In Mexico, there is a greater need for social spaces than showcase buildings


In Mexico, there is a greater need for social spaces than showcase buildings



The article presented here was published in the Swiss newspaper NZZ on 26 October 2021. The original language of the article is German. Laure Nashed has translated the article into English the best she could.


NZZ Feuilleton 26. Oktober 2021

For half a century, the poor population was neglected: with more than a thousand projects, architecture is now supposed to bring a better future.


North American film productions never miss out on an opportunity to show the world the problems of their Mexican neighbours, such as drug wars, violence or poverty.


International architecture magazines, on the other hand, convey the total opposite image: impressive, atmospheric villas designed by renowned architects. This shows Mexico from its magnificent side: predominantly, the buildings are presented in the best possible light.


But these showpieces are part of a serious problem in Mexico: the extreme social inequality. For decades, architects designed only for the country’s richest. But recently, a spirit of change has begun to emerge, and a new generation is dedicated to the task of creating living space also for the poorest.


The neglected public space

During the heyday of public architecture in the mid-20th century, Mexican architects built hospitals, schools, libraries and other public buildings. However, social and public tasks diminished from the 1970s onwards. After the violent student protests in Mexico City in 1968, the government increasingly focused on the country’s elite.


Architects were hardly ever commissioned to design social housing of lasting quality or public buildings. The necessary infrastructures were technically implemented by civil servants, mostly under high time and cost pressure and without any sense of design or sensitivity for local social life. Although every now and then some star architects realised iconic showcase projects in upscale neighbourhoods, these only benefit a small minority.


While politicians and architects focused on prosperity for half a century, the uncontrolled growth of cities and thus the lack of basic infrastructure increased dramatically during the same period. According to Mexican statistics, over forty percent of the population has been living below the national poverty line for two decades. Despite this, no attention had been paid to the poverty-stricken areas that had emerged.


Hasty transformation of the country

A major earthquake in 2017 exposed the gap between rich and poor in a very visible way. With the deep certainty that politics would not sufficiently support the suffering population, within the architectural scene a collective peer pressure for reconstruction arose shortly after the earthquake. Around 400 architects joined forces in the Reconstruir México movement to build homes and a few public buildings in rural communities that had been badly hit by the earthquake.


Instead of designing for the richest in the country, architects now also planned for the poorest, in many cases on a voluntary basis. But this commitment to social responsibility did not last for many of the architects involved.


After being elected in 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Amlo for short) wants to decisively transform the crisis-ridden country during his six-year term. Among the most important construction projects to revolutionise Mexico since the historic slide to the left are a new international airport, the construction of a tourist train line, the building of a refinery and over 1,000 new public infrastructures. The money for his so-called “fourth transformation of the country” (4T) programme is to come from massive savings in education and culture, wage and personnel cuts in the government sector and the reduction of corruption.


Today, Amlo has three years left to complete his megalomaniac plans. By March 2022 – in other words, in an absurd record time – the gigantic new airport is to be built 45 kilometres from the historic city centre of the capital. The renderings show a lot of steel, glass and absence of originality. Many of the projects and the president’s actions are highly controversial, with everyone from wealthy entrepreneurs to taxi drivers currently complaining. But at least the architects agree on one point: it’s high time for public building projects.


Almost 800 construction projects in three years

Already 762 projects referred to as «social architecture» have been carried out across the country within three years and despite pandemic difficulties – mainly in the poorest and most violent regions. In other words, where previous governments neglected the people, but also where participation in the last elections was low.


High expectations are placed on architecture, as it is described as a «instrument of social change» in official documents of the responsible Ministry of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development (Sedatu). The will for change and the conviction that their designs can actually lead to an improvement in the quality of life of the resident population are also shared by the architects involved. The planning of the market halls, community centres, parks, skate parks and street lighting was assigned as direct commissions. The Sedatu Ministry justifies this with the high time pressure under which competition procedures are not possible. As desirable and important as competitions in Mexico would be for quality and discourse, the Mexican authorities lack experience in dealing with competitions anyhow.


These architectural projects are created under enormous time pressure, often with insufficient documentation and in regions that are sometimes dangerous for those involved in the construction. Despite these extremely difficult conditions, Mexico’s architectural designers create an impressive variety. As in the case of reconstruction after the earthquake, some are more, others less sensitive to the task, the people and the environment.


Questions about the future

Strong geometric shapes and red and earth tones are currently in vogue, although this can change quickly in Mexico. In the context of this revitalisation of neglected places, it can make perfect sense to create iconic landmarks with which the population gladly identifies. What is often lacking due to a lack of experience with public construction projects is an awareness that project maintenance needs to be minimal and simple. If the wrong materials or design are chosen, the building can soon become a ruin.


As is often the case in Mexico, there are many questions about the future viability. The next government in three years may not even want to deal with public architecture. But without political programmes, without a sense of social responsibility and without a professional association capable of taking action, architects will once again only work for the richest.


Time will tell whether Amlo’s architectural turbo-acupuncture can actually be a motor for long-term change and what image of Mexico will emerge from it.