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Tlatelolco and the Modernist Dream in Mexico City

Detail of Sunset at Tlatelolco
Photo by Michael Waldrep — Click to enlarge

Officially the Conjunto Urbano Presidente Adolfo López Mateos de Nonoalco Tlatelolco (*phew*), the district of Tlatelolco is today a fascinating vestige of mid-century Mexico’s modernist past, and—what I like even more—a vision of a future that could have been. As I continue to try to understand the current face of urbanization on Mexico City’s edges, it seems more and more as if a useful perspective might be found in the prototypes of housing in the city’s past.

The sun sets over the housing block at Tlatelolco.
The sun sets over the housing block at Tlatelolco. — Photo by Michael Waldrep, Click to Enlarge

Though located near to the city center, before the conquest, Tlatelolco was a separate but allied kingdom to Tenochtitlan (the primary city of pre-hispanic Mexico City), and was the site of a massive market. By the 20th century, much of the site was taken up by a massive train yard connected to Buenavista station. As in Philadelphia and, more recently, New York City, a large piece of land, obtainable from a single owner, is irresistible in the eyes of a government looking to redevelopment.

A resident smokes on the open public landing of his building in Tlatelolco.
A resident smokes on the open public landing of his building in Tlatelolco. — Photo by Michael Waldrep, Click to enlarge

After the second World War, under the progressive President Miguel Alemán Valdés, and in the face of a rush of migrants to the city, the government moved to build an example of what must have seemed like the housing of the future. Only a short walk to the center of the city on the central boulevard of Lázaro Cárdenas would rise an image, hewn in concrete, of clean, orderly, and decent housing. Influenced by the then-radical designs of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, such as the Unité d’Habitación in Marseille (and other iterations elsewhere), Alemán had already charged the architect Mario Pani with developing large housing blocks elsewhere on government owned land in central Mexico City.

Unlike many large housing blocks in the U.S., the ground floors of building in Tlatelolco are filled with commerce.
Unlike many large housing blocks in the U.S., the ground floors of building in Tlatelolco are filled with commerce.  — Photo by Michael Waldrep, Click to Enlarge

Completed in 1964, Tlatelolco remade a wide swath of land visible from much of the city (at least, with sufficient elevation). Pani’s development was a small city, with 80,000 residents, public services and businesses mixed throughout, and even the preserved ruins of pre-hispanic structures that had been uncovered during the construction process. At that moment, the promise of modern housing and a time of triumph for architectural and urban design seemed incipient. However, as I’ll cover in my entry here next week—as the face of architecture on the city’s edges seems to demonstrate—for a number of reasons a city inspired by Tlatelolco never came to pass.