The Architects who Rebuilt a Mexican Town

After Jojutla, Mexico, was destroyed by an earthquake, a group of architects stepped in to create evocative public spaces — and a new paradigm for rural revitalisation.

Article by Michael Snyder

The coffered interior of Kalach’s Emiliano Zapata primary school, built from concrete and wood in nearby Higuerón. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

At 1:14pm. on September, 19, 2017, the ground began to shake under the town of Jojutla, in the Mexican state of Morelos, 80 kilometres south of Mexico City. The iron bells in the 18th-century Chapel of San Miguel Arcángel thundered as the clock tower cracked and slid from its perch, crashing through the portico of the parish’s administrative offices. Seconds later, the apse collapsed into a pile of rubble. At the far end of the nearly 3,700-square-metre complex, the gymnasium-like Santuario del Señor de Tula, a church built in 2001 to accommodate 1,000 parishioners, lurched a few centimetres to the west. The cavernous building pulled at the 19th-century arcade to which its northern facade had been anchored, shattering the delicate brick keystones.

As many as 3,000 structures, including historic churches and chapels, as well as schools, plazas, businesses and houses, were damaged or destroyed. Some 369 people died across central Mexico, dozens of them in the Jojutla municipal district, which has a population of 57,000. The tremor was the strongest to strike the region since the one that had decimated Mexico City 32 years earlier to the day. Though the quake’s epicentre was 70 kilometres to the east, Jojutla experienced the highest density of damage and death, leaving the community both physically and emotionally devastated.

Three years after the 2017 catastrophe, Jojutla was still struggling to recover, but the city showed signs of new life. In the Alameda, an open plaza directly across from the centuries-old church compound and one of two main squares in town, children skipped down steps paved in cement-gray marble that followed the contours of the gently sloped plot, as teenagers played basketball under a soaring rust-red trellis that resembles the inverted hull of a ship. Alongside the chapel and arches, partially restored by the National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH), an austere concrete canopy hovered over the spot where the sanctuary had stood, its facade an open 18-metre arc half-hidden behind a towering tamarind tree.

The domed interior of the Mexico City-based architect Alberto Kalach’s Santa Cruz Chapel — one of several new projects reviving Jojutla, Mexico — crafted from rust-pigmented concrete with an altar in parota wood. Photography by Rafael Gamo.
The sanctuary’s cast-concrete steeple and facade, partially shrouded by a tamarind tree. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

The Alameda park and the sanctuary — the former designed by the Mexico City-based architectural firm DAFdf, the latter by Derek Dellekamp and Jachen Schleich of the since-disbanded Dellekamp/Schleich studio, and by Camilo Restrepo of Agenda in Medellín, Colombia — are two of six public projects completed in Jojutla in the last three years as part of an ambitious reconstruction plan led by a Mexican nonprofit, Fundación Hogares. Created in 2010 with seed money from the Institute of the National Housing Fund for Workers, or Infonavit, the foundation arrived in Jojutla not even a week after the earthquake with a controversial proposition: While the government focused reconstruction efforts on housing, the foundation planned to spend $10 million on public infrastructure that might otherwise have gone ignored (over the following year, at least $15 million destined for the area’s reconstruction by state and federal institutions would simply go missing).

Mexico, of course, is no stranger to disaster and reconstruction, or to architecture conceived with an eye toward social impact. Beginning with a series of low-cost residential complexes designed by Juan Legarreta in the 1930s, architects in Mexico — among them Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman, Félix Candela and Pedro Ramírez Vázquez — filled the capital with housing projects, schools, hospitals and markets in a functionalist style, funded largely by the state. In the 1970s, the architect Enrique Ortiz Flores worked closely with the Palo Alto housing cooperative, an informal neighborhood that organised against displacement by new commercial developments, while Infonavit, founded in 1972, designed innovative government-sponsored housing. (Since the 1990s, the institution has acted more like a real estate developer, to disastrous effect.) Following the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, the government launched its Programa de Renovación Habitacional Popular, creating large-scale housing projects that, according to the Mexico City-based architectural historian Enrique X. de Anda, were among the first in the country to fully consider the distinct contexts of different neighborhoods. “The practice of architecture [in Mexico] has never been completely separate from that need,” says the Mexico City-based architect Tatiana Bilbao, 48, who has worked on multiple low-cost housing projects outside the capital. “In all of Latin America, architecture is much more connected to these social processes. That’s just the context we live in.”

The brick pavilion evokes both a medieval cloister and the region’s traditional hacienda architecture. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Since the liberalisation of Mexico’s economy in the ’90s, most of those projects, particularly those in disaster zones, have focused on the immediate need for shelter. But in Jojutla, a place that, in the years before the earthquake, had seen a steady increase in violence thanks to its proximity to the troubled state of Guerrero, rebuilding required more than just replacing what the earthquake had taken. “Instead of making so many individual investments, we decided to put the money toward an investment in the community,” says Eduardo Rivera Urbina, Fundación Hogares’s 37-year-old director of community development. Designed by some of Mexico’s most prominent contemporary architects, the Jojutla projects collectively form part of a larger master plan for the town; as they are slowly appropriated and transformed by the community, they have ceased to be investments and instead have become monuments — albeit imperfect ones — both to an unfathomable loss and to the possibility of renewal embedded in every tragedy.

Architects and governments alike have long seen reconstruction as an opportunity to create new models of modernity and progress. After a 1755 earthquake leveled central Lisbon, the Marquis de Pombal, charged with leading the rebuilding effort, chose to replace the Portuguese capital’s medieval alleys with open plazas, a sensible urban grid and a grand gateway to the Tagus Estuary: a rationalist vision for a commercial, rather than clerical, city. The Chicago fires of 1871 and ’74 yielded new building standards that made the Midwestern city one of the most flame-resistant in the country. In the aftermath of World War II, cities like London and Berlin responded to their needs for affordable housing by rebuilding in the bold, practical style we now call Brutalism. Even the planned city of Chandigarh, which reshaped the world’s perception of Modernism, emerged from the disaster of Partition, the brutal bloodletting that followed the division of South Asia into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan after the expulsion of the British in 1947. “In these situations, you have to take advantage of the opportunity to change things that, under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t have considered,” says the 53-year-old Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who’s best known for the participatory process that he and his firm, Elemental, developed while rebuilding the Chilean town of Constitución, flattened by a tsunami in 2010. It’s the duty of restoration, he says, “to give a crisis meaning.”

The open-air interior of the Santuario del Señor de Tula features brick barrel vaults and pine pews, co-designed by the erstwhile Dellekamp/Schleich studio in Mexico and a Medellín, Colombia, firm, Agenda. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

In the mid-20th century, when international interest in public architecture peaked, such efforts tended to prioritise cities and to come from the top down — visions for modernity, viewed as an exclusively metropolitan phenomenon, imposed by the state and the builders they commissioned. But by 2007, when the global population flipped to majority urban for the first time in human history, a generational shift had begun among young architects. Steeped in the 21st-century crises of climate change and the overcrowding of cities, young architects looked to the countryside and its architectural traditions as loci for innovation. In China, for instance, several of the most celebrated architectural projects in recent years have emerged in rural villages like Wencun, where the architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu made a living laboratory for the study of ancient forms and materials as one attempt to slow, and perhaps even reverse, the tidal migrations that have drained their country’s villages. Of course, such projects have their forebears: Architects like Oscar Hagerman and Carlos González Lobo have long made community participation a fundamental part of their housing projects in rural areas; the architect Balkrishna Doshi began experimenting with flexible low-cost housing in secondary cities in India as early as the 1960s; the Tokyo-based Shigeru Ban has, for decades, driven innovation in recyclable disaster-relief housing. In February of last year, the Guggenheim Museum opened a show, curated by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his colleague Samir Bantal, titled “Countryside, the Future.” Though widely criticised as scattered and half-baked, the exhibition heralded a shift among the establishment, following the lead of younger architects in reimagining modernity as something other than a purely urban phenomenon.

Governments, meanwhile, have continued to retreat from these kinds of public endeavors, allowing starchitects and their benefactors to pick up the slack — with tragically mixed results (see: the already crumbling post-Katrina houses designed in New Orleans by the likes of Frank Gehry and David Adjaye for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation). This creates structures that merely nod toward community participation — an accusation that’s been leveled at the Jojutla projects. Still, as the Mexican architectural scholar Elena Tudela points out, “No one paid attention to Jojutla before the earthquake,” so the program nonetheless represents a step forward in post-disaster architecture, looking beyond emergency response to the possibility of permanently recuperating civic life. “Taking back public space is one of the best, most proven ways of taking back power,” says Tudela, 41. “You can’t just build a project and leave it. You have to have a longer vision.”

The arched colonnade in brick that encloses the Jardines Centrales, or central gardens, created by the Mexico City firm MMX. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

From the beginning, state and federal institutions took the opposite approach in Jojutla. Rather than rebuilding, the government initially promised $7,700 to any family whose home had been evaluated as a total loss. Paid out in three segments, that sum barely covered the cost of materials, let alone labor, and often came slowly or not at all. “There was theft and dishonesty and not enough political will on the part of authorities to help,” says the Jojutla-based journalist Claudia Marino, 47.

Infonavit’s Center of Investigation for Sustainable Development (CIDS), then led by the Mexico City-based architect Carlos Zedillo, now 38, arrived in town planning to do things differently. After setting up a permanent office, the CIDS team mapped the city block by block. Over the following months, Zedillo reached out to more than 30 architecture firms, 11 of which joined him on walk-throughs of the town; within two months, he had begun commissioning projects. “I’ve seen other disasters,” says Restrepo, who co-designed the sanctuary. “But Jojutla was a battleground. You could see the stress on everything: on nature, on the community, on infrastructure.” Armed police patrolled the streets as buildings were hastily torn down. Even families whose homes remained intact slept outside for fear of aftershocks.

In those first weeks, while state and federal authorities faced accusations of detaining trucks carrying emergency supplies, the foundation began workshops on carpentry, plumbing and bricklaying to give residents the basic skills they needed to oversee the construction of their new homes. They also organised community meetings — at first sparsely attended — with neighborhood leaders and the architects designing the new projects. Plans for Jojutla’s 9,000-square-metre Jardines Centrales, the town’s main gardens, designed by the Mexico City-based firm MMX, went through nearly a dozen iterations in three months. In the early versions, the partners Jorge Arvizu, 46, and Diego Ricalde, Emmanuel Ramírez and Ignacio Del Río, all 42, set stark galleries of concrete posts and lintels along the boundary where the public square meets the street, but the residents found the design dry and unrelatable. At the next meeting, the architects and local participants decided together to swap out their rigid portico for a repeating motif of interlocked brick arches forming an X. At the front of the plaza, they linked those into a rectangular colonnade enclosing a brick-paved piazza, like an abstraction of the kioscos, or round gazebos, common in Mexico’s central squares. Entered through its narrow side, the structure resembles a medieval cloister, an arcade of slender Gothic arches; from the opposite direction, the arches open into broad half-moons, with the same voluptuous Moorish curves used in haciendas throughout the region. Those arches work, Ricalde says, because they represent architectural forms that “people relate to.”

An airy, well-ventilated classroom at the school. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

Scattered throughout Jojutla, none of the projects (save for the Alameda and the sanctuary) engage directly with one another. But the archway — a universal form suggestive of both ancient churches and modern infrastructure — serves as a repeated visual trope, connecting the buildings even from a distance. At the Emiliano Zapata primary school in nearby Higuerón, about two miles south of Jojutla, one of the country’s most renowned contemporary architects, Mexico City-based Alberto Kalach, 60, used concrete arches to flank open patios and to frame a broad spiral ramp that connects the ground floor to a rooftop where children play at recess. In his Santa Cruz Chapel, a short walk from the Jardines Centrales, Kalach combined the seemingly irreconcilable impulses of Brutalism and revivalism, casting a neo-Renaissance-style cupola — a ring of arches capped with a dome — in rust-pigmented, board-formed concrete, the building itself representing a bridge between past and future.

A few blocks south of the Jardines Centrales, the canopy of Dellekamp, Schleich and Restrepo’s 460-square-metre sanctuary rests on open arcs instead of walls, its flat roof raised on brick barrel vaults over graduated rows of benches that sink into the earth, like terraces in an archaeological dig. A spectacle of tropical vegetation — red-budded tabachín shrubs, exuberant philodendron and fragrant white cones of angel’s trumpet — appears through the open span behind the altar in relief against a volcanic-stone wall, one of the only remaining elements from the previous building. Exposed to the elements, the sanctuary references Mexico’s alfresco chapels, first conceived in the 16th century to adapt the Catholic sacraments to Indigenous religious practices that had largely taken place outside. But the church also gestures in many other directions: toward the historic 16th-, 18th- and 19th-century chapels with which it shares the sacred compound; toward ancient ritual practices embedded in the land below it; toward the fertile countryside that made Morelos a center for sugar and rice production and, later, for Emiliano Zapata’s battle against exploitative landowners, which helped instigate the Mexican Revolution in 1910. But above all it suggests transparency: proof, in brick and cement, that not all promises end up broken.

At the end of February 2020, as hundreds of people gathered to celebrate their town’s rebirth, the sanctuary held its first mass. But the moment of catharsis was brief. Less than a week later, doctors in Cuernavaca, just north of Jojutla, announced Mexico’s first confirmed case of Covid-19. “We were finally coming out of this pain that had lasted two years,” says Marino, the journalist, “and then it’s just another bitter drink.”

The facade of the new school features a spiral ramp in brick that leads to a roof terrace, which the young ceiba tree in the building’s center will eventually grow to shade. Photography by Rafael Gamo.

It’s obviously difficult to assimilate into new spaces when public life is curtailed, and though many in Jojutla expressed gratitude for the speed and efficiency with which the new projects were completed — especially compared to the dismally slow reconstruction of housing, stalled for months at less than 70 percent complete — others had lingering concerns about the final outcomes. The sanctuary, for instance, holds half as many people as its predecessor, due to last-minute guidelines imposed by INAH, which forced Dellekamp, Schleich and Restrepo to reduce their building’s size by a third. Others worry that the MMX-designed pavilions provide too little shade on Jojutla’s steaming summer afternoons. Some feel that communication from the foundation during the early stages was insufficient, resulting in buildings that reflect the sensibilities of outsider architects more than those of Jojutla’s residents.

But the community has already begun the process of making these structures its own. Last November, after celebrations for Day of the Dead, Ricalde saw many images showing the Jardines Centrales’ archways decked with garlands and marigolds placed in its sunken center. In the sanctuary, a replica of the Señor de Tula stands on a red marble pediment behind the altar, a replacement for the stainless-steel cross originally installed by the architects. At Kalach’s school, emptied by the pandemic, barn doors reveal bright, airy classrooms hung with drawings and paintings by children who will soon build their own memories in Jojutla. Over time, the buildings will reflect the community they serve, and the community may, in turn, be reshaped by the buildings, with fatalism and distrust slowly replaced by optimism for a future that need not repeat the present. “Architecture always opens that possibility of reflection, of looking in a mirror,” Restrepo says. Disaster can do the same.

These buildings could never just be “an imitation of what we had before,” says José Antonio Benítez, 61, who runs a letterpress and silk-screen workshop out of his home a block away from the Alameda. He pointed out several changes that he and his neighbors insisted upon throughout the development process: that the church be visible from the plaza, that the space should reflect the topography of the land, that the roof over the basketball court should not block the view to Xoxotzin, a distant hill that, long before the Spanish arrived, had given this community its name, Xoxutla — “place of abundant blue sky.” From the beginning, Benítez and his neighbors knew that restoring their town required not just “a reconstruction of housing or public space,” he says, “but also a human reconstruction.” It will take years, perhaps decades, to measure the program’s success.

As the sun went down, Benítez pulled out a slim collection of poetry that he wrote and published in the wake of the earthquake. “Day by day / we are rubble. / A vestige / of what we were. / A war-torn landscape / without a war,” he read from “Rubble,” the title poem, as he looked out over the Alameda. “A blank page / to rewrite ourselves.”

A version of this article appears in print in our second edition, Page 138 of T Australia with the headline:
‘The Promise’
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