Critical Intervention: Alternatives to Preservation in Mexico

by Enrique Aureng Silva (MDes '18)

Historic buildings are the physical signs of the past. They are the material evidence of other times, other peoples, and other ways of understanding life and architecture. Interpreted as such, they are frequently associated with particular historical narratives; they become the objects and recipients of cultural memories, and more often than not, they get connected to notions of national value and particular heritage discourses that tend to emphasize certain historical narratives while neglecting others.

In this way, traditional preservation practices tend to fix historic buildings in a certain particular period of the past. In order to preserve the material qualities and cultural relevance of architectural objects or urban landscapes, the methods and theoretical frameworks of preservation set historic structures, and even their immediate contexts, as landmarks worthy of protection.

But what happens when natural disasters damage historic fabric? What should be done when an earthquake hits and partially destroys a 16th-century monastery listed as a World Heritage Site? Should the same techniques and theories be applied to the natural weathering of a masonry wall as to a collapsed bell tower? What is the role that local communities should play in deciding what to preserve and what to forget?

This thesis proposes, through a reinterpretation of the concept of liminality, that the repetitive nature of earthquakes in Mexico should be seen as an opportunity for change: change in the interpretation of certain historical accounts, change in the relation between historic preservation
and historic buildings, and change in the structures of power that dictate the narratives associated with them. All of these should be questioned in order to create new architectures, new urbanisms, and new social interactions that, while still reflecting on the past–on the physical and non-physical fragments left by the catastrophes–use the historic fabric not as a nostalgic element to lament loss, but as a starting point for where to imagine new alternatives.