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'Latin America was a place where Modernist dreams came true'

Just what is it that makes South American architecture so appealing?

At least since the Museum of Modern Art’s Brazil Builds exhibition of 1943, South America has had a status close to mythic in the imaginations (especially) of North American and European architectural worlds. It got another boost from another MOMA show, Latin American Architecture since 1945, in 1955, and another from journalists’ realisation in the 1990s that Oscar Niemeyer was very much still alive, kicking, and available for interviews at which he would dash off little sketches and hand them to the interviewer. Over the last decade interest has taken new forms, in such things as the social projects of Alejandro Aravena, in the vertical squat in Caracas called Torre David, in the continuous rise of interest in Lina Bo Bardi, in acupunctural projects to improve rather than replace barrios and favelas and in works such as the Ruta del Peregrino coordinated by Tatiana Bilbao in Mexico. Justin McGuirk’s book Radical Cities is another manifestation.

It was partly that Latin America was a place where Modernist dreams came true. The project for the Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro in 1937 honoured Le Corbusier in a way that European governments had not then done. Corbu might also produce an unfeasibly visionary plan for Algiers, a mad doodle almost; Affonso Eduardo Reidy would only go and build the damn thing – suitably modified to local conditions – as the Pedregulho housing complex in Rio.

Ruta del Peregrino: Void Temple in Mexico by Dellekamp Arquitectos and Rozana Montiel

Ruta del Peregrino: Void Temple in Mexico by Dellekamp Arquitectos and Rozana Montiel
By Iwan Baan

Pedregulho housing, Rio de Janeiro, by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, 1947-55 by Nabil Bonduki

Pedregulho housing, Rio de Janeiro, by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, 1947-55
By Nabil Bonduki

Plans were conceived and executed at a scale at which architects in other continents could only gawp at: Brasília, most obviously, but also the magnificent and sophisticated UNAM university campus in Mexico City, both now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. From Niemeyer’s swoops to Luis Barragán’s colours, architecture could be daring and unprecedented, indeed was encouraged to be so. Reinforced concrete seemed to find its spiritual home, thanks to the coalition of bright sunshine, low labour costs and governments and cultures keen to define themselves with modernity.

‘Perhaps the greatest power of  Latin America is the way its architecture makes ideologies visible and physical’

At the same time, architects were excitingly willing to drop the Modern Movement’s disciplines when it suited them, as when Juan O’Gorman and his collaborators covered the UNAM library with rich patterns of pre-Colombian inspiration. The fascination with Latin American architecture is helped too by the fact that much is outrageously good, and not just in the realm of formal daring. It includes the magical brick bubbles that are Eladio Dieste’s churches in Uruguay, Clorindo Testa’s Brutalist Baroque in Argentina, the conceptual and physical power of João Batista Vilanova Artigas and the spatial and material skill of Paulo Mendes da Rocha in Brazil.

Luis Barragán’s house and studio in Tacubaya, Mexico City

Luis Barragán’s house and studio in Tacubaya, Mexico City
By Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

The stack tower of the UNAM Library, Mexico City, was vividly decorated by Juan O’Gorman

The stack tower of the UNAM Library, Mexico City, was vividly decorated by Juan O’Gorman
By Leonardo Finotti

Churches in Uruguay by Eladio Dieste

Church in Atlantida, Uruguay, by Eladio Dieste

Contingent factors include the size of Latin America, its distance from New York, London or Paris, its limited accessibility, and periodic instabilities and danger, which has made a place where there are always new treasures to be ‘discovered’ or rediscovered, where critical columbuses can unearth one or another neglected genius. Distance also encourages romanticisation, a tendency to imagine a continent of happy samba-dancing people, of whose energy dynamic Modernism is an inevitable outpouring.

But perhaps the greatest power of Latin America is the way its architecture makes ideologies visible and physical, or apparently so. Architects look important, at the centre of things. Castro and Guevara ordain arts schools for the people on the formerly exclusive golf course of Havana’s Country Club Park. President Kubitschek commissions the monuments of Brasília from his fellow party animal Niemeyer. Colossal social housing programmes are built. So (awkward cough) are military academies. Bo Bardi creates a ‘Citadel of Liberty’ with her SESC Pompeia in São Paulo. Very plainly, the current attraction of Latin America comes from the desire for architecture driven by social needs rather than market forces and formal spectacle.

Cuba's National Art Schools conceived and founded by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

Cuba’s National Art Schools conceived and founded by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro onthe golf course in Havana

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on the golf course in Havana

Latin America in Construction, MOMA’s mighty new exhibition, is therefore timely. Given the scale of research, organisation and curation such things require, this is no mean feat. Its meat is a formidable body of 500 items of original material, mostly drawings, mostly not seen before, many now acquired by the museum. Like much of MOMA’s work, it performs a dual purpose: to draw public attention to something important, and to extend the institution’s empire of collections.

‘Architects in the south showed how Modernism could be a genuinely and intensely urban form of architecture’

It has chosen as its timespan the quarter century from 1955 to 1980. 1955 was the year not only of MOMA’s last foray into the area but also of an attack by the Swiss artist, designer and architect Max Bill on ‘the riot of anti-social waste … utter anarchy … jungle growth’ that he saw in the formal exuberance of Niemeyer and others. Barry Bergdoll, who curated the MoMA show, believes that Bill’s attack prompted, as well as some defensive reactions, serious debate about the roles and responsibilities of architects. 1980 marks the point when the politics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were beginning to take hold: much of the flourishing of Latin American architecture had grown from public investment and development aid that was now going out of fashion.

Lina Bo Bardi's SESC Pompeia

Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompeia

Bergdoll also likes to point out the extent to which Latin America has led rather than followed architectural innovation. MoMA’s famous International Style exhibition of 1932, despite its name, failed to notice what was happening south of the Rio Grande, but by then the Americas’ first exhibition of modern architecture had already happened, in the south. In the exhibition there are projects that look like premonitions of Archigram, megastructures, the Pompidou Centre, OMA, Zaha Hadid and community-led planning, but years or decades ahead.

Such works appear at different points in the exhibition, which starts with an engrossing montage of archive films from seven cities, sometimes revealing their differences and sometimes their similar responses to modernity (airships and foreign politicians pay visits, a concrete frame goes up …)  It continues with a room on the role of university campuses as fragments of future cities and then visits Brasília, with both outrageous competition submissions and ‘the birth certificate of a new city’ – Lúcio Costa’s brief memorandum on how it should be planned. There is a section on the broad subject of ‘cities in transition’, another on housing, another on Latin American architects’ work abroad. There is an interlude on the private houses that architects designed for themselves, and a concluding room on ‘utopias’, such as Amancio Williams’ ‘First City in Antarctica’.

The construction of Brasilia

The construction of Brasilia

Amancio Williams’ ‘First City in Antarctica’

Amancio Williams’ ‘First City in Antarctica’

The stars are the drawings, beautiful, diverse, compelling and revealing, such as those of the architecture school of Valparaíso, which Bergdoll calls ‘performative’ and compares to a film script. The projects shown include celebrities and relative unknowns, presenting a complex overall picture in which contrasting positions are taken in relation to, for example, the relative roles of modernity and autochthonous traditions. Informal settlements are largely absent – this is avowedly an exhibition of official works by named architects. On the other hand Bergdoll places emphasis on PREVI, the Peruvian housing project by a supergroup of 1970s architects, whose interest lies in subsequent alterations as much as the original intentions. He sees this as a precursor of Aravena’s celebrated ‘half-a-house’ projects of this century.

The experience is probably best for those who know the work already – apart from the opening room there is not much by way of contextualisation – but this is very much erring on the right side, given the number of architecture shows that combine weak material with excessive interpretation. Specially commissioned models are the weakest point – as an eminent architectural thinker pointed out, they concentrate more on exterior than interior and so fail to reveal the project’s spatial complexities, which in turn drains some energy from the show.


Alejandro Aravena’s half houses

It should have been said by now that ‘Latin America’ is a questionable construct. As a Brazilian said to me, riled at being grouped with countries with which she felt little affinity, the term if used at all should also include French-speaking Canada. That it doesn’t reveals a certain perspective, which tends to make ‘Latin’ a synonym for ‘not the North’. That said, it has made a pretext for an exhilarating display of architectural creativity with consistent themes within its diversity. In the end the strongest idea is possibly this: that architects in the south embraced the cities in which they worked. They showed how Modernism could be a genuinely and intensely urban form of architecture.

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980

Where: Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery, MoMA,
New York

When: until 29 July 2015

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