Positions - V. Mitch McEwen - Profound Modernity

Profound Modernity

V. Mitch McEwen

Mexico City, June, 2017. Photo: V. Mitch McEwen.

October 2017

In short, when the muck comes back up onto the sidewalks, it is memory flooding back—a certain long-buried historic past that re-emerges suddenly into the present in the form of a rag, a scrap, a remnant.
—Georges Didi-Huberman1

[W]hat do we do when questions are too big for everybody, and especially when they are much too grand for the writer, that is, for myself?
—Bruno Latour2

This article is not about the damage of the 2017 Central Mexico earthquake, but about the ground it shook. It is about how an imagination of a city above ground can travel from one place to another, and how that traveling can lead to a centuries-long demand to reshape territory. As a specific urban morphology, Mexico City can be defined as much by built structures and land-masses as by processes of democratic governance and histories of development. The extensive reshaping of what lies beneath our feet—sidewalks, streets, and building foundations—that modernity demands from urbanism is related not only to rational engineering but to speculation, image, the collapse of great distances, and the suppression—the literal burying—of maintenance. In Mexico City, one does not need to “uncover” anything, for even before the earthquake, the ground of Mexico City cracked open, much slower than an earthquake, but much faster than geology.

There is so much threatened in Mexico City that this text cannot begin to address even only that which is most important. The city is sinking; water is both drying up and mixing with human waste and pharmaceuticals; housing is both underbuilt and sprawling; air pollution threatens health. Yet, the city also hosts a globally recognized gallery scene and some of the most delicious food in the world. It is constructing huge infrastructure projects, a new airport, and multiple contemporary art museums. Mexico City presents an intense mixture of the most seductive cosmopolitanism and the failures of urban modernism. As such, the city becomes a site to zoom out and in at once, to hone in on various modernities in the long-term urbanization of a place. But to address Mexico City as a site of modernity, one must stop—as is often the case when discussing cities—at Paris, on the way. It is something of the hub, the layover, for an inquiry like this, at least one that seeks to chart itself along the tracks of what might also be considered modern.

There is an assumption that cities and technology chart time. Perhaps this has to do with archeology, or with the facility of Darwinism to morph from a biological paradigm to a social one. Whatever it is, we read cities very differently than, say, hair or clothing. With hairstyles, especially, we mark time, but not its progress. There are certain hair or clothing styles that we do not expect to inhabit the same space, and even more so the same time. A bustle and sweatpants, for example. Do cities not consist of matter like this? Perhaps the objects and materials that make up the systems of a city do not have to be self-consistent and contained, but can be dispersed and relational—in the way that sweatpants participate in the proliferation of not only a culture of athleticism but comfort and casual situations. Or in the way that hair is not sold as a commodity, as dresses or suits are sold—it grows from a body—yet its styling participates in a packaging of style that constitutes fashion. After decades of architecture jumping scales to participate in crafting the youngest, newest cities in the world (around the Gulf, especially), as well as erase swaths of some of the oldest cities (in China, especially), how might we actively theorize the temporality of cities in a material way?

A piece of rolled-up fabric channeling water coming out from a Parisian gutter downhill. Photo: Norman Ball.

Paris in the Gutter

For Georges Didi-Huberman, a fabric in the gutters of Paris, not unlike rolled-up sweatpants, leads to a particular conundrum around modernity and the archaic. These fabrics, about a meter wide, are rolled up and lie next to grates along the Paris streets—or they did extensively, until around the turn of the millennium.

It is a sort of drapery. It is to be found, I believe, only in Paris. Moreover, it is found all over Paris … It is a salvaged nondescript piece of fabric—sheet, old garment, carpet scrap—that street sweepers place against the sidewalk, to channel the flow of the “gutter” (as it used to be called) into drain inlets.3

Riffing off Walter Benjamin, especially part P of The Arcades Project, “The Streets of Paris,” for Didi-Huberman, the rag becomes an artifact that imbues the city with memory by relating the drapery of the represented body to the muck of the city. Visceral tensions between “archeology” and “modernity” are played out through this “archaic object” of the rolled-up sewer rag. Didi-Huberman relates the archaic not to history, but to the appearance of now, the present, as an origin for reality. The archaic marks an anachronism before it marks a specific time. Didi-Huberman calls this “the supposition of artistic time.” “It is from within the reminiscent Now that the origin appears, in conformity with a fundamental anachronism that modernist criticism has yet been unable to take on.”4

In Didi-Huberman’s reading of Benjamin and the sewer fabrics of Paris, the city becomes a series of artifacts and organs; “organs without a body.” Despite the nineteenth century Haussmanian boulevards and sewer system of modern Paris, the archaic mucky rags remain. For Didi-Huberman, these rags are potent objects of study, both for how they “return” as archaic objects into the temporality of modernism and how they inhabit images.

The artist [Alain Fleischer] would sometimes come back to rephotograph a “doormat” after letting a few weeks or a few months go by. What Walter Benjamin so aptly called the “intense work within things” then became visible from one image to the next.5

Photographs of these fabrics, in Didi-Huberman’s reading, reproduce a conundrum of the rags’ archaic return into the modern. It turns out, however, with some investigation into the Paris sewer system, that the rag and the underground system are symptomatic of each other, born of the same time period. Eugène Belgrand, Director of Water and Sewers of Paris under Baron Haussmann, designed a two-in-one water system for the new wide boulevards, with steel tubes carrying potable water elevated above a flow of untreated water from river Ourcq. These extensive underground tunnels are deep enough in section to house space for workers carts and standing room. To clean the gutters, the spigot controlling the flow of untreated non-potable water could be turned off (and on) block by block, after which soap would be poured in from the gutters above ground. The rolled-up fabric is laid in front of the gutters to channel the direction of this soapy water downhill or parallel to the curb, so that when it flows the water does not just puddle out and release down the same drain it originated from.6 (For anyone who has watched televised oil spills in shock that the containment of oil might be achieved by something that looks like large rolled up paper towels, you can imagine the late twentieth century surprise at old fabrics in the streets of Paris. They operate similarly to such “boom” directing oil spills, but in this case, directing the flow of water pouring out of a grate next to a curb.)7

The steel tubes of Paris’ potable water operate in tandem with non-potable water and rolled-up carpets. This is a nineteenth century greywater network that depends partially on the orchestration of fabric. Steel, that carbon-iron alloy, is such a major factor of nineteenth century technology that it is almost synonymous with the industrial revolution. Yet while the steel tube, like the frame of a skyscraper, became the symbol and system of modernity, the rolled-up fabric, a common domestic material virtually undifferentiated from a living room carpet, did not. Instead, it returns as a performance of the archaic. A schism therefore arises, between the modernity of systems and the modernity of images. In the former, we are to understand objects as large, monolithic and calculated—the sewer-line made of a steel tube with inputs and outputs, optimized lines between key points. In the latter, we are to understand modernity as the intense work between things—not only the fabric, but the relationships of the fabric to the sidewalk, to the viewer, the topography of the city, and to itself—in a previous moment, floating in a photograph.

The Nüremberg Map of Tenochtitlán, 1524, depicting the city as an island surrounded by water.

Modernity Down the Drain

Mexico City exists in these schisms of modernity—as much between system and image as between maintenance and development. It is built upon the lakebed of Texcoco, a saline lake and the site of Tenochtitlan, an Aztec settlement founded in the fourteenth century. After centuries of colonial development featuring canals and Spanish-inspired squares, Mexico City underwent dramatic transformations during the twentieth century. Today, major infrastructure projects abound that herald the steel tube and erase the rolled-up rags. These infrastructure projects re-produce extensive crises, while also mediating or maintaining them, including the sprawling of the city’s exurbs, low income, automobile-dependent housing, the depletion of water aquifers, and the collection and processing of water and sewage.

If there was one project in Mexico City that could be thought of as descendent of Haussmannian Boulevardisation in its expansiveness, destructive power, engineering rationality, and lurking militarism, it would be the Drenaje Profundo. The Drenaje Profundo is a subterranean network of 200 or so kilometers of underground tunnels, interceptors, emitters, and thousands of kilometers of pipes that flush out wastewater and rainwater from Mexico City. Inhabitants of Mexico City colloquially blame the drainage of lakes, rivers, and canals of Mexico City on Spanish colonial practices, including eighteenth century canals, or even the colonial drainage plans of 1555.8 But it was only during the twentieth century with the official completion of Drenaje Profundo in 1973 (yet whose plans can be traced back to at least 1940) that Mexico City staged the culmination of such a large-scale drainage project. Drenaje Profundo reshaped Texcoco Lake in service of a certain idea of ground. It aimed to prepare the city for its complete territorialization by automobiles and tall buildings—both idealized as existing on foundations of firm, dry land.

It would be impossible to summarize the cascading effects of Drenaje Profundo, among which possibly include the large earthquake of 1985 and, more certainly, the dramatic sinking of the city by almost ten meters.9 The system drains the lakebed, but no counter system recharges the aquifer. Drenaje Profundo is designed to flush its water out to the Gulf of Mexico via tunnels hundreds of meters below grade. This sinks the city and dries the aquifer a bit more each year, which in turn requires wells that pump from the aquifer to increase pressure or depth, sinking the city even further. Its contents are mixed along the way, so that even if you could reach the rainwater that gets caught—a potentially valuable source of potable water—it would already be contaminated with sewage. Additionally, emitters and such are never fast enough to flush the rainwater out in the worst rain storms, which are increasingly frequent, due to climate change. The city still floods.

A short documentary film titled Construcción del Drenaje Profundo Ciudad de México, 1973 shows a world populated only by male scientists, engineers, and laborers deploying technologies of warcraft (dynamite) and space travel (pressure chambers). These coordinated efforts, edited into thirty minutes, culminate in an infrastructure project that—even in the watercolor and pencil animations of the documentary—look remarkably just like a much larger version of the colonial infrastructure that preceded it.10 Furthermore, a television series by the name of Drenaje Profundo, a thriller that aired for two seasons starting in 2010, picked up on the drama and sublime scale of the drainage network, with major characters including both an evil scientist who kidnapped thousands of young men in the sixties and a girl who lives in the drain.11

Photograph of a tunnel inside the system of Drenaje Profundo.

The City that Stirs (and Sinks and Splits and Floods)

Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time…
—Mierle Laderman Ukeles12

Where do we end up in Mexico City when guided not by images or narratives of progress, but by the visceral real, the substrate of the city? Following Benjamin, Didi-Huberman claims the street rags to be evidence of a “city that stirs”; an object or image that becomes a “motif of a tactile sensuality of the street, a street that is organic to the point of revealing, when it unfolds, its ultimate reality—a visceral reality.”13 The reality of the streets and sidewalks in Mexico City stir so viscerally that they rip open. It is hard to describe the ubiquity of sidewalk construction and road replacement throughout the city. Even streets that are not under construction might be torn open, simply by the effect of subsidence.

For decades, ecologists have studied Mexico City’s sinking as an effect of its draining. The city sinks about one meter every three years. An aquatic ecologist summarized the effects as dire: “Of particular note have been drainage basin activities, diversion of inflows, pollution and over-exploitation of groundwater and biological resources (especially fish and waterfowl). The major effects of these activities are water shortages, soil erosion, salinization, dust storms, sinking ground, poor water quality and decreased biological resources…”14

The Drenaje Profundo has so thoroughly drained the city that—even as the streets and sidewalks are ripped open—the lakebed water still does not deliver enough potable water to Mexico City residents. Instead, potable water is delivered by truck to many residents and even hospitals, carted in from beyond the city borders. There are also supplements to the Deep Drain—additional wells, additional drains, longer canals. The Drenaje Profundo—in both its incompleteness (it has not yet entirely obliterated the Lake) and its excesses (draining so thoroughly that the aquifer dries up overtime)—demands maintenance of a kind that does not distinguish between the system’s failures and its supplements.

This situation of Mexico City’s deep drain becomes instructive with regards to the modernities of networks, especially the relationship between systems and their own visceral effects. It is perhaps easier in democracies to develop than to maintain. Or, perhaps, development benefits capital whereas maintenance valorizes labor. American historians Andrew Russel and Lee Vinsel recently published an op-ed in the New York Times blaming the lack of maintenance for public transit in America’s most populous city on a fetish of technology.15 There is an issue here of maintenance versus control. When solutions are framed in terms of self-consistent technologies and linear temporalities pushing forward toward increased control, the repetitive and labor-intensive participants in modernity are easily erased. The street rags of Paris are instruments not of control, but of hunches and gestures. Where should the water go? That way. Down. Nudge the roll of fabric with your foot. See what happens. Come back and check on it in a few days. This is maintenance. This is what the Drenaje Profundo has been draining out of Mexico City.

Feminist art of the 1960s and 1970s addresses the schism that Didi-Huberman reads as a rupture in time—a return of the archaic—as a schism in processes. Where Didi-Huberman reads the fabrics of Paris sewers as an object differentiated by time, labor-oriented art offers the lens of maintenance. Modernity requires, in this reading, both development and maintenance. The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote the MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969!, as a “Proposal for an exhibition: ‘Care,’” in Philadelphia in 1969.

Development: pure individual creation, the new, change,
progress, advance, excitement, fight or fleeing

Maintenance: keep the dust off the pure individual creation,
preserve the new, sustain the change,
protect progress, defend and prolong the advance,
renew the excitement, repeat the fight16

Ukeles drafted the Maintenance Art Manifesto partially as a challenge of minimalist practices of the 1960s. “I felt that they [Richard Serra and Donald Judd] were falling into the same trap as the rest of this damn culture, which couldn’t see the whole structures or cultures of workers that made the kind of work that invented these processes and refined them.”17 She even crafted a performance in 1973 titled Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside that documented her washing outdoor steps with a pail of water and rags.

To return, for a moment to Paris. This might be an opportune moment to note that the colonial techniques and expertise created in the Spanish draining of Mexico City were exported back to Europe. According to historian of science Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Mexico City served as an early laboratory of European innovation—not only in calculations, but, more importantly, in the forms of collaborative practices and collectivizing of knowledge.

What emerged in Mexico City from the 1550s to the 1610s was a set of procedures that validated empirical and collaborative practices, outside guilds and circles of experts, for the production of knowledge that benefited the community at large—in this case, Mexico City.18

Perhaps the nuanced work of the fabrics in Paris’ street gutters can be traced back to this colonial knowledge in Mexico City, a knowledge that Barrera-Osorio argues was borne specifically from a collaboration across racial and class differences—cross collaborations that did not yet occur in Europe.

Promotional rendering for Corredor Cultural Chapultepec.

The Deep Image

If the Drenaje Profundo is most effective as an image machine—the image of a dry, stable, modern city, one deploying capital and technology and heavy machinery—the people of Mexico City are noticeably starting to protest its images. An example of such is with the Corredor Cultural Chapultepec (CCC), a project for an elevated pedestrian-way on a major boulevard. Designed by Mexico City-based FR-EE, the proposal appropriated the urban form of the Highline, and its public-private partnership financing aped the real estate effects of the Highline. The CCC proposed an elevated pedestrian promenade along a 1.3-kilometer stretch of Avenida Chapultepec, a major avenue between two of Mexico City’s most well-known neighborhoods, Juarez and La Roma.19 The project extends the image logic of the Drenaje Profundo: if firm dry ground is not modern enough, the Corredor Cultural offered an elevated one. At the same time, the proposal depends upon the symptoms of the Drenaje Profundo—the constant ripping up and repair of Mexico City’s sidewalks—to stage its reasonable rejection of the existing pedestrian grade.

Mixing commercial retail and the privatization of public space, the Corredor Cultural Chapultepec was nicknamed #shopultepec by its critics. One petition against the CCC that can be found on Change.org notes the privatization of both the pedestrian zone and the utilities below, as well as the lack of public engagement in the design process.20 These concerns sound dislocated from matters of geology and ecology—whether the sinking of the city or the extinction of lake species accompanying the large-scale draining of the city. However, Bruno Latour’s ideas of political ecology provide a perspective for tying together these concerns of the city’s maintenance, the stirring of its life, and the defense of public space. Latour notes that “many practical disputes in ecology are always a question of defending a particular territory, a particular aspect of national heritage, a particular tradition or a territory against the de-sensitized, de-territorialized, stateless, monstrous character of an economic or technical enterprise.”21

The effects of development-as-drainage—from the sinking of the city and the pollution of well water to the privatization of water and the cracking open of the city’s streets—have extended far beyond the engineering goals of Drenaje Profundo. These failures may be so huge that—as Didi-Huberman hopes in his aesthetic consideration of the archaic return—they become masterpieces.22 One can search here for what of modernity might be worthy of becoming antiquity, even in spectacular crisis. But perhaps antiquity has snuck in where it doesn’t belong, in reading the fabrics of Paris gutters as archaic remnants rather than objects for manipulating flows. It is difficult to wait for the system to be forgotten so that it can return as archaic when the constant re-development of the system cannot be separated from its operation.

The image of the future of Mexico City continues to be staged on the (somewhat) dry ground of Drenaje Profundo. The new Mexico City airport designed by Foster + Partners and FR-EE will be built on 470 square kilometers of Lake Texcoco lakebed. In the words of Foster and Partners: “The new airport is located in the Lake Texcoco area of Mexico City. This region, previously the site of a lake, comprises extremely soft wet ground.”23 The architects then cite the subsidence as a rationale for the highly engineered light-weight long-span steel roof. The future airport is exactly where the Drenaje Profundo succeeds the best: the site is ready and controlled just enough so that the image and funding can be staged. The Drenaje Profundo is an image machine.

Baron George Haussmann, section for the reconstruction of Boulevard Sébastopol, Paris, ca. 1850-1870.

Towards a Political Ecology and the Maintenance of an Urban Species

The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species survival systems and operations: equilibrium.

That is what maintenance is, trying to listen to the hum of living. A feeling of being alive, breath to breath.
—Mierle Laderman Ukeles24

The most transformative aspect of Haussmann’s Paris, perhaps the most modern, could very well be in how infrastructure radically changed olfactory expectations of the city. Cities had for so long—from their waterfronts to their street gutters and (lack of) garbage collection—stank terribly. They stank so badly that no one expected them not to stink. Up until the eighteenth century, Paris’s water channels and poorly-sealed containment pits acted somewhat like a much smaller version of those in Mexico City today, where human waste is collected, superficial water tables are degraded, and well water is polluted. Cesspools were emptied by drainers and fecal matter resold to farmers as fertilizer. As a non-visual phenomenon, urban stench may be poorly historicized. In fact, perhaps the modern aestheticization of the city—the picturesque control of the boulevards and building envelopes—can be understood as merely a side effect, a supplemental feature to the revolution in smell. When the street does not reek of waste, you can slow down and look.

If the most modern invention of the Haussmann boulevard was, perhaps, not “light and air” but rather the containment of stench and the humble maintenance of streets, what archaic technologies and alternative modernities lie dormant in the streets today? What was forgotten, and stands to return— even though it never left and may not even be that old? Mexico City—as it grapples with processes that produce counter effects at accelerating rates—might be a model of modernity’s limits. As Latour notes about the gap between local politics and global ecology, “We have problems, but we don’t have the publics that go with them.”25 In these local conflicts over commerce and streets, the burgeoning of what Bruno Latour has called the seventh regime of political ecology—detached from romanticism of the natural and liberated from the rational humanist subject—might be witnessed. This city stews with objects and matter, already politicized, amidst legacy systems entangled with muck.

Latour offers a perspective on the politics of ecology and objects that allows us to consider something like Drenaje Profundo in the realm of politics without erasing its role as an image machine and design platform. Latour argues:

[P]olitical ecology cannot be inserted into the various niches of modernity. On the contrary, it requires to be understood as an alternative to modernization. To do so one has to abandon the false conceit that ecology has anything to do with nature as such. It is understood here as a new way to handle all the objects of human and non-human collective life.26

The task of political ecology in Mexico City would not be to return the city to a natural lake that can host its local species, which are rapidly going extinct. Neither would it be to simply resist every privatization of public space enabled by both the ground’s dryness and sinking. The task of political ecology in Mexico City demands an urban design for an alternate world, in which the public apparatuses of Mexico City’s drainage projects can become another kind of environment, capable of negotiating various uncertain survival of species, including our own. If there is any city in the twenty-first century that will stage a new political ecology for a maintenance of the human species, Mexico City will need to be one of them. Or if we fail, it will be here, too.


Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Drapery of Sidewalks,” in Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History, ed. Philip Ursprung (Lars Müller Publishers, 2003), 269–278.


Bruno Latour, “Waiting for Gaia. Composing the common world through arts and politics,” (2011), .


Ibid., Didi-Huberman (2003), 269.


Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Supposition of the Aura: The Now, The Then, and Modernity,” in Walter Benjamin and History, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Bloomsbury, 2005).


Ibid., Didi-Huberman (2003), 271.


See .


See .


See Antonio Barrera-Osorio, “Experts, Nature, and the Making of Atlantic Empiricism,” Osiris, Vol 25, 1 (2010).


See Román Alvarez, “Structure of the Basin of Mexico City and its Relation to Destruction in the Earthquake of 1985,” Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (September, 1988), ; .


See .


See and .


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, 1969, .


Ibid., Didi-Huberman (2003), 271.


Javier Alcocer and W. D. Williams, “Historical and recent changes in Lake Texcoco, a saline lake in Mexico” International Journal of Salt Lake Research Vol 5, 1 (March 1996): 45–61, .


Andrew Russel and Lee Vinsel, “Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance,” New York Times (July 22, 2017), .


Ibid., Ukeles.


Bartholomew Ryan, “Manifesto for Maintenance: A Conversation With Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” Art in America (March 20, 2009), .


Ibid. Barrera-Osorio.


Alexandra Brandt, “Innovative Solutions to Mexico City’s Urbanization Problematic,” Infrastructure Mexico (September 7, 2015), .


See .


Ibid., Latour.


See Georges Didi-Huberman, “Picture = Rupture’: Visual Experience, Form and Symptom according to Carl Einstein,” trans. C.F.B. Miller, Papers of Surrealism, Issue 7 (2007), .


See .


Ibid., Ukeles.


Ibid., Latour.


Bruno Latour, “To modernize or to ecologize? That’s the question” in Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millenium, eds. Noel Castree and Bruce Braun (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 221–242, .

Positions is an independent initiative of e-flux Architecture.

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Positions is an initiative by e-flux Architecture.

V. Mitch McEwen is Assistant Professor at Princeton University School of Architecture, principal of McEwen Studio, and co-founder of A(n) Office, an architecture collaborative of studios in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn.


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