MEXICO CITY — The view from a night flight about to land in this ancient-now-massive metropolis has suddenly brightened. Outside the left-side windows on most approaches, rising from the drab haze of street lights, a web of red and blue lights tower over downtown.
A new building? Nope. Some kind of new neon advertising? Definitely not.
The connected crystals of red and blue light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are actually public art — an electronic veil for the former Foreign Ministry to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National University of Mexico, which now owns the 20-story building.
That such a visibly stunning effort is now a landmark after only seven months may not be surprising here in a cityscape with the color and curves of a tortilla. But move closer to the lights, and playfulness suddenly gives way to a remarkable realization: the project sits in the heart of Tlatelolco, a plaza synonymous with Spanish destruction and Mexican dictatorship.
Here, in the 1530s, the Spanish razed Aztec temples to build a church and monastery that still stands near pyramids whose tops are lopped off. Here, on Oct. 2, 1968, a peaceful student protest turned bloody when government snipers opened fire, killing 44 people just before Mexico hosted the Summer Olympics.
Both events have spread sadness over the site for a long time. But when university officials and an American artist, Thomas Glassford, 48, began working on ideas for the area three years ago, their goal was to create “a sign of life,” said Sergio R. Arroyo, director of the university cultural center, which is located in part of the tower.
“It’s an attempt to give it a new sense of place,” Mr. Glassford said. “There’s been a constant stepping on other cultures there. But a skin — in this luminous way — covers without changing.”
The name of the piece, Xipe Totec, refers to an Aztec deity who managed to embody the violence and rebirth of the location. He was known as “our lord the flayed one” because, the story goes, he cut off his own skin to give food to humanity, just as corn loses its outer skin before germinating. In traditional renderings, he can be seen wearing a cloak of human skin. His worshipers did the same — emerging rejuvenated days later, partly because Aztecs believed human skin had curative properties.
Mr. Glassford, who was born in Laredo, Tex., but who has lived in Mexico City since 1990, said that he had envisioned a veil or skin early on, and that Xipe Totec provided a link to the past and the idea of death bringing life. But the structure took longer to figure out.
His previous work often mixed the organic and the synthetic (his studio includes several hanging columns combining bone and melamine dinnerware) and he eventually chose quasicrystals, a geometric arrangement with a complicated history.
A British physicist, Roger Penrose, first described the pattern in 1974, or so he thought. Researchers later discovered that what seemed to be new was actually old: the same pattern, which lacks the translational symmetry of a true crystal, appears in an Iranian shrine built in 1453.
“It’s the same situation here,” Mr. Glassford said. The Spanish thought they were eons ahead of the Aztecs and other indigenous tribes, he said, only to later understand the sophistication of the society they had aimed to stamp out.
In practice, the combination of interconnected tiles shaped as a cloak, with the back and sides of the building only partly covered, can be mesmerizing. Decagons merge with star shapes, as blue and red lines intersect and weave around the building like capillaries. Apartment windows, cars and even dirty puddles all seems to attract and reflect the lights.
“It’s original, it’s beautiful,” said Jorge Pérez, 63, a doorman at one of the apartment buildings near the plaza. Asked if any residents had complained about the glare, he said, “No way.”
A wide-smiling and garrulous man, Mr. Pérez echoed the thoughts of many, arguing that it was time to move on from the memories of 1968, a turning point in Mexico’s struggle for democracy that kicked off years of social unrest. Mr. Pérez was there when the massacre took place; he recalled the gunshots, the empty shoes filling the streets after thousands of students fled in a trample.
The red and blue lights, he said, provided a welcome contrast.
Experts agreed. “It’s part of the transformation of the mentality of this city,” said Felipe Leal, a prominent Mexican architect. “It’s like a flame or an eternal lamp. It can bring happiness.”
A few of the neighbors did express concern about the use of electricity (Mr. Glassford said the piece uses no more energy than two large houses). Mostly, though, Xipe Totec seems to have become that rare form of public creativity that satisfies both art snobs and neighbors.
Mr. Leal says he hopes it stays up long past its two-year contract, a desire shared by Mr. Glassford. That may depend on how well it holds up. There are more than four miles of LED tubing on the building, which was constructed in 1963, and some of the light tubes have burned out in recent months. Mr. Glassford said he was scrambling to get them replaced.
In the meantime, however, the rebranding effort — the attempt to change how Mexicans see Tlatelolco, from the sky and the ground — seems to be steadily progressing.
“It doesn’t represent 1968,” said Pablo Franco, 55, a resident in Mr. Pérez’s building. “It’s different. It’s about the university. It’s a symbol of education.”