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For the Public Good

Mexico’s history of overzealous public works

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The first botanical garden in the Americas was laid out in the Aztec Empire. According to Diego Duran, the Dominican Friar who authored The History of the Indies of New Spain, Emperor Montezuma the Elder got the idea from his brother Tlacael. Opened to the royal elite sometime during his reign (1440–1469), the garden in Oaxtepec—a town in what is today the state of Morelos in Mexico—included a man-made canal as well as beds of ornamental and medicinal plants brought from across the empire. Its beauty made an impression on the Spanish Conquistadors, including Hernán Cortés, who visited in 1521. “There were lodgings, arbors and refreshing gardens and an infinite number of different kinds of fruit trees, many herbs and scented flowers,” he wrote in his diary. “It certainly filled one with admiration to see the grandeur and exquisite beauty of this entire orchard.”

Some five hundred years after it was established, the Oaxtepec garden was turned into a public attraction of a different sort: in 1966, a water park was opened on its premises. The Oaxtepec aquatic resort included a massive Epcot-like geodesic dome, based on the patent system developed by R. Buckminster Fuller, under which over two thousand botanical species were displayed; an Olympic-size swimming pool with a sculptural diving platform; and hotel rooms for over fifteen hundred visitors. Constructed with funding from the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS), it suggested a progressive vision of tourism and leisure, a place for workers to spend time with nature, in a pleasant subhumid climate. Former director of the resort Raúl Aispuro Rivas described Oaxtepec as “a triumph of the working class, built for their rest, recreation, and enjoyment. It was a complete success.”

At its peak, the Oaxtepec water resort attracted some 2 to 2.5 million visitors annually and was considered one of the largest aquatic resorts in Latin America. By the late nineties, however, parts of it were licensed to Parque Acuático Oaxtepec, a commercial venture whose inauguration in 1998 began a cycle of leasing, with some 134 hectares of the IMSS property given over to private companies. Meanwhile, much of the original construction was not properly maintained, leading to a drop in visitors. In 2016, after Parque Acuático Oaxtepec had itself gone bankrupt, twenty-seven of its hectares were leased, this time to the Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, which also agreed to pay the maintenance and repairing costs that the IMSS had accumulated over decades. The avant-garde resort made with the general population in mind fifty years earlier had turned, at least partly, into Six Flags “Hurricane Harbor.” In 2020, some of the original facilities in Oaxtepec were given a new lease on life, made into a provisional clinic for Covid-19 patients.

There are simply too many public works across the country for them to be administered properly.

The saga of Oaxtepec illustrates a recurring problem in Mexico: there are simply too many public works across the country for them to be administered properly. Most were commissioned by the IMSS, an institute set up by President Manuel Ávila Camacho in 1943, whose agenda was to promote the construction of hospitals and clinics, as well as housing units, sports facilities, and vacation resorts as part of an expansive notion of social welfare. The mid-century Mexican state followed through with zeal: according to Enrique X. de Anda Alanís’s book Arte y cultura junto a los hospitales, over ninety such public works across the country were commissioned during the administration of President Adolfo López Mateos (1958–1964) alone. And there’s undeniable splendor in some of them, especially those that rejected the sprawling suburb model of development then ascendant North America, opting instead for a mixed approach that combined housing, social services, and commerce. A good example is Unidad Independencia, an affordable housing complex in southern Mexico City, which includes apartments, independent houses, cinemas, stores, theaters, sporting facilities, and parks.

Yet by the 1980s, a large number of IMSS projects had fallen into various states of disrepair. There were two main reasons for this. At a fundamental level, the mid-century Mexican state launched into its public works program without the technological capacities—or skilled workforce—needed to construct the kind of modern projects that were envisioned. A classic symptom of underdevelopment, such overambitiousness also had an older local origin. Famously, the conquest had given rise to a rash of Tequitqui (the Nahuatl word for tributary) art, made by indigenous labor under the orders by clerics, who knew little about the woodworking or sculpting. Similarly, in modern Mexico, welders and carpenters were asked to replicate in their workshops or on-site the kind of craftsmanship that was being produced on a large scale inside factories in France. For instance, Mexico City’s striking new glass facades, such as the ones in the National University’s sixty-meter-tall Rectory Tower, were assembled by manual laborers with little prior experience. One of the Tower’s glass facades was clumsily oriented towards the south, making part of the building inhospitable.

If construction was shoddy, so was urban planning. All Mexican politicians pay lip service to the idea that public works are meant to improve civic life and help the poorest. In reality, however, architectural glamour, political score-settling, and industry cronyism have played a far greater role than the “national interest” in determining what projects are commissioned—and who wins the tenders. The problem is exacerbated by the six-year presidential term, or sexenio, a constitutional dictate—the Mexican Revolution overthrew General Porfirio Díaz, a seven-term reelectionist who stayed in power for three decades—that has inadvertently created an arbitrary time frame under which all public projects are expected to be completed. Indeed, the last two years of a sexenio are typically used by outgoing presidents to symbolically inaugurate as many works as possible. As Román Meyer Falcón, the current secretary of agrarian urban and land development recently put it, public works serve as “a political message and the best visual expression of politics.”

Infrastructure in Mexico, then, has suffered from an absence of long-term planning. Incoming administrations choose between performing damage control on their predecessors’ rushed projects or renouncing them altogether. This was true under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which, after ushering in the revolution, ruled until 2000, as well as under the National Action Party (PAN), which took over after, prolonging the state’s disastrous honeymoon with the North American Free Trade Agreement through 2016. When Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the leftist Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) party, was elected to power in 2018, he promised to end the bad habits of previous administrations. But as he enters the final two years of his term, nothing much seems to have changed. If anything, AMLO has embarked on even more haphazard and frenetic construction projects—a new airport in the capital, a new oil refinery in the Gulf, multiple train and road lines—relying on the military to build in record time. His achievements have been widely lauded by supporters, not to mention parts of the global left. But a closer look at AMLO’s policies—and of Mexico’s history of overzealous public works—reveals a troubling disconnect between their aims and achievements.

The geodesic dome at the Oaxtepec garden. | Mapio

After three decades of unrelenting neoliberalism, it can be hard to recall that government spending was a key driver of economic growth in Mexico for much of the twentieth century. The first—and until Cuba, the only—revolutionary party to come power on the continent, the PRI took over an extremely poor, semi-feudal, and technologically backward country, knowing it had to invest heavily in social and economic infrastructure, in the absence of a local bourgeoise that might otherwise have played that role. The process was kicked off in the late 1930s, when President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized all petroleum reserves and infrastructure on Mexican soil, including those owned of foreign companies, channeling oil revenues into development: the provision of steel, railroads, refineries, energy, highways, and services. The state’s agenda of “Import-Substituting-Industrialization”—that is, developing local industry so as to not rely on manufactured foreign imports—only grew after 1951, when President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Mutual Security Act, injecting $7.5 billion of anti-communist aid annually to “allied” countries around the world, of which Mexico was one of the largest beneficiaries.

The focus on prestige gave rise to a culture of unhealthy competition among architects.

The MSA coincided with Miguel Alemán’s term as president (1946–1952), a period of transformation for the party. The first civilian to get that role after the revolution, Alemán was a dandy who wanted every Mexican to have “a Cadillac, a cigar, and a ticket to the bullfight.” Under him, a new generation of university students flooded the halls of power, replacing the military veterans of the revolution who had previously run the government. (Symbolically, Alemán became president a year after the death of General Plutarco Elías Calles, the PRI’s ideological founder.) While not entirely breaking with the party’s underlying socialist vision, Aleman’s administration was more focused on national economic growth than social justice or uplifting marginalized communities. As Ryan M. Alexander explains in Sons of the Mexican Revolution: Miguel Alemán and His Generation, Alemanismo would later be associated with “the reinforcement of a strong national bourgeoisie, a concerted effort to attract foreign investment, and a tendency to encourage entrepreneurial values in the populace.”

At least in central Mexico, one of the most tangible legacies of Alemanismo was the construction of modernist, middle-class housing units, among them the Centro Urbano Presidente Alemán (CUPA) in Mexico City, designed by the soon-to-be famous architect Mario Pani—the son of a diplomat and nephew of Alberto J. Pani, one of the key political figures in postrevolutionary Mexico, who served as secretary of finance during President Elías Calles’s term and played a large role in developing a national system of roads. In 1947, the Direction of Civil Pensions commissioned Pani to design a building that could house two hundred public sector workers. Mario Pani’s winning submission was a mixed-use project with a scale so unlike anything previously built in Mexico that it had to be seen to be believed: using only 20 percent of the block’s ground, he designed a succession of nine thirteen-story buildings (and two complementary ones for services), each combining apartments on the top and commerce on the ground floor—a model which would later become an urban standard. While the skylines of some North American cities had already been defined by high-rises, CUPA appeared in Colonia del Valle like one gigantic vertical anomaly. Its design borrowed heavily from the unbuilt Ville Radieuse scheme, Le Corbusier’s ambitious proposal for a city organized around long zigzagging blocks of steel high-rises with tree-lined promenades and interspersed with parks.

Completed in 1949, CUPA was featured the next year in the French magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui and subsequently in other foreign publications, bringing Pani considerable international attention. The same year, Unidad Juárez, a more ambitious version of CUPA he designed in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, was lauded in Spain’s Revista Nacional de Arquitectura as a “testimony of the level reached by the architecture of the noble Mexican country.” These and similar projects being churned by the IMSS were publicized abroad to raise the profile of designers as well as to show that Mexico was modernizing in record time. By the account of Ana Esteban-Maluenda and Vanessa Nagel Vega, there were at least ninety-five citations of or stories on Mexican public housing in France, Italy, Spain, the United States, and England between 1950 and 1968.

The focus on prestige gave rise to a culture of unhealthy competition among architects, some of whom allowed foreign validation—through spectacular architecture photography—to obscure the domestic objectives of their work. This mentality is still prevalent. In 2013, work on a private ranch for the State of Veracruz’s notoriously corrupt governor Javier Duarte concluded. It had been designed by Manuel Cervantes, who had already received several public commissions in the state. While the ranch earned Cervantes an award as an “Emerging Voice” from the Architectural League of New York in 2015, he came under public scrutiny soon after, when an investigation by Spanish newspaper El País revealed that Duarte had awarded Cervantes public commissions as a quid pro quo. The governor is currently serving time, and the property has been confiscated by the Mexican Army.

In the headlong rush to build under Alemanismo, construction standards were also not thoroughly vetted by other professionals, contractors, or the press. Indeed, proper safety norms were not properly in place as late as 1985. The problem was exacerbated by many architects’ newfound obsession with reinforced concrete, the correct treatment of which was still in an incipient phase. (The costs of the approach are evident in Pani’s Conjuntos and all throughout the National University’s Ciudad Universitaria Campus.) Yet perhaps the most damning aspect of the crookedness in public works in Mexico is the different ways in which public competitions, or concursos, were avoided: either by staging the competition, or submitting multiple proposals under different company names, or fast-tracking projects at decentralized offices. Over time, plenty of architects bought into this culture of cronyism, among them a figure who, at a first glance, would appear as one of the heroes of Mexican modernity.

The Rectory Tower at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). | Wikimedia Commons

This was Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, who like many men of his generation, lived his life emulating the ideals of an Ayn Rand protagonist—if such a protagonist were honest enough to acknowledge state spending as their main source of employment. The brother of Manuel Ramírez Vázquez, one of Miguel Alemán’s closest cabinet members, Pedro designed and planned a great number of institutions, as well as residential buildings, famously micromanaging every step of the process all the way to graphic and industrial design. Unlike Pani, who was genuinely committed to expanding public housing, Ramírez Vázquez was largely attracted by monumentality and global recognition. A “starchitect” avant la lettre, he had a cozy relationship with the PRI and the Catholic church throughout his career, while conveniently hiding these ties from the public. In this, he embodied a reappearing figure in Mexico’s modern intelligentsia, a kind of monster of public life—take a bow, Enrique Krauze; take two, Octavio Paz—who presents themselves as independent, even antiestablishment, while they are actively involved in politics and essentially part of the ruling class.

In his early professional years, from 1958 to 1964, while in charge of the Federal Committee for the Construction of Schools (CAPFCE), Ramírez Vázquez developed agile construction methods to build classrooms across the country, principally as a strategy to diminish Spanish illiteracy among indigenous communities. He also worked on fifteen markets in Mexico City, including the Lagunilla and the colossal Jamaica markets, the latter designed along with Félix Candela and Rafael Mijares. If his most visited project in Mexico City is La Basílica de Guadalupe, the city’s biggest religious center, then perhaps his most notorious is the National Museum of Anthropology—a building that, more than any other, illustrates the prioritization of symbolism over direct improvements in everyday life and stands as a perverse blend of in-house colonialism and cutting-edge architecture. Built over an insanely short period of nineteen months—between February 1963 and September 1964—its construction entailed the removal of archeological treasures from many undeveloped or still indigenous villages, among them the small town of Coatlinchán, which originally held the seven-meter-high sculpture of Tlaloc, now standing at the museum entrance. The Mexican military had to suppress villagers’ attempts to thwart the removal, and bridges and highways were reinforced to ensure that the trailers could transport the huge piece of the Mesoamerican past for permanent exhibition in the capital.

In 1968, Ramírez Vázquez was named president of the organizing committee of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, construction for which transformed many undeveloped parts of the city. The most famous building he designed for it was the Estadio Azteca, then one of largest concrete structures and still one of the most intimidating athletic facilities. (Originally commissioned with the 1970 World Cup in mind, it was conveniently finished in 1966 and made into the centerpiece of the event.) Ten years later, he was given the chair of Mexico’s secretary of human settlements and public works, which didn’t stop him from pursuing more commercial projects in his private practice—now prohibited by law. In fact, in the critical decade of the 1970s, Ramírez Vázquez’s portfolio included almost no social housing projects. This would be the closest he came to Robert Moses-levels of influence, both in establishing the National System of Urban Development Planning, and commissioning national construction projects, such as the Basílica de Guadalupe, in which his private office would be involved. 

The ruins of modernity became a permanent aspect of the cityscape.

Ramírez Vázquez’s reputation as a renaissance man—and his involvement in a list of projects and activities too long and varied to describe here—would not be so relevant if his goals had been exclusively financial. But he was an extraordinarily gifted architect who understood what the Mexican construction industry could and couldn’t pull off and whose talent shone through even in mediocre efforts, such as the Mexicana Tower, headquarters of the government airline Mexicana de Aviación until it went bankrupt. He thus serves as a symbol of Mexico’s late modernity, when increased aesthetic radicalism went hand-in-hand with decreasing social engagement. It’s telling that he was a role model to many younger architects and even some of his peers, including Agustín Hernández, Ricardo Legorreta, and Fernando Romero, whose public commissions from the 2000s combine poor materials and monumental design. A prime example is Hernández’s “Monument to Loyalty of Campo Marte,” built to commemorate the centennial of the Mexican Army, made with public resources but which the public is not allowed to visit.

Ramírez Vázquez’s glory years were in the 1970s, under President Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970–1976), who had embarked on an ambitious program of increased state expenditure, largely in response to the social unrest unleashed by his predecessor Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’s brief flirtation with privatization—not to mention the 1968 massacre of as many as three hundred students at Tlatelolco plaza (with Mario Pani housing units as a backdrop). Along with commissioning very many infrastructure projects, Echeverría invested in education, health, and food subsidies, almost doubling the percentage of the population covered by social security—laudable achievements that should have been backed with sound fiscal policy. However, the government’s regressive tax system was unable to keep up state investments, and so by the end of the Echeverría term, as the scholar Miguel D. Ramirez notes, “the country was thus caught in the throes of a vicious circle of rising public-sector deficits, excessive money growth, accelerating inflation, rapid capital flight, and mounting foreign debt.”

Matters came to a head in 1976, when, under huge balance of payments pressure, the peso fell in value by nearly 50 percent. Over the next six years, Mexico barreled toward economic disaster, with a still-rising balance-of-payments deficit and soaring inflation, as the vultures of the international finance community—the International Monetary Fund, the Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker, and the “Paris Club”, representing creditor governments—circled around, ready to descend with their beloved “structural reforms.” These were pushed through in 1982, when Mexico received an IMF loan in return for fiscal austerity, privatization of state-owned companies, reductions in non-tariff trade barriers, and industrial deregulation. In 1986, against much internal opposition, Mexico joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade under the leadership of President Miguel de la Madrid, sealing, in Thomas M. Leonard’s verdict, “Mexico’s transition from import substitution industrialization (ISI) to neoliberalism.”

The crisis was reflected in the abandonment of IMSS and state housing infrastructure: buildings like CUPA were left to their own devices, as were similar units like Tlatelolco, Unidad Juárez, Unidad Altillo-Universidad, and Unidad Independencia. Funds for maintenance dried up, creating environments of decay. And judgment day came on September 19, 1985, when an earthquake in Mexico City—which killed over twenty thousand people according to some estimations—instantaneously turned many of these monuments of modernity into ruins or death traps, as was the case with some of Pani’s Tlatelolco Units, where between two and three hundred died, and Unidad Juárez in Colonia Roma, where unofficial sources estimate some eighty people died, unable to leave their apartments in time. As architect Carlos González Lobo noted when asked on the toll of official projects the 1985 earthquake: “Projects of Corbusian influence built over pilotis [posts that make a building rise above ground] then showed their absolute inefficacy.”

After 1985, many residents of these public works were forced to look for new places to live, causing intracity or even intrastate migration. Indeed, Mexico City itself seemed to undergo a kind of resignation, as urban planning slipped out of the government’s hands, with sprawl expanding in all directions, and the ruins of modernity, or buildings with prosthetics, became a permanent aspect of the cityscape. As rents rose in the central part of Mexico City, and the state gave up on public housing, a new periphery at the east ballooned for people willing to travel long distances to work the services required for the center to thrive. There are glimpses of this transformation in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma, which sets a number of crucial scenes far from its titular neighborhood, in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, one of the new eastern peripheries. A sense of abandonment is everywhere palpable in the film: the middle-class family’s patriarch (an IMSS employee) flees for a younger woman; their indigenous maid is impregnated by a man who never wants to see her again; and everyone is affected by the slow, drawn-out withdrawal of the state, which allows shantytowns to spread, fails to push through land reform on the haciendas, and sets paramilitary groups on student protestors, killing dozens of students in the Corpus Christi massacre.

The former Faculty of Sciences building at UNAM. | Wikimedia Commons

As neoliberalism kicked into gear in the 1990s and early 2000s, the state began to demand a return on investment for projects that were previously understood to be a social good. Official positions that were traditionally assigned to urban planners were now handed to developers, who churned out very many shopping malls, as well as white elephants—a term for hideous, expensive, monumental architectural works that provide little social benefit—a trend that reached new heights in 2016, when around 9 percent of GDP was assigned to public works, much of that money poured into a costly new airport terminal in Texcoco. Meanwhile the growing shantytowns, which attracted peasants kicked off their de-collectivized land, were deprived of basic resources.  

As AMLO’s sexenio gets close to the finishing line, there has been no effort to seriously reform the state’s involvement in the construction industry.

It was in this context that AMLO came to power in 2018, on an agenda of rolling back neoliberalism and restoring faith in the state. What better way to achieve this than through public works? Soon after winning the election, he announced four public megaprojects to be completed under his six-year mandate: a train for the Mayan peninsula, another to create an interoceanic connection across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, a new oil refinery in the Gulf, and a new airport for Mexico City (for which the previously planned and partially built airport in Texcoco overhauled). These have been accompanied by the injection of money into historically neglected municipalities for hundreds of parks, sports facilities, public squares, markets and the like. Taken together, they comprise a kind of holistic Plan AMLO: the president has boasted on several occasions of being the only politician who knows every part of the country like the back of his hand. Banking on this knowledge, AMLO has more or less done away with due process and expert consultations, instead following his own hunches, which are subsequently reverse-engineered into public policy. All the necessary paperwork and legal framework is then filled out by thousands of public servants and outsourced government workers who must keep the sexenio deadline firmly in mind.

Despite AMLO’s reputation on the campaign trail as an anti-corruption crusader, these mini-WPA projects have been subject to the business-as-usual codes of cronyism. Many public officials have already been fired over corruption scandals, as was brought to light in an investigation by the Secretariat of Civil Service, which detected irregularities in payments to supervisors.

And as with any megaproject, massive cost overruns have soured the initial optimism with which they all were initiated. In short, AMLO is following the usual money-burning dynamics of building in a rushed and mediocre manner, with real-time consequences, such as the collapse of concrete slabs while construction ongoing in a sporting facility center, or the malfunction of sewage systems in a recently inaugurated park in Tabasco, to name a few. Given how fast things are being built and how opaque the new contractors are, these new public works are virtually impossible to properly audit. And while AMLO’s government repeats that these projects have generated over three hundred fifty thousand jobs, he never addresses how good these jobs are, since salaries are usually dismal, as has been historically the case with manual labor in Mexico. Safety standards remain poor, resulting in the deaths and injuries of construction workers. Such workplace conditions have given rise to the phenomenon of online denunciation, such as the Instagram account @terror_despachos_arq_cdmx, which documents flawed design and construction of various public works.

The president is not ignorant of the corruption endemic to Mexico’s real estate industry. He has referred to private-sector actors as “vultures” and even assigned construction to the state itself. The problem is the arm of the state that he’s chosen to carry out his will: all of the key megaprojects have been assigned to the expanding divisions of the military, which has been notoriously corrupt and opaque when it comes to construction. Since federal law is ambiguous as to what constitutes a project of national security, and with new legislation extending the permanence of military forces in social security tasks, this is likely to be a long-term solution, which is troubling for all kinds of reasons—not that AMLO’s supporters have noticed. For instance, on March 21, 2022, when Mexico City’s new airport was inaugurated, there was no mention of the building’s architects, with all of the praise aimed at “our military engineers.” That same day, telenovela producer Epigmenio Ibarra, a noted cheerleader of AMLO, uploaded his gift to the president, “Una obra del pueblo”: seventy-four minutes of propaganda in the form of a YouTube video. In one scene, the president is seen touring facilities with army officials. The political appeal of the video is undeniable: here we finally have a president who outwits those “vultures,” the speculators who betrayed the revolutionary dreams, the priístas who sold and leased parts of the country to foreign interests. Yet this newfound trust for the military represents a dismissal of AMLO’s campaign rhetoric of civilizing and “sending the troops back to their cuartéles.” It has left even his conservative opposition scratching their heads.

Aesthetics is not the biggest problem, but these projects are already looking a lot like the familiar modern ruins of the PRI’s heyday. In many respects, they’re worse: while artworks of muralismo fall to pieces, these new public works already have a soullessness that is characteristic of a kind of military construction that wants to be perceived as civilian, a low-resolution reality defined by simple textures, cheap materials, and very unimaginative spatial ideas. The new airport terminal sparked controversy when it was revealed that its bathrooms would feature themes from Mexican culture and folklore. But, as the building’s original architect, Francisco González-Pulido, explained, very little of the long-term quality his team strived for in the new terminal remains in the delivered building, with army contractors filling in the blanks of the initial design.

As AMLO’s sexenio gets close to the finishing line, there has been no effort to seriously reform the state’s involvement in the construction industry—by, say, paying better salaries to construction workers, enforcing better practices for public competitions and contracts, allowing local universities or communities to engage with project management, relying less on concrete, or investing more in renewables, all of which are entirely reachable public policy goals. Instead, the president has closed ranks with the army, clogging assembly lines and conveyor belts, and injecting more abuse into an already precarious construction industry. It’s disconcerting, then, to see articles in the American and other foreign press describing the federal government’s urban projects as if they were heroic efforts, without verifying their social purpose or construction quality, relying on photographs and international architectural prizes. The president may have good intentions, but he lacks the imagination to build public works that would actually serve the public.