In an Argentinian beach resort, a cuboid concrete carapace conceals the more expressive, populist soul of a new museum of contemporary art
The popular Argentinian resort of Mar del Plata is reached by driving south for five hours through the vast cow-studded Pampas that surround Buenos Aires. This monotonous landscape is occasionally interrupted by high-security gated communities, known as ‘countries’, to which the anxious rich retreated after the economic crisis and social unrest of 2001. Arriving at our destination, a walk down the pedestrianised avenue from the neo-Gothic cathedral reveals a seaside town going at it hammer and tongs. At the end of the street the horizon broadens to reveal the beach − or what can be seen of it beneath an impenetrable blanket of holidaymakers and empanada stalls. Overlooked by the grandiose Belle Époque casino and a cluster of more recent towers, a wizened peacock tangos alone on the esplanade.
At the end of the 19th century, the arrival of the railway transformed Mar del Plata into an exclusive resort for wealthy porteños (as the people of Buenos Aires are called), and the francophile villas of these early visitors linger as reminders of a gilded age. The complexion of the city changed again after 1946 when Peron started subsidising hotels and train travel for workers, and today it remains popular with a wide cross section of Argentine society. As you move north up the coast from Playa Brístol, the apartment buildings become somewhat newer and neater, and the crowds on the beaches thin. In the distance, between a diner and a budget hotel, the silhouette of the new Museum of Contemporary Art marks a distinctive presence. Its concrete cuboid blocks are not out of place here − the museum shares the material and form of most of the surrounding seaside architecture − but the texture and tone of its shuttered concrete, the severity of its silhouette, and the blankness of its unbalconied, almost windowless facades, announce a difference of function, a more self-conscious aesthetic.
Designed by local practice Monoblock, which won the competition to build it in 2009, the museum comprises three discrete cuboid volumes of two storeys. These are connected to a central double-height atrium by glazed interstitial spaces, the idea of the modular plan being that more blocks could be added if necessary. Raised slightly above the coastal road, the building sits on a new piazza paved with cobbles and featuring an as-yet-unfilled reflecting pool. This space is currently occupied by several temporary installations relating to the inaugural exhibition, Ola Pop, a survey of Argentine Pop Art and pop culture since the 1960s. Two vinyl-covered geodesic domes house retrospectives of Argentine crooner Sandro and comic actor Alberto Olmedo, who died after falling from a balcony in the city in 1988; and a stage hosts pop concerts in the evenings. Guarding the entrance to the museum is a monumental sculpture of a sea lion covered with silver packets of alfajores, the national biscuit. Created by Marta Minujín, an artist of international stature whose career began in the 1960s, the towering lobo de mar is reminiscent of Jeff Koons’ giant puppy, which haunted the world museum circuit for a while in the 1990s. Like the deracinated architecture of the museum itself, this reference is a statement of integration with the globalised art market and its architectural appendages. But the sea lion is also a symbol of the city, the famous alfajores coating it are manufactured here, and the biscuits will be distributed to the public when the exhibition closes. The sculpture encapsulates the intent of the exhibition: populist Modernism with Argentinian characteristics.
This populism is also manifested in architectural terms, in the building’s successful integration with the street and beach life of the city (the lack of an entry charge helps here too). The ground floor of the module abutting the street is occupied by the restaurant and shop, and is generously glazed. In contrast, the ground storeys of the other two modules − which are occupied by an auditorium and the museum offices − are more opaque. The elevated site affords views from the restaurant of the sea, and contrives to entice holidaymakers who might otherwise have remained beach-bound. Despite the somewhat defensive look of the building, which to a European visitor is reminiscent of pillboxes on the Atlantic Wall, this strategy seems to work. When I visited, the museum − open until 11pm every night for its first exhibition − had a carnival atmosphere. Families and young people filled the piazza outside, lined the steps and crammed the restaurant and galleries, to an extent that would turn some European institutions green with envy.
The project was initiated by the regional administration of Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province and a staunch ally of Argentina’s president Cristina de Kirchner. At the opening he asserted that ‘with this museum, Mar del Plata has made a qualitative leap bringing it in line with the return of a progressive Argentina … This is the policy of cultural inclusion that our president wants in order for Argentina to grow and revive with all its strength.’ An admirable (if somewhat nebulous) sentiment, but when I was in Argentina there were ominous signs of economic instability that could put the future of a national revival in question − not that this seemed to bother the revellers in Mar del Plata.
The museum’s architecture contributes to this holiday atmosphere. Moving from the low-ceilinged restaurant into the double-height atrium elicits a well-choreographed sense of spatial expansion. The open concrete beams of the atrium’s ceiling house services, and the gaps between the beams are glazed, allowing daylight to stream down onto the two escalators that take visitors to and from the upper storey. A circular information desk below is manned, like the galleries, by invigilators in fetching Guantanamo-orange jumpsuits, and looming above is an installation by Edgardo Giménez comprising an enormous semi-naked cut-out of Argentinian star Moria Casán. Her head is circled by oversized toy aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling.
At the top of the escalator a balcony rings the atrium, taking visitors to the three exhibition spaces. To enter these you pass through the glazed passageways that unite the four modules of the building. These are lower and lighter than the galleries, and are partly lined (like the restaurant, services and other non-exhibition spaces) with polished panels of black Indian granite. The modulation in atmosphere created by these reflective and transparent materials − in contrast to the textured concrete of the exteriors and gallery ceilings, and the matt white gallery walls − reinforces the already distinct clarity of the building’s plan and its separation of functions.
Inside the galleries, the ceiling rises once more, but here it is not open to daylight. Instead, natural light is admitted through irregular vertical and horizontal slits cut into the building’s walls, which also give glimpses of the ocean. Additional illumination is provided by long units housing strip lights which drop from slots in the ceiling to adjustable heights according to the needs of the objects on display. The huge spaces are otherwise featureless, self-effacing hangars for art; to install the current show, several smaller temporary rooms have been built in the galleries. The exhibition begins with a panel explaining that the social and artistic freedoms inaugurated by the 1960s were rapidly curtailed in Argentina by the rise of the military dictatorship in 1966. You are then invited to plunge down the psychedelic rabbit-hole by walking through one of the temporary rooms, filled with blaring pop music, only to emerge from behind a curtain to see photographs of Marta Minujín handing corn cobs to Andy Warhol. These pictures document a performance of Minujín’s from 1985 in which she symbolically paid off the country’s crippling debts to the USA with a shipment of ‘Latin American gold’.
Minujín’s performance raises questions about national debts, both financial and cultural. The building itself owes much to that international language of museum architecture familiar to gallery-goers around the world. And why not; in an era of global capital, the notion of a regional architecture is a questionable one. But effective as this architecture is − you can actually hang art on these perpendicular, unglazed walls, as is increasingly rare in recent museums − I find myself pining for a moment when Argentina seemed capable of producing a more idiosyncratic version of international currents, namely the quasi-Brutalism of recently departed Clorindo Testa. In fact, a nod to Testa’s cantilevers may be detectable in the concrete overhangs of Monoblock’s museum, but this is a slight gesture from an otherwise far less exuberant building. It would of course be unreasonable to expect some kind of architectural Kirchnerism, whatever that might be, able to resist neoliberal globalism in line with Governor Scioli’s rhetoric. In the context of Mar del Plata’s amiably banal seaside architecture, perhaps the frisson of difference conjured by this severe yet welcoming interloper − which announces the presence of art for the people in this city otherwise known for its less intellectual recreations − is enough.