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Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento: A Model of Sustainable Historic Preservation in Mexico City

The Antiguo Palacio Del Ayuntamiento was initially chosen for study due to its openness to government officials, community members, and foreigners. Further research revealed that the Palacio primarily serves as a political platform and is now the seat from which the Mexico City government announces climate actions. Interviews with building staff, employees, and Mexico City residents highlighted the building’s cultural significance as a symbol of Mexican history's complexities and triumphs. The Palacio, embedded in the city center, represents a place for protest, political action, cultural memory, architectural history, national pride - and is a beacon for a sustainable Mexico City's future.


Photo from Zocalo Plaza of the Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento

Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento - Photo Courtesy of the United States Green Building Council



ARCHITECTURAL & URBAN CONTEXT


The Antiguo Palacio, situated in the heart of Mexico City, stands as a central figure in the city's urban landscape. Located on the Plaza de la Constitución, commonly known as the Zocalo, this building is an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage historic central district.


The Zocalo doubles as a cultural and political hub. It’s home to the national palace, the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, and various federal offices, hotels, and restaurants. The central square itself changes daily, filled with pop-up tents, conventions, protests, and events.


At street level, the Antiguo Palacio Del Ayuntamiento, translating to "Old Town Hall," presents a striking view from the city square. Currently, it houses the offices of the Mayor of Mexico City and serves as the seat for the federal government district. Parts of the building are accessible to the public, offering community spaces such as the central courtyards, which double as an exhibition area and a small museum depicting the building's history. The ground floor embraces community engagement by housing several social services, including temporary job placement initiatives for locals seeking work in city projects. In its contemporary role, the building is a platform for political events, policy announcements, and ceremonial activities like the presentation of Keys to the City, underscoring its central civic significance.



THE STORY OF AN EVOLVING CITY


The historical context dates back approximately 700 years, to when the larger geographic region, known as the Mexico Valley, was a massive basin approximately 8000 feet above sea level, submerged under Lake Texcoco.


In 1325, the Aztec Empire established its capital, Tenochtitlan, on the largest island in Lake Texcoco. The city, home to hundreds of thousands of Aztecs, was at risk of flooding. To mitigate this, the Aztecs developed integrated technologies such as dikes and levees, creating a network of artificial islands. This innovative urban design lasted for two centuries, with water interwoven into city life in a marshland environment.


“The Great City of Tenochtitlan,”

Diego Rivera. 1945. Part of a massive mural in the National Palace, Mexico City.


However, in 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes sacked Tenochtitlan after a months-long siege. The Spanish, bringing diseases and weaponry, decimated almost 90% of the Aztec population. They actively destroyed the city, enabling the construction of a new city atop the ruins. Unlike the Aztecs, the Spaniards drained Lake Texcoco, fearing flooding, thus laying the foundation for modern Mexico City.


Under Spanish rule, Mexico City adopted European architectural styles. The Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento, first built six years after the Spanish invasion, was ordered by Hernan Cortes. Designed as a medieval fortress, it protected the Spanish from indigenous rebellion and natural disasters. The social divide was stark, with wealthy elites in ornate palaces and indigenous and lower-class residents in poverty. This inequality led to the looting and burning of the building in a popular uprising in 1692. The reconstruction after the uprising saw the building updated to the European Baroque style.


By 1810, social tensions led to the War of Independence, resulting in Mexico's independence from Spain but continued inequality. The city's architecture underwent several major shifts, including anticlerical reforms in the 1850s under Benito Juarez, where church properties were appropriated for the poor. In the early 20th century, President Diaz modernized the city center, adding a fourth level to the building and commissioning a ceiling mural by Felix Parra.


The city's vulnerability to seismic activity was tragically highlighted on September 19, 1985, when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck. The earthquake's impact was exacerbated by the city's foundation on a former lakebed, resulting in significant destruction and loss of life.


By the end of the 20th century, the city center was in disrepair. A substantial renovation project, involving $300 million, transformed Zocalo Plaza into the cultural hub it is today, marking another chapter in the city's ongoing evolution.

Image of Zocalo Plaza in Mexico City, highlighting the culturally important buildings in the square

Photo captured from Google Earth. Annotations by author.



UPGRADING HISTORIC BUILDINGS:

RENOVATION OR RESTORATION?


On September 19th, 2017, exactly 32 years after a devastating earthquake, the city was struck by another seismic event, this time of a 7.1 magnitude. The catastrophe resulted in over 150 fatalities, the crumbling of dozens of buildings, and serious damage to hundreds more. This event underscored the necessity for renovation projects in Mexico City to focus not only on preserving history but also on building resilience, ensuring the endurance of the past into the future.


In response to these challenges, Mexico City initiated several initiatives aimed at embedding long-term environmental sustainability within the urban fabric. A prime example of these efforts is the Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento. In 2015, this historic building became the first of its kind in Latin America to achieve LEED Gold certification and is among the oldest in the world to receive this level of recognition for existing buildings. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally recognized certification system by the US Green Building Council, denoting a high level of sustainable building design and operation.


Achieving this certification involved various strategies. Alicia Silva, CEO of Revitaliza Consultores, the sustainability consulting firm working on the Antiguo Palacio, played a key role in ensuring the project met LEED certification requirements. In an interview with the founder of House of Tamanaha, Silva highlighted that a significant part of renovating the building for sustainability was focused on training users to utilize the space sustainably, rather than just updating infrastructure. For example, making stairs appealing to encourage their use, installing interior bike racks to promote cycling to work, and replacing all cleaning and maintenance supplies with non-toxic, green alternatives to improve indoor air quality. The building’s design itself, with features like courtyards and exterior balconies, was leveraged to promote natural light and fresh air.


Interior of the Palacio del Ayuntamiento. Photos by author, January 2020.


Transportation and waste management were also key focus areas. The building’s proximity to bike racks, a metro station, and a bus station, combined with the presence of bike lanes and minimal parking options, contributed to 89% of the building’s occupants using public transportation, biking, or walking. The strategic placement of recycling and compost receptacles, accompanied by clear signage, significantly reduced the building's waste production by 56%.


Energy and atmosphere considerations were crucial in the renovation. The original structure's thick walls, high ceilings, and courtyards were optimized to promote airflow and cooling. The removal of certain earlier renovations that had lowered ceilings to improve air conditioning systems was a key intervention. LED-efficient lighting systems sensitive to lighting levels and movement, along with solar panels, were introduced to enhance electrical efficiency.


To address the urban heat island effect, reflective fabric was installed in the courtyards, and rooftop vegetation was planted to absorb heat and moisture. Interior plants also contributed to air quality improvement.


Water efficiency posed unique challenges due to the city's historical context and geographical risks. Revitaliza tackled this by constant monitoring of water outflow and implementing a rainwater collection and treatment system on the roof, reducing on-site water usage by 43%.



THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY


This case study not only exemplifies the interrelation of structural sustainability and sustainable user behavior but also introduces a third dimension: social sustainability. Social sustainability in this context encompasses community resiliency, economic opportunity, and cultural preservation. The Antiguo Palacio plays a role in all these aspects, offering public spaces for local residents, supporting economic opportunities through tourism and local employment, and embracing cultural preservation through a history museum and art exhibitions.


In the context of the Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento in Mexico City, a third approach to sustainability, beyond what is typically measured by LEED certification, emerges as pivotal: social sustainability. This concept encompasses three main elements: community resiliency, economic opportunity, and cultural preservation. While social sustainability includes a broader range of aspects, these three are particularly significant in the role the Antiguo Palacio plays within Mexico City.


Community resiliency is understood as the ability of a group of people to support and uplift each other sustainably over the long term. The Antiguo Palacio contributes to this through the creation of public spaces within its premises dedicated to local residents. Notable events, such as the formal dedication of a wing of the Palacio to the public by the Head of Government of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, in 2018, and the hosting of a rotating gallery of local artwork, exemplify this commitment. Furthermore, the plaza adjacent to the Palacio, known for hosting local protests and demonstrations, serves as a space for community collaboration and grassroots organizing.


The Palacio's programs, its renovation process, and regular maintenance all contribute to economic opportunity. A notable program is a social work employment center on the ground floor that provides temporary government jobs to low-income workers. Research and interviews conducted with various individuals connected to the Palacio revealed that every aspect of the building's operation is managed and maintained by local residents, thereby fostering local employment and economic opportunities.


The plaza surrounding the Palacio is a bustling hub of economic activity, being a major tourist destination and one of the most famous areas in the metropolis. The presence of restaurants, shopping centers, museums, and street vendors in the area further enhances its economic vibrancy.


Cultural preservation is another key aspect of the Palacio's role. The building houses a mini museum outlining its historical significance to the city and actively promotes contemporary culture through its interior courtyard gallery, which showcases local art, including works from youth groups and elementary schools. This approach to cultural preservation, also known as “place-keeping,” emphasizes the importance of maintaining space for evolving contemporary culture.


The significance of the Palacio in cultural preservation is internationally recognized, given its location in a UNESCO World Heritage neighborhood, the old city center of Mexico City, formerly Tenochtitlan.


The case study of the Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento encompasses the broad elements of scale, time, and sustainability, illustrating their interdependent relationships. This complexity, embedded in culture, site, history, and other factors, demonstrates that sustainable renovation of historical structures is not a linear process but involves a nuanced consideration of various intersecting factors. Designers and planners are thus encouraged to consider these aspects across different scales and timeframes to create holistic, sustainable solutions for the future.



 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Sometimes sustainable renovation requires peeling back layers of past renovations to get to the original underlying structure. It’s not always about adding on.

  • Historic buildings were often built to be comfortable without technology, which means that they can have embedded, hyper-local techniques that may have been forgotten over their lifecycles.

  • Historic preservation can limit what you can do to update a building, which has the potential to inspire new ways of adaptation.

  • Sustainability in the built environment comes from human behavior as well as structure: climate resilience includes social resilience.

  • These issues are intersectional, and solutions must be as well. In order to be truly sustainable, designs have to take into consideration elements like human behavior, culture, economics, and time.


 


Moving forward, we can’t keep building. The built environment accounts for a massive chunk of our global CO2 emissions, and if we continue to build at the current rate, by 2050 90% of building sector CO2 emissions will come from building materials. As interdisciplinary designers, and people on this earth, we need to learn how to embrace and adapt our historic, existing built environment and cultural histories in the present for the sake of the future.

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