Review – Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980

Thomas Wensing reviews a momentous MoMA show that covers 500 post-war architecture projects from South America.


Museum of Modern Art, New York,
29 March - 19 July

Review by Thomas Wensing

This is a momentous exhibition covering 500 modern works from more than a dozen South American countries. It celebrates the 60th anniversary of Henry-Russell Hitchcock's 1955 MoMA show 'Latin American Architecture since 1945' and was organised over a period of five years by curator Barry Bergdoll, head of the department of architecture and design, together with a team of experts and contributions from research teams across the South American continent.

Its focus is on the post-war period until 1980, an era of unprecedented urbanisation and modernisation, and coincides with the application of development theory, or developmentalism, by most Latin American governments. Developmentalism, according to Bergdoll, is 'the notion that it was the role of the state to promote modernisation and to attend to the urban challenges it brought', a doctrine which by the Eighties had been fully swept away by neo-liberal economic policies, and the postmodern critique on the relative merits of large-scale, top-down, urban planning methods.

Views from the Latin America in Construction exhibition at MoMA in New York

image: Thomas Griesel

This exceptional and enormous urban growth in Latin America after the Second World War not only meant that capital cities and former provincial towns turned into megalopoli, but also fostered a climate of architectural innovation and experimentation. This allowed Latin American countries to shake off the dominance of European and American cultural influence and develop native, modern architectural traditions of exceptional quality.

Henry-Russell Hitchcock conceded in 1955 that 'the quality of current Latin American building exceeds our own', and going through the kaleidoscopic array of architectural output in the current exhibition, which ranges from Uruguay to Mexico, the impression is that this level of quality has at least been sustained until the effects of the neo-liberal turn became fully apparent.

Oscar Niemeyer. Cathedral under construction, Brasilia, Brazil
Oscar Niemeyer. Cathedral under construction, Brasilia, Brazil. image: Arquivo Publico do Distrito Federal

The exhibition is thematically arranged to give some structure to the breadth of materials and large geographical distances. The prelude in the first gallery starts off with exquisite compilations by Joey Forsyte of rare film footage from major cities such as Montevideo, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Mexico City and Havana. The clips, dating from the Twenties to the Fifties, have been juxtaposed to cover the modernisation in each of these cities by way of the usual modernist tropes: zeppelins, airplanes, healthcare, the construction of apartment blocks, factories and railway lines. The films make the frantic pace of urban growth palpable and it optimistically sets the spirit for the rest of the exhibition.

The following two rooms are dedicated to the UNAM campus in Mexico City, the UCV Campus in Caracas, Venezuela, and the design and construction of the new capital of Brasília in the heartland of Brazil.

These projects were of course political projects in which radical modern design was used to reinforce national identities, intended to express faith in progress and a bright future, but were above all model cities or city quarters meant to guide the future of urbanisation and urban planning in the respective countries, and possibly across the continent.

Eladio Dieste. Church in Atlantida, Uruguay, (1958)
Eladio Dieste. Church in Atlantida, Uruguay, (1958). Image: Leonardo Finotti

The large scale of the model city is set against innovations in domestic architecture in the section At Home with the Architect, a room dedicated to the design of the freestanding single-family house. This treasure trove moves beyond the usual suspects of Barragán and Legorreta to include many other, mostly unknown, gems. Unfortunately the majority of designs needs to be accessed by way of a display of the catalogue and through iPads.

The next three topics, of Transforming the Urban Landscape, A Quarter Century of Housing, and Density and Innovation aim to document the large-scale urban transformations taking place in cities across the continent. It is in these sections that I felt that the exhibition was able to capture the essence of the variety of Latin American architecture at its best.

A combination of original material, drawings and photographs are complemented by newly constructed large models by students of the Catholic University of Chile and University of Miami. The handcrafted quality of the grey-painted models of the Chileans worked particularly well in conveying the spatiality and mass of the concrete works of, for instance, Clorindo Testa's Bank of London in Buenos Aires and João Batista Vilanova Artigas' Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo in São Paulo.

Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré (Peruvian, 1926–2014). Perspective of a proposed hotel for Machu Picchu (1969)
Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré (Peruvian, 1926-2014). Perspective of a proposed hotel for Machu Picchu (1969). Image: Archivo Miguel Rodrigo Mazure

The exhibition concludes with smaller sections on the way in which Latin American architecture was exported to the rest of the world and a gallery of utopian and dystopian explorations.

It should be apparent that an exhibition that covers so much ground, that shows so many projects across different countries and different times, may lack in focus and depth. Although this criticism may have a certain validity, it misses a much larger point that the exhibition makes; it immerses you in the high quality of modern Latin American architecture, and in doing so finally corrects a longstanding Eurocentric and Western bias in the historiography of the modern movement.

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