Kathryn E. O’Rourke
Architecture in Mexico City in the mid-20th century was shaped by rapid economic and urban growth, demographic change, new construction technologies, and politics. Architects adapted modernist idioms and those that evoked historical precedents for new purposes. Key figures who had begun practice earlier in the century, including Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman, José Villagrán García, and Luis Barragán, designed major new works and strongly influenced the profession, even as a new generation led by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta, and Teodoro González de Léon came of age. As they had been since the 1920s, public patrons were the most important clients of modern buildings, which often addressed needs for better housing, education, and health care. The period also saw the rise of modern suburbs and the evolution of the single-family house, as well as the creation of major buildings for increasingly important cultural institutions, especially museums.
As they had in preceding decades, architects used the non-architectural arts, particularly painting, to distinguish their works. The legacy of the Mexican muralist movement was most evident on the facades of major buildings in the new University City, where the influence of international modernist planning principles was also striking. In 1968 Mexico City hosted the Olympics, for which architects, planners, and designers created a network of buildings and images that functioned interdependently to present Mexico as cosmopolitan and historically rooted in its indigenous history. Sprawl and pollution worsened in the 1970s, as the capital came to be dominated by buildings that were not designed by architects. While some observers questioned the relevance of architecture in the face of seemingly unstoppable and uncontrollable growth, talented young architects responded with buildings notable for their monumentality, mass, and sophisticated engagement with historical types.
Historians have extensively explored the topic of architecture in Mexico City in the 20th century. From the relationships between politics, public patrons, new construction technologies, and new idioms of modernism, the impressive story of architecture in this megalopolis continues to astound and captivate people’s imaginations. Architecture was a channel that politicians used to address housing, education, and health care needs in a rapidly growing city. Yet scholars have not been especially concerned with private construction projects and their influence on the process of shaping and being shaped by the visual representation of Mexico City. Private building projects reveal an alternative reality of the city—one not envisioned by politicians and public institutions. Private construction projects in the historic city center are particularly interesting due to their location. These buildings are built on ancient clay lakebeds and volcanic soil on which the Aztecs first built the city. Not only are these buildings located in the heart of the city, the buildings in the rest of the historic district are also sinking. Any building in a historic district that has withstood the test of time should be an object of interest to scholars. The Torre Latinoamericana is perhaps the only building in the historic district and the entire city that ceases to sink, and instead floats! Located on the corner of Madero and San Juan de Letrán, the building sits at the heart of history, culture, and ancient Aztec clay lakebeds. The Torre Latinoamericana was built between 1948 and 1956 and is one of the most important visual symbols of resilience and modernity in Mexico City today.
Joshua K. Salyers
Revolutionary leaders favored depictions of Mexico City in the mid-20th century that highlighted the progress and orderly growth of a modern industrial city. The ruling party made Mexico City the focus of post–World War II development policies and the showcase for the success of those policies in achieving the new goals of the Mexican Revolution during a period of sustained economic growth known as the “Mexican miracle.” When, in the early 1960s, the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis published The Children of Sánchez, his popular study of urban poverty, and turned the public’s attention away from the sites that underscored the official narrative of orderly industrial growth, it incited a heated public debate in Mexico City. The book contained the oral histories of a family living in the low-income neighborhood of Tepito, in the center of the capital, and was a shocking account, told in their own words, of a family’s attempt to survive urban life. Supporters of the modernizing policies of federal officials and the capital’s mayor, Ernesto Uruchurtu, attacked the book in the press and even filed formal complaints with Mexico’s attorney general demanding that the book and its author be banned from the country and the publisher reprimanded. They claimed that the book was too vulgar for public consumption and called it a foreigner’s attack on the reputation of the country and the city. Critics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party used the publicity generated by the attacks to open up a dialog about the marginalized people left behind by urban development and engaged in the debates as a safe way to express its own concerns about Uruchurtu’s inhumane development policies and the government’s insistence on hiding reality to present the city to the international community as a modern showcase.