The past, present and future of Mexican engineering

From the ancient Mayan and Aztec temples of its past, to how today’s engineers deal with seismic activity and challenging soil conditions, Mexico presents a fascinating architectural landscape. Here we examine a few examples, from ancient pyramids to cutting-edge technologies.

Past…

Dotted with ancient Mayan and Aztec archaeological wonders, the architecture of Mexico’s past still fascinates millions of tourists and scholars today. From the vast site of Unesco World Heritage site Teotihuacan, where the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun are linked by the Avenue of the Dead; to the Pyramid of Kukulcan El Castillo at Chichén Itzá – described as the skyscraper of its day – Mexico has an incredibly rich architectural heritage.

Teotihuacan – view of the Pyramid of the Moon from the Pyramid of the Sun

Teotihuacan - view of Pyramid

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Many sites display a remarkable understanding and appreciation of the movement of the sun and the equinoxes. The Pyramid of Kukulcan, for example, casts the shadow of a great feathered serpent twice a year during the spring and autumn equinox, which appears to slither down the sides of the pyramids. The pyramid also boasts some eerie in-built acoustic effects, which produce animal-like echos from the long stairways.

The dwellings of everyday residents were, of course, a lot simpler – generally constructed from earth, straw and stone – and many modern Mayans, who live in the Yucatán Peninsula area, still utilize these ancient techniques – with the addition of the occasional modern solar panel!

…Present

Every region has its unique set of challenges, and Mexico is no exception. With an unusual kind of volcanic soil, and a location which makes it particularly sensitive to the after-effects of earthquakes, engineers frequently have to come up with innovative solutions.

The horrific 1985 earthquake which devastated the capital and killed 9,500 people was a major wakeup call for the country – and a valuable lesson. Because brick structures withstood the quake better than cement buildings, regulations on which cements could be used were tightened up. Buildings in the 8 to 20 story range had suffered the most, so buildings of similar heights now had to include special steel lattices.

On March 20, 2012, those new regulations and guidelines were put to the test when a 7.4 magnitude quake struck. This time, although nerves and buildings were ratted – little damage and no deaths occurred.

The reason Mexico City is so vulnerable to earthquakes is an odd combination of soil type and a relic of the Aztec empire. Mexico City is actually built over an old lake, whose central island housed the seat of the Aztec empire. The lake was filled in over time, meaning the city sits on a kind of ‘landfill’. When an earthquake strikes, these looser soils vibrate and resonate, amplifying and spreading the effects.

Dealing with tricky soil conditions 

And while final construction on the New International Airport Mexico City (NIAMC) has now been cancelled, these same tricky soil conditions gave engineers from around the globe the chance to test some truly cutting-edge technologies – on a site which was seismically active, unstable, saturated – and sinking due to groundwater extraction. One of the most impressive feats achieved was stabilizing the area so that heavy trucks and earthmoving equipment could move around freely – a truly remarkable achievement considering the 30 to 60m deep mud on which the working platform was built.

After testing several options, all of which failed after four months, Neoloy geocells – known locally as geoceldas – turned out to be more than up to the challenge. After a year of heavy use, the pavement stabilized with geocells showed zero settlement, with no evidence of any rutting, hollows or bumps. The honeycomb-like structure of the geocell layers, which form what is called a cellular confinement system – also meant that the abundant local volcanic rock known as Tezontle could be used as infill material – vastly reducing construction time and costs.

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…and future

Via Verde

As one of the most congested cities on the planet, Mexico City is taking a pretty unique approach to help control pollution – turning highway pillars into vertical gardens. Via Verde (or Green Way) is a community-initiated project, which started with the collection of some 80,000 supporters in an online petition on the change.org platform. While some argue that this approach detracts from the bigger problem – discouraging the use of private cars – there’s little doubt that the results are visually pleasing!

The gardens collect rainwater to cover their needs, and it’s hoped that once complete, the Via Verde project will: “produce enough oxygen for more than 25,000 residents, filter more than 27,000 tonnes of harmful gas yearly, capture more than 5,000 kg of dust, and process more than 10,000 kg of heavy metals”.

It might not be the final solution, but it certainly showcases a forward-looking mindset for the Mexican cities of the future.

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