The Radiant City: Public Housing in Modern Mexico

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Plans for Multifamiliar Alemán, Mexico.
Architect Mario Pani, 1948

At the end of the 1940s, Mexico City was at a crossroads. Massive waves of migration from the countryside doubled the city’s population in less than ten years.[1] The city’s old tenements (vecindades) began to buckle under the weight of overcrowding and talk of a “housing crisis” became commonplace. The problems surrounding Mexico City’s housing crisis emerged at a time when the post-revolutionary government began to envision a modern social welfare system as a key step towards national progress. Nowhere was this convergence more vividly expressed than in Mexico’s first public housing complex – the Multifamiliar Alemán.[2]

The Multifamiliar Alemán was a collaboration between the government’s civil pension department and architect Mario Pani. Born into a powerful family, Pani returned to Mexico City after studying architecture at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 1930s. As a student, he attended a lecture on social housing by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and was profoundly influenced by Le Corbusier’s modernist vision of a “radiant city.” Le Corbusier’s call to “build the city vertically” in order to increase both population density and available green space appealed to Pani, offering a viable means to create a more rational, ordered urban landscape. After Pani was commissioned to design the Multifamiliar Alemán in 1947, the young architect was confronted with the challenge of finding a synthesis between the modernist “internationalist style” and Mexico’s postrevolutionary nationalist ethos. At the time, government officials were apprehensive about Pani’s proposal and questioned if it represented the continuation of a dominated society forced to import ideas from Europe due to a lack of national identity.

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Multifamiliar Alemán, 1948. Photo courtesy of the “Centro de Documentacion Sobre la Ciudad”/ UAM

Fortunately for Pani, he was given the freedom to experiment and design the Multifamiliar Alemán far from the confines of the bustling city center. The Department of Civil Pensions acquired a large plot of undeveloped land to the south of the city in an area that would become known as Colonia Del Valle. In a sign of things to come, the Multifamiliar Alemán was not the product of urban renewal but a harbinger of urban sprawl.

Due to a tenuous alliance between historic preservationists, the tourism industry, and Mayor Ernesto Uruchurtu who took a firm stance against urban growth, Mexico City experienced relatively few slum clearance campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s (the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco complex being a notable exception). The first residents of the Multifamiliar Alemán were not drawn from impoverished slum dwellers displaced by the wrecking ball, but the more formally educated migrants who were flooding into the ranks of Mexico’s expanding public employee sector. In midcentury Mexico, housing would serve as a visible marker of social distinction in a growing divergence between Mexico City’s rising middle-class (la gente decente) and the informal masses relegated to the distant shantytowns.

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Aerial photo of Multifamiliar Alemán
Cia Mexicana Aerofoto, S.A, 1949

Before the Multifamiliar Alemán was inaugurated on September 2, 1949, aerial photographers were hired to capture “the grandeur” of the complex from above. The image of six towering buildings rising out of a barren field was quite striking. The six high-rise buildings were laid out in a diagonal “zig-zag” pattern in order to maximize greenspace and sunlight. At the center of the complex was a swimming pool, surrounded by gardens and walls that featured pre-Hispanic symbols. Although a relatively minor feature, the pre-Hispanic symbols can be seen as a precursor to Pani’s next housing project – the Multifamiliar Juárez – where a pre-Hispanic aesthetic was more prominently featured through a collaboration with Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida. The designs reflected Pani’s attempt to synthesize the international and the local, in what can be called a form of mestizo modernism.

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Image from film “La Bienamada” (1951), dir. Emilio Fernández

The government viewed the housing complex as a “grand human experiment.” It was conceived as a “city outside of the city” equipped with its own daycare centers, medical facilities, stores, and laundromat. Social workers visited mothers to instill the values of keeping a clean, hygienic home. One government official proclaimed “tenements were places just to sleep…husbands used to spend their free time in bars and pool halls, now they go to work and return to their collective home, where they have everything.”[3] The success of the government’s state-led socialization campaigns in public housing complexes remains an unresolved question for scholars. Nevertheless, the material benefits and social capital bestowed upon residents living in public housing during the 1950s and 1960s ultimately proved to be key factor in the ruling party’s consolidation of political support among Mexico’s urban middle-class.

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Photo by Jean Paul Rocafort, 2010

David Yee is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at Stony Brook University. His current research explores the historical ties between housing and inequality in Mexico City.

[1] Mexico City’s population grew from roughly 1.6 million in 1940 to 3.4 million in 1950.

[2] The full name for the building complex is the Conjunto Urbano Presidente Alemán, but it is commonly referred to as the Multifamiliar Alemán. A multifamiliar is broadly defined as a large-scale, mixed-use housing complex where each unit is designated for one family.

[3] Quote is cited from speech by Antonio Acevedo Escobedo in Mario Pani, Los Multifamiliares de Pensiones (Mexico City: Arquitectura, 1952), 45.

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