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Fate of Midcentury Mural in Mexico City Still Uncertain After 2017 Quake

One of the most ambitious muralist projects in Mexico City has been the victim of two major earthquakes. Now the building on which the murals are painted will be demolished.

The Centro SCOP murals in Mexico City (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

MEXICO CITY — On September 19, 1985, at 7:17 am, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake violently shook Mexico City, bringing hospitals, churches, apartment complexes, and schools crashing to the ground. Thousands of buildings, many historic, were reduced to rubble, and even more were condemned. The death toll was never definitively determined, but estimates range as high as 40,000. In three minutes, the city’s landscape, and psyche, was permanently changed.

One of the most ambitious muralist projects in Mexico City was among the buildings severely damaged by the quake. Located in the residential Narvarte neighborhood, the headquarters of the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation, known locally as Centro SCOP, is an imposing functionalist office building covered in a breathtaking 20,000 square meters of elaborate volcanic-stone mosaics. They were designed by prominent midcentury artists like Juan O’Gorman, Jose Chávez Morado, Arturo Estrada, and Jorge Best, among others, and were damaged when Centro SCOP’s top floors collapsed in 1985. Fourteen people inside the building were killed.

The Centro SCOP was severely damaged in the September 19th, 1985 earthquake. (image courtesy Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura )

After a laborious multiyear restoration project, Centro SCOP was eventually reopened to thousands of SCT employees, though its top floors were never rebuilt. Incredibly, 32 years to the day after the earthquake in 1985, a 7.1-strength quake stuck central Mexico again, on September 19, 2017. Though there were no casualties in the building, it was fatally damaged in the earthquake. Centro SCOP was immediately evacuated, and in the weeks following the earthquake, the Secretariat announced that the building would be demolished.

“For us, the response wasn’t to say, again, let’s reconstruct these murals where they are,” Mario Ballesteros told Hyperallergic. Ballesteros is the chief curator at the Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura, a small design museum and historical archive that this spring launched an exhibition dedicated to the legacy of Centro SCOP and its chief planner, Carlos Lazo. In addition to exhibiting a small collection of contemporary art inspired by Centro SCOP, the exhibit proposes to relocate the murals to Mexico City’s new international airport, which is currently under construction in the suburban community of Texcoco and itself a long-running source of controversy in the city, with opponents claiming, among other objections, that the project is too costly and is being built on sinking, unstable land, atop a lake bed.

A 1:1 scale diagram of the original SCOP murals was produced for the exhibition. The 1:300 scale model of the New Mexico City International Airport by Foster + Partners and FR-EE is part of the speculative proposal to relocate the SCOP murals to the new terminal building. (image courtesy Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura)

“After the earthquake, the architectural community was concerned not only with the issue of housing, but also with historical heritage. In this contingency, it occurred to me to suggest to [architect] Fernando Romero that the terminal building of Mexico City’s New International Airport (NAICM) was undoubtedly the only structure in the country large enough to house a work of these dimensions,” writes Mexican artist Pedro Reyes in an introduction to the exhibit. Romero, in addition to being one of the airport’s chief architects, is also the founder of the Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura.

“Knowing that it is a controversial proposal to move the murals to the new airport what we tried to do was not only focus on this proposal, but really complicate or problematize the question of how you preserve modern cultural patrimony,” said Ballesteros. The airport proposal, however, remains in the “concept stage,” without any technical studies to support it.

Centro SCOP

While the Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura’s proposal may have been speculative, in March, local newspapers reported that the SCT’s Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza told a group of senators that the SCOP murals would be installed in the new international airport.

Miguel Angel Rocha, a spokesperson for the SCT, confirmed with Hyperallergic that while the SCOP building is indeed going to be demolished, the murals will be preserved in their entirety, either at their current location or elsewhere. According to Rocha, the SCT is currently planning extensive studies of how to “conserve, recue, and store” the cultural heritage of Centro SCOP; only then will the SCT approach the question of what to do with these works of art in the future.

The Centro SCOP shortly after it was completed in 1954 (image courtesy Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura )

In a city prone to frequent and often devastating earthquakes, the question of how to restore or relocate iconic artwork and architecture has been addressed before, though there’s no roadmap for the process. Perhaps the most well known example is Diego Rivera’s mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central,” which originally decorated one of the dining rooms at the Hotel del Prado, itself a landmark of Art Deco architecture. After the hotel was severely damaged by the earthquake on September 19, 1985, the mural was carefully extracted from the rubble — a process that was carried out by 300 workers over the course of 12 hours. Today, the mural has found a second life as the centerpiece of the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, a small museum that serves as both a showcase for Rivera’s painting and a lasting reminder of the 1985 earthquake and its victims. With its structure fatally compromised, the grand Hotel del Prado did not meet the same fate; entirely demolished, its imaginative Art Deco design can only be admired in old photographs.

The SCOP Center’s colossal size, the unusual stone mosaic technique used in creating its murals, and its particular place in Mexican art history complicate its preservation and possible relocation. A landmark of midcentury architecture in Mexico, the project is emblematic of integracion plastica, a movement that sought to unite art and architecture in the creation of monumental public buildings. Its construction was overseen by Carlos Lazo, one of the most prominent figures in the movement, who achieved national renown in the 1950s as the general director of the Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, a spectacular ensemble of muralism, modern art, and architecture. Today, the entire college campus is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Detail of the Centro SCOP murals

In December 1952, Lazo began work on SCOP Center and chose an unfinished public hospital in the residential Narvarte neighborhood for his new project, a glass-and-concrete high rise that would soon reflect his grand vision for a prosperous and modern Mexico. Completed in two years, the building was covered in murals depicting the Mexican worker, as well as historical themes, with stunning grandeur, drawing on many of the nationalist ideals that had been celebrated during the early years of Mexico’s famous 20th-cenutry public and art and mural program. It was “almost the post-classic period of modernism by the Mexican state,” as Ballesteros describes it.

One of Centro SCOP’s most striking features is the natural-stone palette used to create these murals, a unique technique that was developed by artist Juan O’Gorman. Each artist’s segment was designed and then built piece-by-piece, with stones mounted on one-square-meter metal panels. The 6,000 panels that today comprise the murals at Centro SCOP were then transported and installed on the building’s façade, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The Centro SCOP murals in Mexico City

Certain scholars at the Universidad Autónoma de México are adamantly against the murals’ relocation and published a seven-point declaration regarding the preservation and importance of Centro SCOP. The researchers argue, “The murals and sculptures, together with the building, have an integral vision and a discourse that must be taken into account, avoiding their fragmentation or the radical alteration of their reading.”

“The mosaics at the SCOP weren’t conceived as something that could be moved from one place to another. They were conceived as an integral part of the architectural complex and for a specific environment,” Dr. Renato González Mello, the chief author of the document, told Hyperallergic.

After the publication of the document by the researchers at UNAM, Santiago Taboada Cortina, a lawmaker who leads the country’s Commission on Culture and Cinema, proposed an alternate solution for Centro SCOP: to create a science park in the space where the SCT building stands today, leaving the murals at home in the Narvarte neighborhood.

While Centro SCOP’s fate is being debated, it still stands on the corner of Xola and the Eje Central, visibly damaged but surprisingly glorious, even now that it’s been shuttered to employees and visitors. When I walked past the building on a recent windy morning, an on-site security guard approached me. He politely asked me not to push the lens of my camera through the bars of the perimeter fence, but, he assured me, “You can take all the pictures you want.”

Archivo(s) Centro SCOP continues at Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura (Calle General Francisco Ramírez 4, Miguel Hidalgo, Ampliación Daniel Garza, Mexico City) through May 23.

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