A Floating Cork

From the great monuments of Tenochtitlan to contemporary Mexican buildings the architecture of Mexico City has always been defined by a specific relationship between mass and void. Juan Carlos Cano investigates

Text by Juan Carlos Cano

Juan Carlos CanoHandball Courts, UNAM by Alberto T. Arai (1952). Photograph Juan Guzmán

Mexico City is sinking. Slowly. Six centimetres a year, as if it were ashamed of doing so. Of course, it was a bad idea to establish a city on a small island in the middle of a lake. Blame it on an eagle that wanted to eat a snake. Some cities’ founding tales are less intelligent than others. It was an even worse idea to dry up that lake and all of its rivers in order to expand the city. Thus, Mexico City, with its foundations in the mud, is sinking. Patiently. Nevertheless, this is not a static city; it is a city that keeps on moving. It is not clear in which direction, but it moves. This is part of its contradictory nature; a city obsessed with its past, but open to anything new; a dynamic and efficient city that is at the same time both chaotic and corrupt; a city that accumulates layers of history that fill it with pride, but at the end doesn’t really know what to do with them.

Architecture has always been tangled up in these Mexican contradictions. Its anxiety towards modernity runs parallel to its respect for deep-rooted traditions, and it is in this conjunction that part of its uniqueness arises, including certain characteristics that have been present throughout history, like a deep fascination with monumentality and a special ability to deal with open spaces. Meso-American ceremonial centres are a clear example of this. They created a delicate balance between the massiveness of the pyramids and the wideness of the open squares where people gathered to witness the rites of their priests. Complex urban sequences were designed to cause astonishment. This was well understood by the Spanish missionaries. Meso-Americans were not used to adoring their gods in closed spaces, so friars transformed the traditional space of the Catholic church by adding a transitional space called an atrium, an open space defined by walls and an open chapel in which masses were held. They knew that, sooner or later, the converted devotees would cross the threshold.

It was an interpretation of the same old rites on a smaller scale, in a new, invented scenography.

Mexico is a country of ritual. It is difficult not to link politics with the use of these kinds of scenographies. Despite its democratic aspirations, political power in Mexico has always been exercised in a vertical and centralised way. That is why almost all important public architecture, or at least the most emblematic, is located in Mexico City. Besides, architecture in the public realm is frequently related to patriotic celebrations; commemorating local heroes (mostly martyrs) is almost a Mexican obsession. This must be done, of course, with great pomp and circumstance. Public buildings are planned based more on their symbolic value than their actual use, and sometimes projects are stubbornly carried out even when failure is imminent.

On September 23, 1910, the first stone of the future Federal Legislative Palace was laid, one of the many works created for the centenary of Mexico’s independence. It was a huge project ordered by Porfirio Díaz, the ageing dictator. The site was chosen to create an urban axis along with the Alameda, the city’s popular urban park, and Mexico City’s main square. Construction began, but history has strange ways of shaking human optimism and when the Mexican Revolution started, plans were changed. An anachronistic Beaux Arts plan for the Palace, by French architect Émile Bénard, was likewise left unfinished in 1912. But hope never fails; between 1933 and 1938, the existing metallic structure of the vestibule, the only part that was built, was restored by Carlos Obregón Santacilia and transformed into a monument to commemorate the same revolution that got in the way. It then became a mausoleum for revolutionary heroes, designed in an indigenous Art Deco style. Around the massive vestibule a large plaza was built, and in the newly constructed buildings surrounding this plaza, major trade unions established their offices. Over the years, some of the heroes were exhumed from different burial places and brought to the mausoleum, even though most of them had been enemies in life. Not that these kinds of trifles are any reason to interrupt national celebrations.

The Monument to the Revolution has since become one of the most symbolic spaces in Mexico City. Huge demonstrations and weird events take place there. Be it a teachers’ strike, a telephone-company union protest, a huge congregation of zombies or the Guinness World Record of Michael Jackson imitators, there is always something going on. Its symbolism is surpassed only by the city’s main square, the Zócalo (“Plinth”), so called because in 1843, Antonio López de Santa Anna, another of Mexico’s dictators, wanted to commemorate the Independence. So he organised a competition for the construction of a column in the middle of the square, which was won by Lorenzo de la Hidalga. Then the project was abandoned, the only part built the base of the column. Thus, the Plinth. The idea of centralisation is so ingrained in Mexico that since then, plenty of main squares in other cities have been given the same name, Zócalos. As for the original one, it follows the principles of massive squares all over the world, from Red Square and Tiananmen to any Mussolinian plaza: a huge concrete surface with a flagpole in the middle waiting for people to gather. Mexico’s is surrounded by the Cathedral, the National Palace and, at a corner, the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The myth and the scenography are alive again. Here, over its decades in power, the hegemonic PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) organised its revolutionary and institutional parades. Nevertheless, massive protests also take place here. This is the core of the country, a void that needs to be filled.

juan-carlos-cano-2Clockwise from top: Government Building at the Military College, Olympic Pool and Gymnasium, Arms Depot, Military College, Stables. All by Agustín Hernández, images courtesy the architect

Throughout the 20th century, modern Mexican architecture was skilful enough to translate these spatial conceptions into a contemporary language. Rem Koolhaas’s hypothesis at the most recent Venice Architecture Biennale, that modernity has homogenised architecture all over the world, sacrificing national identities, is very close to the truth. New construction techniques, cross-references between countries and intertwined economic global conditions no doubt make contemporary architecture increasingly generic. Nevertheless, the specific characteristics of modernity have been adapted in certain countries. In Latin America, for example, Brazil and Mexico have created powerful and distinguishable architectural languages. In Brazil, the understanding of a new hybrid culture and the necessity of inventing what Stefan Zweig called the “country of the future” were factors that helped modern architecture integrate the exuberance that surrounded it. Concrete found new, expressive forms and modern brise-soleils transformed it into an unimaginable variety of lattices. In Mexico, different conditions were at hand. The existence of a monolithic cultural tradition, a profound religious syncretism and the omnipresence of a vertical power pushed architecture to develop towards monumentality, the balance between the mass and the void, and a spatial representation of a bipolar society trapped between permanent movement and immemorial passivity.

This balance between mass and void is seen in modernity’s most ambitious architectural project: the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) campus, inaugurated in 1952. The university was scattered among several buildings in downtown Mexico City, so the proposal was to bring together all facilities on a huge piece of land in the southern part of the city. One of the best examples of modern educational architecture, it is comparable to University City of Caracas, with the difference that the latter was the masterwork of one architect, Carlos Raúl Villanueva, whereas the former was a collective work co-ordinated by Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral that brought together the best architects of its time. The language is truly modern – free plans, buildings on pilotis, huge windows – but two special characteristics made it different from generic modern architecture: the reinterpretation of Meso-American platforms in the grand central esplanades, and most of the open spaces; and the intervention of numerous mural painters on the facades of the main buildings, including Juan O’Gorman, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Francisco Eppens, who reproduced a 1920s experiment that aimed for “plastic integration” between art and architecture.

Within this project, two buildings proposed a clever synthesis of traditional and new languages: the Olympic Stadium, designed by Augusto Pérez Palacios, and the handball courts by Alberto T. Arai. Both buildings were made out of volcanic stone that had been extracted from the land on which the campus was built. Both were reminiscent of pre-Hispanic architecture, the stadium as an undulating stone bowl subtly carved into the topography, and the handball courts as abstract interpretations of the stone slopes used in the pyramids. These were no imitations, however, no decorative Frank Lloyd Wright California houses; their conception is closer to the essence of solid materiality, similar to Jørn Utzon’s use of Mayan bases in the Sydney Opera House.

A stranger example can be found in the Military College designed 25 years later by Agustín Hernández and Manuel González Rul: an enormous esplanade intended to host military parades, surrounded by Brutalist concrete buildings. Mass and void are used again as a ceremonial stage intended to remind us of our heritage. One of the buildings was even conceived to resemble the head of Tláloc, the Aztec god of rain. Paradoxically, the result is closer to retro-futurism, which is perhaps why Paul Verhoeven chose to send Arnold Schwarzenegger running along its walls in Total Recall.

Beyond political discourse, monumentality has been approached in a more abstract way, as in the Satélite Towers, architectural sculptures designed by Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz. The Towers are five huge, triangular, coloured concrete prisms in the middle of the main highway that exits the city towards the north. They were designed in order to be seen from moving cars – the dream of any Italian futurist. Here the equation is inverted: the mass is the static centre, the void is the unstable perimeter always in perpetual movement. Meanwhile, the Sculptural Space (Espacio escultorico), a collective creation by several sculptors, including Goeritz, is an open circle reminiscent of Stonehenge, composed of simple concrete prisms surrounding a 100-metre-diameter void of volcanic rock. Again, mass and void combine, this time creating a silent, primitive pagan temple.

But perhaps the most representative building of Mexican modernism is the Anthropological Museum, designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and opened in 1964. It is a space with heavy historical symbolism that nevertheless transmits a powerful contemporary statement. An open main plaza, a central sculpted column supporting a huge umbrella ceiling, heavily latticed facades and, at the main hall, as an altarpiece, the Aztec Calendar. Water descends down the surface of the column, making lots of noise. Maybe no other Mexican architect has understood his historical moment better than Ramírez Vázquez. He was the archetype of the powerful man, a strategist more than a designer who always collaborated with other professionals to get the job done. If Mexico City centralised public works of importance, Ramírez Vázquez centralised these works himself, like Robert Moses in New York. In addition to the Anthropological Museum, he built the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a new Federal Legislative Palace (his version of Porfirio Díaz’s abortive project), the Azteca Stadium: pre-Hispanic heritage, religion, political power and football. Missing any national symbol? As Minister of Public Works, he developed most of the urban plans of Mexico’s major cities, and he was involved in creating the logo for the 1968 Olympic Games, a splendid design that contrasted deeply with the event that preceded the event: the killing of students at Tlatelolco Square.

Tlatelolco Square, the so-called Three Cultures Square (it has pre-Hispanic ruins, a colonial church and modern buildings), is a tragic place. Not only because of the 1968 killings. It happens that sometimes Mexico City doesn’t sink slowly; it sinks with conviction. Shamelessly. That happened in 1985, when an earthquake devastated the city. Most of the buildings that collapsed were built in the mid-20th century, some of them great pieces of modern architecture designed by Mario Pani, the most successful architect of his time. Among them was the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco Housing Unit, a multifamily project that comprised 12,000 apartments in 102 buildings, inaugurated in 1964. One of the buildings collapsed and 11 more had to be demolished. Since then, the place, Tlatelolco, and the date, 1985, have become a crucial point in the urban history of the metropolis, the local version of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition, the end of faith in the modern utopia.

Late 1960s Mexico City was facing urgent demographic problems. As the modern dream of Tlatelolco was rising, the eastern part of the city was slowly being invaded by shanty housing: 600,000 inhabitants occupied 60 square kilometres with almost no services. This was the origin of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, an eastern Mexico City “suburb” that has more than doubled its original population since then. Self-building was the origin of this city within the city, and it has been the main strategy for its expansion. Today, self-built neighbourhoods comprise the greater part of this metropolis: a big, grey, low-density grid; the chaotic side of modernity. Self-building reflects the impossibility of legality and the virtues of improvisation, and is one of the most compelling issues that huge cities all over the world are confronting in the 21st century. Unfortunately, in Mexico, architectural and urban interventions that address this issue are unusual or have tight budgets, as if architects and entrepreneurs weren’t interested in being involved in the future planning of the city.

Maybe, then, the most important question is how to build in a city in which 63 per cent of its houses are self-built, a city that has grown from 340,000 inhabitants in 1910 to more than 20 million today? How to balance the burden of a monolithic tradition, and at the same time respond to more present needs? How to be contemporary and accept the virtues of chaos? How to be bipolar and not die in the attempt?

Nothing is static here. New, anonymous buildings sprout up across the city. Lots of luxury housing units are on sale in the western part of the city. New public buildings appear everywhere, failures like the new Film Institute or the Soumaya Museum, born as spectacular anachronisms, or elegant and prudent examples, such as David Chipperfield’s Jumex Museum. Sensitive urban interventions are made, such as the pedestrian corridor in the historic downtown that runs along the axis from the Zócalo through Alameda to the Monument to the Revolution, now renamed Republic Square as a reminder that democratic publicity is always useful. (The revolution heroes are still buried here, by the way.) Public transport is slowly becoming organised, and the construction of a new airport designed by Norman Foster and Fernando Romero is about to begin. Meanwhile, the irregular suburbs continue to grow unevenly; some of them have started to consolidate and are becoming part of the urban fabric, but they constitute unstable matter.

Besides the new airport, major public interventions in Mexico City have been scarce. One public competition for the celebration of the bicentenary of Mexico’s independence in 2010 was a failure. The Stele of Light, a 100-metre-high illuminated quartz slab, reflected government inefficiency when it was inaugurated 15 months after the celebration date, in the midst of a major corruption scandal. The result is a useless tower diminished by its neighbours, three of the tallest skyscrapers on Reforma Avenue. Perhaps the only contemporary building that has been a successful addition to public space in the Mexican context is the Biblioteca José Vasconcelos, a library designed by Alberto Kalach. A monolithic concrete structure in metal and glass surrounded by lush gardens that work as a filter to the street, its bookshelves appear to float in its interior. The result is appealing and bold, close to exaggerated monumentality, but there is a delicate balance between the ethereal core of floating books, the tropical vegetation and the massive grey building. An ultimate mix of mass and void.

In fact, Mexico City is not sinking. It floats. Mud is still around its foundations, keeping the city standing. It is like a cork: no matter how hard you push it down in the water, it keeps popping back up to the surface. Texcoco Lake is gone, but we miss it. Since 1965, there have been several serious plans to recover it and some of the city’s rivers. Unfortunately, every time a plan is put forward, it is postponed indefinitely. Perhaps this is because there is no celebration related to the lake, so no one is interested. Perhaps one day we will once again be able to talk about the city by the lake. Meanwhile, we continue to live on this floating cork whose heavy concrete load never stops growing, and probably never will. §
 juan-carlos-cano-3Satélite Towers by Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz. Courtesy ProtoplasmaKid

  • Mexican Architecture