster the support necessary for his project.
I received a Tinker Grant from CLAS to travel to Mexico to research Dr. Atl’s Olinka. During the last few days, I have visited his personal archive in the incredible brutalist building of the Biblioteca Nacional at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), submerging myself in the notes, memos, schemes, diagrams, letters, and every other document related to this project. In this process, it is impossible not to ask oneself what exactly leads a man of eighty-something years of age to devote such energy to building of a utopian city. Was it an urge to leave a legacy? Was it part of the post-revolutionary impulse to construct and erect? Was it a tantrum, an obsession? Or perhaps it was an unmovable conviction, like those that no longer seem to really exist anymore.
According to Atl’s own words, the idea of Olinka first came to him in Paris during the 1910s, when he belonged to the avant-garde movement behind the publication Action d’Art. However, it did not crystallize fully until the 1950s in Mexico. Crear la fuerza (Create the force), a 1952 publication written by Atl and signed by the people he united under the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, is the utopian manifesto and key to understanding Olinka. Both in this and in later texts, Atl described a city that would have buildings dedicated to the arts and sciences, housing facilities, an open-air theatre, an archaeological pre-hispanic museum, a “Temple for Men,” and a “Temple for Women”. The idea behind the project was to create a “movement” of such force that the utilitarian modernity he despised could finally be overcome.
Ironically enough, over the years, after failure upon failure, Doctor Atl became increasingly more pragmatic. In some later texts, the temples begin to disappear, followed by the arts buildings, and even the open-air theatre. By the time Atl attempted to build Olinka in the Cerro de la Estrella during the early sixties, he speaks only of the archaeological museum and the institute for “outer space” investigations.
But perhaps even this idea was a failure. It seems that every time Doctor Atl attempted to do science he ended up doing science fiction. That was the case of his understanding of Atlantis (he was certain it had been a pre-hispanic city on a sunken island). And indeed, Olinka resembles his own 1935 science fiction novel Un hombre más allá del universo (A man beyond the universe), an epistemological journey to outer space that is depicted as the reencounter of men with the cosmic forces that moved the universe. Once more, the idea was to overcome a fallen, alienated modernity, albeit through scientific knowledge and material progress, that is, through modernity itself. This explains why in Olinka Atl put such high hopes behind the possibility of space traveling, considering it the first step toward the evolution of mankind, as well as the utopian resolution of the modern alienation that asphyxiated him.
Several people expressed support for Atl’s utopian city, including ex-president Lázaro Cárdenas, but Atl never received the official support that was necessary for success. The archives I have been exploring are full of letters, memos, telegrams, and legal papers that testify to Atl’s relentless insistence, but also to the silence with which he was met. In a country that during those same years was very busy building a huge “Ciudad Universitaria” as the central campus for UNAM and a monumental archaeological museum in Chapultepec, it is no wonder that Olinka was sidelined. Today, one can visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Ciudad Universitaria of UNAM, both key sites of postrevolutionary modernity in Mexico. But Olinka, which Atl envisioned built on the crater of one of those Mexican volcanoes he loved to paint, is now only accessible through the documents kept in two plastic boxes of his personal archive.
Alfonso Fierro is a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He studies modern literature, architecture, and culture in Latin America. His research currently focuses on urban utopias in post-revolutionary Mexico. The project on Doctor Atl’s Olinka was possible thanks to a 2017 Tinker Summer Research Grant.