Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 7, 2016
Barry Bergdoll, Carlos Comas, Jorge Francisco Liernur, and Patricio del Real, eds. Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015. 320 pp.; 559 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780870709630)
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Eladio Dieste. Church in Atlantida, Uruguay (1958). Photograph: Leonardo Finotti © Leonardo Finotti.

In 1955, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held a show entitled Latin American Architecture since 1945 that defined the parameters of how modern architecture in Latin America would be read. In the accompanying catalogue, curator Henry Russell-Hitchcock highlighted important points concerning architecture produced over the past decade in the region, addressing its protagonists, relationship to history and the visual arts, construction and use of reinforced concrete, and influences (Latin American Architecture since 1945, exh. cat., New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955). In his analysis, the work was a “late comer” (61), had no great architectural “leaders,” and was a reaction to European and North American models. Sixty years later, Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 (under the curatorship of Barry Bergdoll, Carlos Eduardo Comas, Jorge Francisco Liernur, and Patricio del Real) attempts to define the architecture produced since then. Their exhibition, unlike Hitchcock’s, is a historical look at the production undertaken during the period of “developmentalism,” where the state placed the economy as the driving force of political, industrial, and social development, and which had its most dramatic expression following the Second World War and ending, as they note, with changes in the 1980s led by neoliberal economic policies. While the 1955 show was based on the final expressions of the Good Neighbor policy, a nascent Cold War mentality, and growing economic interests of the United States in Latin America, the current one is historiographical and avoids debates regarding what constitutes contemporary architecture in Latin America. Ambitious in its scale and reach, and knowingly addressing a topic bound to be controversial, Latin America in Construction aims to present significant work and encourage discussion. Yet, what is different from the current exhibition and the one in 1955? And, perhaps most importantly, what is its intention?

Critiques of the exhibition have ranged from a lack of definition of the political milieu within which many of the works emerged (including their production during periods of military dictatorships), from its Euro- or New York-centric character and associated suspicions of what was included or excluded (often raised from nationalist perspectives), and from the idealization and overgeneralization of what Bergdoll defined in an interview in Metropolis Magazine as the “poetics of developmentalism” (Samuel Medina, “The Future Was Latin America,” Metropolis Magazine [March 2015]: http://www.metropolismag.com/March-2015/The-Future-Was-Latin-America/). These appraisals, however, remain focused on the character of and pieces within the exhibition and did not address the way that it served to construct an idea of how modern architecture in Latin America is to be understood and how its presentation was reflective of an ideological position. For, ultimately, Latin America in Construction remaps the architecture, urbanism, and landscapes within new parameters and positions itself as the center of the map by not only expanding MoMA’s own collection of works on Latin American architecture, but also by defining the discourse of how to read and understand those works and asserting its role within that reading.

The catalogue—and, by extension, the exhibition—defines itself as a resource for the “historical and contemporary reevaluation of the architectural legacy” (38) of not only the period in question but of modern architecture in Latin America itself. If the intention is to present a history of the works, actors, and developments of that architecture, then the show does not fully explain the material shown, its importance, and its relationship to other works of the same period. Missing as well are discussions of how the politics and economies of the countries that produced them (in the spirit of the master narrative of “developmentalism”) affected the works. Central concerns and debates of plastic integration (introducing art into the architecture), the means of construction, and the historical development of the architects and planners that designed and built them are largely absent. There are many reasons for these faults: the exhibition’s sheer ambitiousness and scale, the thematic organization of the material which extracted it from a chronological timeline and locational continuum, the lack of ancillary information about the projects, and, most importantly, the absence of direct definitions as to why—besides being shown at the museum—these works were important. However, it presents beautiful original drawings, sketches, models, and period photographs of the works during and after their construction: the original submission by Lúcio Costa of his ideas and sketches for Brasília, for example; or Eladio Dieste’s study models for the construction of the sinuous walls of the Atlántida Church in Uruguay; or the idealized perspectives highlighting community in Augusto H. Álvarez’s International Style glass boxes for Mexico City. Small- and large-scale models were produced for the exhibition (by students in Chile and Florida): some beautifully represent designs for housing, a columbarium, and office buildings, to name a few typologies, while others unsuccessfully—due to their dark gray color—attempt to show paradigmatic interior spaces of important buildings.

It should be clear that curators construct positions and readings through the overall organization and direction of exhibitions and the themes addressed therein, through the selection and omission of works, and through display strategies and accompanying texts (including catalogues). Material presented in exhibitions naturalizes an agenda that is based on a broader ideological charge (this is clear in how earlier MoMA exhibitions on Latin America were related to pre- and post-World War II U.S. efforts led by prominent members of the museum who also had governmental roles). Here, the charge is more ambiguous as it is closer to us, and, as such, we lack historical distance. However, it is fair to begin to develop a reading of what that might be, based on what is presented and how.

At the core of Latin America in Construction is the notion of construction. While the intent is to show construction (as seen by the somewhat simplistic expression of the museum’s walls under construction or by exhibiting construction drawings for some buildings), the idea of literal construction appears a bit gratuitous as the exhibition, based on ideas of “developmentalism,” unsuccessfully expresses the material, economic, or political nuances of the construction of the projects presented and becomes, in the end, the spectacularization of construction itself. The once-legible construction of architecture—and associated characteristics of power, national expression, etc.—has been made opaque and reduced to images or signifiers of work, as it presents, broadly speaking, construction without the signs of the labor required to undertake it. Constructed instead are the parameters that MoMA sets up for reading the works. Here, I do not mean the intended construction of the dialectical readings expected to emerge from the comparison between juxtaposed works. But, rather and as noted above, the construction of a map of modern architecture where MoMA has placed itself, again, at the center.

Mapping Latin America has been, since its “discovery,” a contested endeavor. In the act of mapping, cartographers—like curators—employ conventions not only to provide a sense of location but also to propose a concise reading of what are, in reality, the complexities of the territory. Through the use of these conventions, the entry gallery of the exhibition—with works and videos that precede its designated historical period—tries to express the geographical extent of the show by placing an over-scaled map of Latin America on the ground. Yet maps are also expressions of territoriality, politics, and projections of power structures. In the 1930s, the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García proposed an inverted map for the continent, challenging cartographic conventions that always placed Latin America at the bottom. Likewise, in his descriptions of maps, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges subverted the exactitude of maps by suggesting that the most accurate maps, as they related to the lived experience of the place, could only be the size of the territory itself.

The map in MoMA’s entry gallery is paradoxical because it does not relate itself to the real; that is, the locational indicators do not refer to real works on the walls, and, thus, the map separates itself from the world while, through its scale, it tries to suggest the physical vastness of the territory itself. In this way, it engenders the region as something autonomous while accessible, and reductive in the same way that Hitchcock in 1955, with broad strokes, defined for his reader the Latin American territory and the “characteristics of [its] architectural scene as a whole” (21). In the entry gallery, the architectural history that precedes the scope of the show is essentialized and exhibited: the Ministry of Education and Public Health building in Rio de Janeiro (1938), Juan O’Gorman’s designs for the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studios (1932) in Mexico City, the legacy of Le Corbusier, and a mise-en-abyme presentation of the early role of MoMA in exhibiting Latin America. In looking at the plan of the galleries in their entirety, the physical map ends at the moment where the conceptual one begins to define works—following some of the categories that Hitchcock employed in 1955 such as housing, public buildings, and so forth—that, with some exceptions, are shown as autonomous from their locational and historical context and in dialectical juxtaposition with one another based on apparent formalist or typological attributes.

As a result of the exhibition and its curatorial efforts, the museum more than doubled its presented collection of works, thereby highlighting its ability to transact and consume to obtain them as well as to assuage concerns for their survival only when transferred to its private realm. According to the exhibition checklist, of the approximately 351 physical objects shown, 174 belonged to MoMA, and 103 of those objects were donated for the exhibition. These donations are, of course, the result of many complex issues which include the desire for their safekeeping, especially in unstable political or economic situations, and because of poor and precarious archival traditions existing in Latin America resulting from lack of funds, little—if any—training, and inadequate facilities. Most importantly, many donors consider the prestige of the work becoming part of MoMA’s collection as the ne plus ultra acknowledgement of the work’s significance. This establishes MoMA as the arbiter of importance while (or by) placing the archival center of a large part of the modern architecture of Latin America in the museum. For many in Latin America, the diaspora of archives is of serious concern, considered not only a loss of the national patrimony but also of control over how these works are represented and used. In addition, their location and the transfer of rights make it prohibitively expensive for Latin American scholars or journals to study and publish them.

Without articulating the clear connection of the producers, users, and enablers (politicians, patrons, etc.) of the work; the social, material, and political realities which existed at the time; and the location of their design and construction, it is difficult to make more sense of how the architecture of place—the living and working environments—is defined within this exhibition. Instead, Latin America in Construction develops a historical concept of architecture in Latin America as experimental, uncertain, and as part of the always-already processes of its development. Here, difference is capitalized by showing what happens in “the developing world,” and the exhibition becomes a “construction site of histories of modern architecture in Latin America” (introductory wall text). The museum’s ability to gather, borrow, and collect works from every corner of Latin America also speaks to its very status and of the show as a central protagonist in defining, through inclusion, what are the necessary and indispensable elements of that history. Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 constructs a discourse whose center is located conceptually, materially, and ideologically outside of Latin America.

Luis Carranza
Professor, School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation, Roger Williams University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.