Mexico City: Architect Mario Pani’s Nonoalco-Tlatelolco Housing Project

The crisis in Mexico is, if not constant, then most definitely cyclical. Moreover, it is not only economic, but also environmental, scientific, technological, and — as if that were not enough — political, ideological, and moral. Mechanisms present during the nation’s birth seem to be reactivated in its historical becoming — a complex and contradictory process. It has become a semi-urbanized, semi-industrialized country with a pitiful infrastructure and unbridled demographic growth; every six years, a new government in power presents delirious modernization projects (if not only mere rhetoric), bestowing a gesture worthy of a pharaoh (not to mention another crisis) to the coming generations: a sensationalistic gesture by which it tries to immortalize evidence of its desperate (and failed) attempt to overcome the irrevocable state of inertia.

Mexico’s history — or, to use a more exact but more terrifying term, its historiography — a victim of itself, insists on interpreting its identity based on an endless series of tragedies and defeats. And Tlatelolco seems to function as a site that periodically calls forth atavism. Thus, it became and remains to this day loaded with a symbolism that seems to be the key to our future, based on traces of the past.

In 1964, inspired by the concept of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and under government commission, Mario Pani built what is known as the Unidad HabitacionalTlatelolco or Tlatelolco Housing Project. It sought to regenerate marginal areas and provide housing for 70,000 people in a residential development that included green spaces, stores, and other services that would enhance residents’ standard of living. The complex was built on the same site occupied, in pre-Hispanic times, by the great market of Tlatelolco: the center of economic and social life in ancient Mexico. It was also where, defending Tenochtitlán, Cuauhtémoc was defeated by the Spaniards during the night of August 13, 1521. Only a few years later, it was where the first college and academic library in the Americas were built, in an attempt to establish points of contact between Mexican and Spanish culture. Tlatelolco is also where Juan Diego showed Bishop Juan de Zumárraga his cloak bearing the miraculous effigy of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the early days of Mexican independence, the College of Santa Cruz was closed down, its buildings turned into a prison where several prominent intellectuals and revolutionaries were incarcerated. Today, Tlatelolco is also the site of a tower that is the headquarters of the Mexican Foreign Affairs Department.

To commemorate the miscegenation of cultures and further emphasize the site’s symbolic wealth, Pani created the Plaza de las tres Culturas, or Square of Three Cultures, where three periods of Mexican history are visible at a glance.

In 1968 the city saw the emergence of a powerful student movement. On October 2 of that year, a demonstration was organized that ended in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, where the students were ambushed by government forces. Just a few days before the Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies, hundreds of youths died and many others disappeared; to this day, it remains the worst, most brutal instance of student repression in Mexican history. In 1985, an earthquake caused major, widespread damage throughout Mexico City. The Nuevo León building, a high-rise located at the heart of Tlatelolco, collapsed and other buildings in the complex were damaged beyond repair.

Thus, the Nonoalco Tlatelolco Project clearly reflects the fervent determination to impose a modernity that was never fully achieved. Almost like ruins, it is an example of an isolated, disarticulated venture — the sign of a hopeful and yet fruitless effort that, in the end, was swallowed up by a ruthless context.

-Ana Elena Mallet