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History of the Present: Mexico City

At the dawn of the Jet Age, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy strode across the red-carpeted tarmac of the Mexico City Central Airport into the arms of President Adolfo López Mateos for a traditional abrazo . It was JFK’s third state visit to Latin America, as he built support for his pan-hemispheric social and economic cooperation plan, the Alliance for Progress. Between all the standard stops — an honorary luncheon at the National Palace, a bilateral meeting at the Mexican presidential residence — his hosts squeezed in a tour of a massive new housing complex, Unidad Independencia, on the southern outskirts of the capital.

Amigos ,” Kennedy declared, in brief remarks at the site, “I want to compliment … the architect[s] and all of you for how beautifully this project has been put together. I have seen in many places housing which has been developed under governmental influences, but I have never seen any [such projects] which have fountains and statues and grass and trees, which are as important to the concept of the home as the roof itself.” 1

Completed in 1960, Unidad Independencia was indeed impressive — a vast Modernist development that housed 10,000 working-class residents in comfortable units, neatly arranged in angular mid- and high-rise buildings, all integrated with shops, schools, performance venues, and a medical clinic. The architects, Alejandro Prieto Posadas and José María Gutiérrez Trujillo, fused Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City with nods to pre-Columbian megaprojects, including giant stone sculptures of the ancient deity Quetzalcoatl.

The megaproyecto was designed to alleviate poverty, glorify the presidency, and impress international visitors (not necessarily in that order).

The charismatic Kennedy won over the crowd, and the traveling Washington press corps reported (with surprise) no sign of anti-imperialist protest. Whether the Mexican masses truly loved the American president or had been intimidated into silence by the dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who can say. Regardless, the visit was a triumph for López Mateos, the eighth in a line of fourteen PRI presidents who held uninterrupted power from 1929 to 2000. Since the Mexican constitution limits leaders to a single six-year term, its presidents invest in massive infrastructure projects that become their legacies. Unidad Independencia was López Mateos’s signature megaproyecto , designed to alleviate poverty, glorify his presidency, and impress international visitors (not necessarily in that order). It all seemed to be working perfectly.

Kennedy ended his speech with a call for inclusive prosperity: “Political freedom, however vital it may be, does not reach its full significance until there is also economic participation in the life of the country by the people themselves. Housing, education, jobs, and security go hand in hand with the real concepts of political equality and freedom. … This hemisphere must understand [this] if we are going to accomplish the goals of the Alianza para el Progreso , a great movement forward by the people of this hemisphere. ¡Viva México!

How distant this speech sounds today. While the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, cowers beneath corruption scandals and historically low approval ratings, the White House is occupied by a tin-pot banana-Republican who tars Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and vows to build a border wall on an installment plan. The first state visit was cancelled last month, after a phone call in which President Trump suggested sending troops over the border to deal with “a bunch of bad hombres down there.” An anonymous White House official later dismissed Trump’s threat as “lighthearted.” In any case, it’s unlikely the America Firster will ever fly south with “ ¡Viva México! ” on his lips.

It might disappoint Donald Trump to learn that his border folly is not the only oversize infrastructure project in the hemisphere.

It might disappoint Trump to learn that his border folly is not the only oversize infrastructure project in the hemisphere. With the PRI back in power, President Enrique Peña Nieto is building the grandest megaproyecto ever attempted — an enormous new airport set to rise on a sinking lakebed in the middle of a nature preserve. Once completed, there will be no need to drag visiting heads of state around town to tour the presidential legacy project. Every trip will begin with an obligatory tour of Peña Nieto’s masterpiece.

Viewed from, say, 38,000 feet, the project is jaw-dropping. The price tag runs US$13 billion, and the initial annual capacity of nearly 60 million passengers will put it on par with the international airport in Miami, the de facto capital of Latin America. After expansion, it could serve 120 million passengers, a figure never approached in the history of commercial aviation. All this, Peña Nieto insists, will be delivered on a model of good government and open competition, a clean break with his party’s crony-capitalist past.

Enrique Peña Nieto is building the grandest megaproyecto ever attempted, a $13 billion airport on a sinking lakebed.

But surveyed at ground level, I found a project buffeted by criticism. Environmental advocates are aghast at the destruction of the nature preserve. Civil engineers warn that the lakebed site is unstable — the ground has sunk roughly 25 feet in the past half century and is still subsiding — making it technically unwise to build upon. The villagers who live nearby fear rising property values will attract gangs and corruption in a nation where the rule of law remains weak. And just about everyone mutters that for all promises about “transparency” and “open competition,” the project is producing work for the usual suspects: tycoon Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, and his son-in-law court architect, Fernando Romero.

The sharpest criticism comes from a younger generation of planners and designers who have drawn acclaim for their small-scale urban interventions, the kind pioneered in cities like Amsterdam or Medellín that then proliferate around the world. This crowd questions the value of Peña Nieto’s megaproyecto , or really any megaproyecto , in a country that faces such deep social, economic, and environmental challenges. The new airport, in their eyes, is a shiny object that will distract from (or exacerbate) more pressing concerns. Why, they wonder, is the government doubling down to win a game — achieving global respect through starchitecture — that no one even plays any more?

Back to the Future

Enrique Peña Nieto ran for president in 2012 on a platform that promised both a clean break from the past and a restoration of lost glory. The fresh-faced 46-year-old claimed that his Institutional Revolutionary Party had been chastened by 12 years in the political wilderness. The cronyism and corruption that was synonymous with PRI rule in the 20th century — when Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed Mexico “the perfect dictatorship”— would never return. Peña Nieto vowed to bust the monopolies that forced Mexicans to pay high prices for everything from text messages to tortillas, and he pledged to restore the public grandeur that defined the ruling bargain in the PRI’s heyday, when it came with tangible benefits like high-quality transit and social housing.

Mexico has a long history of megaproyectos with egalitarian aims. The Metro transformed life in the capital and opened up the metropolis to the poor.

At the heart of this promise were new megaproyectos that would put a 21st-century face on a globalizing Mexico. The candidate pledged to build highspeed rail lines, including one linking the capital with the industrial city of Querétaro, 200 kilometers north, where foreign-owned factories were generating mass employment in the formal economy. The ultimate symbol of progress, he declared, would be a new international airport welcoming the world to Mexico City.

Delivered by a telegenic leader, that unique blend of forward-looking optimism and sepia-toned nostalgia was widely appealing. And the sales pitch could be backed up with concrete examples. Mexico has a long history of megaproyectos , like Unidad Independencia, with egalitarian aims. Greatest of all was the Mexico City Metro, which transformed life in the capital after it opened for the 1968 Summer Olympics. Designed for use by the city’s masses, each Metro line was given a color and each station a pictograph, so that even citizens who could not read could ride. Fares were subsidized down to mere pocket change, to make it affordable to all. For the poor, the Metro dramatically reduced commuting times, and, even more crucially, it opened up the metropolis. Working families from outlying districts could zip in to the Alameda Central on Sunday afternoons to enjoy the shade trees and cotton candy.