Juan O'Gorman's 'Paisaje de la Ciudad' proffers an observation into what the city of Mexico, in essence, has come to represent since its revolution, and the inherent crisis of that representation. The composition is systematic, with a sharp perspective and precise details, as an architect would have 'ordered' for the city; it is easy to discern notable buildings from the observer's perch atop the Monument of the Revolution. Traffic moves gently below, as iron and steel skeletons crave skyward for still more modernization. What tension exists, is in the two partial walls, framing the image of the city; on the left, a reddish brown brick wall accurately laid, and on the right, a mound of crumbling grey volcanic stone, roughly hewn - the building materials, representative of the planned modern and the informal traditional city. In the foreground, two pale hands hold a plan of the city, and to the left, a dark-skinned brick-layer stands with a trowel in his right hand and a blueprint in his left. As captivating as the painting is in its apparent meaning, it leaves us to speculate; in whose hands are the plans of the city? Who has the dominant control on its content, its augmentation, its destiny?
The urban plan of Mexico City can be seen as development over years, since the Revolution, its context revealing a condition of crisis in several layers, through its geographies, its history, its socio-political situations and its cultural aspirations. Its geographies have, over the years, shaped its architecture and continues to do so even today, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake being a significant event that resulted in severe physical and infrastructural damage to the Greater Mexico City Area. As it is known, Mexico City is divided into boroughs; and nearly eighty per cent of the damage was confined to four of them, mainly corresponding to the western part of the lake with nearly all the buildings that collapsed located in the zone extending from Tlatelolco in the North to Viaducto Miguel Alemán in the south, Chapultepec Park in the west and to a short distance east of the Zócalo.
With such environmental ravages, art and architecture in Mexico City, for a long time, remained confined to depictions dealing with these issues of situation. And it was 'Paisaje de la Ciudad' that for the first time, recognized the idea of modernization as an agenda in the meta-narrative of the city. Further, the destruction that followed the spatial, economic, religious and political conquests of the Spanish colonization, left lingering questions regarding the re-establishment of the city, even years after. What do you do with a city after such historic and environmental destruction? And so, the next 50 years of its speculations on planning and policies for the urban development became a battle between urbanization and the environment, attempting the mitigation of this aftermath. What was "traditionally Mexican" was bankrupt as an idea, but continued to repeatedly demonstrate its presence in the planning and policies of the city. And so, although Mexico City is a narrative of multiplicity, of Beaux Arts, of colonization, of real estate speculations, at the end of it, it is but a traditional city on water, like every other city, with chiefly two narratives defining its growth - namely the planning and the policies. And it is not so much about the split of the infrastructure and the environment as the lack of management and conceptualization of solutions that result in its urban issues.
Crisis in Mexico City is known to stem from a misplaced political condition, that further breeds crisis in various layers of the city's fabric. To be sure, even individually, the lofty goals of each of its political revolutions were not realized to the extent they might have been, possibly due to recurrent opposition; and it is due to this legacy of unrest, that urban planning, policies and architectural syntax shaped themselves, on the basis of politically progressive social and economic commitments, rather than on the identification of markets as key mechanisms. Acknowledging the importance of the revolution to its policies, initiates a premise, that there was no single planning culture in Mexico City in that period, but instead, an agglomeration of different planning sub-cultures, depending not just on variations in training of the professionals or differences in opinions on the concerns of city, but also, the extent to which different views regarding the aims of politics, of economy or of social justice, were to be incorporated in planning. And so, the plans crafted for Mexico City in the critical decades after the revolution reflected a "divided professional opinion, unable to formulate or implement a coherent social or spatial plan with a well-defined and enduring character".
Even before planning was acknowledged as a formal profession in Mexico in the mid 1920s, the city was being constructed along organizing principles, imposed by those empowered with political authority to issue them or financial resources to take the action. Under forceful attempts of economic growth, an allied merchant-industrial elite population accelerated rapidly and commercial-business elites, merchant financers and real-estate developers sought new markets and revenues, away from the historic centre. The actions, of the government as well as the various classes not only laid the physical foundations for what the city looked like at the moment after the revolution, but also served as ideological reference points for professional disagreement over how planning should be addressed when the new revolutionary government came to power. The post-revolutionary period saw a new cadre of planning professionals; most architects were trained in the neo-classical tradition, which meant that they turned to Europe for professional inspiration. Also growing in number and influence was a sub-group of young architects who followed a proto-modernism or the neo-colonial style, a style that embodied a certain hybrid aesthetic of the two influences. Rounding out this diverse architectural scene was a budding and intellectually influential group of architects with quasi-artistic sentiments, trained in the arts as much as in architecture, equally committed to the development of revisionist and revolutionary projects for the reconstruction of the city. What is perhaps the most significant about the architects in post-revolutionary Mexico City, then, is that they were divided amongst themselves in terms of their intellectual reference points, just as the political scenario, in terms of their looking-forward versus looking-backward visions and, more importantly, as to who they were building for - the state, the populace or the elites. An area comprising of all these programs, hence, demonstrated a hybrid character of the city.
And so, understanding the relationship between the historic centre and the new development was essential to the growth and infrastructure as the city began to grow outside the flat lands and its existing periphery. The project of modernity aimed to overcome the impact of the floods and historical politics, with focus on ring roads, peripheral roads, infrastructure of mobility along with districts, neighbourhoods and their relationship to these hierarchies of connectivity. However, the concept of the architect as the master planner only represented one side of the coin, for, these visions of the future city considered its informalities as a cancer to be eliminated, the model of planning now turning more American in approach, and so concentrating more on infrastructure than on mitigating its informalities. However, as informalities, and hence informal infrastructure, continued to grow (60 per cent of the population as informal sector), policies were based more on ideologies than on the realities of the city, and the gap between planning and this reality became evident. At this juncture, besides the development of infrastructure, housing was seen as a solution to mitigate social inequities. Architects like Mario Pani developed ideas that demonstrated pragmatic political efficiency as well as a cultural democracy through projects like the Presidente Juarez Housing, Tlatelolco Housing Project and his famous murals on the building facades in Colonial Roma. However, with the earthquake of 1985 and the reaction of these projects to it, challenged the inner city and the density that it had accomplished, being emblematic of the failure of this much-desired modernism.
The drying up of the lake further encouraged the growth of informalities, for although settlement occurred in these places of ambiguous land tenure, its insignificance as an agricultural land rendered eviction unnecessary. It is but obvious that these alternate forms of urbanism manifest in the absence of efficient planning. Until the 20th century, the land on which Ciudad Neza sat was under Lake Texcoco and uninhabited. Successful draining of the lake created new land, which the government eventually sold into private hands. However, public services such as adequate potable water, electricity and sewerage were lacking, making it the world's largest meg-slum, until after the area was made an independent municipality. Today, Ciudad Neza is a sprawling city of over one million entirely with modern buildings, an enduring lesson of urban inclusion of the informal by understanding the realities of social and environmental behaviour, and hence, connecting the policies of housing with the politics of the state to achieve greater social, political and economic returns. This paralegal development flaunts a functioning grid plan, 95 per cent paved roads, supply of electricity and drainage and development of jobs in a short time.
The case of Mexico City raises an important question. Should architects resist political pressures or should they, owing to the power they possess, engage them and work with them? Planners in Mexico City today stand in the sidelines unable to shift the decisions that political agendas are forcing upon its architecture, urban design and infrastructure. The vision for the future of the city is that human and physical systems work with natural systems and socio-political agendas. As mentioned by Christian Hubert and Ioanna Theocharopoulou in 'Design, Sustainability and the Global City', it is key to understand in the case of Mexico City's urban planning, the distinction between the strategies employed in planning in the Global North and the Global South in terms of sustainable urbanism - which includes not just the physical aspects of planning, but the political, social, economic and environmental ones as well. The problems are different and unique to each situation. The solutions must be too.