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From the jaws of disaster: social housing solutions in Mexico

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The devastation wrought by powerful earthquakes in Mexico in 1985 and 2017 spurred the architectural community to revisit social housing, but sometimes proposals were wrought for no more than media attention

Disasters shake us out of apathy. Sometimes they have a grim sense of exactitude. On 19 September 1985, an earthquake destroyed numerous buildings in Mexico City; 32 years later, in 2017, on the same date, an earthquake again ravaged Mexico City and Central Mexico. Twelve days before, a quake had devastated the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. In two weeks, every notion of routine had changed in the country.

These tragedies aroused great social response. Engineers, architects and contractors collaborated in a civic fervour. Time passed and the initial excitement waned, donations ran low, and routine returned. Nevertheless, Mexican architects were conscious of what had happened, and countless reconstruction initiatives appeared, most well intentioned but often badly organised. There emerged a frenzy among practices to have in their portfolio social or reconstruction projects; these were sometimes sincere acts or to demonstrate respect, but sometimes they were blunt media tools in which social issues were used for publicity. There’s something violently jarring in seeing yet another picture of a patronising smiling architect posing with Doña Panchita in front of her striking new house in the middle of a semi-ruined village. Everybody knows the apparent gesture of concern is only temporary, hiding the perplexity of the architect in emergencies. 

Apan housing prototypes architectural review 001

Apan housing prototypes architectural review 001

Installed in the city of Apan in Hidalgo, 32 housing prototypes were built on a small plot as part of CIDS’ Del Territorio al Habitante (From the Territory to the Dweller) programme from 2017

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings 1

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings 1

This has been a recurring theme in social discourse worldwide since the 2008 economic crisis. But we should be careful that this social consciousness does not give way to frivolity. It is important that the focus remains, not only on rescue remedies, but also on solid institutional efforts that may be less photogenic but more meaningful in the long term. In relation to emergency situations, this consciousness has provoked a return to that fundamental question of 20th-century thinking: how to produce social housing in times of uncontrolled population growth and the different solutions to deal with it.

If there was something well conceived in post-revolutionary Mexico, it was the creation of solid, large-scale institutions. The monolithic priísta regime had its virtues. In the mid 20th century, the idea of a modern country was invented, a country needing social security institutes, such as the IMSS or ISSSTE (that not only provided medical services to the population but also housing, sport facilities, theatres and resorts) or the Infonavit, an organisation responsible for most housing loans in Mexico and sometimes for housing construction. These institutes work relatively efficiently to this day. 

Unidad independencia post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 001

Unidad independencia post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 001

Unidad independencia post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 006

Unidad independencia post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 006

A monument to Miguel Hidalgo at Unidad Independencia. Image courtesy of Paco Aldana

Modern housing in Mexico, often linked with these institutional efforts, was exemplary in its conception and the efficient way it was carried out. The workers’ housing prototypes designed by Juan O’Gorman or Juan Legarreta in the 1930s, the communal-living buildings by Mario Pani from the ’40s through to the ’60s, the Unidad Independencia housing complex designed by Alejandro Prieto Posadas and José María Gutiérrez Trujillo in 1960, or the planned self-build housing developments like the Ricardo Flores Magón and the CTM Atemajac Compounds that Alejandro Zohn constructed in Guadalajara in the 1970s, are examples from a long period when collective wellbeing was paramount. The government was in charge of the design, construction and maintenance of these developments, and there was a collective consciousness of a country living in burgeoning times. But eventually this spirit was lost. 

The recurrent crises of the 1980s and ’90s, along with the spread of real-estate speculation, put an end to the idea of collective wellbeing and transformed it into a collective lack of vision. The government failed to establish sensible regulations for housing and city growth, investors remained greedy and architects did not have the imagination or courage to propose radical ideas for the new circumstances. Most low-income housing developments constructed in Mexico at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have been a disaster. The standard for these developments is rows of miserable, low-rise houses disconnected from the cities, with no services, no minimum spatial conditions and inadequate climatic solutions. Shockingly, with a blind sense of normality, these solutions were accepted. Only in recent years have these policies been questioned. 

Arquitectura post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 006

Arquitectura post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 006

A March 1961 edition of Arquitectura Mexico, dedicated to the Unidad Independencia housing complex (opening image). The magazine was founded in 1931 by Mario Pani, Alejandro Prieto Posadas and Adolfo de Carlo

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Unidad independencia post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 007

Concrete sculptures, designed by Pedro F Miret, furnish the Unidad Independencia’s play areas. Photograph courtesy of Arquitectos de México

One of the repeated mistakes of social housing policies in Mexico is to ignore the fact that 67 per cent of housing there is self-built. This militates in favour of a reformulation of housing design principles based on direct work with the inhabitants, recalling the social utopias of the 1960s and ’70s, and John FC Turner’s ideas of the relevance of self-building where communities must lead housing-production initiatives. 

Many architects have worked this way for years, such as: Enrique Ortiz, an important housing adviser for social projects, among them the Palo Alto community, a co-operative that has, since 1972, resisted real-estate pressure in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Mexico City; Oscar Hagerman, who designed countless rural dwellings in distant villages; and Carlos González Lobo, whose experimental housing projects used big ‘shed houses’ with vaulted ceilings, several of which were constructed after the 1985 earthquake.

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Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 009

Archivo de Carlos González Lobo

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Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 008

Designed by Carlos González Lobo and María Eugenia Hurtado in the early 1990s, the homes built for the victims of the flooding of the Fuerte river in Sinaloa are topped with brick and cement vaults, fabricated on site by the residents. The vaults are both economical and improve the buildings’ thermal performance. Photograph from Archivo de Carlos González Lobo

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Ricardo flores magón post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 005

The Ricardo Flores Magón housing was built by the residents with the help of a self-build manual

Nowadays, many proposals draw on that same critical spirit to transform social housing by paying attention to not only houses themselves, but also the social, physical, climatic and material circumstances surrounding them. Demographic conditions have changed, and communities can be more independent, managing to work with almost no financial support from government. This is why these social housing production explorations are usually on a smaller scale, working with tiny communities that can be effectively organised and self-managed. It is how young practices such as Comunal (Jesica Amescua Carrera and Mariana Ordóñez Grajales) like to work, with open participatory processes in rural areas, where the architects are intermediaries between communities and local construction traditions, new building technologies can be used, and the media world acts as a mirror for different promotional and finance opportunities that, until recently, didn’t exist. They have been working in the community of Tepetzintán, Puebla, where they built a pair of houses using local techniques, and have also been involved in the construction of Rural Productive School, a high school built by local families and the students, the first phase of which is now complete. Another example of their work is the ongoing Project of Integral and Social Reconstruction of the Habitat in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, which was affected by the recent earthquakes; here, they plan to build for a community of 80 families, working with them in design processes and the analysis of local types.

Huge Mexican housing and credit institutions also face great challenges: it is up to them to devise and implement housing policies at a large scale and over the long term. These strategies will dictate how mass housing will be constructed in Mexico over the next 50 years. Since 2014, one of the most concerted efforts has been that of the Research Centre for Sustainable Development (CIDS), headed by Carlos Zedillo of Infonavit. It strives to recover the original spirit of the centre, generating exchanges and collaborations between architects and developers, and engaged in all housing research that, sadly, has been sidelined over the years. It focuses on contemporary social housing in Mexico, formulating proposals for future developments. The approach has come from different angles, including integrating the academic world and more than 150 architecture firms participating in different projects with different specialisms.

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Multifamiliar presidente alemn post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 004

Multifamiliar presidente alemn post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 003

Multifamiliar presidente alemn post earthquake housing mexico architectural review 003

The Multifamiliar Presidente Alemán was designed by Mario Pani in 1949. Located in Colonia del Valle in Mexico City, it was the city’s first public housing complex, with a communal swimming pool surrounded by gardens at its heart. Pani was profoundly influenced by Le Corbusier, whom he heard lecture as a student in 1930s Paris

One of CIDS’ most interesting programmes has been the intervention of public spaces in existing social housing developments, with the understanding that the design of a house is not only limited to its interior but includes all the services, infrastructure, public spaces, gardens and facilities surrounding it. These are inexpensive interventions in which a few elements can completely revamp deteriorated spaces, as with those designed by Rozana Montiel, in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, for example. Here, an old open sewage channel surrounded by houses is metamorphosed into a huge park and playground to become the centre of the compound and a place to ‘transform barriers into horizons’. Or the precise interventions of Fernanda Canales’ Reading Rooms – small modules the size of a parking space in different public squares of existing housing, which are used as libraries and can expand horizontally as well as vertically.

CIDS has also been involved in reconstruction projects following the earthquakes, such as the compelling Zócalo and Municipal Gardens renewal by Estudio MMX in Jojutla, Morelos. Originally an uninspiring concrete open space, it was transformed by interlocking brick arches to form a shaded perimeter around the piazza. Its greatest merit is to have brought order to the surrounding disorder, becoming a new public space where, previously, none existed.

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Fernanada canales post earthquake mexico 001

Fifteen prototypes of Fernanda Canales’ Reading Rooms have been deployed in public spaces in low-cost housing areas across Mexico. Photograph by Jaime Navarro

Among CIDS projects, the more complex issue has been constructing social housing compounds in which the economic and pragmatic conditions imposed by the developers could be compatible with high-quality architectural proposals. Existing horizontal low-density schemes are profitable business models with no strict regulations to limit physical and ethical shortcomings. A law was recently passed to restrict planning of new developments far from urban centres, but it’s a sobering thought that the minimum legal housing size from 1980 of 58m2 gradually reduced to 38m2 in 2011, simply through negotiations with developers and no regard for the inhabitants.

The single-family regional housing CIDS programme was all about how to design within existing regulations. One of its successful projects was Bosco Residencial, a housing development in Hermosillo, Sonora, designed by Alberto Kalach. Here, unlike participative projects, the rules are set by existing market conditions and this work demonstrates that it is possible to design more efficiently for low-rise developments without defying the economic premises. Strategies include measures to follow the existing urban grid, reduce street widths, plant trees and vegetation to provide shade and shelter from the heat of the city, design double-height houses with cross ventilation, and – the key factor – ensure that developers’ business profits are untouched by raising housing densities and areas without increasing construction costs.

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Fresnillo rozana montiel architectural review earthquake mexico 001

On a housing estate in Fresnillo in Zacatecas, this intervention by Rozana Montiel Estudio de Arquitectura in collaboration with Alin V Wallach tranforms a sewerage canal into a shaded play area. Photograph by Jaime Navarro

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Fresnillo rozana montiel architectural review earthquake mexico 002

Photograph by Sandra Péreznieto

Finally, there is the question of what to do with existing developments that no longer represent a viable way of creating social housing. JC Arquitectura, working in Cancún, Quintana Roo, has developed a strategy to transform one of these in the Donceles district; for this decaying low-cost, low-rise housing complex, the architect has proposed using an urban acupuncture approach to renewal and, thanks to lax local regulations, a redensification exercise by constructing a four-storey building on a single-family plot. Along with several architects, CIDS developed this theoretical theme in several developments across Mexico. The idea is to identify underused plots to build five or six apartments with ground-floor retail instead of a single house unit. It is an astute way of approaching the problem to increase the social value and encourage regeneration.

Earthquakes will not cease to happen. It is uncertain when, where or how lethal they will be, but we know they are inevitable in Mexico and we must react accordingly. Nonetheless, there are also more imperceptible telluric movements that destroy us little by little, with almost no symptoms. Housing decay is an example of this and can be avoided. Every overwhelming disaster is followed by heroic reconstruction; the Mexican paradox is that we live in a permanent silent disaster, one that needs ongoing low-profile reconstruction, the heroic reconstruction of daily life.

Bosco Residencial Hermosillo in Sonora by Alberto Kalach + TAX, 2016

Designed by Alberto Kalach, this project was one of the experiments in regional single-family housing carried out by Infonavit, which hoped to produce new, realistic ideas for low-rise social housing projects adhering to existing market rules and the costs set by the developers. Kalach planned a compound of 179 houses where there would usually be space for 90; these had an area of 73m2 instead of the usual 39m2,  and ideal temperature conditions for Hermosillo’s hot climate. The dwellings have high vaulted ceilings and a very narrow, deep proportion so air flows throughout the house; each has a parking space and small garden. The compound merges with the existing urban grid and is organised around a narrow main street full of trees; this gives a cosy atmosphere and a welcoming human scale, far from the dryness and gloom that usually invade this kind of urban development. 

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Kalach tax hermosillo mexico housing architectural review 002

Photograph by Jaime Navarro

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings001

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings001

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Bamboo constructions in Tepetzintán, Puebla by Comunal, 2016

What is amazing in the work realised by Mariana Ordóñez Grajales and Jesica Amescua Carrera of Comunal is the patience and rigour with which they carry out their participative processes with communities. They understand that architectural objects are not important, that architects are just advisers in these tasks, and that decision making in the rural world is very slow. Their work in Tepetzintán, Puebla, started with restoring the tradition of bamboo construction, which had been forgotten as a building technique. Using bamboo, stone and brick, they built a house they wanted to replicate as social regional housing. This was not authorised because of a regulation that bans the use of traditional materials in house structures when requesting government funds. They then built a second prototype without using bamboo as a structural element but keeping the essence of local dwellings. This time they were successful. Their work with the community has continued with the design of the Rural Productive School that is now in its second phase of construction.

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Comunal post earthquake housing architectural review 001

Comunal post earthquake housing architectural review 001

Photograph by Onnis Luque

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings 003

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings 003

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Rural housing in Ocuilan, Estado de México by Rozana Montiel, 2018

This project formed part of the reconstruction programme organised by PienZa Sostenible and ¡Échale! a tu Casa in Ocuilan, Estado de México, that emerged after the earthquake of 19 September 2017. It is a small 50m2 house that is annexed to the existing dwelling of a single mother with two children and their grandmother. The house consists of one double-height central space used as a dining room, with a bedroom and small bathroom at the rear and an open attic upstairs. The double height is created through a pitched roof constructed using the tejamanil technique, a traditional wood shingle placed on top of an Ecoblock first floor that has sufficient seismic resistance. The kitchen is placed outside as an independent circular volume. This is a project created with very simple elements that link with the climatic and cultural conditions of the place, and deals with the existing economic restrictions and urgency of building on a very tight schedule.

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Ocuilan rozana montiel mexico earthquake architectural review 002

Ocuilan rozana montiel mexico earthquake architectural review 002

Photograph by Jaime Navarro

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings 002

Post earthquake housing mexico architectural review drawings 002

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Lead image: repetitive, low-density housing complexes like the one in Querétaro are common in Mexico. Photograph by Jorge Taboada

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today