At MoMA, the lit­eral ar­chi­tects of a Latin Amer­i­can revo­lu­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT philip.ken­ni­cott@wash­

Crit­i­cal opin­ion was pretty much unan­i­mous ear­lier this spring when New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art un­veiled an ill-con­sid­ered, badly ex­e­cuted and in­tel­lec­tu­ally triv­ial ex­hi­bi­tion show­cas­ing the ca­reer of the Ice­landic singer Bjork. This was car­ni­val stuff, empty spec­ta­cle, trashy ha­giog­ra­phy and, af­ter ear­lier shows de­voted to fig­ures such as Tim Bur­ton and a one-off de­riv­a­tive per­for­mance piece in which Tilda Swin­ton slept in a glass box, yet more proof that MoMA un­der its long­time di­rec­tor, Glenn Lowry, has lost its way. It is now merely a colo­nial out­post of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, which lev­els cul­ture not in the in­ter­ests of democ­racy, ed­u­ca­tion or ac­cess, but with an un­think­ing, re­flex­ive an­i­mus to any­thing re­sis­tant to com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion.

But that isn’t en­tirely true. Ex­hi­bi­tions of ar­chi­tec­ture at MoMA are still con­sis­tently good, and a bit­ter­sweet re­minder of what the mu­seum used to do, was meant to do and should still be do­ing. The latest, “Latin Amer­ica in Con­struc­tion: Ar­chi­tec­ture 1955-1980,” is ev­ery­thing one wants in a MoMA show: his­tor­i­cally thor­ough, vis­ually sump­tu­ous, ed­u­ca­tional, en­light­en­ing and provoca­tive. It cov­ers a sub­ject, and re­gion, too large to yield a sin­gle the­sis. The cu­ra­tors say they aren’t in­ter­ested in defin­ing the “es­sen­tial” Latin Amer­ica, but rather aim to sur­vey “a plu­ral­ity of po­si­tions.”

But un­like so many other shows that are or­ga­nized by ge­og­ra­phy or eth­nic iden­tity or other broad cul­tural group­ing, this one never grows dif­fuse. The best de­scrip­tion is one that might have been ap­plied to ex­hi­bi­tions at MoMA decades ago: It is a lab­o­ra­tory for de­sign, an archive of pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Ar­chi­tec­ture be­comes a lens for gath­er­ing to­gether the dis­con­nected data points of Latin Amer­ica into a more mean­ing­ful sense of what made history there dif­fer­ent from history in other parts of the world in the mid­dle 20th cen­tury. The Sec­ond World War didn’t dev­as­tate Latin Amer­ica; de­vel­op­ment and con­struc­tion con­tin­ued with­out in­ter­rup­tion. The emo­tional and aes­thetic rup­ture of the war — there is no writ­ing po­etry af­ter Auschwitz — wasn’t as dra­matic, if ev­i­dent at all.

But the great gulf be­tween coun­tries that had long been un­der the colo­nial yoke and the United States and Europe was painfully ev­i­dent, es­pe­cially af­ter the war was over, and bu­reau­cratic, in­dus­trial and or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture be­gan trans­form­ing the United States. “De­vel­op­ment,” of­ten ad­min­is­tered un­der mil­i­tary or dic­ta­to­rial regimes, was in some places a higher ideal than democ­racy: Poverty was ever the salient so­cial fail­ing, made more galling by the small-world ef­fect of travel, im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tions and com­mu­nion at in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. Driv­ing much of the de­sign and con­struc­tion in South Amer­ica was an al­most manic need to in­dus­tri­al­ize, mod­ern­ize and ex­tend na­tional con­trol into the vast heart­land of a still rather empty con­ti­nent.

Hence, Brasilia, the great new cap­i­tal city that was opened in the in­te­rior of Brazil in 1960. Also, many of the build­ings that are now con­sid­ered mas­ter­pieces of the era, in­clud­ing the head­quar­ters for the Banco de Lon­dres y Amer­ica del Sur in Buenos Aires and a United Na­tions out­post known as CEPAL, which was built in the shad­ows of the An­des in Chile from 1960 to 1966. But “devel­op­men­tal­ism” wasn’t uni­ver­sally ac­cepted or con­sis­tently prac­ticed, and there was heart­felt re­sis­tance to the idea from tra­di­tion­al­ist ar­chi­tects, skep­tics of what we would now call the dark side of glob­al­ism, de­sign­ers who sought refuge in ru­ral or grass­roots cul­ture and re­li­gious groups. So while the ex­hi­bi­tion is chock-full of con­crete boxes, bru­tal­ist ba­gatelles and enor­mous Cor­bu­sian cruise ships float­ing on arid plains, it also fea­tures thrilling in­no­va­tions in re­li­gious ar­chi­tec­ture (the churches of Ela­dio Dieste in Uruguay), ex­per­i­men­tal com­mu­ni­ties (the im­pro­visatory ar­chi­tects of the Co­op­er­a­tiva Amereida in Chile in the 1970s) and a funky re­li­gious cam­pus, the House of Spir­i­tual Ex­er­cises, de­signed by Clau­dio Caveri in Ar­gentina in 1965.

Home­grown tal­ent

The ex­hi­bi­tion opens with in­ter­sect­ing films that set the so­cial and de­mo­graphic back­ground for the pe­riod: There was an enor­mous growth in pop­u­la­tion in cities across South Amer­ica and, with it, the need for new in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing hous­ing and public transit. At first, this sets up the story as closely anal­o­gous to the cur­rent day, in which megac­i­ties are blos­som­ing in China and new city-states in the Arab Gulf are com­pet­ing to skip a few gen­er­a­tions of de­vel­op­ment and emerge more mod­ern and global than fad­ing cap­i­tals of Europe and theWest.

But not all urbanisms are the same, and there are sev­eral dif­fer­ences be­tween Latin Amer­ica in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury and the ur­ban spec­ta­cles of to­day. The top-down, state-con­trolled cult of devel­op­men­tal­ism was one. But also: Latin Amer­ica wasn’t just a play­ground for Euro­pean or Amer­i­can ar­chi­tects. Nor was it a test­ing ground for avant-garde ex­per­i­ments too ex­pen­sive or dis­rup­tive to be pur­sued in es­tab­lished cities on other con­ti­nents. Latin Amer­ica gen­er­ated its own ar­chi­tects, its own ar­chi­tec­tural ideas and its own re­gional adap­ta­tions of in­ter­na­tional ideas about modernism. It wasn’t Dubai.

Con­sider the work of the bril­liant ar­chi­tect Lina Bo Bardi, born in Italy but very much a Brazil­ian in spirit and prac­tice. Her Mu­seum of Art in Sao Paulo opened the same year asMies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Ber­lin and is at least equally as ground­break­ing. A gi­ant, columnspace is sus­pended on four huge legs, cre­at­ing a rig­or­ous mod­ernist box above an open plaza. Art was orig­i­nally dis­played on glass pan­els, cre­at­ing a gallery in which ev­ery work is rad­i­cally in­de­pen­dent of all the oth­ers, a gen­uine ex­er­cise in con­struc­tive lev­el­ing.

Bo Bardi is one of the stars of the ex­hi­bi­tion, though her de­sign dic­tum is ter­ri­fy­ing: “I never look for beauty, only pu­rity.” There are sev­eral ways to read that, but given the po­lit­i­cal ten­dency to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism that pre­vailed in many Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries dur­ing this pe­riod, it sounds omi­nous. In fact, her work was keenly alert to lo­cal needs and pop­u­lar sen­ti­ments, with­out vi­ti­at­ing its for­mal­ity and mon­u­men­tal­ity. But there are other ar­chi­tects, and many ex­am­ples of de­sign, that will send a shiver down the spine in this ex­hi­bi­tion, es­pe­cially hous­ing projects that will re­mind Amer­i­cans of our own failed ex­er­cises in so­cial en­gi­neer­ing.

Un­fin­ished busi­ness

The cu­ra­tors ac­cept history as it is, with­out mor­al­iz­ing. In 1959, when Cuban rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies top­pled the cor­rupt and bru­tal regime of Fulgencio Batista, there fol­lowed (as so of­ten hap­pens in the af­ter­math of a revo­lu­tion) a pe­riod of great ex­cite­ment and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in ar­chi­tec­ture and the arts. As MoMA cu­ra­tor Barry Bergdoll ex­plains in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue, while many Cuban ar­chi­tects fled to ex­ile, in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects gath­ered, ex­cited by the new regime’s so­cial and ar­chi­tec­tural ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Even the U.S. at­tempt to iso­late the coun­try had an im­pact: “The Cuban con­struc­tion in­dus­try was hard hit by the ma­te­rial re­stric­tions brought about by the US em­bargo, so that tech­ni­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion was at once a ne­ces­sity and a cre­ative re­lease.”

A na­tional arts cam­pus de­signed for Ha­vana in 1961-65 is al­most al­le­gor­i­cal in its prom­ise and fail­ure. It was planned for land that had been a coun­try club, a thrilling act of ap­pro­pri­a­tion that el­e­vated art over the pas­times of the rich and elite, un­think­able in the wealth-wor­ship­ping, neo-lib­eral world­view to­day. Var­i­ous ar­chi­tects con­trib­uted dif­fer­ent pieces to the pro­ject, which was uni­fied by the use of lo­cal brick and a gen­tle, shal­low vault­ing tech­nique that sug­gested a land­scape of or­ganic bulges and berms.

It was never fin­ished, and the re­mains of much of what was built were aban­doned and soon over­grown. Cuban pri­or­i­ties turned away from re­al­iz­ing the de­signs of in­di­vid­ual ar­chi­tects to­ward an ethos of fast, ef­fi­cient, pre­fab­ri­cated de­sign. The Sovi­ets con­trib­uted a fac­tory to Cuba to man­u­fac­ture pre-cast con­struc­tion pan­els, and ar­chi­tects strug­gled (with oc­ca­sional suc­cess) to de­sign around these lim­i­ta­tions. To­day, there is de­bate about whether the cam­pus should be taken up again, re­vived, re­stored and fin­ished. Ul­ti­mately, this is a de­bate about history and our pos­ture to­ward it: Re­an­i­mat­ing an old build­ing pro­ject means rekin­dling old ideas and ideals. It is a bit like the fear of zom­bies.

The al­le­gory of Cuba’s aban­doned arts cam­pus re­mains with the visi­tor long af­ter view­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion. Driven in part by the ef­fects of a dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane, the enor­mity of its poverty and its iso­la­tion from much of the world, Cuba was forced to pri­or­i­tize a dispir­it­ing, generic and func­tional ar­chi­tec­ture. It also shifted its de­vel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties to the ru­ral land­scape, leav­ing cities like Ha­vana to molder over the years. Ne­ces­sity drives in­ven­tion, but it also drives de­spair and the de­hu­man­iz­ing ten­dency to view so­cial ills and wants as ab­stract prob­lems un­re­lated to ac­tual peo­ple and place.

Know­ing what we know now

It’s tempt­ing to com­part­men­tal­ize the worst of the ar­chi­tec­ture on view, and the failed so­cial and eco­nomic poli­cies that gov­erned much of Latin Amer­ica, and con­clude: Here lies a dark chap­ter of hu­man as­pi­ra­tion, best for­got­ten and never re­peated. But we can’t af­ford to do that. The great­est forces shap­ing civ­i­liza­tion to­day re­quire us to re­con­sider the best and worst of devel­op­men­tal­ism, and Latin Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion, if we hope to sur­vive as a species. The planet is fail­ing, and through­out the world, cities are ex­plod­ing with newres­i­dents. Hous­ing re­mains a cri­sis not just in the most des­per­ate places, but also in the rich­est cities: If New York is to sur­vive as a dy­namic cul­tural cap­i­tal, it must be open to the next gen­er­a­tion of artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als.

In­di­vid­u­al­ism, prized for so long that we take for granted its enor­mous so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences, will have to adapt. Or­gan­i­cally, we see that process al­ready un­der­way, in things like the shar­ing econ­omy, Zipcar and the dis­taste among some younger peo­ple for the de­mands of prop­erty and en­cum­brance. So­cial space and the public realm are gain­ing ground on the belief that we can sur­vive in iso­lated sub­ur­ban boxes, co­cooned from the hour the alarm rings in the morn­ing to the mo­ment at night when we drop ex­hausted from mean­ing­less toil — on the be­half of a new class of elites who re­ward greater pro­duc­tiv­ity with less money, less time and less dig­nity.

Peo­ple do want leisure. Peo­ple do want sim­pler lives. Peo­ple do want to live with and among other peo­ple. Man is still the so­cial an­i­mal. The tide is turn­ing, and though much of the ar­chi­tec­ture here is as­so­ci­ated with the fear of so­cial con­trol and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, it can be re­pur­posed, re­con­fig­ured and recon­cep­tu­al­ized for an era in which we live in greater bal­ance with na­ture, greater prox­im­ity with our fel­low man and greater free­dom to pur­sue long-dor­mant hu­man ideals — learn­ing, cul­ti­va­tion, art— that aren’t cher­ished by the mar­ket.

If you look only to the past, “Latin Amer­ica in Con­struc­tion” is a bit ter­ri­fy­ing; if you con­sider the needs of the fu­ture, it is a com­pen­dium of where we might di­rect the best of our en­er­gies.

Latin Amer­ica in Con­struc­tion: Ar­chi­tec­ture 1955-1980 is on view through July 19 at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York City. For more in­for­ma­tion visit

Latin Amer­ica gen­er­ated its own ar­chi­tects . . . and its own re­gional adap­ta­tions of in­ter­na­tional ideas about modernism.


ABOVE: Lu­cio Costa and Os­car Niemeyer’s plans for Brasilia, a new cap­i­tal for Brazil that opened in 1960, fea­tures the Plaza of the Three Pow­ers, which is sur­rounded by the three branches of gov­ern­ment.


TOP: Ed­uardo Ter­razas’s Mex­i­can Pav­il­ion for the 1968 Tri­en­nale diMi­lano was based on the logo forMex­ico City’s Olympics from the same year.

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