Amid the chaos that is Mexico City lies a monument of breathtaking proportions. Standing at 67 metres (220 ft) in height it is the tallest triumphal arch anywhere in the world, beating the much more well known Arc de Triomphe in Paris by some 17 metres (55ft). Today it is known as a monument to the lives lost during the Mexican Revolution which began in 1910, but the story of the Monumento a la Revolucion is much more complex than meets the eye.
This is a building that has come to symbolise both the revolution and in many ways Mexico itself. Its art deco design draws thousands of visitors each year who throng to the Plaza de la República in which it sits.
But this is also a structure that is almost unrecognisable from what was originally planned, with a period of construction that spanned nearly forty years and straddled one of the most turbulent and violent periods in Mexican history. This is a building that not only stands as a monument to the revolution but one that has Mexico’s story woven intricately through it.
19th Century Mexico
What we see today in Plaza de la Republica is nothing like what was first planned. The grand structure that was finally completed in 1938 is a triumphal arch, the likes of which can be found across the globe. From Ancient Rome to the modern Porta Macedonia in Skopje, which opened in 2012, humans have long built these arc structures to show off their might or to remember their dead.
But as the 19th Century drew to a close, the site was chosen by the Mexican government for a very different type of building intended to showcase the glory of Mexico. The Palacio Legislativo Federal was a vast, lavish design, modelled roughly on the German Reichstag building, and would house the congressional chambers of the nation’s deputies and senators.
Before we get into this first building we should probably set the scene a little because as I said this was a tumultuous point in Mexican history that had everything from quasi dictators, revolution and the subsequent civil war.
President Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1876 and didn’t fully relinquish control until he was ousted in 1911. There was a four-year period when he wasn’t president but power was conveniently transferred to one of his closest allies, before moving back to Diaz. His power over Mexico during this time was so all-consuming, the period is known as the Porfiriato.
But that’s not to say he was a fully-fledged tyrant. Many positive social and economic changes were enacted during the early decades of Diaz’s rule, but he certainly outstayed his welcome and the fraudulent election of 1910 is seen as his tipping point.
Amid his pomp and glory, President Diaz ordered the construction of the Palacio Legislativo Federal in the Plaza de la Republica and an international competition was held in 1897 to design this sprawling Legislative Palace. Though a winner was chosen, the Mexican government quickly decided that actually, they didn’t like what they saw and instead hired architect Émile Bénard to completely redesign the building.
The design was a rough square shape fronted with a dramatic colonnade (a long series of columns) which gave the design a somewhat Ancient Roman feel to it. At the centre of the palace would be a large gilded dome over a rotunda which would stand imposingly above the rest of the building. Atop the dome was to be a human figure that would represent the Patria – the Mexican fatherland. It was an extravagant, yet beautiful design. Construction finally began in 1902 but as the skeletal frame of the rotunda crept skyward, trouble was brewing.
From 1905 onwards, a steady resistance against the Diaz regime had been growing. The Mexican Liberal Party was formed in 1905 and began printing a series of anti-Diaz publications. In 1906 labour strikes centred around Mexico’s important mining industry (much of it owned by American businessmen) began, but most were ruthlessly put down by the owners of the mines, often with the full support of the Mexican government.
At this point, Diaz was pushing 80 and had been making noises about stepping down for some time. But like many who sink their teeth into power, he changed his mind on numerous occasions. In the 1910 election, he was challenged by Francisco I. Madero, who hailed from a wealthy land-owning family and could hardly be considered a true opposite of Diaz.
The President won the election in a landslide but almost immediately it became clear the results had been fixed and an armed revolt began in the state of Chihuahua. Madero, the pretender to the Mexican throne, was hardly a Che Guevera figure and went as far as hiring the American lawyer and lobbyist Sherburne Hopkins to begin a campaign of discrediting the Diaz regime, particularly in the U.S – something that was done remarkably well.
A full-scale rebellion soon broke out and it quickly became clear support for Diaz was crumbling. In May 1911, a treaty was signed with Diaz fleeing into exile, apparently with the famous words,
“Madero has unleashed a tiger; let us see if he can control it.”
Madero was elected president in a new election held in October, but almost immediately things began to go wrong. Diaz’s tiger prophecy was about to come true with cataclysmic results.
Now, you’re probably wondering what happened to the Palacio Legislative Federal while all of this was going on. Despite the upheavals around the country, work had continued on the palace with President Madero even giving his blessing that the building be finished. By 1912 the vast foundations and the metal structure that would form the skeleton of the rotunda had been completed. The vast metal frame had been partially constructed in New York City and then shipped to Mexico over three separate journeys and now stood expectantly as a new hope for this new Mexico.
But alas, things were about to grind to a halt.
The Long Wait
It was probably no great surprise when the rag-tag coalition which had formed to oust President Diaz began to implode. While it would be a stretch to say Madero was simply a continuation of Diaz, many of the left-leaning revolutionary groups that had sprung up, and who had done much of the dirty work in defeating Diaz, now felt betrayed by the new president.
Madero had been in place less than a year when a new revolt began – which quickly led to more. The country was spiralling once again into conflict and work on the palace came to an abrupt stop sometime in late 1912, and would not recommence for nearly twenty years.
In February 1913 fighting came to Mexico City – a dark period that has come to be known as the Ten Tragic Days. The coup began on 9th February, and by the 19th, President Madero had resigned. Three days later, while on the way to prison, the car carrying the former president pulled into a discreet area away from prying eyes. Whether the order came from the very top, or a group acting alone, we’ll probably never know, but Madero, along with his Vice-President José María Pino Suárez were assassinated by the side of the road. A barely plausible story of gunmen trying to rescue the duo was spun, but few in Mexico were under any illusions of what had really happened.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time to delve into the darkest recesses of the Mexican Civil War that followed. But needless to say, from 1913 to 1920 it was absolute chaos across the country. No sooner had President Huerta (the man who replaced Madero) taken power he too was hounded out of office, which in turn led to the splintering of the opposition against him, who then began fighting each other. Confused? I don’t blame you, this was a tumultuous time in Mexico with alliances coming and going at breakneck speed.
By 1920 things were beginning to calm down, although the ’20s and 30’s still had their fair share of violence and political assassinations.
But one thing that certainly didn’t change during this time was the Palacio Legislativo Federal – or should I say the shell of. What had been designed as a glorious symbol of Mexican power and prestige nearly forty years before had become a rusting hulk on show for all to see. There was a brief idea to destroy it and build a hotel instead but nothing ever came of it. Instead, it stood decaying, a blunt reminder of the helter-skelter journey the nation had experienced in the preceding decades.
But, finally, during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, who came to power in 1934, the structure would be finished – although in a very different form.
It was in 1932 that Mexican architect Carlos Obregón Santacilia proposed turning the skeleton of the Palacio Legislativo Federal into a monument to the revolution. The country had been tilting towards socialism for several years and it’s therefore not exactly surprising that what enveloped the steel structure of the Palace’s rotunda used a style known as Mexican socialist realism. A form of art that Frida Kahlo is also frequently associated with.
The plan was to have the monument paid for through national subscription. In 1933, letters had been sent out to governors across the country requesting a small donation towards a monument that was meant to symbolise a strong, united Mexico. Donations even came from the army and certain unions, while individual workers and businesses also contributed. However, these donations only covered a fraction of the eventual cost, thought to be about 10%, with the federal government stumping up the rest.
Using recinto stone, a solidified lava known for its rustic appearance, and one that was commonly used for pestle and mortars at the time, the structure of the monument began to rise around the steel rotunda. The arch was covered with a copper-plated dome, below which an observation deck would eventually be constructed.
At each corner of the monument are a series of statues created by the sculptor Oliverio Martínez, a sculptor who had gained fame through his statue of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. The human figures are not intended to have a personal likeness and instead are said to represent National Independence, Reform, the Redemption of the Peasant and the Redemption of the Worker. If you still weren’t sure about the socialist slant of the building, then look no further.
The Monument a la Revolucion was finally completed on 20th November 1938 – Revolution Day in Mexico – although strangely there was next to no official ceremony to mark the event. It had been 41 years since the design for the original Palace emerged, and though it was a shadow of what had been planned, a completed structure finally stood in the Plaza de la Republica.
Nothing says glory to socialism like a good old fashioned mausoleum and overtime the remains of four revolutionary heroes were transferred to the crypt below the monument which came to be known as the ‘Pantheon of Outstanding Men of the Revolution’ – these included Venustiano Carranza in 1942, Francisco I. Madero in 1960, Plutarco Elías Calles in 1969, Lázaro Cardenas in 1970), and lastly Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa in 1976.
There have long been calls for the remains of the revolutionary general Emiliano Zapata to also be interred at the monument, but his family have consistently declined the move and his body remains in the small city of Cuautla.
The Monument a la Revolucion is now one of the most popular attractions in the city, but by the 1990s and 2000s, it was beginning to cut a forlorn figure. Extensive renovations were carried out in 2010 to both the monument and the Plaza de la Republica to celebrate the Revolution’s centenary.
Inside the monument, a glass elevator was added that whisks customers up to the viewing platform, bypassing all of those tedious stairs to climb. Below ground also saw plenty of change with an exhibition space, art gallery, and the National Museum of the Revolution all opening. In front of the monument, a large-scale fountain system was added which shoots up 100 separate streams of water, again with the 100 years since the beginning of the revolution in mind.
The Story of Mexico
The Monument a la Revolucion certainly experienced a dramatic evolution, and it was one that very much mirrored events in Mexico during the first forty years of the 20th Century. From the almost bourgeoisie flamboyance that was the plans for the Palacio Legislativo Federal to the Mexican Socialist superstructure that we see today, with its severe form and statues of loyal workers, things couldn’t really have been any different.
It was a building that lulled patiently during the darkest days of the civil war, only to spring up in a radically different form. The imposing arch stands as a monument to the revolution, but with its original steel frame still in place underneath, its links go even further back. This is a building that tells of the chaotic, bloody and ever-changing story of Mexico.