(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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alcachofa asesina said...

Just some comments on the dates. September 19th was not a Monday... it was a Thursday.

Mexican Independence Day is on September 16th and the "Día de la Revolución" is on November 20th.

Mario Ballesteros said...

Right about it being Thursday morning Srita Alcachofa, thanks. Correction made.