valle de los caídos

Don't you just love architectural timeliness, tact and critical awareness? Michel Rojkind, our (adult) contemporary bad-ass archi-genius/fallen pop-star drummer has announced a project — developed with Bjarke "big.dk" Ingels — for a new Museo Tamayo extension on the outskirts of Mexico City. Go against the flow, man, totally. Luckily for the gnarly dude, given the situation, the project might actually spark some interest. Not as another iconic whopper for the art world, but maybe as a Mexican Valle de los Caídos (de la Gripe Porcina). Powerful stuff.


solitary architectural pleasures

Some people are into feet. Others go for the frostier, decidedly unmeaty appeal of leather or latex. Moving it up a notch, certain individuals get off on brick and mortar (or steel, or glass, or concrete).

Is it really that strange that someone should fall in love with the Berlin Wall or want to
marry the Eiffel Tower? In this cold, cold world of ours, I have to confess that even I have sought solace in structures.

In my tender years, as prone to pseudo-poetic highs and tragicomedy as I was, and living in Mexico City, of all places — an untapped paradise for this sort of thing — I had my share of adolescent crushes on buildings.

I felt like rubbing up against the floating staircase in the Barragán House.

I fancied a ménage-a-trois with O'Gorman's pink-for-Diego and blue-for-Frida
house-studio (I was particularly drawn to the wonderfully phallic cactus fence).

Back then, few things in life made me happier than getting lost in the maze of downtrodden déco and futurist behemoths of the underrated streets of the Centro Histórico: López, Ayuntamiento, Dolores, Luis Moya...

All these fixations were fleeting and childish, though, compared to what a slightly tilted building on the corner of Jalisco and Revolución stirred in me. Juan Segura's Edificio Ermita has been the subject of many-a-fantasy and constant
reverie since I first laid eyes on it. Looming over Tacubaya, it's our own cut-back, depressed take on the billboard-skyscraper, "the Mexican Times Square," some say with a smirk.

O.K., so the Ermita is a wannabe. But this is exactly what makes it a symbol of Mexico City: its aspirational obsessiveness, a self-conscious dread of — and everyday struggle against — underdevelopment. Segura (1898-1989) conceived the building as a beacon of possibility, but today, swamped by 24hr chino cafés, "American-style" eateries with melamine tableware, dingy little dope-spot pocket-parks, black light basement dance clubs and markets where you can get a haircut and a cow-tongue taco from the same stand, it only stands as a stoic testament to things that never were.

The building is kind of schmaltzy, but overall breathtaking. Completed in 1931, it was one of the first skyscrapers in the city. Pictures of the Ermita from around the time it was built show the sleepy farmlands of the area, still largely undeveloped except for a few fin de siècle mansions and even fewer proto-industrial workshops. There's one with burros riding down Avenida Revolución (then Calvario Street). Even today the building feels out of scale. In a strange inversion of what would happen in a genuinely modernist city, instead of sparking a manic let's-see-who-has-the-biggest (uh, I mean tallest) -building construction blitz, the Ermita's presence seems to have inhibited vertical growth. Everything around it stayed flat. This flatness adds visual drama, it creates the effect of a sole survivor left standing after nuclear fallout or something, choking in the stewy afternoon smog. The Ermita is Mexico's own Genbaku Dome, a memorial to our first-round fall in a long fight for Modernidad.

Throughout the day, the grayish-pink Mexico City sunlight pierces through the building's central dome, filling the private interior court shared by neighbors and dressed scantly with tropical greenery. The building has a near-triangular base that fits snuggly on its 1,390 sqm corner site, with an original program that was quite unorthodox for Mexico at the time: shops on two of the outer facades, a large movie theater occupying most of the ground level, and various apartment types on the upper floors. Today, many of the apartments are empty (I don't know why; with their hardwood flooring, white walls, antique bathtubs, and double-height ceilings, I find them quite friggin gorgeous), the regal 1,500-seat movie theater was split into smaller screening rooms and is now abandoned, I think; and the shops have been downgraded to discount pharmacies and crappy dollar stores.

A nicer late addition to the building was the Galaxie dance club, which opened ca 2000 or 2001 if my memory doesn't fail me. Dark and kinky, with mirrored walls, zebra print sofas, tubular furniture, obscene lighting fixtures (huge translucent chandeliers shaped like mushrooms and sea-dollars), full of (early) modern-types, and named after one of the very, very few cars that make me drool, the Galaxie was a precursor of the D.F.'s now much-touted party scene, an already forgotten classic, I'd say. It was the kind of place where no one would blame you for believing that the nineties would have a comeback (there was a backroom dance floor in case you couldn't help yourself and had to relive the joys of M.C. Hammer, C&C Music Factory or Technotronic) and which offered rare nightlife wildlife sightings (Zemmoa as a boy, for example). It was one of the first clubs in Mexico with interiors by Emmanuel Picault, though I remember him complaining about the project being cut back and aesthetically unsuccessful overall. Diamond in the rough. I don't know if the Galaxie is still open, but I'm sure that — like everything else in this city — if it is, it's not what it used to be.

Back in the late-twenties and early-thirties, when Segura was working on the project for the Ermita, Mexican architecture was going through its own version of the late Secession-to-Disruption moment. Clashes were entrenched in architecture and aesthetics just as they were in politics. Almost a decade after the Revolution had officially ended, the route it would take as it settled down into Regime was still more or less up for grabs, and for that matter, so was the building agenda and the look it would claim as its own. These were the years of effervescence: of Creole Ulysseses and Cristeros and both Communist and Fascist conjures; but also of quests for True Modern Mexicanness, be it in the form of populist functionalism, neocolonial pastiche, Aztec Streamline and whatnot. (We'll be looking into all those later on.)

For his hardcore left-wing contemporaries (who in fact would later suffer a similar fate and fall from grace during the process of Revolutionary Institutionalization) Segura was more a Menshevik than a true revolucionario; a moderate, incorrigible bourgeois. Part of the dissing was fueled by his attention to ornamental detail: pale corridors with granite floors and fine wooden banisters ribbonned with
Zapotec-ish fretwork; fabulous Art Déco arched doorways and floral-shaped drains scattered on the floor and signed "Diego Rivera". (Rumor has it that the building skylight was originally a Rivera stained-glass dome that "mysteriously" disappeared.) Even today, critics rarely see Segura's work as true Mexican Modern, but rather dismiss it as a set of quaint "transition" architecture specimens. In the end, unlike many of its unabashedly "revolutionary" counterparts, which later degraded to officialist International Style, the architecture of Juan Segura has managed to keep a delightfully modern aura of wonder and surprise.

O.K., so this isn't hardcore proletarian construction. In fact it's a piece of pure middle-class confidence, the supposedly innocent and apolitical faith in slow and steady progress. In truth though, bourgeois aspirations of modernity in Mexico City during those years — particularly in terms of urbanization and of architectural prowess — were just as significant. (This bourgeois/middle-class illusion came down hard like the proletarian one, though not as quickly.) Besides, Mexico City, like any knowledgeable Mexican historian will tell you, has never really been a revolutionary capital. Revolution comes to Mexico City to culminate, to turn into something else, but it seemingly has a hard time sprouting from here.

But enough of these tidbidts; let me get back to the point of my archi-fetish.

The building took its name from an old chapel that originally occupied the site. The word ermita is Spanish for hermitage: a place of retreat, solitary detachment, confinement and reflection. (And whatever else those crazy old desert folk did throughout the centuries, all alone in their caves or their ashrams or the hideaway of their choice.)

The Ermita for me, for some reason, became an instant symbol of everything the future held. I fantasized of moving out of my parent's house and into one of the tiny 30 sqm apartments, ditching school and leaving my messy sex-life behind, taking up a more modest and more contemplative lifestyle, possibly working the night shift at the Café Shanghai to pay the rent. O.K. I didn't actually think I would quit the sex, but I would have more time to myself, in this perfect white-washed pod, in this perfect monster of a building, quietly overlooking the unstable mass of Mexico City.

It was never meant to be, of course, I've grown too old and too attached to leave everything for the Ermita. Just another pipe dream, permanently postponed. The building will probably still haunt me though — evoking all sorts of messy, complicated intensities in my chest — whenever I catch a quick glimpse of it, riding down Revolución.

*photo "Ermita in the rain" by mfandrich



News being fed to my screen constantly. Keeping track has never been this easy, or immediate, seriously. Still, I sense a great, big, deep, dark breach that the pixels and the connection speed don't fill. I think of my family, worry. I feel this emptiness even as I devour reports. Is it 20? 60? 81 deaths? I call. My dad seems calm even though two people have died already in the hospital he works at. My mom went to get her hair done on Friday since school was canceled. (She's a teacher. Google says 6 million + kids will be left without school till May 6. MAY 6). I can't believe it. She went out to get bangs or something. "Everyone down here seems pretty calm. We really don't know anything. It's scary, but what can you do?" Feeling of emptiness gets worse. My sister had her evening classes canceled but is still working her regular day shift. No school, no museums, no soccer matches, no concerts, no clubbing, no bars and restaurants, no Sunday mass. In Mexico City. No mass, no restaurants, no soccer; no Sunday. Troops being recalled from Narco War to help deal with public health crisis. "Situation under control." Yeah, right. Mayor goes on news to announce "no further flu-related deaths confirmed in the last..." What? Hour? Two? Even absolute connectedness can't break our good 'ole habit of media distortion, political manipulation and control. The mayor is announcing the news like it was one of the local government's achievements: X new streets paved! X school lunches delivered! No pig flu deaths today! (Church bells ringing here in Barcelona, we woke up to a surprise thunder storm this morning after killer sunshine over the weekend.) I think of my friends, of everyone I know. I check my emails and my RSS. Tons of posts on the subject of Mexico epidemic are already popping up. How do they do it? I can hardly think of what to say. Even super-smart, sensitive, engaged, posting-addicted bloggers that are THERE, LIVING IT are having a hard time coming to terms with the situation. (I'm thinking of you too.) Some of these tangentially-related posts just make me want to slap my f*cking laptop screen, make me feel like this whole global digital proximity is a big f*cking lie. Turning what is happening into instant easy-bake blogging. The epidemic as a source of future-dystopian architectural fantasy? Anti-flu furniture at the Fiera? Urban crisis as the ultimate on-line self-publicity stunt generator? Have we lost tact? Is this hunger for being on the crest of everything every single f*cking second making empty-headed infojunkies of us all? I thought TV was bad. Maybe this is worse. Look at me, I'm doing it too. Even as I complain, I'm doing it. (I was listening to M.I.A's "Bird Flu" a few weeks ago on my way to work. I thought it would be a wicked song for the opening hit-and-run sequence in some gritty post-pandemic after-apocalypse Danny Boyle action movie. A chase, of course. For whatever reason. The main man running away from something through narrow, Third-Worldish backstreets or metro station corridors. Wherever: Beijing, Bangkok Toronto, Mumbai, Mexico City.) I think of riding the metro in Mexico City. I think of the faces of people. I feel feverish. British Airways crew member tested for swine flu after visiting Mexico. School kids quarantined (was it quarantined or possibly quarantined? How many was it? 72?) in NY (or did I read New Zealand? I can't remember). 11 cases confirmed in U.S. WHO sets up camp in Mexico to follow the event. Dad has friend working at the CDC, says we can only wait or something like that. Wait. Read. Incoming. Emptiness.


pig flu

After my somewhat gloomy inaugural post I had a more upbeat and light-hearted one in the oven, but again, my hometown has turned the tables on me. This morning ALL schools in Mexico City (from kintergarden to university) were shut down on account of an apparently new strand of swine flu outbreak that has already taken at least 60 lives. The last time all schools closed here was, precisely, after the earthquake in 1985. Now I'm reading that the WHO is worried that the deaths could mark a pandemic. Are you kidding me? I hate fatalism, but this is scary sh*t.


(failed) state architecture: 1985

“Don’t be scared folks, let’s just...check the time, will you?... Seven a...Ay, Chihuahua (which is polite for ‘holy sh*t’)...seven-nineteen a.m. and forty-two seconds...” The overhead prop-ceiling of the studio sways like mad and the T.V. breaks to static.

It seemed like an average Thursday morning, September 19, 1985—in the typically damp, sluggish lapse between the frenzied national fiesta of September 15th (Mexican Independence Day) and the solemn, martial commemorations of the 20th (Día de la Revolución)—when an 8.1 Richter-scale earthquake struck Mexico City. The 10,000 official deaths (with an extra 20,000 or 30,000 in most estimates) and the 412 collapsed plus 3,124 damaged buildings were only the most obvious signs of the event’s magnitude.

Ministry of Communications and Transportation Building

The capital suffered an infrastructural debacle. Telephone services were interrupted and the collapse of the central communications building left the D.F. cut off from the rest of the world. For days, 5 million people found themselves without running water and half of the city suffered a total power outage. 137 schools were reduced to rubble and one out of four of existing hospital beds disappeared.

General Hospital

Almost obscenely, the quake exposed the incredible incapacity of both local and federal authorities. Much has been remarked on the subject of the government’s floundering response to the shock (the initial rejection of foreign aid, the blocking of information, the absence of proper shelter or temporary housing alternatives for those affected, etc). The official stalemate was only overridden by the spontaneous actions of an entity until then unheard of in the country: civil society. The whole affair was little more than people doing whatever they could to dig out their relatives or neighbors; maybe fighting for another shot after loosing everything in the disaster. Still, these apparently random and disperse actions were actually filling up cracks in the system. The buildings failed, but somehow the social matter that slowly took form in the year of desarrollismo (despite the regime’s efforts to curb and contain any social or political participation outside of the official party and/or the conditions it defined) proved to be resilient. In a way, it is still trying to shake itself loose.

Amateur rescue and relief brigades

The relationship between the political and material chaos of 1985 is usually taken for a simple cause-and-effect phenomenon. The physical crisis triggered a socio-political one. In fact, the relationship is more complex and significant; and architecture, of course, was at the core of it.

A less noticed but deeper-rooted and farther-reaching systemic failure became apparent in the aftermath of the quake. Many of the affected buildings (and most of the truly spectacular collapses) were public works and commissions. The three-way idyll of architecture, planning and estatismo that had its first trial run in Mexico during the Porfiriato, flourished in the years following the Revolution of 1910-1921 and culminated during the developmentalist era, came down in tandem with some of its pièces de résistance in 1985.

Electric Trolley Change Station

Officialist architecture in Mexico performed a role beyond bare legitimization, symbolism or simple distraction: it was an active force in the definition of the regime’s self-image, and a key factor in its policy implementation schemes. At least throughout our own short twentieth century, architecture—or more precisely, modernist architecture—was profoundly and explicitly (even scandalously) tied to political practice.

Tlatelolco housing block

I’m not getting into this idea too much too soon. (It’s one of the points I want to poke at with this blog, after all.) Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that many of the monster oficialista buildings that either came tumbling down to the ground that morning or had to be demolished shortly thereafter, had a sort of totemic quality to them. They made up the frontispiece of Priísmo but also compacted the confident strides the country had made towards becoming modern for at least fifty years.

Movie theater & Jeans Cafeteria

These buildings were stages for modern life and socialization. Even when the country in so many ways remained backwards and primitive, it was understood, these little pieces of what Mexico could become were highly cherished (and showcased) as sophisticated, metropolitan, cosmopolitan and, more crucially, social architectural successes. With that excuse—the promise of things to come—the regime managed to stay afoot without softening its authoritarian grip. The terremoto proved this pledge to be part of a great big hoax, a cheap facade, a sampling of the traps the system had devised and perfected. Alas, the toll of all those high dreams of government-led modernity was brutal.
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Conjunto Pino Suárez (government office building)

Multifamiliar Presidente Juárez (public housing development)

Centro Médico Nacional and Hospital Juárez (major public hospitals)

Nuevo Leon Building, Tlatelolco (public housing block)

* Images collected from the intense Skyscrapercity Mexico 1985 thread.

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(add some POP)
or pop culture aftershocks:

High: Jose Emilio Pacheco's post-seismic lament, "The Ruins Of Mexico (elegy Of The Return)"

— Lowest of the low: The first feature film that relived the event, Trágico Terremoto en México. It's an Almada brothers D-movie, with the usual moral gore (cut-throat class struggle, illegal abortions, marrow-deep corruption, hairy-chested gun-swaying machos, etc.) Also includes a darkish cabaretera musical number, lousy special effects and male short-shorts even though it was released in 1990. En español, in case you can stomach it.

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bienvenido welcome

Welcome amigos y amigas!

Mañanarama is my brand-new weblog. Here you will find all sorts of visual and textual goodies on the subject of failed development, bogus modernization, and other urban or architectural dreams deferred. I want to ground myself in Mexico, for once, though I'll probably indulge in the occasional musing on (pan)americana, mid-century manias, tercermundismo or just random mexotica.