Mexico City embodies both the problems and promise of globalization. It’s a sprawling, smog-choked colossus whose altitude alone (nearly 7,400 feet) can leave a newcomer dazed on arrival. Charming cobblestone streets are smothered by mobs shopping at black-market junk stalls. Traffic is reliably nightmarish. Local politics often resemble a telenovela farce. The ground is sinking at a rate of up to a foot per year. Garish wealth and grim poverty coexist uneasily, sometimes violently. But Mexico City is also a world-class urban center with an incontrovertibly cosmopolitan character, scented in recent years by a whiff of hipness. The art scene in particular—thanks to the emergence of contemporary stars like Gabriel Orozco and Miguel Calderón—is crackling. New galleries and private facilities like the Colección Jumex draw high-rolling collectors and recent art-school grads. Equally significant, the city has a tradition of elegant, progressive architecture that dates back to the 14th century.
In 1325 the Aztecs founded the capital of Tenochtitlan on an island in the now-drained Lake Texcoco. That city—connected to the mainland and other islands by an elaborate series of bridges and causeways—was so grand as to provoke the invading Spaniards, in the words of soldier-memoirist Bernal Díaz del Castillo, to react thusly: "These great towns…and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision…Indeed some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream…It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before." Nevertheless, it was razed by Hernán Cortés’s army in 1521, and its stones were promptly reappropriated to build Spanish-style haciendas in the streets radiating from the new central plaza, the Zócalo.
That original city-on-top-of-a-city, called the Centro Histórico or just "downtown," is where the young and restless now flock, but it’s only one of many overlapping urban and suburban layers in the 16 districts that comprise the D.F. (day-effay, short for Distrito Federal, as it’s informally known) proper. The sheer physical diversity is by turns exhilarating and disorienting: Within an hour, one can glimpse the stately deco and Beaux Arts avenues of the chic, café-dotted Condesa and Roma enclaves, the vast 20th-century masterpieces of Luis Barragán and Abraham Zabludovsky, and the glass-walled showpieces of contemporary starchitects like Enrique Norten in the Beverly Hills–like Polanco district. For help navigating the morass, Dwell enlisted a native who understands both the city’s past and its future: Hilario Galguera, an architect-turned–art dealer who opened his eponymous gallery in the San Rafael district last year, staging the first Damien Hirst exhibition in Latin America. We spent a day tooling around in his Suburban, trying to cover as much ground as possible in the 585-square-mile metropolis—which didn’t mean we couldn’t find time to stop for completo, tequila served straight up and alternated with sips of spicy red sangrita.
This city is dauntingly huge and home to some of the grandest buildings in Latin America. So why is our first stop a department store cafeteria?
The haciendas of the colonial era are impor-tant for understanding the development of Mexican architecture: These are huge spaces that are still intimate. Luis Barragán used these same elements, materials, and quality of space. In the decorations you can find a mixture of Indian and Spanish styles: Sanborns, this department store, is located in La Casa de los Azulejos [House of Tiles], which was built in 1596. It’s covered in handmade blue and white tiles and has an Orozco mural inside. It’s a great place to begin a walk through downtown.
Is the oldest part of the city really the coolest new neighborhood?
They’re trying to bring in the young people by converting the buildings into what they’re calling "artists’ lofts."
What else is a must-see in the Centro?
The cathedral, of course, is one of the best examples of the Mexican baroque. Walk to Casa de la Primera Imprenta, the first printing house in America, and to the José Luis Cuevas museum and the Santa Teresa la Antigua, a crumbling church dating back to the mid-17th century that is now a contemporary art space where they’ve held screenings of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle in the chapel. It’s a shame that the chaos of illegal commerce in the streets scares people away from visiting the area. Many of the buildings have original Aztec ruins and sculptures in the basements or courtyards.
And the pyramids at Teotihuacán, 25 miles outside the city, are still standing. Would you recommend a day trip?
Absolutely. It’s one of the most elegant examples of urban design I’ve seen in my life.
The same can’t be said for Mexico City.
The people in charge know nothing about history, about social development, about urban design, about administration, about the way the city has moved through the times, about traditions, about all the complexity involved in services, supplies, security, justice—anything. They create a university with free access for everybody that has the lowest standards of education. They build a second level for a freeway that was already unnecessary and design it to look like the pyramids of Giza. They buy thousands of police cars and weapons for illiterate policemen. They build housing projects in the central areas of the city because they want to repopulate those areas—areas that during the day host millions of people who work, study, or use services. They create festivals with no budgets and museums without collections. In any case, this city is so powerful that it continues even without leadership in the government. They are useless.
Much has been made of the developing art scene here.
There are really just two or three contemporary collections and six or seven good galleries. But we retain the aura of an art scene. Maybe it’s because we have been making art in this same spot for 3,000 years
The Condesa, where you live, has been internationally hyped for its galleries, cafés, design shops, and nightlife; some see it as the epicenter of the new Mexico City, while others complain that the area has lost its longstanding bohemian allure.
I hate to make this comparison, but it’s kind of like the SoHo of Mexico City. Good places to hang out, some new boutiques, many interesting people—but still a little bit pretentious. All of the young people came to this area after the earthquake of 1985, when the real estate prices went to the floor. It has beautiful parks like el Parque España and el Parque México, lots of new apartment buildings that utilize very good design, and art deco houses, many of them well-restored. The Condesa df, designed by India Mahdavi, is a brilliant little hotel; the rooftop bar has great sushi. It’s a beautiful and strangely peaceful neighborhood. I’ve been here for the past 15 years.
What about La Roma, just to the east?
La Roma is similar to what the Condesa used to be like. It has a great little bookshop, owned by the publisher Mario del Valle, where you can find exquisite limited-edition poetry books that are signed and illustrated with original prints. It also has some of the most beautiful art nouveau and ’30s deco buildings in North America—but they are in such bad shape that it makes you understand the chaos of the city. If this were Belgium or Spain or New York, they would be protected as national treasures.
The city is also a gold mine of 20th-century modern architecture. Which landmarks are essential viewing?
Luis Barragán’s studio is one of my favorite buildings; I like the visual connection of the garden with the spaces inside the house, the geometric presence of the stairs in the library and the open space in the rooftop, with the original colors. The Camino Real hotel by Ricardo Legorreta is a great public space; open, big, generous. Many people think it was designed by Barragán. The Museo Nacional de Antropología [National Anthropology Museum] by Pedro RamírezVázquez, built in 1964, was the first great emblem of the new contemporary architecture in Mexico. But the real reason to go is to see the magnificent sculpture of Coatlicue, the Aztec mother of gods and goddess of death and life, who wears a skirt of serpents. The campus of the UNAM (Ciudad Universitaria) in Coyoacán is an important site because the most significant Mexican architects at the time were asked to design a specific group of buildings corresponding to each institute or faculty, library, sport, or administrative building under an extraordinary master plan with absolute freedom. The newest buildings, specifically the ones corresponding to the Centro Cultural Universitario, are also extraordinary examples of Mexican contemporary architecture. Every building is significant for something special, but the former central library, the Rectoría, and the stadium could be the most significant because of the murals by Juan O’Gorman, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera.
Any great houses?
In upscale areas such as Bosque de Chapultepec, there are many—built by followers of such architects as Neutra with a profound sense of design and functionalism—but they are all behind walls. It would be interesting to do a book on the secret architecture of Mexico City. Ask your driver to take you through Bosques de las Lomas to see Casa Hernandez, a private home for the former chairman of Banamex designed by Agustín Hernandez, and Hernandez’s studio and residence. His work is about total risk and freedom. He’s like a Martian, no?
What’s your favorite new public building?
Ricardo Legorreta’s Plaza Juárez, which includes the foreign ministry and family court. The volcanic stone is the same used by Aztec and Colonial builders; even the iron gates echo the entry gates of traditional haciendas. I love the clean space of the main plaza and how it interacts with the fountain and how it works in relation with the street and the park in front. Unfortunately, this beautiful, big, empty space is filled with modular structures holding exhibitions organized by bureaucrats with no idea of what the beauty of an empty space means.
What else should no visitor miss?
On Sunday, go see a bullfight at Plaza México, the biggest bull ring in the world, and visit one of the markets, perhaps at Coyoacán, where you can get great things to eat. The Sunday flea market at La Lagunilla is still interesting, though it lacks the splendor of some years ago. The Bazar Plaza del Ángel at the Zona Rosa on Saturdays might be better these days.
What other shopping can you recommend?
Rodrigo Rivero Lake and Daniel Liebsohn run my two favorite antique galleries. A shop called Funcionalismo has furniture by Bertoia, Gropius, and Mies. There are some new design shops in the Condesa area where you can find some cutting-edge design ideas; if you look closely, you can find things such as a rare Pierre Chareau, for example. Librería Madero downtown has an extraordinary selection of art books and rare editions, specializing in Mexico. There is also this store for charros—Mexican horsemen, the refined version of the American cowboy—downtown, in front of the Museo de la Ciudad de México, where I have found magnificent belts embroidered with the thread of the agave plant (called pita), or with pure gold or silver thread, for my friend Damien Hirst. I think he’s the only person who is not a charro who can get away with wearing them, for obvious reasons.
What are some good places to eat?
I don’t like all this fusion cuisine. I love art and I also love to eat, but they are two totally different things, and when I see a dish that looks like an architectonic structure, I lose my appetite. I take all of my artists and clients to Casa Bell, a simple, elegant, fresh place with extraordinary service. You get what you ask for, very straightforward. Also, try Don Chon on Calle de Regina downtown for exotic pre-Hispanic food like flowers, insects, worms, and serpent meat.
I think I just lost my appetite. Let’s talk tequila: Where are the best places to drink?
There are two places downtown: La Nueva Opera Bar, one of the greatest bars in the world for its setting and service, and La Faena, which is decorated with bullfighters’ outfits that have been sitting there for 50 years. Everything is covered in dust. It’s brilliant.
And what’s your elixir of choice?
Herradura. Tequila is good for you.