Latin America in Construction

Latin America in Construction

Reviews: Exhibits

Latin America in Construction

Architecture 1955–1980

Museum of Modern Art
March 29July 19, 2015
Brasilia under construction, 1957. Geofoto. Arquivo Publico do Distrito Federal.
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After a long 60-year absence, Latin America returned to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), continuing the “intense involvement” of the institution with that region, as Glenn D. Lowry indicates in his foreword to Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980. While the novelty and sheer quantity and quality of the material and the context of the projects presented at the exhibit were not always easy to grasp, the catalog, published in concurrence with the exhibit and written by Barry Bergdoll, Carlos Eduardo Comas, Jorge Francisco Liernur, Patricio del Real, and an advisory committee, constitutes the most comprehensive visual assemblage and critical assessment of Latin American architecture from the period 1955–1980 in English.

Recent exhibits encompassing other contributions to modernism from areas outside the Western centers include Multiple Modernities, 1905–1970, at the Pompidou Center in 2014, together with a catalog edited by Catherine Grenier focusing on the multiple artistic manifestations that modernism generated around the globe. Architecture appears here with other artistic manifestations. This exhibit in Paris covered Latin American countries as well as Asia and Africa. A key essay in the catalog, Valentina Moimas’s “Modern Architecture in Brazil, A History Being Written,” addresses the development and the more recent questioning “of a founding myth” in Brazilian architecture. More specific to the topic, and showing the renewed interest in the region, is the 2011 Pratt Institute School of Architecture exhibit Breaking Borders: New Latin American Architecture, focusing on contemporary architecture from several Latin American countries. Also coinciding with the event at MoMA in 2015, the Council of the Americas organized Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, looking at the modern interior domestic landscape and its products and environments, showing studio-craft artists working specifically to respond to new living conditions in societies with rapid urban growth and diverse local traditions.

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The literature on architecture in Latin America has been prolific, and its contributions are impossible to summarize here. Among many other important books, Valerie Fraser’s Building the New World (2001) explores architecture from 1930 to 1960; covering the same period is Carlos Brillembourg’s Latin American Architecture 1929–1960 (2014), while Felipe Hernández introduced a new approach to understanding Latin America’s realities in Transculturation: Cities, Spaces and Architectures in Latin America (2005). More recently, in 2013, Latin American Modern Architectures: Ambiguous Territories, by Patricio del Real and Helen Gyger, explores the difficulties implicit in the term “Latin America,” and Modern Architecture in Latin America, Art, Technology, and Utopia, by Luis Carranza and Fernando Lara (2015), examines modernization in the region, addressing a variety of countries and projects. In the foreword to the book, Liernur clarifies that Carranza and Lara build a quilt of different experiences, and the authors use the term “Latin America” as a geographical frame rather than as an essential core of constitutive attributes to the region.  

What has changed since MoMA’s iconic shows more than half a century ago? Both the 1943 exhibit by Philip Goodwin, Brazil Builds, and the 1955 exhibit by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Latin America Architecture since 1945, offered a platform for important Latin American architectural examples from a few areas of the region. The former reflected an enthusiastic endorsement of the emergence “of a national idiom” in Brazil, while the latter was in line with other MoMA events at the time, a survey of recent significant designs by—among others—Candela to Barragán and Villanueva, which lamented that “in Argentina there has been little development beyond what has been called the ‘false dawn’ ten years ago.” 
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Since then, as this catalog shows, at the same time that Latin American modernism and modernization were being mostly omitted from the larger narratives about modernism at the center, the region as a whole had embarked on an impressive architectural and urban experiment. The ideas debated and work produced were characterized by a quality of production and innovation that proved to be much more complex, rich, and mature than what historians and critics interpreted when presenting them as temporary trends or exotic offspring of European and North American cases.

Moving beyond well-known cases and a few areas that sporadically brought attention to a region otherwise considered peripheral to the larger discussions about modernism, the catalog examines a variety of countries—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela—and offers a larger and more inclusive perspective on the architecture in the region. In their essays, the principal curators and a team of collaborators critically discuss and reflect on the impressive range of work done in these countries. The exhibit and catalog are unique in their expansiveness and in the inclusiveness of the examples presented. Although continuity with the earlier exhibits permeates the exhibit and catalog, there is a new approach toward the work, elaborating on the originality and discoveries of the architects of those decades. The period covered allows for a sense of critical distancing from the immediacy of reporting on the development of national languages; rather, the result is a more in-depth analysis of the context and design process. The curatorial decisions about what to show and how to show it are also different. With an emphasis on mixed media, the catalog reveals the importance of drawings and sketches to the design process with a rich visual display of documentation: 560 images with shorter, focused essays on each country by a team of experts. Additionally, vintage photographs, and new photographs by Leonardo Finotti, provide further documentation, all in a clearly organized and well-designed catalog. Barry Bergdoll, who began organizing this event four years ago, asserts that with this “opening anthology” MoMA attempts to “reinsert Latin America into our history of modernism and modernization.” 

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This catalog constitutes an important step in the construction of a more balanced understanding of modernism and the modernization process in Latin America. Patricio del Real’s essay situates the catalog as one more block in the incomplete and evolving reevaluation and construction of a bibliography on Latin American architecture, thus contributing to our understanding of the directions taken by outside and regional critics and historians in the past. He reminds the reader that “Latin America” is a creation of the French diplomacy in the nineteenth century to invoke the common Latin roots, an attempt to counter the growing Anglo Saxon influence in the region. In his essay, del Real analyzes how the bibliography about Latin America by outsiders emphasized dependence on European masters and frequently presented examples from the region in a fragmentary manner—as the books by Bruno Zevi and Nikolaus Pevsner show—or as minor episodes in the larger history of western architecture, a reductionist approach taken by Leonardo Benevolo, while Siegfried Gideon ultimately interpreted Latin American architecture as a sudden outburst of activity, with limited contribution. This attitude was echoed by William Curtis, who considered Latin America among those examples of judicious adjustments of generic features of European modernism, basically adopting and minimally adapting them to different situations, while lamenting the lack of the poetry and depth of the masterworks of the modern movement.   

Francisco del Real notes that by 1960, Francisco Bullrich, from Argentina, first confronted these attitudes by reading the region as a whole and advancing the topic of shared “common problems,” an attitude shared by other journals and authors. This new tendency culminates with the crucial contribution of Jorge Francisco Liernur in 1990, by using a methodology based on multiple authors offering contributions from different positions, moving beyond stylistic considerations and interpreting the varied perspectives those architectural proposals envisioned.

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The essays by Bergdoll and Liernur present the two larger critical narratives structuring the catalog, providing an understanding of the region and its context, the former by framing the new event as a continuation of the MoMA exhibit of 1943 which “had helped to launch a trend.” Bergdoll provides a framework for the topics in the catalog (emphasis on public spaces, the evolution of social housing, the transformation of the territory and new landscapes) and situates them within the political and social circumstances of the time. With the euphoria of the 1950s, Bergdoll asserts, the official policy of the United States was to establish economic ties, and Eisenhower and later Kennedy, with his Alliance for Progress, propelled the quest for development in Latin America. His essay articulates a balanced and lucid narrative of the postwar period in Latin America, where “the future was urban” and most of the countries embraced modern architecture to address social problems and living conditions. Campuses became fragments of future cities, the stage for a civil society. Villanueva University City in Caracas is a “modern agora connected by cantilevered pathways,” while showing the paradoxes of an ideal city finished by a progressive dictatorship. It was, indeed, an architecture “of experience.”

In Bergdoll’s narrative, the ordering of the territory of central Brazil in Brasilia is the result of the vision of Juscelino Kubitschek and the Niemeyer alliance, comparable to Louis XIV and Louis Le Vau, while the city’s subtle changes of scale and innovative model for integrating different functions points to the parallel discoveries with other European and American masters. His consistently alert narrative is an essential component of the catalog and provides an overview of some of the most important yet not well-known examples in Latin America. 

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Jorge Francisco Liernur’s “Architectures for Progress: Latin America, 1955–1980,” the central essay of the catalog, positions modernization and its processes, materials, social sectors, means of transport, and bureaucratization after the war as part of a general narrative on modernism in the region. The essay is structured around the waves of development that were embraced first by democracies and later by dictatorships, culminating in postmodernism and neoliberalism. Politically driven by the state, the push toward industrialization and a rhetoric of progress was advanced by the national elites. Competing models of modernization were implemented or debated on a continent eager to improve undeveloped areas. Some embraced “progress and development,” while others believed that this approach “only brought about ever-greater dehumanization”; other sectors sought to bring about change through “a revolutionary break with the Western models,” against those who praised a “model that was universally valid.” Liernur concludes his pivotal essay by indicating that ultimately none of the economic proposals achieved successful results; the motivation and ideals that have propelled architecture since World War II were “replaced by the pragmatism of neoliberalism; the overwhelming modernist task of designing a different and better world fell victim to an ideology of the end of history, and to the ephemeral but devastating postmodernist wave in architectural style.” 

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In “The Poetics of Development: Notes on Two Brazilian Schools,” Carlos Eduardo Comas introduces the reader to the role of industrialization in Brazil and the economic boom from the 1960s to the 1980s under military regimes. His essay delves into the two most important architectural approaches in Brazil: the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) and the Paulista (São Paulo). Comas proposes a reading of these two different schools by focusing on the continuity and mutual sources. Comas writes, “divergence from each other did not preclude continuity between them,” and he positions Lucio Costa as the delineator of an inclusive and diverse system based on structure and the machine as well as on the academic tradition established by Julien Guadet based on correct composition and proper character. Comas’s suggestive and rich text dedicates a considerable proportion of the essay expanding on the foundational character of Costa’s thinking and exploring how it evolved with Oscar Niemeyer’s work. His prose is charged with erudite references. In Niemeyer’s Pampulha, interpreted through Comas’s analysis, a river becomes a liquid plaza, and follies stand like Stourhead in England and Quinta da Boa in Rio. The dance hall is all matronly grace, a round primitive hut, a maloca from the Amazons, and a docked barge. The narrow yacht club is simultaneously virile, a boathouse slipping in the water, a stratified pyramid, and also a mixture of the Citrohan prototype combined with the Errazuriz house, while the casino is akin to the Villa Rotunda and Villa Savoye, all charged with that grace and baroque twist so near the sensibility of the Carioca school exploring the formal potentials of “pancakes on pins.”

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Enter the Paulista school. “Grace, for Costa, was the essential character of the native genius manifest in Niemeyer’s architecture.” By 1948, Comas writes, the first critiques of the Carioca school’s social insensibility appeared. The essay alludes to the critiques, but the critics’ point of view, at the core of the thesis about “continuity,” is never presented, leaving the argument without a full understanding of the rich debates that differentiate them. The differences between the emergent Paulist school and the Carioca school are muted and its critics dismissed as sometimes ”sectarian”, “myopic”, “wishful thinking,” or personal attacks. Brazilian architecture, after all, could not lead to a brave new third world. Comas defines the Cariocas as all “epicurean grace” that saw Brazil as a rich country, while the Paulistas saw Brazil as a poor country and responded with stoicism and severity.

Even as the relevance and permanence of the ideas of the Paulist school still permeate contemporary practices, its importance in this essay is somewhat impenetrable. The intellectual leader of this school, João Vilanova Artigas, is never fully identified as such. Vilanova Artigas opposed the softer formalism of the Carioca school centered in Rio de Janeiro and clearly established himself as one of the founding members of the São Paulo school, sometimes referred to by the more vague term São Paulo Brutalism. Beginning from the 1960s onward, the work of this group is increasingly characterized by relentlessly rough, “brutalist,” stoic structures as an alternative to the more indulgent optimism of the Carioca school’s undulant lines. In Vilanova Artigas this roughness is the result of an adherence to a constructional and political ethic, an ideological stance rather than an aesthetic choice.  The School of São Paulo’s ethical, pedagogical, and architectural beliefs on political engagement with society marks a clear contrast with Niemeyer’s skepticism about the power of architecture to contribute to change society. His 1960 design for the School of Architecture in São Paulo, where he was the dean, is presented by Comas as “a latter-day temple of knowledge, it was definitely a match for Niemeyer palaces in Brasilia.” It was more than a match for the palaces, even today, as the building decay resulting from lack of maintenance is painfully evident. It still constitutes one of the most important architectural and ethical manifestos of the 1960s. 

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This catalog is both an attempt to continue “learning from Latin America,” as Bergdoll suggests, and a celebration of the achievements of the region while recognizing that  “this architecture have advocates but still have to find the rightful place among the architecture of the 20-century.” The reevaluation proposed by the catalog is an important step in that direction, one important block in the construction of a new understanding of Latin American modernism, its failures, self-questioning, and limitation, but also its remarkable energy, contributions, and innovative power.

The relevance of the exhibit and catalog as a whole lies in its ability to move beyond more canonical readings of Latin America, contributing to a new approach to the critical reinterpretation of modernism and providing important research material documenting national and individual efforts that are not yet fully understood in the history of modern architecture in Latin America. 

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