As Mexico reels from a pair of powerful earthquakes that struck the country in early September, leveling homes and leaving hundreds dead, the country’s architects grapple with how to rebuild.
The first earthquake, measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale, struck on September 7 off the Pacific coast, devastating the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south, and leaving at least 90 people dead. Less than two weeks later, the second tremor, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, hit about 75 miles outside of Mexico City. Nationwide, 369 people were killed.
Despite the damage, many believe it could have been worse. The second quake struck on September 19, the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 Mexico City quake that left more than 10,000 people dead and leveled hundreds of buildings— a disaster that led to the overhaul of the city’s building codes. This time, however, damage in the city was more contained. Most of the buildings that collapsed were built before the new codes were enacted in 1987.
“About 38 buildings collapsed. We’re talking about a city of 22 million people,” says Bernardo Gómez-Pimienta, the founder of bgp arquitectura and the director of the architecture school at Anáhuac University. “The codes worked well.”
Nevertheless, a pattern of destruction has emerged. As the long forensic slog begins— more than 100 buildings have been con- demned, and hundreds more suffered structural damage—many schools remain closed, and residents wait and wonder if their homes are safe.
“I think every earthquake gives a lesson, and this one certainly did,” said Alberto Kalach, an architect and cofounder of Taller de Arquitectura X, who has been focused on the recovery effort in the state of Morelos. This earthquake showed that—not surprisingly— smaller, older buildings were more vulnerable than towers made of glass and steel, he said.
Some architects and designers worry that, in the race to clean up, buildings that could be salvaged may be demolished, and important clues could be lost. “Citizens are really disturbed and angry,” said Fernanda Canales, a Mexico City architect, because the government is taking down buildings and removing debris “without doing the proper analysis or proper inspections to determine who is to blame.” Inspectors can be held criminally liable if they sign off on structurally unsound buildings.
Damage in the capital was largely isolated to an area overlying an ancient lakebed, where, as seismic waves pass through, the soil has often been compared to Jell-O. This time, maps of the destruction show that damage clustered around the western shore of the ancient lake. “What we’re learning now is that the waves move differently if they’re in a central part of the tub instead of at the edge,” Canales said, likening the behavior of the soil to that of water splashing in a bathtub.
Some architects are questioning whether new, stronger buildings with deep, solid foundations weakened the foundations of older, neighboring structures. And a deadly brew of corruption and shoddy building practices probably contributed to the damage, including at Enrique Rébsamen, a private school where 19 children and seven adults died.
“It’s not the regulations” that need to be reviewed so much as “the application of the regulations,” said Derek Dellekamp, the principal of Dellekamp Arquitectos, whose offices are located in Hipódromo, a neighborhood that sustained damage.
In La Condesa and La Roma, two trendy neighborhoods that sit atop the ancient lakebed and were devastated in the 1985 quake, again sustained damage. Residents are rattled, many staying with friends and family in unaffected areas. But ultimately, few expect the quake to undo decades of investment in stylish neighborhoods that have attracted young artists and professionals. “Some people might be thinking of moving out, but, on the other side, some people say maybe prices might be coming down and it’s a good time to buy,” Gómez- Pimienta said.
Out of the city, the picture is bleaker. Federal officials estimate that more than 153,000 homes were damaged, with 24,000 destroyed, in a disaster zone that straddles several states. “At first, everybody was really proud in Mexico City,” Canales said. “It was a really optimistic view—we’ve done a great job and we’re fine. But very soon afterwards, we understood that things were really different in rural areas.”
Attention has shifted to those rural towns and villages where homes, churches, markets, and central plazas have been battered. A group of architects, designers, and urban planners has formed a coalition called ReConstruir México, which has a Facebook page and social-media hashtag. The group has been raising funds and organizing to connect with the local communities to help save existing structures through preservation and a focus on traditional building methods.
“This initiative is a reaction to the indiscriminate demolition of damaged buildings, which, in some cases, did not have structural damage,” Dellekamp, a member of the group, said.
Coalition members are concerned that the cleanup effort is damaging the fabric of indigenous Mexican culture, unnecessarily bulldozing iconic adobe homes that could be repaired, and replacing them with tiny concrete structures. The coalition is focusing on historic buildings, old construction methods, and emergency housing, and is connecting with rural communities to provide expertise.
“Everything is going really, really fast,” Canales, a member of the group, said, concerned that, because of rampant corruption, government officials and contractors are motivated to bulldoze and build anew, even when such extreme measures are unnecessary. “It is big business to house everybody,” she said.
The bulldozers might be moving quickly, but the road to recovery will be a long one. “It will be work that will be needed for several years. It’s not something that happens in six months,” Gómez-Pimienta said. “It’s a mess.”