area 108 | Mexico City

Kaleidoscopic City

When my dream finally came true and I was able to visit Mexico City for the first time, in August 2006, the city was in the hands of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s people!
I came on the bus from the north, after crossing the states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán, fantastic places for a western European: an unreal hush and peaceful harmony reigned in the towns of Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Morelia, Pazcuaro, all the way to the Distrito Federal. And then came Mexico City that, unexpectedly, was experiencing an absolutely unique situation in those days: a symbolic occupation was in progress to protest against the frauds perpetrated in the political elections won, by just a few thousand votes, by the religious far right already in power. The people of the left had gathered everywhere in the country for a civil, pacific protest march, which ended with a partial recount of the votes, that confirmed the result.
The atmosphere was unreal, the main downtown section of the city, that is also its political center, was under siege, but what was absolutely extraordinary was the occupation of Paseo de la Reforma, the historic avenue built for the Emperor, Maximilian of Hapsburg, which later became the backbone of the city’s structural development, and the main street through its center; kilometer after kilometer closed to traffic in one of the largest, busiest cities in the world that, except in a few points, could not be crossed in either direction.
An uninterrupted line of large camping tents occupied it, under which thousands of people alternated on the picket lines, with hundreds and hundreds of chemical toilets, army kitchens, first aid structures, and improvised auditoriums for showing movies, for concerts, for making speeches, for holding simple entertainments, moments of aggregation and political dialectic,
a few chairs and wooden benches that created venues. In the last last section, the occupation continued on Avenida Francisco Madero to reach the Zocalo, which is not only the main square in Mexico City, but the symbolic center of the entire country, with the immense Cathedral and Palacio Nacional. The Zocalo had been turned into an enormous stage, occupied by thirty-one tents representing every state of the Mexican Federation, surrounding the vast platform on which Obrador, known as Amlo, held forth. In this place the stones of the buildings had acquired the same temporary air as the tents and chemical toilets, the urban lighting blended with the colorful strings of lights that had been installed to celebrate the Mexican Independence Day, September 16, with the hope of hearing the traditional cry of “Que viva México!” from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional, from the lips of Amlo.
The city was thus literally cut in two, or perhaps a thousand parts. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope: colors, lights, automobiles, people all mixed up and the city itself appeared under a thousand different shapes and images. What gave the whole scene its unreal aspect was the extraordinary silence of automobile engines. This was the ”exceptional” summer of 2006, then, as if nothing had happened, Mexico City turned back into the multiform capital that is, perhaps, the largest on the planet.

... nombres, sitios,
calles y calles, rostros, plazas, calles
estaciones, un parque, cuartos solos,
manchas en la pared, alguien se peina,
alguien canta a mi lado, alguien se viste,
cuartos, lugares, calles, nombres, cuartos...
Octavio Paz

An extraordinary city cannot be explained through the description of a megalopolis identical to many others. On this side of the ocean few people know anything about Mexico City, other than the exorbitant numbers that concern it: 18 million inhabitants, 4.2 million housing units, 529,000 trade and office buildings, 53,000 industrial establishments, plus roadways, services and infrastructures that cover 1,926 square kilometers of urban area with an average density of 9,300 inhabitants per square kilometer 2.
This city was originally considered a paradise: the Aztecs chose the site after lengthy wandering, and founded their Tenochtitlán in about 1325. A lake surrounded by tall mountains, with a small artificial island in the middle on which stood the emblem of construction technique for the time, the capital of the great Aztec empire, conciliating divine prodigy – ”en medio de un lago, un águila sobre un nopal devorando una serpiente” – and military strategy. The foundation city was designed in four sectors linked by walkways and canals, which were the most important avenues of communication; the island was then connected to the shores of the lake by three broad roads. The central part of the island was occupied by the “ceremonial citadel” which condensed in its architecture the religious beliefs, construction techniques and art of this ancient people. According to Aztec tradition, the main temple has a life span, the new temple being built on top of the old one time after time so that even in Mexico City archeologists have found five levels, the last of which should go back to the late 15th century. It has always been a city that grew on itself, not a simple juxtaposition of different layers, but the new layer that each time carries on the life of the city. The relationship between the ancient city and the geography of the site seems to have vanished with the passage of time: the lake was first drained, then dried, the canals were replaced with a network of streets, like a tightly woven mesh, and yet if we wanted to “describe” it, using the word with its meaning as an act of interpretation, we could say that the city gives one the physical sensation of having arrived in an immense place. That sensation is still strong, even though it is now a city lacking any constructed limits or borders, it is enough to raise our eyes and on a clear day, see the crown of mountains that surrounds it. One has the sensation of the finite.
Many of those who have written about Mexico City – architects, urban planners, critics but also writers – describe their impressions of arriving by plane in this immense urban settlement: as the plane comes down, one perceives the immensity of it, its density, because it is only possible to grasp its intricacy from above; it is sufficient to go up to the top of the Latinoamericana Tower to see how this immensity is actually enclosed in a limited space, how the orography is part of this great construction and how significantly it has directed its development.
Man and his destructive fury have battled nature, but she always wins; the memory of what was here, the memory of the water that once covered the valley is the memory of the city, the material of its growth and transformation. Like all truly large cities, Mexico City cannot really be analyzed or described in detail through its foundation structure, but perhaps its geography, and its orographic and natural condition can help us today to create a different “urban figure”, not filtered by data and statistics, the ideal of a city linked to all the elements that contribute to its essence.
Ignasi de Solà-Morales writes that the vicissitudes of urban form are “la historia de una pasión”, and also that “la metrópolis, ciudad del tiempo presente, se alza como nuevo obscuro objeto del deseo para la arquitectura y los arquitectos”, which should be the title for a new history of the modern city, starting from its architecture, because whatever else it may be, the city continues to be the birthplace of architecture. One wonders, however, if it is still possible, today, to speak of an architecture of Mexico City, and try to move from its structure and its architecture to a description of the city. Back in the Thirties, Mexico City became a place of extraordinary cultural and political ferment, populated by intellectuals and artists who marked its cultural evolution and progress, while always preserving an essence that comes from ancient, deeply rooted tradition; the Europeans who sought refuge here were enchanted by it, from Tina Modotti to André Breton, from Artaud to Majakovskij, Max Ernst and Michailovic Ejzenstein, Max Cetto and many others.
Its architecture was also marked, in those same years, by a number of highly significant personalities, from Villagrán García to Obregón Santacilia, followed by the generation that grew up in the myth of modernity and Le Corbusier, from Juan O’Gorman and Juan Legarreta, to Mario Pani, whose compositive research has a fundamental role in the evolution of architecture, especially residential architecture, and urban structure.
There are a number of complexes, also, like the University City, built on Pani’s own masterplan and that of del Moral in which modernity creates a dialectic relationship with the imposing nature of the place, and Pedregal de San Angel, based on the project by Luis Barragán, that represent examples of architectural experimentation on an urban scale, bringing together architects who seemed quite different from one another, but who worked together in those years on the creation of a modern architecture that was, however, distinctly Mexican, working at the same time on the recognizability of the city, that acquired important cultural infrastructures, thus attempting to design its development and project their dreams of post-revolutionary modernity on the Mexican people and their “intelligentsia”. The intellectuals of the time are still indicated as the Mexican masters, and Barragán is without a doubt the most famous throughout the world. His work represents the synthesis and exaltation of the characteristics of a Mexican “regionalist” architecture, and its success resides in its ability to express the artist’s true sentiment while approaching the ascetic mysticism toward which Barragán himself was drawn. One could say, however, that the architecture of all those who worked at that time, in giving life to a local style, is urban architecture dealing with a growing city, one that is becoming a metropolis, in this case a modern Mexican architecture.
The question of Mexican modernity opens another far-reaching debate in which some say that the modernity of this country is, more than elsewhere, the product of a series of specific, profound occurrences that affected all of Mexico, in all its complexity, at the time. Now there is a vast literature about Mexico City, as about every metropolis, an intriguing theme indeed, though often handled repetitively and in a generic way, even by those who deal with architecture. It is difficult and risky to speak of the architecture of the city, the megalopolis of the 21st century with its immensity, its enormous problems, but I think it is possible, though equally risky, to interpret the city starting from its polycentric layout, in which every element seems to close itself inside limits and boundaries, where these contribute to give it an identity. In great measure the polycentric layout of Mexico City is due to its physical conformation and to uniqueness of its geographic sites. It is divided in sixteen delegations that have a typical characteristics and a different cultural and functional vocations, in some cases they have hard and funded identities, that the actual instruments of city planning enhance with delegation’s urban plans.
In the last decades the infrastructures are developed, especially the connection between the city’s parts; the infrastructure’s development was with a new road network and a underground. These is the biggest underground in Latin America, it has 12 routes and 175 stations, and it transports more than 15 millions of passengers, and the people’s flow is less than New York and Tokyo.
The plenty of people, that live by day in Mexico City or simply cross the town by car or by public transportation, transform some more the town’s face. This multiplicity and fragmentary aspect, impossible to categorize or codify, has by now taken over, and it is only starting from the physical configuration of the city that it is still possible to understand the effects of urban growth and imagine the future. ”En la situación contemporánea, la arquitectura sigue estando en la ciudad. Forma parte de ella y materializa una parte de los espacios en los que se desarrolla la vida urbana. Sin embargo, hoy más que nunca, comprobamos que la ciudad es mucha más cosas que sus edificios y sus arquitecturas. (…) Pero estoy convencido de que estas nociones que han de aclarar los puntos de contacto entre algunas arquitecturas y la nueva realidad urbana tiene un referente arquitectónico, pero son también culturales, es decir, hacen necesario establecer una directa relación entre la forma de la arquitectura y lo urbano”. The words of Solà Morales5 invoke an inevitable return to architecture, but also the recognition of new relationships between architecture and the city, starting just from its new forms.
Mexico City, like all cities, is composed of much mediocre architecture, but also some good architecture, and it is a city in which, because of its size and the problems related to that size, planners have begun to think of residential architecture not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of the quality of the project; of infrastructures not only as essential services but also as a new nervous system on which to attempt to restructure the city, restoring it to some sort of urban design; of public spaces, regardless of their nature, in some cases also residential, as structural elements capable of restoring balance to its urban “forces”. The architecture of Mexico City exists, and must be seen also in the value of its position with respect to its vastness, confirming its urban polycentrism, that is a specific characteristic of its configuration due, to a large extent, to its orographic layout. In the collection of polychrome tables, in plaster on cardboard, kept in the Barragán archive and dated 1960, the Mexican architect interprets and describes the development of Mexico City precisely on the basis of its orographic condition of volcanic soil; the territory is shaped by the strength of its high points in contrast with the great plain, the highest peaks seeming to represent its reference points, their green an important element of the landscape. In these drawings, some of the tables depict the current status starting form the structure of the original Aztec city, other show a possible, uncontrollable development and others still the master’s vision of a desirable, in any case inevitable, expansion in which the physical and geographical aspects of the place and its context appear as central elements to the understanding of what has gone before, and what the future can bring. It is just this relationship with the context on which the elements of the project are based, as well as the relations between the structure of the territory and its change, starting from the great Tenochtitlán; the different systems of relations of which the project consists become part of a system of existing relations, providing new interpretations and recognizing the complexity of the territory itself. It is extremely interesting, then, to examine the work on “perspective mapping” by Alejandro Hernández Gálvez, a survey on “chorography” in search of the links and relationships between Mexico City and its orography, its topography, taking a step backward in the search for an urban structure that, in time, though not expanding, has confirmed itself.
Gálvez’s research confirms the need to study this city more as a structure that has expanded more and more, almost without limits, in order to identify and configure, within the urban territory, certain definite and controllable elements, separate yet linked parts, indispensable to imagine its transformation. And since architecture is the instrument of control and conformation of space,  it is architecture that can and must perform a dual role in the configuration of the city.
In the last few years a great deal has been built in Mexico City, and what has been built is, on the whole, architecture of good quality. There is a generation of young architects in the city, operating also in the rest of the country, that has great potential, with influences from abroad, but that recognizes the past generations of Mexican masters and in some cases is able to merge contemporary technique with the specific characteristics of the local culture. Indeed, there is a tradition in building that works well with modern views, resulting in contemporary architecture in which light, water, nature and the colors of the earth are building materials, just as important as iron, glass, concrete. And this is also the sign of the strength of a cultural context that is also physical and perceptive, unquestionably alive. The expansion of Mexico City, almost without rules and plans, often driven by speculation, has led to a significant increase in private architecture, often for speculative purposes; many architects work directly with the construction companies and all this has changed the face of many zones of the modern city, often producing mediocre architecture.
Javier Barreiro entitled  one of his essays a few years ago “Arquitectura sin médula” and Alejandro Hernández Gálvez, in the same issue of the magazine Arquine6, wrote a brief article entitled “Arquitectura prêt-à-porter”, a highly critical view of a certain type of contemporary urban architecture in Mexico City, but also of a world in which private initiative and speculation are the stimuli for building and, as many of the younger generations prove, every occasion is a good opportunity for research and experimentation, step by step defining a new identity. A particularly interesting development is the new research into residential architecture, through formal themes and solutions, leading to the development of collective spaces, in some cases also to public spaces, and the new forms that this can acquire in the setting of a city of such size. It is important, however, not to forget that there are two sides to every question, and the two views of urban design must take account of both architecture and the city as a social unit, even when it is perhaps the largest metropolis in the world. It is only when we acknowledge all the elements that make up the city that we can identify its physical shape and start to draw the outlines of a new urban identity that makes polycentrism its strong point.

Marella Santangelo (1964), architect, graduated in 1988, won a PhD in Architectural Composition on a CNR scholarship at the Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura de Barcelona, and has taught on contract at the School of Specialization in Urban Design at the "Federico II” University of Naples where she is also on the faculty of the architecture department. Since 1991 she has been engaged in research on the subject of architecture and urban design at the Department of Urban Design. She has published and edited a number of books and essays, including most recently Progetto e trasformazione della città, 2005; Architettura contemporanea in Brasile, 2006; La costruzione dei luoghi urbani, 2007; EMBT 1997/2007 10 anni di architetture Miralles Tagliabue, 2008.