The unstable subsoil on which Mexico City rests has been the political, economic, and cultural epicenter of the region for centuries. Whether known as Tenochtitlán (1325-1521), the Aztec empire's majestic city on Lake Texcoco, the "muy noble y leal ciudad de México," the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1521-1821), or as the capital of a tentative republic whose majestic buildings by Lorenzo Rodriguez, Manuel Tolsá, and Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras housed institutions unable or unwilling to administer to citizens' needs in the 19th century, the city's architecture has served as an agent for political, social, cultural, and economic change, as well as a signifier of it, and has continued to do so in the 20th century.
Indeed, the city may be read as a text, revealing important insights into the nation's passage from the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1910, through the immense pains of ten years of civil war or revolution to 1920, through the gradual consolidation of power in a new revolutionary elite and political party in the 1920s and 1930s, to efforts at modernization from the 1940s to the 1970s, to a series of economic crises and booms in the 1980s and 1990s.
A survey of the architectural history of Mexico City in the 20th century reveals the use of diverse, often discordant styles as many Mexican architects rejected what they believed to be the facile emulation of exotic architectural styles. They perceived that their revolution had afforded the nation access to modernity and the means to achieve a uniquely Mexican identity. The capital city indicates widely varying conceptions of modernity and identity in this pluralist society. According to Mexican architect and historian Carlos Lira Vazquez, the search for modernity led to the employment of styles as diverse as neo-colonial, California-colonial, Deco, neo-Indigenist, functionalist, nationalist, international, postmodern, and pluralist, each used for utilitarian as well as aesthetic needs.
In the first two decades following the armed phase of the Revolution of 1910, Mexican governments faced the challenges of creating legitimate institutions and refining the government's role in relation to the people in consonance with the Constitution of 1917 and reconstructing society along more egalitarian lines. The revolution had overthrown the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and left in its wake a devastated nation and capital. The cityscape bore witness to this devastation: pock-marked buildings along streets in the city's historic center evidenced the transit of one revolutionary army or another. Massive building projects such as Adamo Boari's "Mexicanized Art-Nouveau" Teatro Nacional (1904; now the Palacio de Bellas Artes, completed in 1934) and Emile Beard's neo-classic Palacio de Poder Legislativo (1900; now the Monument to the Revolution, 1933), which Diaz intended to serve as part of the legacy of Porfirian greatness, now stood partially finished, rusting hulks on the city's profile. The immediate task facing the capital's architects was numerous: to provide housing for the tens of thousands of recent migrants; to repair or build schools, health care facilities, and other government buildings; and to design commercial structures. Common to these projects was the idea of nationalism. That architecture in service to the state could and should carry a message of identity and greatness. Apparent in such works is the lack of agreement on what should be the vehicle to convey that message. To José Vasconcelos, minister of education in the early 1920s, the neo-colonial style was the only language that could convey the Mexican identity. Hence, his department commissioned young architects, among them Carlos Obregón Santacilia, to execute works in this style. Obregón Santacilia's Escuela Benito Juarez (1924) remains one of the most eloquent examples of this style, along with commercial structures such as Antonio Torres Torija's Edificio Gaona (1922) and Rafael Goyeneche's Hotel Majestic (1925). Together, these projects illustrate the basic strengths and weaknesses in this style: As a link to the past, it had no peer. If one looked to the past for the source of present greatness or for inspiration, then this style was sound. Although at various times from 1917 to 1940 the government actively promoted this style as representative of national identity, it presented severe constraints. For one, the neo-colonial is primarily a horizontal style; as prices for urban land increased, developers sought projects that would bring higher returns per square meter. It was necessary to build taller, more "functional" buildings and to consider modern styles, even in the historic center of the city adjacent to distinguished 17th- and 18th-century buildings. Second, the neo-colonial is a very expensive style: Vasconcelos's school building campaign quickly exhausted his department's budget after only eight schools had been built, hardly enough to meet the city's needs. Finally, a small, yet increasingly vocal group of young architects, among them Juan O'Gorman, Juan Legarreta, and Alvaro Aburto, decried the use of the neo-colonial, given their interpretation of colonial history. To build in colonial style, whether neo-colonial or California-colonial, signified a desire to repeat centuries of colonial oppression and denial of the progress that the revolution promised Mexico. Architecture, they argued, must serve the interests of all the people, not merely the wealthy. Such sentiments gained in popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s, given evidence of corruption in post-revolutionary governments as various public figures indulged in conspicuous consumption, building lavish homes in the new colonias of Anzures, Lomas de Chapultepec, and Hipódromo de la Condesa, among others, and embarking on what seemed to many to be piecemeal development projects of little consequence in addressing the real problems facing the city's residents.
For example, in the early 1930s, Carlos Obregón Santacilia sponsored a design competition for the development of low-cost housing for workers. The winning design for these minimalist worker's houses was submitted by Juan Legarreta; following strict functionalist dictates of economy of materials and form without ornamentation, the city erected over 300 such units at Colonias Balbuena and Plutarco Elias Calles. Yet the city needed thousands of such units: the result of this shortfall was an increase in the population density of the capital's oldest quarter, where landlords were continuing the conversion of colonial-era residences into tenements. This is not to say that no advances were made: Under President Lazaro Cardenas's direction, the revolution moved distinctly to the left and assumed new social responsibilities. This is the context for the development of the Instituto Nacional de Cardiologia by José Villagrán Garcia (1937), the Edificio del Sindicato de Electristas by Enrique Yánez (1938), the Hospital Militar by Luis McGregor (1940), the Edificio Guardiola by Carlos Obregón Santacilia (1938), and the Escuela Vocacional by Juan Gorman. Functionalism allowed for massive use of reinforced concrete in monumental structures as well as the incorporation of new materials such as aluminum and steel, affording developers and occupants of such structures flexible use of interior spaces, open floor plans, and greater illumination and ventilation. These more economical functionalist designs allowed the government to disperse scarce funding on more ambitious projects, demonstrating its commitment to social justice.
Yet, illustrating the complexity of modernization in the context of the institutionalization of the Mexican Revolution. Cárdenas also supported directives that attempted to regulate architectural styles employed in various sections of the city, allowing for the further use of the neo-colonial in structures such as the new building for the Departamento del Distrito Federal by Fernando Beltrán Puga and Federico Mariscal (1935) to maintain the stylistic integrity of the oldest section of the city.
The 1940s and 1950s witnessed further change in governmental priorities and the direction of the revolution, which greatly affected construction in the capital. Presidents actively courted foreign investment and industrialization, both serving to bring prosperity and modernity to this emerging nation. The state's promotion of industrialization brought to the capital new waves of foreign investments and new architectural developments: the post-World War II city now contained immense factories and expanded assembly plants such as those of General Motors, D.M. Nacional shopping centers, and supermarkets, whose architecture, at times uninspired, in other instances employed the most advanced construction techniques, wielded by talented engineers and architects. Furthermore, the capital gained its first true skyscraper, the glass and aluminum-clad 42-story Torre Latinoamericano, by architect Augusto H. Alvarez and engineer Adolfo Zeevaert (1948-56), built in daring proximity to colonial-era structures at the corner of Avenida Madero and San Juan de Letran (now Eje Cárdenas).
New investments brought with them demands for more labor, quickly exceeded by ever-growing migration to the capital. The failure of governmental planning initiatives to regulate urban growth was apparent in the increase in informal settlements on the city's periphery from 1940 to 1960, in which paracaidutas (literally, "parachutists"), or squatters, occupied marginal lands, built rudimentary shelters from found materials, and began to form communities. Governmental initiatives in the provision of social services are seen in projects such as the Edificio Central for the newly created Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social by Carlos Obregón Santacilia (1947) and the Escuela Nacional de Maestros by Mario Pani (1945).
There is a great deal of vitality evident in the capital in those years of the "Mexican Miracle," in which the city witnessed and engendered unprecedented growth. This growth meant prosperity for some: As new colonies prospered, aspirations of grandeur found expression in the city's first condominiums, designed by Mario Pani and Salvador Ortega (1955), and sophisticated office buildings, notably Juan Sordo Madaleno's Seguros Anahuac building (1954) and Augusto H. Alvarez's Edificio Castorena (1957), firmly anchored the International Style as a central component of contemporary Mexican architecture. Use of this and the functionalist style in state architecture, as in Pani and Del Moral's Secretaria de Recursos Hidráulicos building (1950), Augusto Pérez Palacios and Raúl Cacho's Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas (1953), and Enrique de la Mora, Francisco López Carmona, and Félix Candela's Bolsa de Valores building (1953-56), manifested Mexico's rise out of revolutionary turmoil, and centralization of political power.
At this time, Mario Pani designed the city's first multifamiliares (multi-function housing projects, or "cities-within-cities," with their own markets, clinics, schools, and nurseries) in the Centro Urbano Presidente Alemán (1950) and the Centro Urbano Presidente Juárez (1952). These model housing projects for government workers, adaptations of Le Corbusian concepts, dramatically extended state responsibility for the provision of housing for its workforce. These projects later proved insufficient to meet the demands for hygienic housing for the hundreds of thousands of capital city residents lacking such. Instead, this period marked the deepening of the gap among classes in Mexico City, as wealthier individuals chose to reside in one of the new developments, such as El Pedregal de San Angel (planned by Luis Barragán) or Ciudad Satélite (1957), with its abstract entrance towers by Matias Goeritz, providing a new context for urban life regulated and planned.
By the close of the 1950s, the International Style, in sum, had been adopted with the same sort of enthusiasm and ambition as had functionalism a decade before. In this period, official architecture stressed monumentality, within this style representing the power that the state sought to possess, often using white marble, green flagstone, red recontle, and basalt, linkages to materials traditionally employed in Mexican architecture and to the colors of the flag. The many new buildings containing great expanses of window panes, supported by aluminum frames, were further evidence of the significance of international style architecture, under the guidance of architects Enrique Yánez, Luis Barragán, and others. The optimism inherent in this style is apparent in new construction in the city in the early 1960s, as the government reasserted the image of the state as the guarantor of development and the provider of education, health care, and housing via more monumental projects. These projects include the Centro Médico Nacional (1961) by Yánez, José Villagrán García, and others, and museums that conserve and celebrate Mexico's cultural heritage; notably the Museo de Arte Moderno (1964) and Pedro Ramirez Vázquez's magnificent Museo Nacional de Antropología (1964).
The collapse of the "miracle" is also apparent in the city's streets, as venerable viceregal and prehispanic structures witnessed new waves of student and labor protests in the mid-1960s, culminating in the massacre of students at Tlatelolco in October 1968. This slaughter severely shadowed the dynamism manifest across town, at Félix Candela's Palacio de Deportes (erected for the Olympic Games, to be held a week later). Serious economic problems were also apparent in successive governments' failures in the 1970s to provide adequate housing, educational and health care facilities for the burgeoning population.
From 1970 to the close of the 20th century, the architecture of Mexico City continued to illustrate the fundamental tensions in Mexican society, as well as its search for a national identity. Labels attached to styles were frequently misleading or value-laden: What some observers have perceived as "virtual chaos" given the diverse styles and approaches employed in various parts of this city, now the largest in the world, others label "pluralistic" (Lira Vázquez, 182-85). Given the complexity and diversity of modern urban life, in living styles, entertainment, education, business and commerce, it is not surprising that a diverse design vocabulary be employed within this city with a resulting monumental, or rational, or traditional, or plastic architecture. This pluralism in Mexican architecture signifies more an approach than a unified style: It is a rejection of the assumption that the International Style can respond to local or regional needs and ambitions. In this context are works as distinct as the plastic INFONAVIT building, in which Teodoro González de León and Abraham Zabludovsky blended the exterior into interiors smoothly, using natural elements such as wood, large expanses of glass with textured reinforced concrete, and the architect's massive Colegio de México (1976) and the "rational" architecture, as in Ramón Torres's design for the new Loteria Nacional building (1981). "Monumental" architecture is also significant in this period. As symbols of power or status, whether religious or secular, these are grandiose works: the Basilica de Guadalupe by Pedro Ramirez Vázquez, Javier Garcia Lascurain, Jose Luis Benlliure, Gabriel Chávez de la Mora, and Alejandro Schoenhofer (1976) and the Colegio Militar, inspired by prehispanic forms, by Agustin Hernandez and Manuel Gonzilez Rul. Further innovations in structural engineering made possible taller skyscrapers, seen in the completion of the Torre de Pemex, designed by Pedro Moctezuma Diaz Infante (1984). This structure reaffirmed the prediction made 30 years earlier by Mexico City Chronicler Salvador Novo that one day "pyramids of crystal and aluminum" would cap this august city of palaces, marking yet another conquest of this fragile soil. In sum, the city is continually remodeled and revised, reflecting the diversity and complexity of contemporary Mexican life in terms of culture, government, economy, and identity.
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