Text: Edgar López Navarrete
Images Gabriel Bátiz
Mexico City grew exponentially during the first decades of the 20th Century, giving rise to different forms of city making. In this article, three different examples will be explored:
The Guerrero district was one of the first to be subdivided in the late 19th century. Mr. Martínez de la Torre acquired the land in 1872 and subdivided it as an extension of the layout originating in the city center downtown. This method of continuation is known as ensanche, and the Guerrero district was the only urban project of its kind to be carried out to Mexico City, given that the other early districts were considered to be suburban.
Before the Guerrero district was subdivided, there were already a few important buildings such as the San Fernando monastery, the San Hiipólito monastery, the Santa María la Redonda Church and the Santa Paula pantheon. The Guerrero district housed all kinds of constructions and social classes on its streets: tenements, mid-sized houses, and the mansions of notable figures from that era, such as the residences of Antonio Rivas Mercado, the architect of the Column of Independence and the Juárez Theater in Guanajuato; diplomat Joaquín Casasús; and the Requena family with spectacular Art Nouveau interiors, standing today in ruins behind the Franz Mayer Museum. On the same street of Santa Veracruz, between exiles and returns the Seducer of the Fatherland, Antonio López de Santa Anna lived for various years, staging a grand ceremony to bury his leg in the pantheon of Santa Paula mentioned above.
The district experienced deterioration starting in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, accentuated with the creation of “axis” corridors and the extension of Paseo de la Reforma. Guerrero was also one of the districts most affected by the earthquake of 1985 due to the deterioration of its properties, partly generated by the national Frozen Rent Decree passed by President Manuel Ávila Camacho in the year 1941. For several years, Guerrero was considered to be a danger zone. Today, it is one of the neighborhoods with the most character and traditions in Mexico City: out of its cantinas was born the fame of Paquita la del Barrio; its streets served as the inspiration for the soap operas of Yolanda Vargas Dulché, who also grew up here, as well as the great opera singer Ángela Peralta.
When in Guerrero, it is recommended that you visit the San Fernando pantheon, where Benito Juárez and other figures relevant to the history of Mexico are buried. Afterwards, you may walk along its outer arcade and observe the original La Esmeralda School of Painting.
The School of Folkloric Ballet of Mexico, a project of Agustín Hernández, is a monolith of travertine that evokes pre-Hispanic forms of expression; and standing on the street of Violeta are all the buildings that a couple of years ago were painted purple and lilac, a stunt that occurred to some official in the Cuauhtémoc delegation.
To get an idea of the kind of houses that existed during the years of splendor of the district, you should visit the recently restored Rivas Mercado House. Also not to be missed is the Los Ángeles Salon, where so many young people from 1937 to the present-day have learned the art of dance, courtship and in all likelihood, that of seduction.
The Guerrero district was one of the first to be subdivided in the late 19th century.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the growth of the railroad system streamlined transportation across the length and breadth of the entire country, benefiting the Villa de Azcapotzalco with the construction of a railroad line that ran to Cuautitlán, as well as the streetcar network the connected Azcapotzalco to Tacuba and to the Villa de Guadalupe. This connection empowered the construction of country houses, mainly inhabited during summer and winter vacation seasons. During this era, it was considered equally prestigious to own a country home in Azcapotzalco as in San Ángel, or Mixcoac, and President Díaz harbored a special affection for this community, which was officially named Azcapotzalco de Porfirio Díaz.
The country–urban lifestyle of Mexico was conveyed by Manuel Payno in his short stories about summers in Tacubaya and San Ángel, as well as by Mme. Calderón de la Barca in her chronicles of Life in Mexico. Lamentably the beautiful Villa de Azcapotzalco underwent major changes during the 20th century given that, following the relocation policy for factories located in the downtown areas of the city, it was decreed the Vallejo Industrial Zone in the year 1944 by President Manuel Ávila Camacho. This decree converted hundreds of hectares of cultivation into factories and warehouses and gave rise to tractor-trailers and other cargo vehicles, which implied another language in the configuration of the streets, making then wide, extremely long, easy to walk down, and desolate at night, given that they were used exclusively as industrial circuits. The rural character of the zone was also modified by the appearance of the refinery, today salvaged and converted into the spectacular Bicentenario Park.
It is worthwhile to cross the center of Azcapotzalco to visit its marvelous marketplace with concrete roofs made by Félix Candela, stroll through Azcapotzalco Park, and enter the monastery of the apostolic saints Felipe and Santiago el Menor to contemplate their beautiful arcades and the stained-glass windows inside the parish designed by Mathias Goeritz.
In 1898, the Englishman Ebenezer Howard published his work To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, rewritten four years later as Garden Cities of To-morrow. This book established the principles of Howard’s project, which rather than a formal plan proposed a utopia of self-sustainability as well as social and moral rebirth, based on life in an area with greater contact with Nature and far from the chaos, squalor, and corruption of cities.
Howard’s ideas would have an enormous influence on the way human settlements would be established during the 20th century around the whole world, especially in suburban subdivisions: Mexico, of course, was no exception to this rule.
In the early 1920s, the colony Chapultepec Heights was subdivided partly from the lands on the Hacienda de los Morales. In one of the sales announcements, it was promoted as a first garden city of Mexico: perfect urbanization, pure air, and firm soil with the forest in your backyard. Chapultepec Heights would change its name to Lomas de Chapultepec following a presidential decree by Plutarco Elías Calles, who stated that there could be no lettering, signs, or announcements with foreign names.
The layout of the subdivision was made by the ingenious architect and urban designer José Luis Cuevas Pietrasanta, who also designs the Hipódromo district. The layout of Las Lomas took advantage of the natural slopes of the terrain and also included in its layout spectacular cliffs, crossed by bridges in the California colonial style. This district would also be the ideal place for modern architecture to manifest itself through magnificent homes constructed by architects including Mario Pani, Vladimir Kaspé, Juan Sordo Madaleno, to name only a few.
Today, Las Lomas continues to be one of the most renowned and beautiful districts of Mexico. You may walk down the streets of Alpes and Sierra Nevada, near the street of Explanada, given that in this zone some of the first houses of the subdivision are conserved, if you want an idea of what Mexico was like in the 1920s. At the start of Paseo de La Reforma also remain various spectacular houses in the California colonial style. Moreover, you may visit the park of Barranca de Barrilaco and the brutalist Church of San José de las Palmas, as well as Christ Church, a poetic project by the great architect Carlos Mijares Bracho.
The urban layout reflects the pathway of the social project a district aspires to. First, let’s examine the case of Guerrero which, with no aesthetic or idealistic pretensions, was a continuation of the existing city. Next, we have Azcapotzalco, that went from being a spread-out agricultural village to constituting a major site for industrial development in Mexico City during the 20th century. Las Lomas, despite having a paradigm behind it like that of the “Garden City”, would go no further than becoming yet another residential district of Mexico City, despite its prodigious layout and grand architecture.
The paradigm that exists today in our form of city making is that of the gated community: great closed subdivisions solely for residential use, with common areas for the exclusive use of residents. The same model has been conveyed in the vertical condominiums of hundreds of apartments with vast common areas. Partly linked to the rise in crime, this city model generates isolation, disconnection from social reality and, above all, triggers a rupture in the human relationships that have always existed in cities. The contact between man-and-street, pedestrian-and-pavement, or shop window-and-passerby (to evoke Walter Benjamin) permitted and enhanced the creation of the modern world. While there are projects and plans in various districts of the city to promote better living, foot traffic, and local business as a way of life, the tendency –at least in the case of Mexico– is one of living in confinement.
The last great change in paradigm that humanity has experienced in terms of the city was conceptualized by Le Corbusier in the 20th Century. However, the 21st century presents us with high-speed change. Today, forms of city making not only depend on urban planners and architects, but on real estate developers and economic interests, linked mostly to real estate and property values. •
In the early 1920s, the colony Chapultepec Heights was subdivided partly from the lands on the Hacienda de los Morales