Luis E. Carranza and Fernando Luiz Lara’s book, Modern Architecture in Latin America: Art, Technology, and Utopia, published by the University of Texas, is an ambitious survey covering buildings (and to a lesser extent, the visual arts) across a vast geographic area during the century between 1903 and 2002. Formatted as a textbook with a preference for words over images, this book will likely appeal to the scholar or student rather than to the casual reader. Published at the same time as the Museum of Modern Art’s more graphically appealing exhibition catalogue, Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980, which seems almost breezy in comparison, it provides an interesting and much more nuanced point of view.
In his thought-provoking foreword, the Argentine historian Jorge Francisco Liernur sets the reader up for the literary, postmodern positions of the authors when he calls into question the very notion of a “Latin American architecture,” stating that the book is rather a pioneering “compendium” (with all the randomness and critical neutrality associated with that concept) of projects that happen to be located in a selected group of 13 countries across North and South America that either speak Spanish or Portuguese. According to him, “the emergence of geographic (or regional) constructions is contradictory to the very notion of modernity within which the idea of universality is implicit.” Liernur’s hope seems to be that the quality of the work will stand on its own and at some point become fully absorbed into the canon of modern architecture, which up to now has only included a scant handful of works in Latin America, usually put down as derivative due to the “North Atlantic hegemony…over the global phenomenon of modernization.”
Carranza and Lara, however, take a position that is not quite as radical as Liernur’s. To them, the region is still important. In their “(Notes Toward an) Introduction,” they discuss a notion of development in the specific way that Latin American countries felt inferior when compared to the USA and Europe in the 20th century. They tried to catch up by attempting to replicate, often through direct importation, their northern neighbor’s methods of modernization, including that of art and architecture. As an alternative to passive copying, Carranza and Lara introduce the provocative term antropofagia (cannibalism), first used by the Brazilian critic Oswald de Andrade in 1928 to describe a dialectical process of ingesting and then regurgitating new ideas with local inflections. They continue by privileging the resulting “hybrid” or “incomplete” works as more radical than they might appear. In these works, received ideas are actively changed and adapted to local circumstances, so much so that eventually they become entirely original and no longer dependent on the parent. This desire to encourage new interpretations lies behind their decision to organize the book chronologically rather than geographically, as opposed to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition catalog. According to Carranza and Lara, “the book becomes more ‘genealogical’ and dismantles traditional devices that construct a comprehensive, linear, and coherent view of history…we have acknowledged and accepted the condition of discontinuity of history as a central part of our proposal…the book allows the reader to simultaneously see the development of multiple and parallel historical strands, and, at times, their interconnections and overlaps—to see, in short, the existing pluralities and that the history being presented within is provisional and interminable.”
The projects presented are fascinating, and many are not well known in the USA. They demonstrate a richness and depth that goes far beyond such stereotypical works as the Ministry of Education and Brasilia. Despite their rhetorical neutrality, the selections and written descriptions suggest a certain point of view. They generally privilege public works over private, communal housing over commercial projects, abstract over literal, modern and neo-modern over postmodern, and structurally expressive over scenographic. Among the projects that stood out to me were the luxurious, almost-Loosian villa that Julio Vilmajó designed for himself in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930, and the austere functionalist school buildings designed by Juan O’Gorman in Mexico City in the early 1930s for the Mexican postrevolutionary government. Still others included the regrettably never completed Helicoide in Caracas, Venezuela, begun in 1955, a radical project where a spiral ramp for cars wound around the exterior of a mountain-shaped shopping center, and a group of nearly unknown postmodern buildings, particularly those from Brazil in the early 1980s when the country was still isolated under a military dictatorship.
The book is broken into 108 short chapters arranged by year. Some years have no chapters and some have multiple chapters, which are labeled alphabetically. While some of the chapters discuss one of three named concepts—art, technology, or utopia—others, printed on grayed-out paper, focus on one building or architect. The art, technology, and utopia chapters are further marked by an abbreviation for which country they mostly pertain (AR-Argentina, BR-Brazil, and so on). Most of them conclude with a list of suggestions for further reading. These chapters frequently move on to discussions of events and projects that happen before or after their specific year and in different countries as well. This complicated system of labeling and color coding combined with a discursive text seem better suited to a website where one could more easily navigate, for example, to all the entries for one country or one of the themes.
This analog version, which requires a lot of flipping back and forth and the barrage of not-always-related information, makes things hard for the reader, especially one unfamiliar with the region and the works discussed. This is distracting and takes away from what the authors have to say. One of the benefits of a printed book in the age of websites is the fact that its narrative can be fixed. Unlike a screen of hyperlinks, the bound pages are permanently ordered. The authors would have done well to take advantage of this to provide a more coherent experience for the reader. However, these faults should perhaps be excused on the grounds they are really more akin to the technical glitches and bugs common in the first versions of things. This book is a very good step in deepening academic discussion on the subject of Latin American modernism, but by no means a final word.