Tuesday, November 25, 2008


[published in the London Guardian Weekly in 2008]

Two towers will be built over the next couple of years that will compete for the honor of being called the tallest building in Mexico (and Latin America). The two are completely independent though both will be built in Mexico City and both are named Torre Biencentario, in honor of the two hundred year celebration of the Independence of Mexico from Spain. Although these towers come nowhere close to US and Asian supertall skyscrapers, weighing in under 300 meters (70 floors), they will be much more imposing upon the surrounding urban landscape.

One of the towers, an elongated, skinny pyramid, if authorized by the local government will be part of a package deal that includes a new line of the Metro, and an elevated highway and bridges to join the building to many of the city’s major avenues and other corporate areas. The other tower, still in search for a home after the original site was vetoed due to opposition from neighbors, is a project of global architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas. With barely-hidden European macho posturing, Koolhaas claims that erecting his giant construction will help Mexico compensate for its “skyscraper deficit.” (If height is as important as Koolhaas claims, then the case can be made that Mexican skyscrapers stretch higher up into the earth’s atmosphere than almost any other building in the world, for they are built up from a mile-high city.) Although perhaps virility is not what this skyscraper is all about (which would make it the odd tower out), as the elongated cube with a bulge in the lower midsection looks more like a middle-aged beer belly than a firm phallus.

According to Koolhass, though, the shape is the result of a “stacking” of two Mexican pyramids. The nods both these skyscrapers make to indigenous constructions, however, far from reflecting any sensitivity to local culture or having anything to do with the celebration of Independence, are merely the cynical “site-specific” packaging of buildings that will serve as headquarters for global corporations desirous of extracting profits from Mexico.

Historians tend to cite late 19th century buildings in New York City but, in fact, the first American skyscrapers were the pyramids built in Mexico City. Although these pyramids were flat-topped, inspired by the volcanic mountains that surround Mexico City, they were still tall enough to have completely dominated the city’s skyscape within the valley and served as the center of all major pre-Hispanic civilizations. The pyramids were the greatest cultural achievement of the pre-Hispanic civilizations, but they also led to the enslavement and death of thousands of people and led to the massive destruction of the environment. A large percentage of the male population of the city and surrounding villages were forced to help build the pyramids, and thus had to abandon their crops. The massive deforestation carried out to make room for the pyramids, as well as to provide wood for fires used to mix the building materials, chased off animals from their natural habitat and led to the further depletion of the city’s own food sources. This, in turn, led to an increased dependency on forced ‘tributes’ from surrounding colonized cities, which increased social unrest and eventually led to the wars and invasions that toppled these civilizations, erasing all but their pyramids from the face of the earth.

The Spanish Conquistadores who first arrived in Mexico City were mightily impressed by the dozens of pyramids that towered over the imperial Aztec city. This, however, didn’t keep them, and the tribes that had been conquered by the Aztecs and often offered up as human sacrifices on these very pyramids, from destroying them. The Spanish built their capitol city upon the ruins of the great Aztec empire, and to add insult to injury they constructed their main cathedral right on top of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor with stones stolen from that pyramid.

Unlike most major cities around the world, for a long time Mexico City did not feel compelled to enter the space race, a competition in which every new construction muscles the previous one out of the record books. In part, this was a result of a fear of falling, the unstable lakebed of the city and its location along a fault line keeping most architects from tempting to pit their engineering prowess against the earth itself. When, in 1985, Mexico City was rocked by the worst earthquake in the country’s recorded history and thousands of buildings collapsed, the Torre Latinoamericano, the city’s tallest building at that time, survived in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, proving that the skyscrapers that tempted the wrath of the gods could resist the worst these could throw at them.

For years after this, though, Mexico City still continued to grow out and not up. A sea of concrete spread out across the valley, with only a fistful of metal and glass structures daring to rise above the rest, and most of these huddling together in new corporate cities on the outskirts of town. This timidity, however, is quickly fading, with five of the ten tallest buildings (three of them to set new records) slotted to be built in the next five years.

Skyscrapers represent the future. Due to lack of land on which to build, most major cities have no choice but to reach for the skies, and skyscrapers set the standards for the city skyline of tomorrow. They also raise the level of urban problems that threaten the city’s future. Overcrowding, traffic nightmares, dangerously high pollution levels, and a severe lack of water and energy all accompany the advances of modernity, especially within underdeveloped countries, with skyscrapers especially exacerbating urban problems. The professionals who work in the buildings are not the ones who take the brunt of the suffering. Rather, it’s the lower-class inhabitants of the city, those who don’t own powerful utility vehicles to help them escape to elegant suburban compounds on elevated highways subsidized by the local government, that get short end of the stick.

Over the last few decades, an increasingly elevated urban architectural skyline began to truncate visibility within the major cities around the world, but in Mexico City it was not skyscrapers but rather increasingly high levels air pollution that curtailed sightlines everywhere throughout the city. The same modernity that created the Mexican skyscraper as its shining symbol is also responsible for the proliferation of motorized vehicles and heavy industry that pumped the city air full of toxic particles and smothered the skyscraper’s greatest achievement, unlimited visibility, beneath a blanket of gray of muck.

Skyscrapers’ high profiles convert them into easy and symbolic targets for all those who suffer the collateral damage of global capitalism. The Torre Mayor, Mexico City’s newest skyscraper and currently the tallest in Latin America, has brought terrorist activities to the heart of the city, a recent car bomb threat forcing the entire building to be evacuated several days in a row. As buildings rise ever higher, especially when they are touted as monuments of the wars of independence from foreign empires, the threat level can only go up.

Rather than celebrating the independence of Mexico from colonial powers, these skyscrapers attest to the continued dependency of the Mexican economy on foreign capital, with the majority of their financial backing still coming from Europe. Like the construction of the great Mexican pyramids in the imperial Aztec cities, even the ‘eco-friendly’ skyscrapers designed by globally-conscious architects still represent an extremely heavy burden on the city’s natural resources and a great sacrifice for the local inhabitants.

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