Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    Profound Modernity in Mexico City

    Mitch McEwen
    Oct 31, '17 10:51 PM EST

    Below is an excerpt from Profound Modernity, my essay on the design of dry ground in Mexico City and its image of modernity.  See e-flux for the full text.

    Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time…
    —Mierle Laderman Ukeles

    This article is not about the damage of the 2017 Central Mexico earthquake, but about the ground it shook. It is about how an imagination of a city above ground can travel from one place to another, and how that traveling can lead to a centuries-long demand to reshape territory. As a specific urban morphology, Mexico City can be defined as much by built structures and land-masses as by processes of democratic governance and histories of development. The extensive reshaping of what lies beneath our feet—sidewalks, streets, and building foundations—that modernity demands from urbanism is related not only to rational engineering but to speculation, image, the collapse of great distances, and the suppression—the literal burying—of maintenance. In Mexico City, one does not need to "uncover" anything, for even before the earthquake, the ground of Mexico City cracked open, much slower than an earthquake, but much faster than geology.

    There is so much threatened in Mexico City that this text cannot begin to address even only that which is most important. The city is sinking; water is both drying up and mixing with human waste and pharmaceuticals; housing is both underbuilt and sprawling; air pollution threatens health. Yet, the city also hosts a globally recognized gallery scene and some of the most delicious food in the world. It is constructing huge infrastructure projects, a new airport, and multiple contemporary art museums. Mexico City presents an intense mixture of the most seductive cosmopolitanism and the failures of urban modernism. As such, the city becomes a site to zoom out and in at once, to hone in on various modernities in the long-term urbanization of a place. But to address Mexico City as a site of modernity, one must stop—as is often the case when discussing cities—at Paris, on the way. It is something of the hub, the layover, for an inquiry like this, at least one that seeks to chart itself along the tracks of what might also be considered modern.

    Where do we end up in Mexico City when guided not by images or narratives of progress, but by the visceral real, the substrate of the city? Following Benjamin, Didi-Huberman claims the street rags to be evidence of a “city that stirs”; an object or image that becomes a "motif of a tactile sensuality of the street, a street that is organic to the point of revealing, when it unfolds, its ultimate reality—a visceral reality." The reality of the streets and sidewalks in Mexico City stir so viscerally that they rip open. It is hard to describe the ubiquity of sidewalk construction and road replacement throughout the city. Even streets that are not under construction might be torn open, simply by the effect of subsidence.

    For decades, ecologists have studied Mexico City’s sinking as an effect of its draining. The city sinks about one meter every three years. An aquatic ecologist summarized the effects as dire: "Of particular note have been drainage basin activities, diversion of inflows, pollution and over-exploitation of groundwater and biological resources (especially fish and waterfowl). The major effects of these activities are water shortages, soil erosion, salinization, dust storms, sinking ground, poor water quality and decreased biological resources…"

    The Drenaje Profundo has so thoroughly drained the city that—even as the streets and sidewalks are ripped open—the lakebed water still does not deliver enough potable water to Mexico City residents. Instead, potable water is delivered by truck to many residents and even hospitals, carted in from beyond the city borders. There are also supplements to the Deep Drain—additional wells, additional drains, longer canals. The Drenaje Profundo—in both its incompleteness (it has not yet entirely obliterated the Lake) and its excesses (draining so thoroughly that the aquifer dries up overtime)—demands maintenance of a kind that does not distinguish between the system's failures and its supplements.

    This situation of Mexico City's deep drain becomes instructive with regards to the modernities of networks, especially the relationship between systems and their own visceral effects. It is perhaps easier in democracies to develop than to maintain. Or, perhaps, development benefits capital whereas maintenance valorizes labor. American historians Andrew Russel and Lee Vinsel recently published an op-ed in the New York Times blaming the lack of maintenance for public transit in America's most populous city on a fetish of technology. There is an issue here of maintenance versus control. When solutions are framed in terms of self-consistent technologies and linear temporalities pushing forward toward increased control, the repetitive and labor-intensive participants in modernity are easily erased. The street rags of Paris are instruments not of control, but of hunches and gestures. Where should the water go? That way. Down. Nudge the roll of fabric with your foot. See what happens. Come back and check on it in a few days. This is maintenance. This is what the Drenaje Profundo has been draining out of Mexico City.


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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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