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Keeping It Modern
The Getty Foundation unveils this year's modern architecture grantees
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.
“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.
An exhibition at MoMA, Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980, closing on July 19, looks at the period when the euphoria and utopianism associated with the modern movement gave way to a more critical view of architecture’s promises and limitations in this rapidly urbanizing region.
Moving beyond the tabula rasa approach of Brasilia and Oscar Niemeyer’s spectacular individualistic expressions, architects in the period began to offer alternatives, including “those who subtly resisted the demands of a dictatorship” or “those who found modernism could marry handiwork with new technologies, even in traditional materials,” according to co-curator Barry Bergdoll’s catalogue essay.
The topic might sound dry, but thankfully the architecture is thrilling, and reflects a growing interest and reexamination of the region (especially the recent focus on the Sao Paulo–based school, including Lina Bo Bardi and Paulo Mendes da Rocha).
The exhibition also examines the tension between the persistence of the International Style in the region along with the growing influence of Brutalism and more deeply rooted architectural forms.
Though the exhibition covers a 25-year period ending more than 30 years ago, its thoughtful emphasis on architecture as an urban form-maker, as a process, as struggle, as identity “in construction,” makes it a must-see this spring.