To outsiders, Mexico City might conjure up images of banditos, urban sprawl and smog, but Mexico City is a surprising jewel in the crown of the Americas. Once home to the ancient civilization of the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica), the conquering Spaniards completely reshaped the already heavily populated city (then called Tenochtitlán) and made it into the capital of Nueva España, mostly constructed from forced labour and over the Aztecs’ sacred ground. The Spanish government tried to keep Nueva España under a reasonably short leash, but a long war of independence was fought and finally won by the rebels in 1821. A four-year occupation of Mexico City by the French under Napoleon III occurred from 1863 until 1867, and the Mexican Revolution followed in 1910 and lasted for a decade, but the 1920s heralded a boom period for Mexico City. Following this, and right up to the present day, growth and migration has lead to Mexico City battling problems such as crime, pollution and overcrowding, but post-millennium great strides have been made in these areas and the city has become an iconic, vibrant hub of eclectic arts and architecture. We set out our iconic top ten of Mexico City’s architecture below.
1. PALACIO DE BELLAS ARTES
Above left: The Palacio de Bellas Artes at night; photo courtesy of José Alberto Ochoa
Above right: One of the masks of Chaac decorating the interior vertical lights; photo courtesy of Alejandro Linares Garcia
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (or the Palace of Fine Arts) may not at first glance appear typically Mexican – and this may have something to do with the initial Italian architect, who was influenced greatly by Art Nouveau and neoclassicism. Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find that this is no ordinary European-influenced building. The initial construction of the project began in 1904, designed by Adamo Boari and based on European neoclassical design, but soon ran into difficulties as the ground proved too soft and the heavy marble began to sink into the subsoil. The subsequent Mexican Revolution led to construction halting completely in 1913 and Boari returning to Italy, and once the political situation calmed down the Mexican architect Federico Mariscal took over the design. Construction began again in 1932, when Mariscal fused the European outer shell with a more modern Art Deco interior, adding pre-Hispanic touches such as the masks of Chaac and Tlaloc that decorate the vertical interior lights and the serpents’ heads set into the window arches of the lower floor. This adds a quintessentially Mexican flavour into a beautiful but alien piece of architecture, weaving a story of Mexico’s struggle to retain its pre-Hispanic culture in the face of colonialism.
2. TORRE LATINOAMERICANA
The Torre Latinoamericana; photos courtesy of Eduardo Rodriguez and Eneas de Troya
The Torre Latinoamericana is not the most beautiful tower in Mexico City, but it hasn’t made this list based on its looks. The Latinoamericana is, after all, a celebrity of the skyscraper world, and a VIP of architectural circles. Completed in 1956, it is 45 stories tall, and was Latin America’s tallest tower – and what makes it so special is that it is the world’s first major skyscraper built in a highly active seismic area. The architects, Dr Leonardo Zeevaert and his brother Adolfo Zeevaert, were Mexican-born civil engineers that designed the tower’s steel frame and deep-seated pylons, as well as pioneering the study of the soil’s composition at the site of construction to test how the mechanics of the earth would affect the tower’s stability – a practice that is now mainstream, if not mandatory. Despite its detractors declaring that the tower was too tall to be strong in the face of an earthquake, the tower not only survived an earthquake in 1957, just after completion, but also weathered the huge 8.1 magnitude quake in 1985 that destroyed many other buildings around Mexico City. Today it is considered one of the safest buildings in the city, and paved the way for other massive structures in seismic areas around the world.
3. MUSEO SOUMAYA
Left: the hexagonal aluminium tiles that make up Museo Soumaya; photo courtesy of Yovany Gasca
Right: Museo Soumaya under construction, with some tiles still missing from the facade; photo courtesy of Adam Wiseman
In contrast to the traditional pre-Hispanic and colonial Mexican architecture that can be found elsewhere in the city, local architects are now designing innovative, intriguing structures that compete for recognition on a global level. The Museo Soumaya was designed by the internationally-recognised Mexican architect Fernando Romero, designer of the Bridging Tea House in Jinhua, China and the International Holocaust Museum in Texas, as well as winner of Architect of the Year 2010 amongst numerous other international awards. Funded by Carlos Slim, currently the world’s richest man, and named after his late wife, the Museo Soumaya is an abstract, organic shape that rises up from the ground like smoke, curving in the middle and resembling a Rodin sculpture. At 46 metres high, and covered in 16,000 aluminium tiles, the structure houses exhibition space, an auditorium seating 350 people, offices, a library, and a restaurant, gift shop and lounge, with the roof suspended from a cantilever to allow natural light into the top floor art gallery. The hope is to bring European art, a passion of Carlos Slim and his late wife, to the Mexican masses that otherwise would not have the money to experience it in person.
4. CASA DE LOS AZULEJOS
The Casa de los Azulejos; photos courtesy of Veronica V and Alejandro Mejía Greene
The Casa de los Azulejos, or the House of Blue Tiles, is an 18th Century palace of which the facade on three sides is completely covered in the blue and white tiles of the Puebla region of Mexico, known as talavera. Built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba family, the current structure originates from 1793, but the tiles were added later during a period of remodelling. Two stories exist as to the origin of the tiles; one states that the tiles were added by the fifth Countess Del Valle de Orizaba after her husband’s death in order to demonstrate the family’s immense wealth, and the other tells of a wayward son who was told by his father that he ‘would never build his house of tiles’ – that he would never amount to anything. Legend has it that the tiles were added by the son after he inherited the house to prove his father wrong. Inside the house is an opulent courtyard, modelled in a Baroque and slightly Moorish fashion, which features a large fountain decorated in mosaics and surrounded by French-style columns, covered with a 20th century stained glass roof. After a long and turbulent history, including being occupied by the Zapatista Army during the Mexican Revolution, the house was bought in 1917 by the Sanborn brothers, who made it into a successful flagship site for their chain of restaurants, and has now become a tourist attraction and local landmark.
5. CONVENTO DE LAS CAPUCHINAS SACREMENTARIAS
Latticework and glazing at the Convento de las Capuchinas Sacrementarias; photographer unknown
A tiny Mexican convent may seem an unlikely place for a piece of breathtakingly innovative architecture, but tucked within Mexico City’s quant Tlalpan backstreets is the Convento de las Capuchinas Sacrementarias, a 1950s modernist paradise. Designed by the iconic Mexican architect Luis Barragán, the convent and chapel is designed in a minimalist fashion, with its clean parallel lines and natural raw materials echoing the simple convent lifestyle. Rather than using pure minimalism, however, Barragán utilised light to create an ‘emotional space’, offsetting the austerity of the structure with beautiful glazing that turned the light entering the chapel into shades of sunshine yellow, caramel and rose red. Elsewhere, latticework allows light to stream through from the outdoor courtyard whilst decorating walls with shadow play and acting as a veil to allow an element of privacy. The result is a simple space where the warm lighting evokes colours of the earth, linking the manmade structure back to nature. The convent was Barragán’s last independent work – he financed the project himself – and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Join us next week for the second half of our top ten of Mexico City’s architecture.