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Monumentalising Revolution

‘. . . we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’ Walter Benjamin

This epigraph from the critical theorist Walter Benjamin prompts a number of reflections about the role of monumental architecture in shaping state-led projects of modernism. Architecture, after all, is a way of defining the ideas of an epoch as well as materially representing state codifications of national politics and identity.

Specifically, this comment provokes a number of thoughts about my current research project on the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City, which I presented at the 48th annual Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS) conference.

My argument is that the Monument to the Revolution is one of the foremost commemorative spatial sites of state power in Mexico City. Completed on 20 November 1938, the monument has served as the stage for official ceremonies remembering and honouring the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and its heroes ever since. As Thomas Benjamin has argued, the Monument to the Revolution was built to heal the wounds of different factions that divided the revolution and weakened the development of the emerging post-revolutionary institutional political order. Its primary purpose has been and remains the legitimisation of state power and authority.

The site of the Monument to the Revolution was originally proposed in 1897 as the Federal Legislative Palace under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). But after years of ‘military Diazpotism’, the construction was abandoned after the outbreak and unfolding of revolution. Following the institutionalisation of the revolution through the state in the 1930s, plans to convert the site and indeed the revolution itself into a monument were proposed and completed.

Subsequently, the site on Plaza de la República in Mexico City has been the location for official ceremonies remembering and honouring revolutionary heroes on 20 November, Revolution Day. Since 1942 the ashes or mortal remains of a pantheon of revolutionary heroes have been interned in the bases of the monument. Venustiano Carranza (1942), Francisco I. Madero (1960), Plutarco Elias Calles (1969), Lazaro Cárdenas (1970), and Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (1976) were all transferred to the pillars of the monument. The fetishism of the monument has also included souvenir postcards; a $4 peso stamp was launched with its image in 1934; a $200 peso coin was released in 1985 with the monument as backdrop; and a centenary $100 new peso banknote was released in 2010 with the monument’s logo.

As invaluable as previous scholarship is in terms of tracing the history of the monument, it is important to develop a spatialised view of this commemorative site, meaning a recognition of space as a product of interrelations, the existence of a multiplicity of trajectories that coexist, and a plurality of competing struggles. Also, it is crucial to develop a temporal understanding of struggles over space, meaning awareness of time as overlapping, plural, and coeval rather than as a flat horizon. In this manner the geographer Doreen Massey has referred to the importance of prompting questions about the multiplicity of trajectories in time-space.

I have carried these insights into my new research on the monument based on archival work at the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City that has produced some 200 plus original documents accessing historical and photographic material as well as new developments linked to the monumental site itself. The above archival image is of anti-riot tanks on the streets on the sixth anniversary of an attack against a demonstration of 10,000 students that marched to the monument, later known as The Corpus Christi Massacre (10 June 1971), which led to some 50 deaths and “disappeared” victims at the hands of a state-financed paramilitary group known as Los Halcones. The impetus for this research flips out of my new book on Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

In particular, my interests are drawn in this research to a little noted insight from Antonio Gramsci on the ‘material structure of ideology’: prompting attention to the role of architecture, street lay-outs, and street names in order to ‘inculcate the habit of assessing the forces of agency in society with greater caution and precision’.

With that in mind, renovations to the monumental site were announced in 2010 with the Mayor of the Government of the Federal District, Marcelo Ebrard, remarking that the recuperation of public space would be accompanied by the remembrance of the great achievements of the Mexican Revolution, including labour rights, agrarian reform, access to education and health, Mexican nationalism, and, of course, the expropriation of petroleum. The Monument to the Revolution and the Plaza de la República – a space of 49,000 square metres – has now been completely renovated. At a cost of around $25 million, the restoration includes a new observation deck (or mirador)—reached via a new glass elevator located in the monument’s central axis—that offers 360° views of Mexico City; new nocturnal illumination; the new “Adelita Café” and gift shop; working water fountains; and the reopening of the National Museum of the Revolution. On 20 November 2010 with the reinauguration of the site, Marcelo Ebrard called for the realisation of a “new revolution” in the country but via a peaceful route based on democratic norms and the retaking of the ideals of the armed struggle that exploded in 1910 for greater social justice. He declared: ‘the new Plaza de la República will soon reunite us to celebrate the triumph of the left and the values advanced in Mexico’.

In terms of capturing a spatial-temporal analysis of the Monument to the Revolution, I suggest in my paper a threefold periodisation that makes better sense of its contemporary history. These interconnected conceptions of space and time include the periods of: (1) State Power (1933-1968)—when state space was itself represented in its directly “political” sense at the site; (2) State Crisis (1968-1985)—the apogee of collective social protests and violent suppression; and (3) State Rollback (1982-present)—the era in which the site was almost abandoned in step with the rise of the purely “economic” expression of neoliberal power accompanied by continued redemptive forms of collective resistance.

My aim in writing up the paper for journal publication is to reveal the Monument to the Revolution as a profoundly ambiguous carrier of utopian promise and how the present generation may communicate with the hopes of past generations. The significance of this architecture may then still turn on the effective participation of the present generation in shaping the utopian desires of the oppressed, linked to ongoing past and present social struggles.

Adam David Morton

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  1. Leonardo Ramos Leonardo Ramos

    Congratulations for the text!

  2. Ollie Barnes Ollie Barnes

    I think there are an incredible amount of paralells between the Monument of the Revolution and Tiananmen square in Beijing.

    Tiananmen square was leveled and enlarged in 1958 so it could act as both a monument to those who died in the wars with Japan and a place for Mao to centralise his power during the cultural revolution and the square itself is now home to Chairman Mao’s mausoleum..

    The corpus christi massacre seems similar to the tiananmen square protests in 1989, when hundreds of civilians were killed by the Chinese army after what had been a peaceful protest which began in the Muxidi district to the west of the square.

    The Chinese planning department are very interested in keeping road lay-out efficient and logical, meaning that they can convey these ideals as a central theme of their system of government. Beijing is organised according to a meridian line which runs through the centre of the city, with Tiananmen and the Olympic stadium included within a longitudinal pattern.

    I think there are many parallels between Mexico’s Monument to the Revolution and China’s tiananmen , yet China seems to still be in the first stage of dialectical analysis. Their focus is still very much upon maintaining state power and has not passed through a crisis stage serious enough to drive the concept of development further.

    It is also interesting to note that the focus on planning and development to enhance state power seems restricted only to the major cities, with many localised and rural areas merely constructing roads according to local need. There is thus an unevenness in China between its urban and rural areas according to the government’s desire to enhance conformity and efficiency.

    Overall I think a very interesting comparison can be made between these two countries.

  3. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    Great feedback Ollie.

    The parallel that might interest you more is the 1968 Tlateloco Massacre in Mexico. That was certainly the crisis moment of the state in what was previously regarded as the “pax PRIísta” -the mythical period of hegemonic state power after the Mexican Revolution.

    There are many ways in which one might approach a historical sociology of architecture. You might find Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air [1982] useful and his focus on what he has called ‘the anguish of backwardness’: how the spatial ordering of urban landscapes within capital cities joins national identity to imitative modernism within conditions of uneven development.

    Of course, Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey add to these insights in original ways too. The key parallel to tease out, then, becomes how specific spatial practices, in the form of state codifications of architecture, have contributed to the construction and reproduction of the modern state as well as its contestation. That then could lead to many parallels including those animating your interests.

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