MOST OF THE major American countries have large parliamentary buildings built at the height of their prosperity in the decade before and after 1900, but Mexico is a particular exception. (Brazil, for complicated reasons, is another). In the 1890s, the government of President Porfirio Díaz decided that it needed a grand legislative palace whose magnificence would be worthy of the head of state’s own grand appearance. A competition was held and an entry chosen as the winner, but the victor was disregarded in favour of a new design by a French architect.
Émile Bénard had assisted the great Charles Garnier in draught work for the celebrated Paris Opera House which now bears that architect’s name. In the 1890s, Bénard became famous for winning Phoebe Hearst’s architectural competition for the campus of the University of California at Berkeley with his entry “Roma”. The Spectator wrote from the London of the day, “On the face of it this is a grand scheme, reminding one of those famous competitions in Italy in which Brunelleschi and Michelangelo took part. The conception does honor to the nascent citizenship of the Pacific states.” Unfortunately, very little of Bénard’s scheme for the academic complex was completed.
Bénard planned a large palace, the Palacio Legislativo Federal, to house the Congress of the United Mexican States. It was fronted by a massive colonnade providing shade from the sun and incorporated grand plenary chambers for the two houses of the Mexican congress: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The centrepiece was a large gilded dome over a rotunda with a larger-than-life-scale statue of “Patria” — the personification of the Mexican fatherland.
Work began in 1902 but was not completed in time for the centenary of independence in 1910. By that time, Díaz’s regime had larger concerns to worry about. The ‘Mexican Revolution’ broke out in the same centenary year when a wealthy and envious rival of the iron-fisted president sparked a revolt after being imprisoned for challenging Díaz in an open presidential election. The decade-long insurrection eventually overturned the old authoritarian liberal republican regime and layed the foundations for the revolutionary anti-clerical regime that ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century. But work on the Palacio stopped and the empty steel frame of the dome and front of the building sat unfinished in the Plaza de la República, an embarrassment to the new rulers.
Finally, in the late 1930s, the government commissioned architect Carlos Obregón Santacilia to preserve the stillborn dome and transform it into a Monument to the Revolution. This was done in a restrained eclectic art deco form that included allusions to the pre-Columbian artistic tradition of the country.
But what about the Congress? The Senate continued to meet in its old seat until 2011, while the Chamber of Deputies met in a smaller beaux-arts structure curiously started around the time construction on the Palacio Legislativo Federal stopped. In 1977, Mexico’s one-party PRI regime began a political transition to multi-party rule which included the expansion of the lower house from 186 deputies to 400 deputies. As the public purses were flush with cash from a commodities boom, it was decided to demolish a vast old railway terminal and yard and built a modern new legislative palace on the site. The building is impressive, but not particularly beautiful.