The Tradition of Overambitious Public Works in MexicoBreaking News
tags: urban history, Mexican history
Carlos Ortega Arámburo is an architect based in Mexico City. He’s written for The Architectural Review, PIN-UP, Domus and Arquine.
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.
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.
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