Depave Paradise

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When you’re on a highway, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, all cities start to feel the same. It’s easy to forget that you’re in a particular place on the Earth’s surface, a coast, or a bay, or a desert, or a plain. Mexico City is one of the biggest, busiest, traffickiest cities in the world, but it’s also a highland valley over 7,000 feet in the air, surrounded on all sides by volcanoes. Sometimes these volcanoes spit up a little fire and smoke to remind people of the volatile geology all around them. But about a millennium and a half ago, a volcano called Xitle fully erupted. Molten lava poured into the valley, destroying an indigenous city, and covering 30 square miles in a bed of volcanic stone.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Today, most of this lava field has been paved over with roads, and buildings, and parking lots – devoured by the largest city in North America, Mexico City.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmet FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But in the midst of all this urban sprawl, there’s one spot where you can still get a good look at that old volcanic rock.

Pedro Camarena:
So, you can see now, in 2019, rocks that are exactly the same as 1,600 years ago.

Roman Mars:
This is Pedro Camarena. He’s a landscape architect, and we’re in the Pedregal de San Angel Ecological Reserve. It’s a small park in south Mexico City that contains the last remnants of the old lava field. Looking down at the ground, you can see swirls and folds in the rock, how the lava was moving as it cooled all those centuries ago.

Pedro Camarena:
Yeah, you can see that, that ripples.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, oh yeah, look at that.

Pedro Camarena:
In Spanish acordeones.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In English, El Pedregal means the rocky place, and it’s a fitting name. The ground here is made of purplish black stone, and covered in bright green lichen. Dry brown grasses are growing out through the cracks, but Pedro says that when the seasonal rains come, this whole landscape will transform.

Pedro Camarena:
In rainy season it turns green, and a lot of colors – from orange, red, yellow, purple, blue – a lot of white flowers. So, this is beautiful.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Pedro Camarena is probably the Pedregal’s number one fan.

Pedro Camarena:
Here in the Pedregal there are 300 of different species of plants. There are two or three endemic species. Only here, in this place, you can find that. One is an orchid, and the other one is a cactus.

Emmett FitzGerald:
There’s also a tiny little frog.

Pedro Camarena:
That only appears in the rainy season, but by night. But some nights, you can stay here in this place and listen to the frog, the little frog (frog sounds). Very, it’s magical. And many people, even me, are very crazy about this landscape.

Roman Mars:
Pedro is not the first architect to fall in love with the Pedregal. Back in the 1940s, this lava field became the muse of the great Mexican modernist, Luis Barragán.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Barragán is a giant of Mexican architecture. He’s famous for designing simple, cubic houses, painted with bold, bright colors – yellows, and reds, and fuchsias. His vivid, single color walls are like the perfect Instagram background. And Barragán designed some of his most interesting houses among the rocks of the Pedregal.

Roman Mars:
But in attempting to build harmoniously with this volcanic landscape, he may have accidentally led to its demise, and contributed to an ecological crisis that threatens the future of the entire city.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Luis Barragán moved to Mexico City from Guadalajara in the late 1930s. The city was in the middle of a building boom and amidst all that construction and growth, the Pedregal, about 10 miles south of the city center, was one of the few places that remained completely undeveloped. Barragán used to explore the lava field on weekend hikes with his artist friends.

Keith Eggener:
Barragán, like a lot of other artistically-minded people, including Diego Rivera, became enamored of this place.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Keith Eggener He is an architectural historian at the University of Oregon who wrote a book about Luis Barragán. He says that Barragán fell in love with the Pedregal for its physical beauty, but also because the landscape felt distinctly Mexican.

Keith Eggener:
It was a place that the Spanish had never tamed, had never colonized. It was a place with views of the volcanoes that were so central to a lot of Mexican mythology, and Mexican history.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Barragán decided to build there.

Keith Eggener:
He came up with the plan of building houses, modern houses, and gardens on this, again, very distinct volcanic site.

Emmett FitzGerald:
He called the project Los Jardines del Pedregal.

Roman Mars:
For years this uneven, rocky landscape deterred would be developers, but Barragán saw the lava as an asset.

Keith Eggener:
And rather than breaking up the lava, and carting it away, and trying to level off the ground, as other people might have done, Barragán developed this idea to keep much of the lava and the native vegetation in place.

Roman Mars:
This idea was inspired by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed that the design of a building should reflect the landscape on which it was built. Just as Wright designed his famous Fallingwater house around a spectacular waterfall in Pennsylvania, Barragán wanted to design homes inspired by this majestic lava field.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so, he decided that all houses in the Pedregal should be simply, and modern, and made from basic local materials. Streets should follow the natural contours of the rock, and lots should be kept really large, as much as 30,000 square feet.

Keith Eggener:
And that houses only take up a relatively small percentage of those lots, the rest to be left to gardens.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Barragán was obsessed with gardens. This could be apocryphal, but supposedly he used to say I don’t build houses with gardens, I build gardens with houses. And he wanted the gardens of the Pedregal to be odes to this unique volcanic landscape.

Keith Eggener:
A substantial portion of the original lava should be left on site, and only small patches of lawn might be used. Distinct native trees and shrubs were to be left in place and cultivated.

Roman Mars:
Barragán began working in the Pedregal in the late 1940s. His first houses were carefully nestled among the rocks and integrated seamlessly with the volcanic landscape. The gardens featured little stairways cut into the stone that allowed you to move through the space. There’s even a spot in one of the houses where a huge piece of lava comes through the wall.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And if all this sounds pretty expensive, well, it was. Barragán’s goal was to convince wealthy professionals to escape the crowded, noisy city center in favor of the fresh air and beautiful scenery of the lava field, and he hired a photographer named Armando Salas Portugal to really capture the vibe. Salas Portugal’s beautiful photos of well-to-do Mexican families wandering through the rock gardens helped sell Barragán’s lava lifestyle to the Mexico City elite.

Pedro Camarena:
You can live in the paradise, very exotic place with a lot of lava.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Here’s Pedro Camarena again.

Pedro Camarena:
Nobody’s around you. You came with your Cadillac ’57 or your Buick ’59, no? And you looked like a Cary Grant or something like that. So, many people say yes, we want to live like that way, no?

Roman Mars:
I mean, it sounds pretty cool to me.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right? You’re living in this rugged wilderness just a short drive from your downtown office job, like a sophisticated cowboy.

Pedro Camarena:
Yeah, but new cowboys, with a Cadillac instead of a horse, no? If I have money at that time, I for sure bought a house in the Pedregal, of course.

Roman Mars:
If you aren’t able to visit Mexico City, Armando Salas Portugal’s photographs are probably the best way to experience Barragán’s architecture, and his vision of harmony between building and landscape. But the truth is, that vision never really came to pass in the real world.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the early 1950s, Barragán got bought out of the project, and soon all his utopian ideas about how the landscape should be developed went out the window. The city was growing at a breakneck pace, and here was this source of cheap land.

Keith Eggener:
And so, you can see in these aerial photographs of El Pedregal in 1950, there’s a few houses and roads there. By 1959, the place is densely packed with houses and very much built up.

Roman Mars:
The houses got bigger, and the gardens got smaller, and newcomers to the area didn’t seem to share Barragán’s reverence for the lava. They covered up the rocks with driveways, and lawns, and gardens full of non-native plants.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And it’s easy to think about this story as a kind of eco-architectural paradise lost, in part because of the way people talk about Luis Barragán.

Keith Eggener:
He’s kind of come down to us in the architecture hagiography, in the literature, as this mystic monk sort of remote from modern life in many ways, and there’s certainly truth in that. But at the same time, he was also a very successful businessman, even a rather rapacious real estate developer.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Eggener says that Barragán knew what he was doing.

Keith Eggener:
That paradise was always very ephemeral. It was never really meant to last, and again, I don’t think Barragán really expected it to last.

Roman Mars:
Between the ’50s and the ’80s, nearly the entire lava field was developed. Today, about a half million people live on top of the Pedregal. There are fancy neighborhoods and poor ones, but aside from the little preserve where our story began, the lava rock is basically gone, and it wouldn’t be fair to put that all on Luis Barragán. But the irony is, as much as he genuinely loved that lava landscape, in a way, he facilitated its demise.

Pedro Camarena:
That project of beautiful houses in Jardines del Pedregal, they trigger the urbanization in south Mexico City, and then starts to develop – urban develop – this area, and that’s the fatal error.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Pedro Camarena thinks that developing El Pedregal was a fatal error not just because the rocks look pretty, or were home to some cool plants and animals. He says that covering up this unique geology contributed to a deeper problem, an ecological crisis that’s playing out in Mexico City today.

Roman Mars:
A crisis rooted in the city’s extremely complicated relationship with water.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
Yeah, for Mexico City, the trouble with water is quite complex, and it all starts in the moment that someone decided to build a city upon a lake.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Loreta Castro Reguera.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
I’m Loreta Castro Reguera. I’m an architect and an urban designer, and I do design. Design for the city, and design with water.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Castro Reguera says that the valley of Mexico is actually more of a basin.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
It’s a closed basin. It’s like a bowl, which has no natural water exits. So, when it rains, all the runoff concentrates in the lower areas of the basin, and this bowl starts filling up.

Roman Mars:
For centuries, the basin was filled with a series of rainwater lakes. The Aztecs built their capital, Tenochtitlan on an island in the middle of one of those lakes. They built causeways, and canals, and floating gardens. It was like the Venice of Mesoamerica.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But when Spanish conquistadors sacked Tenochtitlan, they rebuilt the city as if it was just any old city in Spain – with a centralized grid.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
So, that’s when real trouble starts happening.

Roman Mars:
Nearly every year, when the seasonal rains came, the colonial city would flood, and we’re talking serious flooding. After the flood of 1629, Mexico City was underwater for four years.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
And in that moment the government, the viceroy, decided to open the first canal that would start draining the lake system.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Over the course of the next several centuries Mexico City built an elaborate system of tunnels designed to evacuate rainwater out of the basin and prevent flooding. Little by little, the city drained the lakes and expanded out over the dry lake bed.

Roman Mars:
But Mexico City also suffers from a second water problem, one that seems almost paradoxical, even as it gets inundated every year with rains and floods. The city is running out of water.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the middle of the 20th century, Mexico City’s population exploded, and all of those people needed to drink. The seasonal rain could have provided a reliable source of fresh water, but Mexico City had just built a massive system of infrastructure designed specifically to get rid of it.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
And now, with the 23 million inhabitants in the city, there is not enough drinking water to satisfy the necessities of all this enormous population.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Today, many neighborhoods in Mexico City don’t have reliable running water, and then, when the rainy season comes, those same neighborhoods get far too much water all at once.

Loreta Castro Reguera:
So, we live in this paradox of urban floods and water scarcity.

Roman Mars:
To solve the scarcity issue, the city took two approaches. They piped water in from far away, and they pumped it up from the aquifer below ground.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which, in turn, created a third problem.

Manuel Perlo Cohen:
In the early ’20s of last century, some engineers saw that the city was sinking.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Manuel Perlo Cohen. He’s Director of the Institute for Social Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Manuel Perlo Cohen:
Some buildings sunk five centimeters per year, and some of them 10.

Roman Mars:
The reason was pretty straightforward, as more and more people took more and more water out of the aquifer every year, the muddy lake bed soil began to crack and crumble like a stale cookie.

Manuel Perlo Cohen:
And that’s why the city began to sink.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Today, Mexico City is pumping water out of the aquifer twice as fast as it can replenish and the city has sunk about 30 feet over the past century. If you walk around Mexico City today, you can see this in the landscape. Crooked skylines, sinkholes, and places where the ground is completely uneven.

Roman Mars:
Mexico City is flooded, thirsty, and sinking. And climate change is only going to make all of it more extreme. It’s an impossibly complicated problem, with no easy solution.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But, with impossibly complicated problems, you have to start somewhere, and Pedro Camarena thinks that one place worth considering is the lava fields of El Pedregal.

Pedro Camarena:
So, let’s take a look, what is the Pedregal? I’m going to show you. I’m going to show you why this water run very, very easy in this lava field.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Pedro is one of several architects who have started thinking about ways the city could recharge its groundwater aquifer.

Roman Mars:
In most places, recharge just isn’t possible. The ground beneath the old lake is made of clay that retains water on the surface and prevents it from falling underground, but in a few places around the edges of the old lake, the landscape is rocky and permeable.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And you think El Pedregal is probably the best place.

Pedro Camarena:
Is the best place, of course, because lava fields are the most permeable geology on earth.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Back in the Pedregal Ecological Reserve, Camarena bends down and points to a piece of lava rock.

Pedro Camarena:
Take a look. There’s a lot of holes. There’s a lot of…

Emmett FitzGerald:
Pores.

Pedro Camarena:
… pores, very porous stone, thank you.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It looks like one of those pumice stones that people use in the shower to scrape dead skin off their feet.

Pedro Camarena:
Yeah, more or less.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Pedro says that for years, when rain fell on the Pedregal, the water would easily trickle down, through this porous stone, into the aquifer below ground.

Pedro Camarena:
Can you think, if came a big, big storm, do you think you can find a lagoon here? Of course not.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But the same cannot be said for most places on the old lava field, because apart from this ecological reserve, nearly all of the porous volcanic rock is gone, covered up by layers of impermeable concrete. And so, when the rains come, the water just runs off the pavement into the sewer system, but Pedro Camarena wants to change that.

Pedro Camarena:
The only thing we have to do is to de-pave the rocky fields in the south. We have 80 square kilometers of big lava field. Obviously, it’s very, very urbanized now, but we can de-pave. Do you understand what I mean?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah.

Emmett FitzGerald:
What he means is get rid of all the unnecessary pavement that’s plugging up all those volcanic pores. Camarena wants to de-pave parking lots and medians, and create volcanic infiltration zones where rainwater could flow back to the aquifer. You have to be cautious. You can’t create an infiltration zone next to a toxic waste dump or you could contaminate the whole water supply, but Pedro wants to carefully peel back the city’s concrete skin.

Pedro Camarena:
To expose the lava and try to restore the lava field.

Roman Mars:
Because the old lava field is still there, beneath all the asphalt.

Emmett FitzGerald:
If you go to Los Jardines del Pedregal today, the upscale neighborhood that Luis Barragán started back in the ’40s, you can catch a glimpse of this buried landscape. Little pieces of lava poking through the grass and the concrete. For the most part, though, it looks like other affluent neighborhoods in Mexico City, a lot of lawns with sprinklers.

Pedro Camarena:
So, they prefer to put a lot of grass, and let me tell you, they spent, nowadays, they spend a lot of money in irrigation.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Pedro wants to shift how people in Mexico City think about gardening. A while back he was asked to design a garden to go with a public art sculpture that was built in the Pedregal 40 years earlier, and instead of planting a bunch of flowers and shrubs, he just started digging.

Pedro Camarena:
So, I create that garden only by excavating, digging.

Roman Mars:
Gardening by subtraction. Pedro calls this landscape archeology.

Pedro Camarena:
We start with three guys, old guys, digging, no? Like archeological site. They start to remove plants, then soil, and then starts to appear the lava field. Beautiful.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s a lot more work than planting tulips, but Pedro says that people in the Pedregal can go landscape archeology on their own property – uncover the lava, and build Barragán style dry rock gardens that don’t require any irrigation – but it’s a tough sell. People want gardens that look like Versailles.

Pedro Camarena:
Yes, we are very dependent, emotionally dependent on Europe. We still design gardens like in France. I mean, it’s ridiculous, because we don’t have the landscape of France. We don’t have the weather. We don’t have the soil. I mean, it’s very different.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Pedro told me that there is one house in Los Jardines del Pedregal where you can still see a true Mexican lava rock garden. It’s actually one of the first houses built in the area, designed by Barragán himself back in the ’40s.

Roman Mars:
The property underwent a lot of changes in the decades since, but a few years ago a new owner, a man named Caesar Cervantes, decided to restore the house to the way it had looked in Barragán’s day, and Pedro convinced him to uncover the original lava rock.

Pedro Camarena:
And he did it. And now everybody told me, Pedro, you have to see. You have to go to Caesar house to see what’s happened there.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Have you seen it?

Pedro Camarena:
No. I asked him and he said come whenever you want, but I don’t have time.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I, on the other hand, have plenty of time.

Caesar Cervante:
I am Caesar Cervantes, and we are at Casa Pedregal.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Caesar grew up in this neighborhood, and he says that back then no one really wanted to see visible lava in their garden.

Caesar Cervante:
And I remember even my father covering, or getting rid of visible lava, favoring grass, or a swimming pool, or things like that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
When Caesar bought this house, the previous owners had covered up the original Barragán rock garden with an Astro Turf putting green, but Caesar and his team started doing a little landscape archeology.

Caesar Cervante:
We start removing and removing layers.

Roman Mars:
Layers of grass, fake grass, and cement, and slowly, the original lava field began to reemerge.

Caesar Cervante:
As it was coming back to its original condition, it was really, really breathtaking.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And it really is. Caesar kindly let me take a tour of his home with a guide named Mariana Asqueda. Before we got to the garden, Mariana showed me the house. The walls are thick and heavy, and painted this delightful shade of pink. As she opened the door, I was yammering on about something or other, and the house kind of took my breath away.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The project, the gardens of Pedregal, what was he… Wow. Wow, it just, it sounds so quiet.

Mariana Asqueda:
Yes, I know, is one characteristic of Barragán. You can feel the silence, the tranquility.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. It feels almost like a church.

Mariana Asqueda:
Yes.

Emmett FitzGerald:
After showing me around the house, Mariana led me out back to the garden. We scrambled down a rocky path, and then suddenly we’re surrounded on all sides by porous black lava. It was unlike any garden I’ve ever been in, more like a nature preserve filled with Mexican plants and animals.

Mariana Asqueda:
Like succulents, like cactus.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I mean, look, there’s a…

Mariana Asqueda:
Yes.

Emmett FitzGerald:
… there’s like lizards right there, and…

Mariana Asqueda:
Yes, have many lizards everywhere.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, it feels wild.

Mariana Asqueda:
Yes, completely wild.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s really beautiful.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Caesar says that when his neighbors first saw the rock, it was clear that they didn’t even know they’d lived on top of a lava field.

Caesar Cervante:
They say what, what did you do here? Where did you bring this lava from? How did it appear here?

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Pedro Camarena hopes that if more people see these rocks, maybe they’ll follow suit, and dig up the lava in their own backyards. Rock gardens in rich neighborhoods are not going to solve the water crisis, not even close, but every bit of lava that gets uncovered is a tiny step in the right direction towards rebalancing the city’s relationship with its groundwater.

Roman Mars:
A huge thank you this week to the fantastic environmental reporter, Zoë Schlanger. Her great piece in Quartz about Mexico City’s water problems clued us in to Pedro Camarena and his work. Zoë has written a lot of great stories about water, and climate change, and other environmental issues. You can find links to more of her work on our website at www.99pi.org.

Comments (2)

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  1. Thanks for this episode about my city. I just wanted to comment that the lava is not gone at all. I can see it everywhere at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where I work. My mother in law’s neighborhood is built on top of it, with big chunks of rippled black rock showing. People come to UNAM to practice climbing on 30-foot lava walls. The lava is not going anywhere.

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