Scraping Away at Mexico City’s Proposed “Earthscraper”

23 Oct

BNKR Arquitectura's proposal for a 65-story inverted "earthscraper." Photo from The Daily Mail.

A few months ago, ArchDaily picked up a story on BNKR Arquitectura’s proposal to install a 65-story “earthscraper” at Mexico City’s central Plaza de la Constitución (commonly known as the Zócalo).  Esteban Suarez, an architect working on the project, says according to this Daily Mail article that the inverted subterranean skyscraper proposal would provide Mexico City with much-needed residential, commercial, and cultural square footage.  The square’s pavement would be replaced with a glass one from which one could stand suspended above the atrium of the new development (the idea of the square at night becoming one glowing plane might replace at least some of the terror with wonder).  BNKR Arquitectura argues that its design is a perfect solution for a modern city with strictly-imposed building height limits and concerns about the disruption of the city center’s historic fabric.

A proposed view from the Zocalo's glass pavement down in the atrium of the "earthscraper." Photo from The Daily Mail.

Mexico City has been built up in layers over many centuries, Suarez says, and “the Earthscraper digs down through the[se] layers… to uncover our roots.”  True, BNKR Arcquitectura’s inverted underground  pyramid would literally uncover Mexico’s roots.  And in what would probably be one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects ever conceived, the earthscraper would no doubt obliterate those roots in favor of, well, an over-designed hole.   The idea of whether this project could ever realistically proceed, whether it might be physically possible to build a habitable, sustainable underground complex at all, and whether the public would want to actually live and work in a 1,000-foot deep canyon of glass is of course up for debate (and not surprisingly one is is already underway).

What caught my attention immediately was not necessarily the kind of project being proposed or its enormous scale. This particular “earth-scraper” proposal is conversation-worthy on its own, but the site the architects have proposed for this attempt at large scale mole-living is also worth talking about.  Mexico City’s Zócalo is its primary public square but it is also an extraordinarily significant space in Mexican society and politics, so much so that the square and its surrounding neighborhood were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  It has played stage to some of the most important events in Mexican and even world history, from the wars of independence of the nineteenth century back to the sixteenth century when it witnessed the first brutal contacts between the Old and New Worlds.  The great Templo Mayor, the stone step pyramid at the literal center of the Aztecs’ universe, once stood just adjacent to the square (the earthscraper’s design references the lost temple in its inverted pyramidal shape).   Today the Zócalo, surrounded by the grand structures of Mexico’s religious, cultural, and governmental institutions, remains the major public gathering place it has been since the fourteenth century.

Mexico City's Zocalo in 1869. Photo from Library of Congress.

Piercing a subterranean spire down one-thousand feet into the heart of a major world city would certainly be a bold civic undertaking.  When doing so would sink ten acres of a UNESCO World Heritage Site — one of the most culturally-important pieces of earth in the Americas — down to the bottom of a deep dark hole, there might certainly be some conversation-worthy cultural and historical implications.   Might the earthscraper, as Esteban Suarez says, make a window into Mexico’s roots?  A dramatic uncovering of centuries of hidden truths regarding Central American history and culture?  Or might it instead be a stake driven through the historic heart of the world’s most populous city?

Is the earthscraper a reckoning with Mexico’s history?  Can 65 stories of underground shopping and condos ever be that reckoning?

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One Response to “Scraping Away at Mexico City’s Proposed “Earthscraper””

  1. preservegreen November 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    John! You’re an awesome writer! And this earthscraper is terrifying. I am curious about the energy equation here, however. In the long run, would digging a canyon still take less energy and resources than building a city above ground? Everything would be closer together, including infrastructure, and obviously, ground source heating and cooling would be a tremendous help–basically an entire city is insulated. But the upper thermal boundary confuses me as the worlds largest skylight, not to mention it’s structural stability of a glass ceiling that must be insanely massive. And would you basically have to have a controlled climate for the entire city? Would there be smog? Fresh air?

    Most importantly, I’m not sure I could enter that space without feeling like an orc.

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