History of the Present: Mexico City

An unpopular president, a myth-making architect, and a multibillionaire tycoon are building an oversize airport in a nature preserve. Can they make Mexico great again?

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series, “History of the Present: Cities in Transition.”

Mexico City aerial
Mexico City. [LW Yang]

At the dawn of the Jet Age, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy strode across the red-carpeted tarmac of the Mexico City Central Airport into the arms of President Adolfo López Mateos for a traditional abrazo. It was JFK’s third state visit to Latin America, as he built support for his pan-hemispheric social and economic cooperation plan, the Alliance for Progress. Between all the standard stops — an honorary luncheon at the National Palace, a bilateral meeting at the Mexican presidential residence — his hosts squeezed in a tour of a massive new housing complex, Unidad Independencia, on the southern outskirts of the capital.

Amigos,” Kennedy declared, in brief remarks at the site, “I want to compliment … the architect[s] and all of you for how beautifully this project has been put together. I have seen in many places housing which has been developed under governmental influences, but I have never seen any [such projects] which have fountains and statues and grass and trees, which are as important to the concept of the home as the roof itself.” 1

John F. Kennedy at the Unidad Independencia housing complex in Mexico City
John F. Kennedy tours the Unidad Independencia housing project in Mexico City, as a guest of President Adolfo López Mateos, in June 1962. [Robert Knudsen/JFK Presidential Library]

Completed in 1960, Unidad Independencia was indeed impressive — a vast Modernist development that housed 10,000 working-class residents in comfortable units, neatly arranged in angular mid- and high-rise buildings, all integrated with shops, schools, performance venues, and a medical clinic. The architects, Alejandro Prieto Posadas and José María Gutiérrez Trujillo, fused Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City with nods to pre-Columbian megaprojects, including giant stone sculptures of the ancient deity Quetzalcoatl.

The megaproyecto was designed to alleviate poverty, glorify the presidency, and impress international visitors (not necessarily in that order).

The charismatic Kennedy won over the crowd, and the traveling Washington press corps reported (with surprise) no sign of anti-imperialist protest. Whether the Mexican masses truly loved the American president or had been intimidated into silence by the dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who can say. Regardless, the visit was a triumph for López Mateos, the eighth in a line of fourteen PRI presidents who held uninterrupted power from 1929 to 2000. Since the Mexican constitution limits leaders to a single six-year term, its presidents invest in massive infrastructure projects that become their legacies. Unidad Independencia was López Mateos’s signature megaproyecto, designed to alleviate poverty, glorify his presidency, and impress international visitors (not necessarily in that order). It all seemed to be working perfectly.

Kennedy ended his speech with a call for inclusive prosperity: “Political freedom, however vital it may be, does not reach its full significance until there is also economic participation in the life of the country by the people themselves. Housing, education, jobs, and security go hand in hand with the real concepts of political equality and freedom. … This hemisphere must understand [this] if we are going to accomplish the goals of the Alianza para el Progreso, a great movement forward by the people of this hemisphere. ¡Viva México!

Demonstration in Mexico City on January 20, 2017
¡Fuera, Trump! ¡Fuera, Yankees, de América Latina! Demonstration in Mexico City on January 20, 2017. [Adrián Martínez]

How distant this speech sounds today. While the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, cowers beneath corruption scandals and historically low approval ratings, the White House is occupied by a tin-pot banana-Republican who tars Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and vows to build a border wall on an installment plan. The first state visit was cancelled last month, after a phone call in which President Trump suggested sending troops over the border to deal with “a bunch of bad hombres down there.” An anonymous White House official later dismissed Trump’s threat as “lighthearted.” In any case, it’s unlikely the America Firster will ever fly south with “¡Viva México!” on his lips.

It might disappoint Donald Trump to learn that his border folly is not the only oversize infrastructure project in the hemisphere.

It might disappoint Trump to learn that his border folly is not the only oversize infrastructure project in the hemisphere. With the PRI back in power, President Enrique Peña Nieto is building the grandest megaproyecto ever attempted — an enormous new airport set to rise on a sinking lakebed in the middle of a nature preserve. Once completed, there will be no need to drag visiting heads of state around town to tour the presidential legacy project. Every trip will begin with an obligatory tour of Peña Nieto’s masterpiece.

Viewed from, say, 38,000 feet, the project is jaw-dropping. The price tag runs US$13 billion, and the initial annual capacity of nearly 60 million passengers will put it on par with the international airport in Miami, the de facto capital of Latin America. After expansion, it could serve 120 million passengers, a figure never approached in the history of commercial aviation. All this, Peña Nieto insists, will be delivered on a model of good government and open competition, a clean break with his party’s crony-capitalist past.

Enrique Peña Nieto is building the grandest megaproyecto ever attempted, a $13 billion airport on a sinking lakebed.

But surveyed at ground level, I found a project buffeted by criticism. Environmental advocates are aghast at the destruction of the nature preserve. Civil engineers warn that the lakebed site is unstable — the ground has sunk roughly 25 feet in the past half century and is still subsiding — making it technically unwise to build upon. The villagers who live nearby fear rising property values will attract gangs and corruption in a nation where the rule of law remains weak. And just about everyone mutters that for all promises about “transparency” and “open competition,” the project is producing work for the usual suspects: tycoon Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, and his son-in-law court architect, Fernando Romero.

The sharpest criticism comes from a younger generation of planners and designers who have drawn acclaim for their small-scale urban interventions, the kind pioneered in cities like Amsterdam or Medellín that then proliferate around the world. This crowd questions the value of Peña Nieto’s megaproyecto, or really any megaproyecto, in a country that faces such deep social, economic, and environmental challenges. The new airport, in their eyes, is a shiny object that will distract from (or exacerbate) more pressing concerns. Why, they wonder, is the government doubling down to win a game — achieving global respect through starchitecture — that no one even plays any more?

Enrique Peña Nieto, Norman Foster, and Fernando Romero, with a model of the new Mexico City international airport.
The architect Norman Foster (with mic), flanked by President Enrique Peña Nieto and architect Fernando Romero, with a model of the new Mexico City international airport. [Eruviel Ávila]

Back to the Future

Enrique Peña Nieto ran for president in 2012 on a platform that promised both a clean break from the past and a restoration of lost glory. The fresh-faced 46-year-old claimed that his Institutional Revolutionary Party had been chastened by 12 years in the political wilderness. The cronyism and corruption that was synonymous with PRI rule in the 20th century — when Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed Mexico “the perfect dictatorship”— would never return. Peña Nieto vowed to bust the monopolies that forced Mexicans to pay high prices for everything from text messages to tortillas, and he pledged to restore the public grandeur that defined the ruling bargain in the PRI’s heyday, when it came with tangible benefits like high-quality transit and social housing.

Mexico has a long history of megaproyectos with egalitarian aims. The Metro transformed life in the capital and opened up the metropolis to the poor.

At the heart of this promise were new megaproyectos that would put a 21st-century face on a globalizing Mexico. The candidate pledged to build highspeed rail lines, including one linking the capital with the industrial city of Querétaro, 200 kilometers north, where foreign-owned factories were generating mass employment in the formal economy. The ultimate symbol of progress, he declared, would be a new international airport welcoming the world to Mexico City.

Delivered by a telegenic leader, that unique blend of forward-looking optimism and sepia-toned nostalgia was widely appealing. And the sales pitch could be backed up with concrete examples. Mexico has a long history of megaproyectos, like Unidad Independencia, with egalitarian aims. Greatest of all was the Mexico City Metro, which transformed life in the capital after it opened for the 1968 Summer Olympics. Designed for use by the city’s masses, each Metro line was given a color and each station a pictograph, so that even citizens who could not read could ride. Fares were subsidized down to mere pocket change, to make it affordable to all. For the poor, the Metro dramatically reduced commuting times, and, even more crucially, it opened up the metropolis. Working families from outlying districts could zip in to the Alameda Central on Sunday afternoons to enjoy the shade trees and cotton candy.

Mexico City Metro station
The Mexico City Metro opened to the public in 1969, with pictographic signage. [LW Yang]

Biblioteca Central, UNAM, Mexico City
The Central Library on the main campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as University City, completed in 1954. [Carlos Álvarez]

More recent megaproyectos have been a string of national embarrassments. The last president, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party, failed to finish a massive water drainage tunnel before he left office. Even if he had delivered it on time, it wasn’t a project that could captivate the national imagination. There have been outright boondoggles, as well. In the 1990s, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari commissioned an expressway, the “Freeway of the Sun,” to link Mexico City and Acapulco. Built by a private company, it opened with a toll of US$70 per car, at a time when the minimum wage was $3 a day. Embarrassed by images of a pristine, empty freeway, the government ponied up a $2 billion bailout to reduce tolls. Then, in 2013, rainstorms washed away large segments of the roadbed, exposing the shoddy construction.

More recent projects have caused national embarrassment — and, worse, state violence.

Against this backdrop of flops and failures, building a new airport has been seen for years as the megaproyecto that got away. The idea was first proposed in 2000 by President Vicente Fox, the center-right leader who ended the PRI’s seven-decade lock on power. Fox zeroed in on the dried-up lakebed of the Texcoco nature preserve as the ideal location, but his plan encroached on settlements at its edges. One of those towns, San Salvador Atenco, was slated to be wiped clean off the map and its 10,000 residents displaced. Despite local opposition, Fox’s government plowed ahead, expropriating farmland through eminent domain, with lowball payments of less than US$3,000 an acre. 2 After much conflict, including a battle between police and angry farmers who barricaded themselves in the town center, in 2002, the project was cancelled. In its place, a slapdash second terminal was thrown together at the existing airport.

But even after the government backed off, mistrust smoldered between local communities and the authorities. In 2006, police evicted flower growers from their vending stalls in a move seen as retribution for their anti-airport activism. The growers teamed up with veterans of the 2002 protests to blockade the main highway through Atenco. As tensions rose, more than 3,000 federal and state police were called in to crack down on this act of civil disobedience. When the police shot a 14-year-old boy and clubbed a university student to death, protesters retaliated by taking officers hostage. The police went on a rampage. They arrested more than 200 demonstrators, including dozens of women who were sexually assaulted and tortured in custody.

Police clash with protestors in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico
Police clash with protesters in San Salvador Atenco in 2006. [AP Photo/Marco Ugarte]

No one was ever punished for the atrocities. Not the policemen who killed and raped. And not the local governor who sent them in — a rising star in the PRI named Enrique Peña Nieto.

Campaigning for president six years later, Peña Nieto was grilled about the riot by university students at the traditionally apolitical Universidad Iberoamericana. “It was a decision that I made personally to reestablish order and peace,” he said, “and I made it with the legitimate use of force that corresponds to the state.” 3 The baldly authoritarian declaration prompted boos in the hall.

Few could forgive the candidate his perfect hair. And who was he to tout reform, when he owed his own career to nepotism?

Some of Peña Nieto’s critics saw this as a slip of the mask. The suave little Napoleon momentarily showing his well-hidden fangs. Others felt that was giving him too much credit. They said the pretty-boy presidential candidate looked like the leading man who’d play the Mexican president opposite his actress wife in one of her telenovelas, because that’s precisely what he was: an empty suit masking the usual PRI powerbrokers. Few among the intelligentsia of Mexico City could forgive the candidate his inability to name his three favorite books when asked on the campaign trail. Even fewer could forgive his perfect hair. And who was Peña Nieto to tout reform, when he owed his own career to nepotism? He had risen to prominence as governor of the State of Mexico, the same post previously held by his uncle and his godfather.

Nevertheless, he won the election, staving off a left-wing populist challenger, and proceeded to resurrect Fox’s abandoned airport project. He made it grander, quadrupled its budget, and promised to build it ethically this time, without violence or corruption. The site plan was modified to spare San Salvador Atenco and the megaproyecto framed in broadly populist terms. “The construction of the new airport will be transparent, open to the public, and with full respect for the law and the rights of the inhabitants of the area,” Peña Nieto vowed. It will bring “tangible benefit [to] the whole country [and demonstrate] exceptional … sustainability.” 4 Most crucially, it would actually get built. This was not just a construction project; it was a promise that the PRI could deliver where the PAN had failed.

Protestor with machete in Atenco
Shortly after the 2012 election, a man in San Salvador Atenco holds a machete inscribed with a demand that Peña Nieto be sent to jail. [Sari Dennise]

Using the airport as a symbol of his mission to end crony capitalism, Peña Nieto announced an open architectural competition. In monopoly-friendly Mexico, open competitions for large, complex infrastructure projects are extremely rare. (In fact, they are not common even in the 122 countries that have less public sector corruption.) 5 But the president wanted to model a new way of doing business, modern and transparent. And there was no shortage of global starchitects ready to do business in Mexico. A shortlist of eight designs, released in 2014, included proposals by Zaha Hadid, Helmut Jahn, Richard Rogers, and Norman Foster, each working with local partners.

Using the airport as a symbol of his mission to end crony capitalism, Peña Nieto announced an open architectural competition.

One of the most novel approaches came from local designer Alberto Kalach, working with a team that included Fentress Architects, an American firm best known for the Denver International Airport. Seeing the challenge as more environmental than architectural, they proposed building a small-footprint airport and restoring the lake in the rest of the nature preserve. Kalach told me he wanted to use the project to mount an “ecological rescue of the lake.”

The other seven finalists had more conventionally futuristic visions. The winning team, announced later that year, was a glass-and-steel greenhouse by the octogenarian English architect Norman Foster and his youthful Mexican collaborator, Fernando Romero. Constructed of a gridded lightweight shell, the terminal looked like one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes stretched into the shape of a huge desert spider. Fans said it recaptured the mid-century magic of the megaproyecto. Critics said it was trapped by it.

Renderings for the new Mexico City international airport, designed by Foster + Partners and FR-EE.

Terra Infirma

The nature preserve containing the last remnants of Lake Texcoco is located just 20 kilometers from the center of Mexico City. In its emptiness and solitude, it feels like a world apart, yet the industrial sprawl of the capital is never far from view. The windswept landscape of red earth and scrub is bisected by two interstate highways and scarred by a decommissioned salt harvesting operation. At the edges, unregistered farm plots encroach on the spotty marshes.

It’s easy to understand the allure of taking this site that birthed Aztec civilization and turning it into something once again envied by the world. But building anything on it is a tremendous technical challenge.

Historically, a shallow lake pervaded the entire metropolis. When Spanish conquistadors first crested the Sierra Madre five centuries ago, they beheld a blue expanse studded with the urbanized islands of Tenochtitlan, a city then larger than Madrid. With horses stolen from the Arabs and gunpowder cribbed from the Chinese, Hernán Cortés and his men conquered the great city, imposed the Inquisition, and reduced a world-pacing metropolis to a backwater. Since the fall of Tenochtitlan, the lake has been slowly consumed and steadily reclaimed with landfill. What some call a nature preserve others might call a wasteland.

Given the national narrative of a Great Fall, it’s easy to understand the political and psychological allure of taking this site that birthed Aztec civilization and turning it into something once again envied by the world. But building anything on it is a tremendous technical challenge. Situated above an overdrawn aquifer, the entire metro region is famously sinking. Every day of the week, tour guides in the grand baroque Metropolitan Cathedral wow visitors by placing Coke bottles on the off-kilter floor and watching them roll away. The liquefied soils of the ancient lakebed are the least stable of all.

The Valley of Mexico
The Basin of Mexico in the 16th century (left) and today (right). [Modified from public domain maps by Yavidaxiu]

The dry bed and remnant lagoons of Lake Texcoco
The remnant lagoons and salt marshes of Lake Texcoco. [Haakon S. Krohn]

Civil engineer Jorge Albarrán gave me a tour of the works when construction was just getting underway. Since it was a weekend, the site was quiet, but Albarrán still traveled with an entourage of hard-hatted assistants. We drove in an SUV caravan down red-gravel roadbeds that had been recently shored up to support construction vehicles. On foot, I found the land too wet and too dry at the same time. In one spot, mud swallowed up my left shoe, while the cracked and parched earth crumbled under my right.

I am not a superstitious person, but walking on this unforgiving earth, I couldn’t shake the sense that this place was cursed. Albarrán’s team did little to dissuade me. One staffer pulled out his smartphone and showed me a photo of a cherry-picker that had strayed off the route and sunk up to its chassis. To guard against further mishaps, the workers had erected a small makeshift shrine to Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, under a tarp at the edge of a parking lot.

Albarrán, by contrast, put his faith in science. Building on this terrain was just a matter of trial and error, he insisted. His team had cleared the scrub from one section of future runway and set up a cluster of five square platforms with sample tarmac large enough to hold a private jet. Each square was reinforced with different materials and equipped with sensors to measure the rate of sinking. The goal was not to prevent subsidence — that would be impossible — but to ensure that the airport’s runways and buildings would settle consistently across the whole site.

Lake Texcoco, Mexico City, dry lakebed
Footprints on the lakebed during the author’s visit. [Daniel Brook]

I didn’t need to know how to read a high-tech sensor to see the challenge. Looking across one platform, I was hit by the same seasickness I had felt a few days earlier staring at the central altar askew in the Metropolitan Cathedral. On another platform, I saw cracks in the tarmac, and this was only six months into the experiment. It was hard to imagine a Boeing Dreamliner landing here.

The only reason the government could find enough vacant land to build a major international airport is because it’s a terrible place to build an airport.

Even the experts couldn’t talk me down from my queasiness. Dan Brodkin, a consulting engineer based at Arup’s Manhattan office, described the problem in layman’s terms. Think of the site as a sponge, he offered. The goal is to place the tonnage of the terminal and tarmac evenly on top to ensure uniform sinking. I tried to envision an airplane touching down on the world’s largest sponge. Brodkin had an even more discomfiting analogy for the earthquake that will hit someday. The lakebed sediments, he said, will shake like a bowl of water. “It’s among the worst [sites] in Mexico. That’s why nothing’s built there!” Brodkin told me. But one person’s curse is another’s good fortune. The only reason the government could find enough vacant land to build a major international airport is because it’s a terrible place to build an airport.

Given the engineering challenges, some say the project should be scrapped entirely. The current airport is not an intercontinental hub; there are just a handful of flights each day bound for destinations beyond the Americas. So why does Mexico City need an airport that will be potentially the largest on earth? And if the passenger projections were ambitious in 2012, are they not delusional today, in a world of rising walls and looming trade wars?

One of the proposals on the short list, by Alberto Kalach with Teodoro González de León, Oscar Rodríguez Castañeda, and Fentress Architects grew out of earlier plans to revive the hydrology of the Basin of Mexico. [Taller de Arquitectura X]

José Luis Luege Tamargo, a politician and engineer who once ran the national water authority, has suggested building a new airport in Tizayuca, farther north of the capital, and restoring the lake in the nature preserve. Former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the progressive leader who lost to Peña Nieto in the 2012 presidential election (and who plans to run again next year), has proposed a three-airport scenario. He had civil engineers draw up a plan to convert a decommissioned air force base north of the city into a commercial airport, which would supplement the current Mexico City airport and the growing airport in nearby Toluca. But Peña Nieto is not interested in alternatives. These small-is-beautiful visions lack the headline-grabbing drama of the megaproyecto.

Alberto Kalach proposed to mend a tear in capital’s ecological fabric. But the government viewed its mandate too narrowly: ‘airport is airport.’

Perhaps the diminished scale was why the jurors in the architectural competition passed over Alberto Kalach’s proposal to restore the lake, mending a tear in the capital’s ecological fabric. Kalach, however, suspects it was more because the federal transportation ministry viewed its mandate too narrowly. For the political leadership, “airport is airport,” he told me. “They don’t have a wider vision” that would encompass environmental and social concerns. Ultimately, there is no way to know, since the criteria for judgment in this vaunted open international competition have never been revealed.

Local designers I spoke with offered a simpler explanation: Kalach didn’t have the political connections needed to win. Few were surprised when the airport commission was awarded to Foster and Romero, whose respectable design came with a seat at Carlos Slim’s family dinner table. And just two months after the announcement, Peña Nieto’s reputation as a reform president took a major hit when it was discovered that a Mexican firm in the Chinese-led consortium that won the “open” bid to construct the Querétaro highspeed rail had built a US$7 million mansion where Mexico’s first family was living in lieu of the presidential residence. Soon after the exposé, the rail project was unceremoniously scrapped. To save face, the increasingly unpopular Peña Nieto clung even more firmly to his other major infrastructure project, the airport, which he trusted would define his legacy.

Carlos Slim and Enrique Peña Nieto
Carlos Slim and Enrique Peña Nieto. [Agencia EL UNIVERSAL/Ramón Romero/RCC via AP images]

In the Clouds

Six months after he won the airport commission, I met Fernando Romero at his studio, in an undisclosed secure location high above Mexico City. As a condition of my visit, I agreed not to publish the address, which seemed eminently reasonable, considering that Carlos Slim had paid a US$30 million ransom when a relative was kidnapped in 1994. I cleared security and was sent in a buttonless elevator to a high floor, where I entered the firm’s bright studio. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the metropolis fanned out below, as if seen from a cockpit — a felicitous view for the globetrotting architect of a futuristic airport. As the head of a binational design practice, with offices in Mexico City and Manhattan, Romero is among the capital’s most frequent fliers. And the luckiest event of his charmed life took place on an airplane.

Lost in the many lines of Carlos Slim’s biography is the fact that he is the country’s most active real estate developer.

Born in 1971 to an upper-middle-class family of real estate developers whose most important projects were decades behind them, Romero graduated from the Universidad Iberoamericana and promptly left for greater opportunities abroad. In Europe, he worked for Jean Nouvel in Paris and Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. On an Air France flight home during those expatriate years — a rare transatlantic nonstop to Mexico City — he bumped into a childhood acquaintance, Soumaya Slim, who was returning from her internship at the Rodin Museum in Paris (a logical fit, since her father, the multibillionaire Carlos Slim, owned a vast collection of the sculptor’s work). The two began dating and were soon engaged.

In 2000, Romero repatriated to Mexico City, where he launched his firm, Fernando Romero EnterprisE (FR-EE), and wed Soumaya Slim in a candle-lit ceremony at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Koolhaas was at his side, the groom’s most honored witness. In joining the Slim family, Romero married into more money than just about anyone in the history of marrying money. Don Carlos, as his father-in-law is known, is not only the richest man in Mexico but, on certain days when Microsoft stock is down, the richest man in the entire world. And lost in the many lines of Slim’s corporate biography — telecom baron, banking titan, top shareholder of the New York Times Company — is the fact that he has developed more square footage of real estate than anyone else in Mexico. 6 Before turning 30, Romero was set up as court architect to the country’s most active real estate developer.

Museo Soumaya, designed by Fernando Romero, in the Nuevo Polanco district of Mexico City
Museo Soumaya, designed by Fernando Romero for his client (and father-in-law) Carlos Slim, in the Nuevo Polanco district of Mexico City. [Lars Plougmann]

In the elite ateliers of Europe, Romero had glimpsed the future of architecture. There, computer-assisted “blobitecture” and sensuous structures, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, were all the rage. He returned home with dreams of dragging his architecturally nostalgic homeland into the 21st century. But most local clients were, as Romero put it, “bad developers I didn’t want to work with [who] were still stuck in Modernism.” On this score, his father-in-law was scarcely better.

Slim vetoed the marble skin in favor of aluminum, a perfectly sensible business decision for a man who owned an aluminum mine but no marble quarries.

Slim is stylistically conservative and, despite his unfathomable riches, tight with money. In the last decade and a half, Romero has designed dozens of projects for Slim that exhibit a workmanlike corporate Modernism. Even his greatest commission — the Mexico City museum that houses Don Carlos’s private art collection — was marred by budget compromises. Romero dreamed up a white corset-shaped structure, clad with an exterior of tessellating marble hexagons that would hold its own weight, accommodating an open interior. In Romero’s vision, a continuous ramp would wrap around the atrium, as at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York, extending all the way to the top. But then Don Carlos, who says the project had “two architects,” 7 nixed Romero’s expensive and technically challenging plan. He vetoed the marble skin in favor of aluminum, a perfectly sensible business decision for a man who owned an aluminum mine but no marble quarries. Today, the ramp extends just a single story, and the encyclopedic Rodin collection on the top floor is displayed beneath a ceiling of exposed metal braces that looks like it was photoshopped in from a big-box store.

In 2010, Romero made an ambitious bid to break out of the family orbit. He opened the FR-EE office in New York, hoping to win international projects untainted by six degrees of Carlos Slim. But, as of yet, the office has little to show for itself beyond a proposed renovation of Slim’s Manhattan mansion, an eight-story Beaux Arts pile near the Guggenheim. The firm has yet to break ground on a single U.S. project. One former employee told me a bitter joke: “Every week, we got ‘the opportunity of a lifetime.’”

But now, with the airport project, Romero has a real chance to work on his own terms. He has a strong partner in Norman Foster, and Peña Nieto has signaled that he will spare no expense, demonstrating a passion for building that Don Carlos never showed.

Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero. [via Wikimedia Commons]

When I met him, Romero avoided all talk of his father-in-law and let his own energy fill the room. He powers his hummingbird metabolism on sushi and artisanal amaranth bars, a local snack made from a traditional Aztec grain, and I struggled to keep pace as he leaped up his office’s internal staircase two steps at a time, trailed by a burly bodyguard. With a ringmaster’s flair, Romero swept open a black sheet hanging from the ceiling to reveal a workshop. As his employees kept focus with the aid of their earbuds, he showed me a scale model of the airport and ticked off the specs. His pure blue eyes widened and his speech slowed: “The capacity will be Fifty. Million. Passengers.”

Romero powers his hummingbird metabolism on sushi and artisanal amaranth bars, and he took the stairs two at a time.

It’s a stylish project that follows the latest trends in airport architecture. There will be a single giant terminal, following Foster’s innovation pioneered at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong. The requisite claims of environmental sustainability and vehement nods to local context are all in place. Preposterously, for a project built in a nature preserve, the architects hope to attain LEED Platinum certification. 8

The marketing materials are chock full of nationalist symbolism. The airport road and soaring terminal structure are meant to resemble the snake and eagle on the Mexican flag. The traffic circle will be planted with the most stereotypical of Mexican flora — cacti — even though the desert succulents are foreign to the high-altitude lakebed ecosystem. The renderings show a terminal stuffed with replica Olmec heads, a throwback to the archaeological nationalism of the giant stone Quetzalcoatls at Unidad Independencia. A promotional video even suggests that the terminal is X-shaped because Mexico is spelled with an “X.” Pushing the boundaries of free association, Romero told me the shape was actually inspired by the urban plans of pre-Columbian cities and the double-helix of DNA. The curved glass skin will be transparent, just like Peña Nieto’s administration. Subtle.

Rendering for the new Mexico City international airport, designed by Foster + Partners and FR-EE.

Then the architect’s voice dropped into a myth-making register. Although it was not at all his intent, he assured me, the volume of the terminal’s central atrium will perfectly match the volume of the Pyramid of the Sun at the nearby pre-Columbian site, Teotihuacan. Likewise, the walk from the terminal entrance to the farthest gate will match the distance from the site’s Pyramid of the Sun to its Pyramid of the Moon. “Some say it is a coincidence,” Romero offered, raising an eyebrow. “Others say it is a synchronicity.”

Then the architect’s voice dropped into a myth-making register. ‘Some say it is a coincidence. Others say it is a synchronicity.’

It’s as if the airport rising above the ancient Aztec lake could reverse the nation’s fall narrative and restore Mexico City’s rightful place in the world. The government sees the project in similar if less romantic terms, in the tradition of cities in the developing world that build cutting-edge airports to declare themselves players in the global economy. It’s a Hail Mary. Reeling from personal scandal, a currency collapse, and now a barrage of bald-faced insults from his northern neighbor, Peña Nieto is betting his political life that this airport can make Mexico great again.

The president will be out of office when the airport opens in 2020, but he and his party desperately need a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Now the scramble to break ground threatens to overwhelm his good governance agenda. Last month, a consortium led by none other than Carlos Slim won the US$4 billion contract to construct the new airport terminal. (Previously, his company had won a smaller contract to build one of the runways.) Slim’s empire cuts across so many sectors of the Mexican economy, it’s unsurprising that he would have a piece of the action. But for all the sound and fury of Enrique Peña Nieto’s vaunted “open competition,” it has sent billions in contracts to the same old players. Some say that’s a coincidence; other see a synchronicity.

Workers install a fence for the new Mexico City international airport
Workers install a fence for the new airport on the dry lakebed, in February 2017. [AP Photo/Marco Ugarte]

Bus Rapid Transit opened in Mexico City in 2005. [Steve Boland]

The Limits of Micro-Urbanism

Who needs megaproyectos anyway? In Mexico City, a younger generation of designers and urbanists is challenging the establishment’s last-century mindset. Gabriella Gomez-Mont directs the Laboratorio para la Ciudad (City Lab), a municipal department set up by Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera to run experiments in urban innovation that can be scaled citywide. Mexico City under Mancera thinks of itself as a progressive island in a conservative country. Gomez-Mont proudly notes that the capital legalized gay marriage before New York City, and its liberal laws on abortion and euthanasia outpace the rest of the country. That progressive impulse overflows into the sphere of urbanism.

Even in a world of stark inequality, Mexico City stands out for its mix of astonishing wealth and extreme poverty. The menu offered fruit salad for the price of the national daily minimum wage.

At Gomez-Mont’s suggestion, we had lunch at a Le Pain Quotidien in the well-heeled hipster neighborhood of Condesa. Outside the restaurant, cyclists plied the tree-lined streets, riding the bright red bicycles of Ecobici, the citywide bikeshare program founded in 2010, ahead of peers in the United States. As Gomez-Mont explained, Mexico City is “on par in many ways with any city in the world but with social challenges that other cities don’t have.”

Even in a world of stark inequality, Mexico City stands out for its mix of astonishing wealth and extreme poverty. As I perused a menu that offered a bowl of fruit salad for the price of the national daily minimum wage, Gomez-Mont reminded me of the surreal fact that Mexico City hosts some of the world’s richest people. (In addition to Slim and his relatives, the latest Forbes list identifies four residents worth at least US$4 billion.) Laboratorio-backed programs like Ecobici serve people at all socioeconomic levels. Tourists can buy a seven-day, all-you-can-ride pass for 300 pesos ($15), while locals buy an annual pass for 400 pesos ($20). No doubt some prosperous Condesa residents are getting a bargain, but if they can afford a car and opt not to drive, that has social and ecological benefits for everyone. For the poor, mobility at less than $2 per month is a boon.

A bicycle-themed living wall in Mexico City
A bicycle-themed green wall at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana in Mexico City. [Mark Hogan]

When I asked Gomez-Mont about the new airport, her first reaction was to crack a joke an American would appreciate: “Can I take the Fifth?” As a political appointee, she preferred to discuss LabCDMX’s programs, rather than criticize federal initiatives. Many young architects I spoke with — even some working on the airport project itself — rolled their eyes knowingly, but they declined to comment on the record. Open criticism came from people further from the center of the power structure, like Marcos Betanzos, a young architect and photographer whose center of gravity is in the art world. “Can the city’s problems be solved,” he asked rhetorically in the design magazine Código, “with another pharaonic building?” But even for insiders like Gomez-Mont, there is no avoiding the topic of the largest infrastructure project in Latin America.

Many progressive urbanists have ceded that debate by abandoning the very idea of the megaproyecto.

“Look, we [do] need an airport with more capacity,” she said, but “we need to think about the environmental impact and ground mobility.” The existing airport, whatever its shortcomings, has transit connections to the urban center that are among the best in the world. From a stop just outside the terminal, the Metro whisks passengers to all of the city’s central neighborhoods for 5 pesos (one U.S. quarter). Plans to link the new airport to rail transit are still undetermined, even as the cement begins to pour. If the airport opens without connections to transit, who is really being served?

Infrastructure projects, like taxes, can be seen as progressive or regressive, depending on how they benefit people across the socioeconomic spectrum. The 1960s Metro, for example, dramatically reshaped the landscape of opportunity for poorer residents in Mexico City. The new airport will be the opposite. The blunt reality is that most Mexicans have never taken an airplane and never will. Critics say Peña Nieto is dreaming too big, but perhaps the real risk for the people of Mexico City is that the government is thinking too small.

Jugar es urbano, a LabCDMX program that invited young people to think about the design of urban play spaces. [Laboratorio para la Ciudad]

A Mexico City celebration of Parqueando, known worldwide as PARK(ing) Day, an urban intervention that began in San Francisco in 2005 when designers created a temporary “park” in a street parking space. [Laboratorio para la Ciudad]

Even as I admired the new generation of planners, I wondered whether the bien-pensant backlash to the concept of the megaproyecto wasn’t somewhat misguided. Sure, micro-planning interventions can improve mobility. Some of the biggest Ecobici pods are located at the ends of Metro lines, where large parking lots are filled with collective vans and buses that carry passengers to the far reaches of the metropolis. LabCDMX famously created the first map for these informal transit services, using GPS data from van-riders’ smartphones. But why not extend Metro lines to the informal settlements that ring the capital? Public investment in recent years has been limited to projects like Bus Rapid Transit on major avenues, which hasn’t altered the reality that many riders have four-hour daily commutes that cost a third of their salaries. 9 Why was Mexico City in the 1960s able to build a full-scale Metro while today it scrimps on BRTs, bikesharing, and crowdsourced maps?

If the government can afford an airport for the elites, surely it can afford major investments in the mobility of ordinary citizens. But many progressive urbanists have ceded that debate by abandoning the very idea of the megaproyecto. Perhaps the city’s young innovators will find a way to scale up their bespoke solutions and reinvent the megaproyecto on their own terms. But they will need to think bigger. Inequality in Mexico City is too mega to be addressed solely by importing trendy micro-solutions and declaring the city “globalized.”

Riot police assemble behind a bikeshare station, in 2013, preparing to confront a march organized by teachers unions opposed to Peña Nieto’s educational reforms. [Eneas De Troya]

In the Public Square

Before leaving Mexico, I visited San Salvador Atenco, the village bordering the airport site where protesters made their stand a decade ago. Although it is now an integral part of the metropolis, there is still no easy way to get to Atenco from the city center. Taxis in the capital are notoriously unsafe, so there are two options: ride to the end of a Metro line and pack into an informal van, or head to a downtown terminal and catch an intercity bus. I opted for the bus, which dropped me unceremoniously on the side of a dusty highway. From there I walked ten minutes to a lilac- and palm-bedecked town square in front of a simple peasant church filled with bloody effigies of a suffering Christ.

On the plaza, food vendors hawked their handmade snacks. Business was slow in the lull between breakfast and lunch. Behind a stand selling fresh-squeezed juice, flies buzzed around a pile of pressed orange peels. Dogs slinked around the taco stand next door, waiting for carnitas scraps to fall from the sky. Despite the sluggish hour, a spiky-haired tamale vendor, Omar Contreras, called out his wares with enthusiasm.

The airport plans had him worried, Contreras told me. He didn’t trust the government’s pledge to respect the town borders. Besides, he said, even if the town stays, the construction will raise property values — and once there’s real money in a neighborhood, the drug cartels start shaking down merchants for protection payments. “There are mafias involved,” he told me. “It’s already happening.”

San Salvador Atenco. [Flickr/Commons]

I walked the few blocks from the town square to the edge of the nature preserve, where I found Gonzalo Hernandez Sanchez tilling the soil. He wore knee-high rubber boots as defense against the mud and a baseball cap and hoodie against the sun. As I walked out to meet him, I could feel the soft earth give way beneath my feet. By trade, Hernandez Sanchez teaches horses to dance — rich Mexicans like to watch them at parties, he explained — but today he was helping a friend weed tomato fields since business was slow.

Will ordinary Mexicans feel the airport’s presence in their lives? If not, it’s a microproyecto, whatever the president wants to call it.

He had heard the speeches and seen the slick videos that claim the airport will strengthen national pride, but to him it was nothing but the president’s pet project, and just another scheme for the rich to get richer. “What’s he done? The only thing he’s done is his house!” he muttered wryly, referencing the mansion scandal. “On TV they’re saying that there’ll be jobs but what jobs could we possibly have?”

Hernandez Sanchez answered his own question. “We’ll be maintenance,” he said, using the plural to encompass his entire caste — the vast majority of Mexicans without wealth, education, or connections. “We work all day just to eat.” Hernandez Sanchez has trained horses all over Mexico, but he has never been on an airplane.

San Salvador Atenco resident Eric Peralta drives a cart on his farm adjacent to the the new airport site, in February 2017. [AP Photo/Marco Ugarte]

For all the inside dealing, opacity, and corruption that darkened the decades of dictatorship, many ordinary Mexicans are nostalgic for an era when infrastructure projects had some connection to the common good. People like Hernandez Sanchez got apartments at Unidad Independencia. They got affordable, efficient transportation on the Metro. Now they’re fed the thin soup of nationalism, and perhaps a poverty-wage job sweeping up the dust beneath the replica Olmec heads in the new airport terminal.

The Mexican establishment, headed by President Peña Nieto and oligarchs like Carlos Slim, has convinced itself that the nation has never attempted a proyecto more mega than this. Despite new threats from the United States, they believe that glory years lie ahead. But even if the most audacious projections come true, will ordinary Mexicans feel the airport’s presence in their lives? If not, it’s a microproyecto, whatever the president wants to call it. Its impact will be smaller, in real terms, than the urban interventions of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad.

Leaving Mexico, I couldn’t help but feel that the mysticism of Albarrán’s construction workers had seeped into my thinking. Can a city outrun its destiny when the site itself is cursed? When the more you build on it, the more it sinks?

It’s a riddle. And if there’s an answer, I haven’t heard it yet.

About the Series: History of the Present

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series, “History of the Present: Cities in Transition,” supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and by Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown. Travel to Mexico City was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Notes
  1. John F. Kennedy, Remarks at the Unidad Independencia Housing Project (audio), Mexico City, June 30, 1962.
  2. Ginger Thompson, “Mexico Drops Planned Airport after Protests from Peasants,” The New York Times, August 3, 2002.
  3. Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit (New York: Grove Press, 2014), 53-54. See also Azam Ahmed, “Police Sex Abuse Case Is Bad News for Mexico’s Leader,” The New York Times, September 22, 2016.
  4. Enrique Peña Nieto, qtd. in Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de Mexico: Ocho Propuestas Architectonicas (Mexico City: Arquine, 2014), 10.
  5. Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.
  6. Real Estate Market and Lifestyle, No. 100 (2015), 56.
  7. Christopher Turner, “Profile: Fernando Romero,” Icon, May 15, 2014.
  8. Under LEED’s point system, even a structure built on an environmentally precarious site can be deemed sustainable by running up high scores in other areas. In Mexico City’s low-latitude, high-altitude climate of eternal spring, the airport buildings will need little artificial heating or cooling, and the project’s extensive footprint will provide a large catchment area for harvesting rainwater. For context, see Daniel Brook, “It’s Way Too Easy Being Green,” Slate, December 26, 2007.
  9. Feike de Jong and Gustavo Graf, “Mexico City’s Endless Commute,” CityLab, February 9, 2017.
Cite
Daniel Brook, “History of the Present: Mexico City,” Places Journal, February 2017. Accessed 23 Feb 2017. https://doi.org/10.22269/170214

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