Preserving public art in a city of earthquakes

Mexico City’s public art is an integral part of the city’s identity and history. But in a country prone to devastating earthquakes, what is the fate of these creative monuments, asks Martha Pskowski – and is meaningful preservation possible?

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Centro SCOP’s vibrant mosaic murals before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Thomas Ledl

Mexico City is a bastion of public art in the Americas, with murals, mosaics and monuments lining its most important streets. Yet the city is also highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Currently Mexican historians, artists and architects are contending with a unique predicament: What do you do with historic public art, when an earthquake can bring it tumbling down in a matter of seconds?

When a massive earthquake hit Mexico City in September 1985, roughly 10,000 people died. Alongside this devastating tragedy, hundreds of buildings were also destroyed – among them, some of Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida’s defining works. 

“I think to some extent it was fortunate that the maestro Mérida died before 1985 and did not see the destruction of the work that he was most proud of,” wrote Alfonso Soto Soria, artist and curator, in his 1988 book on Mérida’s work.

The work he was referring to is the bas-relief figures that once adorned the exteriors of the Benito Juárez housing complex in the Roma Sur neighbourhood of Mexico City. Mérida employed dozens of stoneworkers who chipped and painted Mesoamerican figures out of the housing complex’s concrete slab blocks, designed by architect Mario Pani in the early 1950s. 

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Carlos Mérida’s work on the Mario Pani-designed Benito Juárez housing complex in 1985, before the earthquake that destroyed it. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mérida was an exemplary proponent of integración plástica, the mid-20th-century artistic movement which sought to merge sculpture, painting and architecture in public works, and brought a distinctively Mexican twist on the otherwise typical modernist apartment blocks. The movement coincided with the Mexican government’s biggest investments in public works and public art, and so has become the most emblematic style of the city – a part of its identity.

32 years to the day after the 1985 disaster, in September 2017, Mexico City was hit by another major earthquake. Hundreds were killed. Again, important buildings and works of public art were damaged. One of these was the Morelos apartment complex, originally completed in the city’s Doctores neighbourhood in 1971.

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A remaining tower of the Morelos apartment complex following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

At Morelos, architect Guillermo Rossell de la Lama enlisted the Arte en Acción collective, led by muralist and leftist activist José Hernández Delgadillo, to design murals built into the sides of the apartment buildings. After sustaining structural damage during the 2017 earthquake, two buildings in the apartment complex were demolished this year, destroying over 100 apartments as well as the Arte en Acción murals.

Another structure, the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation building in the Narvarte neighbourhood (known locally as Centro SCOP), is an iconic example of Mexican modernism by architect Carlos Lazo, inaugurated in 1954. The building is covered in 20,000 sq m of celebrated mosaic murals, designed by Lazo in collaboration with artists Juan O’ Gorman and José Chávez Morado. Despite suffering damage in the 1985 earthquake, the art and architecture was rebuilt following a long restoration project. But following renewed structural damage in 2017’s earthquake, the building is now condemned to be demolished, and the fate of the sprawling mosaics remains unclear. 

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Centro SCOP before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Pablo López Luz/Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura

A suggested plan to relocate the murals to a new airport on the outskirts of the city has been interrupted as the construction of the airport itself was (controversially) cancelled by Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in October 2018 following a public referendum and criticism from environmentalists and urban planners. A new airport, on a smaller scale, will most likely be built at the Santa Lucía military base. Overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the airport, there has been no further discussion of relocating the Centro SCOP murals.

Some had argued against the relocation of these unique works of art, however. “The murals were conceived as part of the architectural whole of the building,” wrote Renato Mello, director of the Institute of Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in an open letter addressed to federal officials in April 2018. “It would be difficult to conserve their value as cultural and artistic patrimony in a different architectural context, in which their function would not be the same as in the original.”

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Centro SCOP under scaffolding following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

Integración plástica remains a celebrated age of Mexican art and architecture, when the country’s top architects were employed to build homes for Mexico City’s middle classes, instead of the super wealthy. Mello believes relocating the Centro SCOP artwork from a public building in the heart of the city to an airport an hour away, which aims to attract tourism and international investors, would fundamentally disrupt its meaning. “It’s a difficult dilemma, because the building is seriously damaged,” Mello says when I speak to him. “Yet at the same time its cultural importance is staggering. We have to seek solutions that consider these two realities.”

Earthquakes have fundamentally shaped Mexico City’s urban landscape, erasing iconic buildings and influencing a strict building code. The vestiges of collapsed buildings are quick to be built over, to meet the housing need of a burgeoning population. Mexico City is going through a construction boom, but a public art programme on the scale of the integración plástica movement is unthinkable in an age when developers are more interested in minimising square-metres and maximising profits than beautifying building exteriors. 

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The Centro SCOP murals alongside a Mexican flag, before the recent earthquake. Photograph: Oswaldo Bautista

Mello believes that the spirit of the movement has not been entirely lost, though. “The great architects of that era were the teachers of the important architects over the next decades,” he says. “On an ethical and conceptual level, there was a lot of continuity.”

What’s more, Mello cautions against a purely nostalgic view of integración plástica. The movement was promoted alongside vast public works projects, overseen by presidents from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the mid-20th century. “These buildings are testimonies to a specific era,” says Mello. “But admiring them does not mean abandoning a critical vision towards that time period, because the government was very authoritarian.”

The PRI government may have spearheaded major public works and housing complexes, but it was also deeply undemocratic. The 1985 earthquake also shook the country’s politics, as the PRI’s failure to contain the tragedy spurred a citizen movement against one-party rule. People were disillusioned; the seeds of opposition to the PRI had been planted.

On Mexico City’s unsteady ground, buildings and monumental art are ephemeral. Not all the lofty ideals of mid-century architects can coexist with the city’s seismic activity. The public art of mid-century Mexico City must be preserved not to glorify it, but to understand a defining moment in Mexican history. 

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