Text and interview by Departamento del Distrito (Francisco Quiñones & Nathan Friedman)
En-Medio is produced by Departamento del Distrito in collaboration with illustrator Arina Shabanova. The interview series highlights the delicate status of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City with the evolving stories of six mid-century masterworks. Individual issues are dedicated to the Casa Ortega (1942), Súper Servicio Lomas (1948), Museo Experimental El Eco (1952), Restaurante Los Manantiales (1957), Casa Cueva (1958), and Torre Insignia (1964). Through conversations with those who have lived and worked in the projects of interest, historians who have studied them, activists who have fought for their preservation, and iconoclasts who have wished them dismantled, En-Medio drops into architectural narratives of the city, long underway, to ask what possible futures lie ahead.
Issue two features Súper Servicio Lomas, one of the first multiuse buildings in Mexico City designed by Manchuria-born émigré Vladimir Kaspé in 1948. In contrast to the residential context in which it was built, Súper Servicio Lomas employed a rationalist structure that echoed the Modernist principles of Le Corbusier, complete with pilotis, a free plan, roof garden, and horizontal strip windows. The most radical element of the project, however, was the unprecedented mix of programs integrated into the building’s interior: a gas station; auto repair shop; car dealership; retail space; dance hall and party venue; offices; and executive apartments. In 2007, then mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard, together with a series of real-estate developers, began a redevelopment campaign for the site of Súper Servicio Lomas. The first proposal, the 300-meter tall Torre Bicentenario designed by OMA in Rotterdam, was shelved after receiving harsh public criticism and government opposition. The proposal that followed soon after, the 121-meter tall Torre Virreyes designed by Teodoro González de León, was ultimately approved. Completed in 2015, the construction required a section of Súper Servicio Lomas to be demolished and the remaining structure remodeled for commercial lease. Today, the site serves as a symbol of the city government’s preference for private interests over the preservation of public space and national heritage.
The following conversation was held in March 2017 with Dr. Ramón Vargas Salguero, UNAM professor and former head of the Direction of Architecture and Conservation of Artistic Heritage (DACPAI). We met to discuss the polemic surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas and the challenges that face the preservation of Modernist architectural heritage in Mexico City.
Súper Servicio Lomas
A conversation with Ramón Vargas Salguero
Ramón Vargas Salguero: I was invited to head the Direction of Architecture and Conservation of Artistic Heritage (DACPAI) exactly when the controversy surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas began.1 It was a very interesting time, very illustrative, and I really believe I did my part to fight for the building during this difficult situation. Today, even though everyone agrees to defend pre-Hispanic or colonial architecture as icons we need to safeguard, architecture of the twentieth century in Mexico is truly unprotected. Mexican law establishes that everything constructed before 1900 must, in principle, be safeguarded. If you discover archaeological remains today they are already protected and there is no need to apply for their preservation, no need to discuss it. However, architectural monuments built in the twentieth century can easily disappear. There aren’t many people who agree to defend these works, let alone accept that architecture of the twentieth century is also a representation of our current society.
All of this is a very important philosophical topic, because one of the manifestations of postmodernity and globalization is the destruction of the past. It is clear that society must evolve, and that this process of evolution will bring with it new ways of living. Evidently, this must also impact certain buildings from the past, but I believe only when necessary and justified. This was not the case with Súper Servicio Lomas, which was unreasonably bulldozed.
En-Medio: When you arrived as the Director of DACPAI in 2007, had Marcelo Ebrard, then mayor of Mexico City, already announced the project of the Torre Bicentenario?
RVS: Yes, the polemic was in full swing. Marcelo Ebrard even dared to say the new tower would be a contribution by the government to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence!
E-M: What did you think of Súper Servicio Lomas and the legacy of Vladimir Kaspé at that time?
RVS: Kaspé taught in the second year at the National School of Architecture starting in 1943.2 He had come from studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he met Mario Pani, who later invited him to Mexico. Kaspé’s work, both as a teacher and as an architect, had great prestige at the school.
Súper Servicio Lomas was an interesting case in his early built work. Kaspé arrived to Mexico in 1942 and already by 1943 was building major projects. In 1948, six years after his arrival, he was also directing Mario Pani’s magazine Arquitectura Mexico, for which he first worked as a correspondent while living in France. From the very beginning Kaspé had the sensibility to understand the materials being used at the time by local architects. These materials were primarily brick and concrete. If one looks at his work, even now, one goes, “Wow! It’s very well executed.”
Súper Servicio Lomas was an important architectural work, but not a masterpiece. The building was interesting because it housed various architectural programs under one roof, which everyone was fascinated by. It was also featured in movies—the ramp was especially popular because it was very plastic, very aesthetic, and had angles that looked great on film.
E-M: The ramp was, without a doubt, the most iconic part of Súper Servicio Lomas. Did you have the chance to visit the building in its early years?
RVS: Yes, in particular to the terrace on the building’s upper floor. It was a space for dancing in front of the Bosque de Chapultepec, where the famous orchestra directed by Everett Hoagland played. It was a delight; an entire era was reflected in that space.
Kaspe’s oeuvre was in general highly recognized. However, I don’t believe any of his buildings were considered a model for study until the polemic surrounding Súper Servicio Lomas arose. After it was threatened with demolition, everyone started studying it in more depth, and only then was it determined to be well-resolved. The building needed to be defended from a source of aggression that was truly unbelievable. Our fight was about far more than just its demolition.
E-M: What concerns were associated with the Torre Bicentenario proposal by OMA—the first scheme promoted by the Mexico City government and its partner developers?
RVS: To begin, the Torre Bicentenario project included a giant parking lot that invaded a section of the Bosque de Chapultepec. Since the site of Súper Servicio Lomas didn’t have the capacity to house the parking requirements for such a tower, it was proposed to construct a parking lot underneath the park towards Periférico. In addition, with the excuse of relieving traffic congestion in the area, a direct exit from the building to the Petróleos Fountain on Periférico was proposed. The aggression was very serious: the project not only required the complete demolition of Súper Servicio Lomas, it also proposed to alter the surrounding roadways and illegally use the site of a public park. And all of this proposed by the mayor of the city! I would ask myself, “In what country are we living? How can Marcelo Ebrard have the nerve to propose a project designed by a foreign architect and partially financed by a Spanish company to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence?”3
Voices of protest initially came from within the architectural discipline—historians who wrote and theorized—because those who lived in the neighborhood did not immediately understand the great consequences connected to the Torre Bicentenario. Soon, meetings were organized with the architect who represented the real-estate developer. During these meetings there was heated discussion between those who supported the project and those who opposed it from a critical and historical position. Later, journalists gave voice to a local neighborhood population who publicly opposed the project.
It was then that various question were raised: What is architecture? What is conservation? What is preservation? To what point can one preserve the past in a society that is experiencing continuous change, and how can that form of preservation be achieved? All of these questions were used as a starting point from which to form a strong argument to protect Súper Servicio Lomas from demolition. Teresa Franco, then director of INBA, took a very firm position. She decreed the building national heritage and therefore, in theory, it would not be able to be touched. But, of course, those that were promoting the Torre Bicentenario had many connections and resources. They continued fighting for the project to move forward. By that time, however, the mayor of Mexico City packed up and cancelled the project. At the same moment, various studies and articles analyzing the value of Kaspé’s work emerged.
E-M: Not long after the Torre Bicentenario was cancelled, a more moderate tower—the Torre Virreyes designed by Teodoro González de León—was approved for the same site.4 Were you still the director of DACPAI at that time?
RVS: Yes, I was still the director. Unfortunately, when the problems associated with the Torre Bicentenario and its great height were removed, and the building by Teodoro was proposed in its place, all of the public outrage behind the project subsided. Those who had opposed the first project ended up accepting that the site would be developed. And, of course, Grupo Danhos, one of the real-estate companies involved in the project, went to court arguing they should be allowed to develop a property they owned in any way they wished.5
The case ended up in the office of the Attorney General. The real problem started there. When the public prosecutor called on us to defend Súper Servicio Lomas we began to discuss an area of knowledge that was foreign to the context. We went there thinking as architects—speaking about the distribution of space, about how the building is well-oriented, about its circulation, about it being multiuse—but we were speaking with a public prosecutor and few people are more disconnected from such concepts. He listened to us and commented, “That’s interesting. Is Súper Servicio Lomas the only building with these characteristics?” To which we replied, “No, there are others.” And, of course, he responded, “Why do we need to preserve this specific building, and not the others? Why do you speak about the use of space and its continuity? What does that mean?” That’s when you realize that as architects we’ve created our own, insular narrative. In a fight of this kind, such arguments do not interest anyone but us.
In addition, the public prosecutor asked us, “OK, and why do you argue that this building has a very important aesthetic value? What does that mean?” That’s a very hard question! That’s a question Socrates asked himself in Greek philosophy. As you understand, starting to discuss an axiological problem with a public prosecutor—the issue of aesthetic value—is very difficult if not impossible.
During this episode, a theoretical problem about architecture emerged. It made us realize that Súper Servicio Lomas must be defended with arguments that could be understood by the general public. In that regard, Súper Servicio Lomas was very illustrative. It generated a discussion on philosophical, archeological, and aesthetic issues of architectural theory. It even made us recall Socrates, a founder of Western philosophy, who spoke about beauty as the product of utility, a thesis that we have not discussed enough. To which point can an architectural work be perfectly useful and appear beautiful? These are the kind of discussions that we must have in the classroom, in magazines, in books, in order to defend architecture.
E-M: In this case, was it possible to convey such a message? What was the outcome of your discussion with the public prosecutor?
RVS: In the end, Alonso Lujambio, then director of the Ministry of Education, authorized the partial demolition of Súper Servicio Lomas. Ironically, he was the official who should have declared the site national heritage. He authorized the demolition with the absurd belief that the building could be sectioned off in service of the Torre Virreyes and still be preserved. On top of it all, the design of the Torre Virreyes completely deviates from the ideals Teodoro once followed in his architectural practice. Beyond the pseudo-technical requirements of the building’s cantilever, the tower is generic—covered in glass like any other.
E-M: And in regards to the relationship between the Torre Virreyes and Súper Servicio Lomas—how do you view Teodoro’s approach to preservation?
RVS: I would start from this premise: If you’re going to preserve, preserve with dignity. But do not preserve by changing or mutilating and do not approach the task by thinking that whatever is there must work around your design. Teodoro had another project, Reforma 222, in which he also had to preserve a preexisting building and literally forced it into his project.
E-M: In closing, we would like to return to the struggle you described in conveying the importance of Modernist heritage to a public audience. After your experience with Súper Servicio Lomas, how would you argue for the future preservation of Mexican architecture of the twentieth century?
RVS: The work that I’ve developed over many years has the following basic motivations: To fight for a national architecture of our own and to recognize Mexican architects who have been unjustly marginalized from our professional history. In 1900, during the anchoring of Porfirio Díaz, Mexican architects raised the question of what kind of national architecture should be produced. They held a theoretical debate about the profession and to what point one could produce new architecture through understanding the work that had come before. Such debates were really commendable and have no parallel with contemporary discussions being held at that time in Europe.
E-M: It’s remarkable that these questions were posed as a collective. Nowadays, that dynamic is difficult to imagine.
RVS: That’s right, the architects functioned as a guild. They asked themselves, “What kind of architecture should we build?” Their answer was that architecture couldn’t only be modern and it couldn’t only be national—it needed to be modern and national! In addition, the moto was created in 1900 at a ripe moment to apply the criteria of a new architecture, our own, by following the precepts of a new era: that of the revolution.
Mexican architects have produced, written, and debated an incredible amount, and that hasn’t been sufficiently recognized. And it’s not only about recognizing it, but continuing to ask ourselves, “To what point is it still valid to strive for a modern and national architecture?”
1. DACPAI is an arm of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), which was founded in 1946 and currently operates under Mexico’s Ministry of Culture. The principal mission of INBA is to preserve and promote national artistic and cultural heritage. In addition, this government agency is responsible for the protection of twentieth century architectural projects in Mexico. ↵
2. The history of the National School of Architecture, known today as the School of Architecture at UNAM, goes back more than two centuries to the San Carlos Academy. During the 1950s, and under the name the National School of Architecture, the school moved from Mexico City’s Historic Center to UNAM’s national university campus. ↵
3. Amancio Ortega is a Spanish businessman and co-founder of Inditex fashion group, a corporation which counts among its brands the retail giant Zara. He also owns Pontegadea Inmobiliaria, a real estate company that oversees several properties in Europe, America, and Asia. Currently, Ortega is considered to be the richest man in Europe. ↵
4. Teodoro González de León (1926–2016) is considered to be one of the pillars of twentieth century architecture in Mexico. After studying at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), González de León was awarded a grant by the French government and worked for 18 months in Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris. During this time he was involved with the iconic Unité d’Habitation housing project for Marseilles. González de León’s most emblematic projects include the National Auditorium, Rufino Tamayo Museum, and Arcos Bosques Corporate Center, all of which are located in Mexico City. ↵
5. Grupo Danhos is a Mexican real-estate company founded in 1976. The group is largely associated with the development, operation, and management of office buildings and shopping centers. González de León collaborated with Grupo Danhos previously on the design and construction of the Reforma 222 multiuse complex located in Mexico City. ↵
En-Medio is supported by funding from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.
For more information about En-Medio, you can watch Nathan Friedman’s lecture as part of the MAS Context Spring Talks 2018:
Departamento del Distrito is a Mexico City-based architecture practice founded in 2017 by Francisco Quiñones and Nathan Friedman. Their work lies at the intersection between politics, identity, and space. In addition to built projects, including the new technology headquarters for the Mexican Institute for Smart and Sustainable Cities and a set of apartments in the historic mining town of Real de Catorce, their practice engages archival research, writing, and speculative work. Recent projects have been supported by the Graham Foundation, Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, and the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.