On Shaky Grounds

The unwarranted demolition of houses after an earthquake in Mexico

01 January 2018
At stake in the reconstruction of homes damaged by the quake in Mexico is something more than roofs over heads. Some architects, engineers and residents are attempting to organise community-driven reconstruction efforts.
rebecca blackwell / ap photo

“Look, it’s what we’re seeing in the majority of houses,” the architect Melanie De Gyves told Edgardo Jimenez Santiago, a 30-year-old psychologist, as they stood in his house on a hot Sunday morning in mid September, ten days after an earthquake had struck off the coast of southern Mexico. “Everything looks dramatic. The lime plaster, the finishing, everything everywhere has fissures.” The turquoise walls of Santiago’s house showed cracks, and chunks of finishing had fallen off, exposing the brick beneath. All the internal walls, separating three rooms, had partially collapsed. The floor was covered in debris.

Santiago’s home in Ixtepec, a small city in the southern state of Oaxaca, was one of thousands damaged by the quake on 7 September, which measured 8.2 in magnitude, making it the strongest the country had seen in over a century. An official census carried out by federal and state government agencies just after the quake recorded 121,701 damaged homes in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. In Oaxaca, the damage was concentrated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the thin waist of the country, separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean by around 200 kilometres. The regional hub of Juchitán de Zaragoza was devastated, as were fishing villages on the coast and hamlets in the coffee-growing hills to the north. Ixtepec was not as badly affected. Even so, of the roughly 7,900 homes in the municipality, 4,130 were found by the census to have suffered damage.

Noe Hernández Reyna, the municipal secretary of Ixtepec, told me in October that damaged homes had been sorted into three categories: those that had suffered partial damage but were habitable, those with partial damage that were uninhabitable, and those that had suffered perdida total, or total loss. About 600 homes had been marked for demolition. De Gyves—who is part of a loose coalition of architects, engineers and volunteers working to organise the reconstruction of the community in keeping with regional architectural traditions—believes that in the majority of cases, demolition would be unwarranted. Often, the damage to homes was superficial or remediable. That so many homes had been marked uninhabitable was, according to her, because the people assigned to evaluate them for the census were either unfamiliar with traditional architecture or unsuited to their task. Perhaps more importantly, they did not have a high estimation of traditional homes.

A large part of the task facing De Gyves and her group is to make people aware that their homes need not be demolished wholesale, and can in fact be updated to be stronger and better prepared for the next quake. (Another brutal quake hit central Mexico on 19 September and caused damage in Mexico City, while the Isthmus experienced another cluster of quakes on 23 September.) “People who come from the city consider these homes for poor people,” De Gyves told me. There is little understanding that what they are looking at represents a built typology, which evolved in the region over more than a century. The arquitectura vernácula, or vernacular architecture, of the Isthmus incorporates a range of design features and techniques, and building materials including wood, clay tiles and unbaked mud brick, commonly known as adobe. Often, however, the term adobe is used as a stand-in for the full breadth of earth-based architecture, connoting something basic, unsophisticated and improvised. In the aftermath of the quake, adobe became an easy scapegoat. The Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, for instance, declared that the majority of collapsed homes in the city of Juchitán had been “of adobe, old and without the structure to withstand an earthquake of such magnitude.”

“It is a serious mistake to fixate on tierra homes as being those that collapsed,” the architect Marcos Sanchez, who heads a firm specialising in tierra, or earth-based architecture, in Oaxaca City, told me over the phone. He argued that the term “adobe” was misleading in its conflation of an array of building techniques, and contested the idea that the majority of collapsed homes were earth-based, and therefore more vulnerable. The destruction had to do with a combination of factors, he said, including the intensity of the earthquake, the nature of the soil—which he characterised as “soft and fragile”—and a lack of enforcement of building regulations. “Hundreds of buildings constructed with industrial materials fell,” he pointed out—they were not necessarily sturdier.

A walk through affected neighbourhoods in the city of Juchitán, which has far more modern constructions than the region’s smaller towns and villages, seemed to prove his point. There, three-storey homes had buckled under their own weight, flattening everything in them. The damage was less severe than that in traditional homes—usually single-storey structures with sloping wood-and-tile roofs—which had crumbled in chunks. Far from being more secure, concrete homes, if not well constructed, could be far more lethal. The civil engineer Andres Manzano, part of a team of volunteer architects and engineers from the University of Guadalajara gathering data on the damage in Ixtepec, told me that many homes that had suffered extensive damage were those whose residents had constructed concrete additions on top of, or adjacent to, existing structures of wood and adobe, which completely threw the original buildings off balance. “The modern wants to eat the traditional, and both end up failing,” he said.

In a letter to Peña Nieto after the quake, a broad coalition of organisations, architects and vernacular-construction specialists criticised the president’s statements about adobe, saying it was “unacceptable” to claim that the damage suffered “was directly linked to the construction material.” The letter, signed, among others, by the acclaimed painter Francisco Toledo, urged that reconstruction be carried out with respect for the architectural, material and cultural traditions of the region. It also cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to reconstruction, pointing to the relief homes built by the government in the state of Guerrero after devastating twin hurricanes in 2013, which turned out to be ill-suited to the region, and soon began to fall apart.

At stake in the reconstruction of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is something more than roofs over heads. “Vernacular architecture is our cultural heritage,” Gerardo De Gyves—Melanie’s father, a civil engineer and Ixtepec native—told me in September, after a long day visiting damaged homes. “It has so much to do with our way of life, with the climate, with our customs. We don’t want this event to become a reason for external institutions to erase this kind of cultural value on the argument that the homes are damaged, or old, or that they’re now no good.” For him, although heritage may seem like an abstract matter of aesthetics, the ways in which architecture in the Isthmus shapes people’s lives are in fact quite concrete.

Gerardo De Gyves and others, including architects, engineers and residents, pointed out to me that the natural materials and spatial design of traditional homes are perfectly suited to the region’s muggy climate; thick mud walls are cool, ceilings are high, and rooms open into each other and to an internal patio, encouraging air flow. Cooking, gardening, washing, childrearing, meals and afternoon naps take place in this patio, which is often connected to the homes of family members on adjacent plots. When the 7 September quake hit, close to midnight, many people were able to avoid bodily harm by running out into their patios. As the region continued to shake with tremors in the following weeks, many families, afraid to sleep under a roof, yet unwilling to leave their homes unguarded, slept in their patios. Sitting in hers, 57-year-old Ana Maria Barenca Rosado, though distraught, told me she was grateful she could still support her family of nine. She grows corn and sells tortillas for a living; her mill and oven, in the middle of the patio, were saved from damage. Her family could cook, and she could soon resume work, which was even more crucial for her after the financial hit that followed the quake.

For Sanchez, the depth and specificity of people’s relationships with their homes demands that any reconstruction effort be participatory and community-driven. To that end, he has been working to organise and fund workshops across the region, with the objective of training people in hands-on, assisted auto-construction. One project will involve high-school students rebuilding their school in a village near the Oaxaca-Chiapas border.

At the heart of these efforts, Sanchez explained, is the idea of tequio, a principle of mutual exchange and community labour that was, within living memory, a way of life in the region. It was this principle that animated another group in Ixtepec, who, in the weeks after the quake, organised volunteers to clear rubble from the homes of those who had little help, including Barenca Rosado. One of the people leading the effort was a young civil engineer and graphic artist who did not wish to be identified. On an evening in October, he and a friend walked around, tagging the walls of those refusing demolition with a stencil that said: “This is my heritage. It will not be knocked down.” They greeted people as they walked around: an acquaintance sheepish about being part of a government demolition crew, someone checking on a friend’s home, a group of neighbours gathered for a communal dinner at a big picnic table under a tarp in the middle of the street.

Before the quake, he said, none of this was happening. Everyone was shut up in their own homes. After the quake, he said, whether in running community kitchens, delivering supplies or sharing resources and sympathies, people have “retaken their right to occupy the street.” For him, this post-quake moment represented “a great opportunity” for the community as a whole to recover a lost social fabric.

Devika Bakshi is an independent journalist and radio producer. She has previously worked with NPR, CatchNews and Open magazine, and written for the Indian Express, Mint and The Hindu.

Keywords: earthquake architecture Mexico Housing