Scene of the final brutal conquest of the Aztecs, the massacre of protesters ahead of the 1968 Olympic Games and the collapse of an entire housing block in the 1985 earthquake, Tlatelolco embodies Mexico’s painful history
The history of Mexico has been written, all too often, with the blood of the victims of unspeakable tragedies. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs and numerous other civilisations performed gruesome human sacrifice rituals. Today, bloodthirsty drug cartels terrorise local populations, sometimes with the cooperation of the authorities, as was revealed during last year’s massacre of 43 student protesters from an Ayotzinapa school. No one place embodies that painful history more than Tlatelolco.
Today a district of Mexico City, Tlatelolco began as a city-state on the shore of Lake Texcoco, eventually overtaken by the ascendant Aztecs, who made it a part of their empire. During the brutal conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, in 1521 Tlatelolco was the site of the last battle between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors. In the battle, Cortés triumphed, and some 40,000 Aztecs were killed. Centuries later, a plaque would be built on the site that reads: “The battle was not a triumph, nor was it a defeat. It was the painful birth of the mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.”
The deaths of the battle left a scar on the national psyche of the new colony, and later Mexico. The Spaniards did their best to pave over Tlatelolco’s dark history, demolishing its temple and using the stones to build a church. Much later, in the 1950s, Mexican leaders resolved to finally right the wrongs suffered on the site, putting it to good use by building a modern housing project there.
Naturally, the new plans were the subject of more practical motives too. Mexico City had grown significantly since the Spanish conquest and was continuing to boom. After infrastructure projects drained Lake Texcoco, the city grew steadily out from the centre of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which today is Mexico City’s central plaza. After the country gained independence in 1810, gradual industrialisation during the 19th century and the creation of a railway network laid the foundations for a steady population shift from rural to urban. By the 1950s, Mexico City was facing a serious housing shortage.
Seeking to address this issue, the Mexican government sought to implement the most innovative building design of the time. They contracted Mario Pani, a young architect who had become one of the biggest proponents of the modernist ideas of Le Corbusier in the country.
His plan called for 102 residential towers, ranging in height from four to 22 floors, placed in large blocks with plazas and public space in between – Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park” concept. Additionally, the area near the recently excavated ruins of the former Tlatelolco temple and the Spanish church would be converted into a plaza, named Plaza de las Tres Culturas (“Square of the Three Cultures”, after the Aztecs, Spain and Mexico).
Though part of the plan’s rationale was to provide an economical solution to the housing crisis, it also claimed to improve the lives of the inhabitants of the complex, through the virtues of modern design. Pani believed that the complex would be part of a “general process of regeneration”. Far from achieving these lofty goals, the complex instead set the stage for the next instalment in Tlatelolco’s tragic history….[ ]