For many decades, Latin American architecture has been the inspiring "other" for American and, to a certain extent, European architects. Japanese, Chinese, and certain African architecture have had their vogue, but nothing has made Western architects feel as if there was a more fundamental, exuberant, and just better way of making buildings then by looking at what was built south of our border after the Second World War. An exhibition held in 1955 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled "Latin American Architecture since 1945" solidified that sense. Now MoMA, long the place that has recognized the central place of “primitive” and “other” culture in the modernist revolt against inherited traditions and norms, has given the region its second major exhibition, "Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980”—and it is the most exhilarating thing the Museum’s architecture department has done in years.
A large part of the exhibition’s success is its subject matter. I remember the first time I went to Mexico City, and the joy I felt not just at viewing the monuments in Chapultepec Park, Diego Riviera’s house, the compounds of Barragan, and more recent experiments by the likes of Enrique Norten and Alberto Kalach, but also at the vernacular of the place: the way its major monuments and its residential neighborhoods alike were almost uniformly modernist in the material and basic form and expressive in their detailing and massing.
It is dangerous to generalize about a whole city, let alone a whole region, and yet this exhibition confirms my sense that Latin America constructed something different—and often better than what we built—in its urban areas during the decades of its greatest growth, and before political and economic reaction set in during the 1970s. The architects and their clients there built big and they built modern, from Brasilia to the UNAM, the main university campus in Mexico City. They designed structures that were both more solid and monumental, balancing on what seemed to be unlimited quantities of concrete and opening up to a relatively forgiving climate. They integrated art into their public buildings, as in the works by Alexander Calder at Carlos Real Villanueva’s University of Venezuela, and they let good architects loose on the problem of social housing, as in the PREVI project in Lima, Peru, which still stands as one of the greatest experiments in that field.
“Latin America in Construction” has the great virtue of just showing some of the best work produced all over the continent during this time period. It is not representative, nor is it exhaustive; it is just the product of a curatorial team under the leadership of the former director of the department, Barry Bergdoll, who combined excellent eyes and judgment with MoMA’s ability to get anything it wants from any collector, archive, or museum.
The result is a slightly chaotic display of drawings, models, and period photographs that is not necessarily different than most architecture exhibitions. But it is, like its subject matter, more dramatic, intense, and just drop-dead gorgeous. Many of the best drawings and, of course, all of the models are missing from the otherwise well-written catalog, so this is one show you really have to catch.
Is there something colonial about our Temple of Modernism’s appropriating of all this stuff and then turning it into beautiful imagery selected for our delectation? Of course, but, if we can learn from this work how to make public buildings, low cost housing, and homes integrated into their landscapes, then it is worth it. For once, after all, the fact that architecture exhibitions always show only second-hand images of the real thing is an advantage, as the real stuff remains in place. So go see this exhibition, so that you can steal the best ideas from what was done by those other countries and other architects you didn’t learn about in school. We have a great deal to learn from the beauty and strength of this work. Given the good work that I see going up in Latin America today, I only hope we don’t have wait another sixty years for the next exhibition on this continent.
Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 is open through July 19.