Preservation and the Future of Modern Architecture in Mexico and Beyond

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By Angelica Martinez

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980 - the current architectural exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City plays a significant preservation role by gathering images of significant modern buildings that need to be known for their contribution to the historic development of Latin America. However, in Mexico many modern buildings have been neglected for years or no longer exist. The question, then, is: what is the future of modern architecture in Mexico?

Photo (left): Nonoalco-Tlatelolco complex after its inauguration. Photo credit: Google Images

 

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently inaugurated the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980, which features photographs, drawings and videos of the architecture –either individual buildings or urban facilities that emerged as a response to the political, economical and cultural changes occurred in Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the images featured correspond to works that were carried out, and some other show projects that were left on the paper. At the same time, several photographs have another purpose: to preserve the memory of buildings that no longer exist, those that still stand in bad conditions, and those that have been threatened to be demolished, at least in the case of the Mexican modern architecture.

By far one of the most well known large-scale modern housing projects constructed in Mexico in the 1960s is the Centro Urbano Nonoalco-Tlatelolco (Nonoalco-Tlatelolco urban complex) (photo above), which was planned to supply the increasing housing demand caused by the migration of rural population to the largest Mexican urban and industrial area: Mexico City. Planned to offer affordable housing for middle-class families, the complex consisted of 102 high-density multi-family towers set in a park-like setting. The project also includes schools, recreational centers and day-care facilities.

Photo (right): Interior view of an apartment damaged by a fired occurred in 2014. Photo Credit: Google Images

Designed by Mario Pani -a prolific architect in charge of many architectural projects that transformed the urban landscape in Mexico City, Nonoalco-Tlatelolco represent the materialization of the modern utopia, inspired in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin from 1925. However, the utopia turned into a dystopia in the following years. On October 2, 1968 thousand of students who gathered in the open spaces of the complex to protest against the regime were assassinated. On September 19, 1985 an earthquake shook Mexico City, destroying one of the largest multi-family buildings of the complex and affecting at least eight towers that years later would be demolished. Today most of the buildings that remain in this controversial urban complex are either abandoned, neglected or in danger of collapsing (photo above).

Also located in Mexico City and designed by Enrique del Moral in 1957, another modern Mexican building featured in the exhibition is the Mercado de La Merced (La Merced Market). Back in the 1950s, the construction of infrastructure and facilities in urban areas was a priority for the Mexican government in order to demonstrate the economic growth and prosperity of the country. At the same time, a generation of architects committed with the social needs and seeking for architectural innovation was emerging. La Merced Market is, then, the result of governmental achievements and the dedication of an architect who learned how to adapt functionalist ideas to the Mexican traditions; the market has been the quintessential commercial place since the Aztec civilization dominated the current Mexican territory.

Photo (above): La Merced Market circa 1960. Photo Credit: Google Images

The building still maintains its commercial function; the facility is today the biggest market in Mexico City, not to mention one of the most significant landmarks in the city. Unfortunately in the last three years at least two fires –one in 2013 and a second in 2014 have threatened the integrity of the building, especially the main façade, main hall, and the economy of hundreds of tenants. Partial demolition works started in 2014 and today the building is still under reconstruction. Plans have been proposed from private investors and the local government to rehabilitate the area surrounding the market, but the tenants have rejected them because these plans do not consider their housing, recreational and commercial needs.

Photo (right): Main façade of the market after the fire occurred in 2013. Photo Credit: Google Images

Regarding education needs, the exhibition displays an important project often disregarded or forgotten: The Aula Casa Rural Mexico (Rural Schoolhouse Project) developed by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez in the 1960s. The project responded to the urgent need of providing educational infrastructure in order to strive against the illiteracy of the indigenous population. Ramirez Vazquez, who strongly believed in architecture as a tool to generate a social revolution, devised a model for a school that could be easy to transport, build and adapt according to the weather conditions in different regions of Mexico. Once implemented, the project resulted in the construction of more than 35,000 rural schools in Mexico, contributing to the development of the modern Mexico. It is possible that many of these schools have been demolished in recently years; it would be necessary to develop a research project to document the remaining structures –if there is not documentation yet.

Photo (above): Rural schoolhouse in Baja California, Mexico. Photo Credit: Google Images

The cases presented reveal the importance of architectural exhibitions and their role as preservation tools. Photographs preserve the appearance of anything that no longer exist or has changed. Architectural pictures remind us the significance of a building or a park either for the collective memory or our individual memories. Despite that Nonoalco-Tlatelolco has often been surrounded by negative connotations because of the type of events that have occurred there, the site is part of the collective memory of the entire nation. Old photographs of the site are a reminder for Mexicans that the legacy of the students from 1968 is still alive. They are also a reminder that it is possible to recover after natural disasters, just as the survivals from 1985 did.

Finally Latin America in Construction has also an unstated advocacy purpose. By acknowledging the importance of modern architecture in the development of Latin American countries a series of questions arise: what are the current conditions of these buildings? What is their future? Why are we not considering valuable many of this architecture today? The Mexican examples featured in the exhibition are mostly buildings that have survived the wrecking ball, but there are hundreds of modern structures, such as Vladimir Kaspé’s Superservicio Lomas (photo left) or the Manacar building that were not enough important to be preserved. These questions are not only for Mexico or Latin America, but also for any city where the legacy of the modern movement is present. In the case of the Rural Schoolhouses, the question goes beyond the preservation of the buildings themselves: how modern precepts oriented to develop architecture socially responsible are preserved? Can these precepts be preserved today?

 

Photo (above): Super Servicio Lomas (Demolished in 2011). Photo Credit: Pinterest


About the author
Originally from Mexico, Angelica is a current graduate student in Pratt Institute's Historic Preservation program.  
 

Sources
Adriá, M. (2015, March 30). Mario Pani y la vivienda colectiva. In Arquine. Retrieved from http://www.arquine.com/pani-y-la-vivienda-colectiva/
 
Bergdoll, B., Comas, C. E., Liernur, J. F., Del, R. P., & Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). (2015). Latin America in construction: Architecture 1955-1980.

Hernández, A. (2013, April 16). Cultura en destrucción. In Arquine. Retrieved from http://www.arquine.com/cultura-en-destruccion/