From a city of architects to architects without a city

108 | Mexico City

It is not a recent development that architects have stopped deciding the course of cities’ development. However until a few decades ago, not a few busied themselves in designing – if not entire cities – at least the way to transform significant parts of them. Their efforts were closely linked not only to strategies and policies tending to resolve collective needs, but also to representing the image of the powers that had hired them.In this sense, that complex and variegated territory known as Latin America can count many examples, not only of intentions but also of concrete realizations, often conceived out of the blue. On the wave of the historical urban plans of Le Corbusier for Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Bogotà, up to the most outstanding case of works planned on a vast scale, Brasilia, there have been several extremely interesting cases: from the university cities of Mexico City and Caracas, built respectively at the end of the Forties and Fifties, to the public architectures of São Paulo, from the Fifties to the present, and the monumental residential complex of Nonoalco-Tlateloco, in Mexico City, designed by Mario Pani in the Sixties. The Mexican capital presents, from this viewpoint, an interesting paradox, as it establishes a systolic-diastolic system: on the one hand, the abandonment of the centuries-old urban fabric in favor of a series of institutional and residential enclaves built after the Forties. On the other, the attempt at planned growth and the uncontrolled development of informal settlements, that increased until the Fifties and Sixties, in a manner not unlike that of other cities on the South American sub-continent, from Lima to São Paulo, from Buenos Aires to Caracas.
The turning point came around the Seventies when the public administrations abandoned the field of urban planning and appeared to desist from any effective action to deal with the rapid growth of what is today probably the largest city in the world. Thus, the often questionable but deeply rooted idea of programmed development, promoted since the Thirties in various sectors of the social, political and cultural life of the city, from its public space to its infrastructures, from the residential buildings to the institutional ones, linked to a close relationship with some of the finest architects and urban planners, broke down and left a vacuum filled, in a disorderly and voracious manner, by the private interests of a market without rules. This shift of initiative from the public to the private sphere did not originate only in the often invoked but highly dubious lack of public funding, but also in the lack of vision of a political class unable to resist the impetus of informal growth and private ownership. On the one hand, government and local administrators, weakened at the core by spreading corruption, revealed their inability to generate sensible zoning plans and regulations, not to mention dealing with the need of restoration of the city centers or handling other public emergencies such as the water shortage, just to mention one of the most serious, which was not due to the systematical, irrational draining of the lake basin on which the city had stood for centuries but, since the rainy season lasts five months, simply to their failure to organize a system of collection that would have made the city self-sufficient and able to generate a surplus to export to neighboring states. In a scenario with such apocalyptic overtones, it is almost a miracle that the city functions at all. But it is not less surprising that, in the midst of the chaos of traffic, the problems of waste disposal, pollution, speculation, mafias and social conflict, the city continues to produce great, even world-class architecture. This appears natural, however, when viewed from another angle, for a civilization that has a background of three thousand uninterrupted years of one of the most extraordinary architectural cultures in the world.
The most alarming symptom of the state of things is that in the last thirty years the age-old, fertile bond between the institutions and architecture seems to be dramatically lacerated. It is not difficult to criticize the authoritarian, often dogmatic approach from the esthetic and political viewpoint, with which the great public projects that configured the modern identity of Mexico City between the Thirties and the Sixties were commissioned: from the deterioration of its wonderful city center, due to a decentralization that had dramatic urban and social consequences, to the construction of an institutional monumentality, with an authoritarian look, to the promotion of various types of segregation that became rampant over the years.
But this necessary type of criticism, considering the “heroic” vision of those decades that is still predominant, risks becoming not only useless, but may even become harmful if it does not take account of a historical context in which the post-revolutionary ideals of the Thirties and early Forties, when architecture had to be placed at the service of an egalitarian ideology that wanted to “improve life”, were replaced at the end of the Forties and until the Sixties by an urge toward modernization that was equally authoritarian but already de-ideologized, that found in architecture the instrument of a dual intent: to create a network of infrastructures to facilitate the transformation of the country, and to construct an image capable of consolidating a national identity that could combine modernity, history and political power. In both these periods, the role of the great architects is crucial: names like Juan O’Gorman, Juan Legarreta, Mario Pani, Enrique del Moral, Augusto H. Alvarez; Villagrán García, Pérez Rayón, Félix Candela, just to mention the most famous. It is likely that, outside of Mexico, it is not well known how the ties of these authors to the succeeding governments gave rise to a production of rare originality, which exceeds the sum of the individual works, although many would deserve to be appreciated for their specific style, functional and structural value.
Without overlooking Barragán himself. Although his career was almost marginal in the sphere of the great public works of Mexican modernity, he had an important role in the evolution of architecture in his time, not only as what was probably its most original voice, for his houses and his gardens, but also for the lesser known public works, built or only sketched (among the former, the Satelite Towers, with Mathias Goeritz; among the latter, the residential project of Pedregal and the complex of Lomas Verdes). The Sixties and Seventies brought the emergence of a new generation of architects who left no less lasting an imprint on the city and entire country. With the exception of Ricardo Legorreta (1931), who inherited some of the traits of Barragán’s esthetic, they were representatives of a brutalistic monumentalism, a synthesis as unmistakable as it is questionable of certain excesses of late modern rationalism and pre-Hispanic architecture. Its most significant authors are Pedro Ramírez Vázquez (1919), Agustín Hernández (1924), Abraham Zabludovsky (1924-2003) and Teodoro González de León (1926).
Ramírez Vázquez was the key personality in defining the aspect of the Mexican capital of the time. He wielded almost unlimited powers for all of two decades (the Sixties and Seventies), and masterminded central policy decisions on the territory and for the city. President of the Olympic Committee for the Games of 1968, minister of public works in the Seventies, author of works like the Museum of Anthropology, the Basilica of the Guadalupe, the Aztec Stadium, Minister of Foreign Affairs, he was in charge of assigning public works and construction projects for highways, schools, hospitals and museums. González de León, on the other hand, is still considered even now the person who, more than any other, was able to understand in a pragmatic way the deterioration of public planning in favor of private and corporative expansion. His prolific production, often in cooperation with Abraham Zabludovsky and Francisco Serrano – included works such as the residential complex of Torres de Mixcoac, the Tamayo Museum, the Infonavit, the towers of Arcos Bosques, the corporate headquarters of Banamex and, more recently, the complex for various uses dubbed Reforma 222 and the University Museum of Contemporary Art.
The idea of Mexican modernity predominant in those years focused on a synthesis of pre-Hispanic, colonial (in Barragán’s case) and rationalist architecture (more in the style of Le Corbusier than in that of Mies).
The almost monopolistic idea of culture in those years, defended even by intellectuals like Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, has only recently begun to be the subject of a critical revision that goes even beyond the strictly architectural sector. In an essay on the celebrated movie by Paul Verhoeven, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall (see Arquine 22, 2003), filmed in Mexico City, the critic Cuahtémoc Medina argues how the architecture by the authors named above, used in the movie as a scenario representing the image of a sort of interplanetary Fascism, reveals the character of this authoritarian monumentalism introduced into the magma of a city that was by then uncontrollable and where any sort of planning had become almost impossible.
The decline of this type of architecture, and of the central role of the architect as demigod capable of handing the entire problem of urban and social planning, was a slow process requiring at least ten years to complete, but by the Seventies and Eighties a new dialectic began to emerge between that monumentalism and a group of authors influenced by the international trends, in whom the weight of history and function represented by power lost its importance in favor of an esthetic sense, often extraneous to the context in which it was introduced, that necessitated an implicit refusal to rethink the city and social project. TEN Arquitectos (Enrique Norten), Isaac Broid, Bernardo Gómez-Pimienta and Luis Vicente Flores are among the exponents of this new trend (but rather than a trend, it would be more appropriate to speak of formal and conceptual affiliations), while Alberto Kalach or Agustín Landa proposed a certain continuity with the monumental and tectonic style of the Sixties and Seventies.
This division, certainly schematic, between “globalized” and “neovernacular” mentalities, would be accentuated in later generations, in the Nineties and in the new century where, with few exceptions – Mauricio Rocha is perhaps the most significant, with Sebastián Mariscal and a few others, for their formal and textural originality and the attention to context and society –, the majority inclined toward a more or less sober or strongly iconic formalism, with few cultural and historical references to the dominant modern Mexican tradition.
The most noted exponents of this attitude are Javier Sánchez, Michel Rojkind, Derek Dellekamp, Fernando Romero, the Productora studio. Although a number of exponents of the new generations exercised a reflection on the city – often using a systemic-accumulative approach in the manner of Koolhaas –, their efforts remain as marginal as they are extraneous to proper architectural practice. This divergence can be clearly seen also in the predominant types on which the architects have worked in recent years: apartment buildings and private homes for a public of the middle and upper middle class. This in a city where almost eighty percent of the population lives in poverty, often extreme poverty, with a dramatic lack of infrastructures, services and public spaces, and with the construction of about 200,000 housing units a year, divided between formal projects (developed to a large extent by the private sector) and informality.
This is not the place to examine the causes and effects of the absence of public policies in these years, but the increasing importance of the private sector (also within a context arising from total informality, often without even involving real architects) acts as a counterpoint to the proliferation of designer works, that correspond to styling and cultural paradigms farther and farther way from the spreading urban sprawl. Only in very limited districts, like Condesa or Polanco, has there been in the last decade a series of actions that are beginning to delineate a fragment of a city with a certain organism, tending to unify and qualify an urban fabric that communicates with (and overlays) earlier elements of great quality (parks, plazas, historical buildings). But in the vast majority of cases, the two essential elements that make a city livable – public space and affordable housing –, that promote social coexistence and quality of life, seem to be in the hands of speculative interests, both public and private (often public works serve more to finance electoral campaigns than to resolve basic problems), and are lacking in any form of urban and territorial planning.
If this complex and dramatic situation could be viewed in the light of various analytical parameters, in the case of the Mexican capital it is clear that the marginalization of the finest professionals is one of the factors affecting the destiny of the metropolis. This city that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, was considered a model has become a city without models, where the absence of any dialogue between architecture and social project is added to that between architecture and culture. However, this architecture that has less and less to do with the development of the city, that makes no statements and takes no clear position, though expressing an extraordinary dynamism of design, testifies to the diversity of responses of the Mexican context to a problem that is by now global: that of reformulating the tasks and needs of a discipline that seems, in the last several decades, to have lost its center, not only due to the (everlasting) political and economic difficulties but also due to a sort of ethical and cultural vacuum.

Javier Barreiro Cavestany (Montevideo, Uruguay, 1959) is the author of poetry, short stories, essays, theatrical scripts, videos and reports. He is editorial director of Arquine, the magazine and publisher of architecture and design. He has lived in Barcelona, New York and Rome. Since 1995 he resides in Mexico City.

area 108 – Mexico City

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