“Modernity [can] be measured neither exclusively nor principally by the number of industries or machines… what counts is the development of the intellectual and political critique.” —Octavio Paz, 1983
“The exhibition is intended to challenge the notion of Latin America as a testing ground for ideas and methods devised in Europe and the United States. It brings to light the radical originality of architecture and urban planning in the vast region during a complex quarter century.” —Barry Bergdoll, Patricio del Real, Carlos Comas, and Pancho Liernur
This opening statement by the curators is a radical statement of advocacy for a new history of modernity. After the quarter-century defined here as “The Age of Developmentalism” we are rapidly changing our views about the automobile and the city and are speculating on the future of the sprawling network of urbanization both in North and South America. The exhibition is laid out in the form of a modern space without a single axial view that can instantly give us the entire picture. Instead, we encounter the instruments of architecture: drawings, models, photographs, and film. All are seen through the lens of development by way of more than 500 works gathered from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.
To paraphrase the four curators, a complex historical process was taking place within the varied geographies, nation states, and political ideologies of this vast region. The opening and closing rooms of the exhibition elegantly frame this historical process. In the opening room, we see President Kennedy in Caracas inaugurating with active diplomacy the U.S.’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” The Cold War achieved the re-establishment of democratic rule in Venezuela and at the same time the establishment of dictatorial rule in Cuba. Also greeting us on these introductory screens we see works of the first generation of architects that pre-date the timeframe of the show. Among the highlights are the exquisite construction documents of Amancio Williams House over a Stream; the sketches and perspective views of Juan O’ Gorman’s School of Industrias Tecnicas of 1932, published in Architectural Record’s special 1937 issue on Mexico; and Luis Barragan’s colorful sketch of an Islamic influenced fountain.
Guillermo Zamora / Courtesy MoMA
The exhibition goes beyond the normal clichés of “paymasters in Washington and Moscow” and argues for the role of architecture in modernizing all the nations of the Americas. In all fairness, I must disclose that I was a member of the large advisory committee for the exhibition. Our first visit to Caracas included a zealous guard threatening to arrest us on spying charges while we were looking at the beautiful wood models of Tomas Sanabria’s Banco Central de Venezuela (1962–75). This extraordinary building was probably omitted from the show because of the difficulty in dealing with Venezuela and Cuba at the moment.
And so, after a long hiatus, MoMA has produced a show of fundamental interest both to artists and architects who believe in the discipline of architecture as an intellectual and artistic pursuit fundamentally engaged with the notion of improving society at large. To tell this complex story, approximately 500 original works are on display, some of which are being exhibited for the first time anywhere. I was delighted with the vicarious pleasure of seeing original documents, such as Lucio Costa’s faded, typewritten sheets of 8½-by-11 paper, illustrated by incisive miniature hand drawings. This was the competition entry that won and thus created—in a few years—the most famous new capital city of the 20th century. Very few cities of the age were planned and built from scratch, and diplomats and pundits alike immediately declared the capital city of Brasilia a failure. Peter Mattheissen wrote in The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961) that when he arrived at the construction site of the unfinished Brasilia in 1960, notwithstanding his naturalist bias against all cities, “Brasilia is less inspired than pretentious, a brave new city cunningly disguised as a World’s Fair.”
The focus on the urban legacy of Latin America is brought to life in the synchronized film clips of six rapidly growing cities: Havana, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. Among my favorite destinations in the exhibition is the wonderful mise en scene of the architect in his house: Henry Klumb standing before his home in Puerto Rico, and Jimmy Alcock posing in front of his pyramidal concrete and steel “tree-house” overlooking Caracas. The CVG building by Jesús Tenreiro Degwitz is a beautiful and innovative use of steel and brick that reminds us of how this particular building aspired to be the foundation for a new society in the last of the large-scale urban experiments of the 20th century: Ciudad Guayana on the Orinoco River in Venezuela.
The exhibition is not organized chronologically, by nation, or by building type and does not deify any stylistic classification of the “experimental architecture” of Latin America. Instead we find new paradigms of public space, new institutions, and a new cityscape mostly built by public works of governments who believed in architecture as a means to solve urgent problems of infrastructure or housing, and who recognized the propagandistic value of a radical architecture in establishing the identity of a new national ideal. Anchored to a place and time of origin, the original documents provide another layer of aesthetic pleasure that tells us a history including multiple sub-plots framed by the central idea of “Desarrollismo.”
To experience an exhibition framed in this way, we are stimulated to make multiple and sometimes contradictory readings. To experience a mix of projects from different countries that are exhibited adjacent to each other offers a cross-reading that allows us to see each project differently. If Modernity was a European invention that some historians claim began in the 18th century, then this period of post-war ideas about development in Latin America provides for a critical reading of the construction of modernity as a whole—as an emancipatory project that was doomed to fail. In the last room, entitled “Utopias,” we see drawings that begin a systematic critique of “modern” architecture from the point of view of the inhabitant rather than the state sponsored architect. In 1980 we came to the end of the optimism inherent in the idea of progress—a moment when a systematic critique arose about the validity of governance reliant on a state-sponsored ideology of “developmentalism.”
That post-war period, which was characterized by a belief in progress, is today confronted with a very different world-view. The chimera of “sustainable development,” supposedly in harmonious interaction with nature, is a deceptive one when viewed from the point of view of “under-developed” nations. Could this ideology be replaced with a new strategy to shrink humanity’s footprint by using nature and urban centers more efficiently?
The magnitude of the problems ahead is only hinted at in the Utopias room. For those of us who believe in the redemptive value of the architecture of the city, this extraordinary anthology of architecture should be seen as a springboard toward the renewed relevance of a socially committed architecture.