The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980” (until July 19), is an assembly of work that may never be repeated. With more than 500 original drawings, models, photographs, and films from the last half-century, by architects working in 10 countries and one commonwealth, the show reveals a depth to the region’s architecture well beyond Oscar Niemeyer, Roberto Burle Marx, Luis Barragán, and the insurgent Lina Bo Bardi. While all of the above appear multiple times across the exhibition’s five galleries, they are flanked by equally talented colleagues, collaborators, and mavericks.
It is a remarkable collection of everything you could possibly call Modernism—diagrid skyscrapers, abstract landscapes, megastructures, cities of slabs. The tricky part is figuring out how to navigate the treasures. You could get stuck in the front room where, on a set of seven screens reminiscent of some 1960s World’s Fair pavilion, filmmaker Joey Forsyte has assembled vintage footage into jaunty eight-minute documentaries on the region’s cities. We see palm trees and old cars, zeppelins and beaches, skyscrapers and hand-of-God architects placing little blocks in a sea of the same.
Or you might get caught in the second room, where Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral’s campus plan for Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (1947–54) faces off against Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s Ciudad Universitaria, Caracas (1945–70). “Both were at once motors for their respective cities’ expansions and model cities in their own right,” says the wall text. “Both were built in a few short years to showcase modern architecture as a carrier of national identity and as a synthesis of the arts, integrating sculpture, murals, mosaics, and related arts.”
Then there’s a display titled Brasília, which includes Lúcio Costa’s soaring 1957 competition sketch for the capital. The curators have carefully eschewed the photography-first approach to architecture so common today online, privileging original architectural drawings, models, and collages, as well as vintage photographs that, while not oversized, are mostly spectacular. One in particular, taken by Brazilian photographer Marcel Andre Felix Gautherot of the ministries under construction in Brasilia in 1958, makes it look as if the buildings are shimmering themselves into being, like desert mirages, while workers in the foreground immediately belie that reading. (MoMA also sponsored an Instameet, which prompted Instagram users to upload more than 17,700 present-day images of the featured projects; search the hashtag #arquimoma.)
As for the main event, it unfolds in the museum’s large sixth-floor temporary exhibition gallery, which has been left as one big room, subdivided by display walls stripped to their metal studs above head height. I thought this was a nod to the indoor–outdoor flow of space in Latin American architecture, but was told by a publicist it was actually in response to the “in construction” of the exhibition’s title. The top of the southern gallery wall is marked with a timeline of important political dates, too high for easy reference; below that is a chronological survey of significant experiments in housing. Elsewhere in the room are other typological arrangements, not all well marked, including cultural and sports facilities, recreational projects, and offices.
Buenos Aires, the first city in the southern hemisphere to build a skyscraper, Palacio Barolo (1919–23) by Mario Palanti, also held a competition in 1961–62 to design the first modernist skyscraper, Edificio Peugeot. Competition entries, mounted in a grid, show that not much has changed since then: There’s a Miesian slab, a Fosterish diagrid, an Anne Tyng–like spaceframe. Only the shadowy photos suggest the age of the entries; at least in international skyscraperland, Modernism marches on.
Because of the archival emphasis, and the sheer number of works in the show, most displays are far from immersive. A rare exception is the one for Clorindo Testa and SEPRA Arquitectos’ headquarters for the Banco de Londres y America del Sur, Buenos Aires (1959–66), which includes sketches and a giant cutaway model—one of several new models made and installed at eye height so that you can mentally enter the building. A 1965 photo by Manuel Gomez Piñiero reveals an interior scale similar to that of the (later) Ford Foundation by Roche Dinkeloo, which also features an internal space with a set of stacked, shelf-like façades.
The exhibit was organized by Barry Bergdoll, former chief curator of the Department of Architecture & Design; curatorial assistant Patricio del Real; Jorge Francisco Liernur from the Universidad Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires; and Carlos Eduardo Comas of the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. In an interview with Metropolis, Bergdoll discussed the show as a personal and institutional mea culpa. The last time MoMA surveyed Latin American modern design was 1955, with the photographically driven “Latin American Architecture Since 1945.”
The 1955 exhibit, as well as the 1943 MoMA show “Brazil Builds,” were both significant. But to frame the current exhibit within the context of MoMA’s own institutional history seems to repeat the very error that this exhibit seeks belatedly to correct. The museum’s research and scholarship matter, of course, but the work featured here is already influential and significant on its own. It doesn’t need MoMA’s imprint to somehow validate it.
Bergdoll spoke, at the press preview, of recognizing Latin American architecture “as the great conversationalist that it was.” But as I went through the exhibit, I felt that it failed to inspire those conversations, whether about the “synthesis of the arts” mentioned in the campus projects, or dialogues between individual architects, or how the political systems in that timeline on the wall shaped the architecture. The show could do more to integrate these monuments into an international narrative, regionally and globally, and tease out the connections between people, buildings, and the arts.
Those connections don’t have to be formulated (as they have often been in the past) as the north influencing the south: You can make a network chart without directional arrows. At times it felt like the wall labels were trying so hard not to suggest influence as to leave visitors without any interpretive framework at all. When I see Jesús Tenreiro Degwitz’s 1967–68 headquarters for the Corporacion Venezolana Electrificación del Caroní, with its stacked structure and gridded outrigger sunshades of brick and steel, I can’t help thinking of Eero Saarinen’s 1964 Deere & Co. headquarters in Moline, Ill., with the same (minus the brick). Did both architects visit Katsura?
Alvar Aalto is mentioned on the label for the beautifully planned Residential El Polo complex in Bogotá (1959–62) by Rogelio Salmona and Guillermo Bermúdez. But he’s not mentioned in the text accompanying the two spectacular churches by Uruguyan engineer and architect Eladio Dieste, which, in their handling of brick, light, and curves, suggest a kinship with the Finnish architect (though Dieste’s engineering was likely more advanced).
For a sense of what’s missing, head up Park Avenue 15 blocks to the Americas Society. There, guest curators Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, Ana Elena Mallet, and Jorge F. Rivas Pérez have organized the small but exquisite “Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978” (until May 16) around the question of the domestic landscape. A few designers overlap between the two shows. There’s the Bahia chair and a wall-size image of the Glass House by Bo Bardi, another chair by the great Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, and the Mexican entry from MoMA’s epochal 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition: the webbed Scorpion chaise by Michael Van Beuren, Klaus Grabe, and Morley Webb.
The chaise and the drawings from the society’s archives underscore the point that modernist ideas happened in many places at once: Bruno Mathsson in Sweden and Danish Jens Risom in New York also explored combinations of webbing and wood for seating during this era. Moreover, the wall text discusses designers like Van Beuren and Cynthia Sargent (one of a handful of women in “Moderno”) who came from North America to Latin America and stayed. (Van Beuren also trained at the Bauhaus.) Sargent’s wall-size Scarlatti rug, in pink and orange and yellow, provided the hit of graphic color that I associate with Latin American architecture, and which, on the whole, seems lacking in the MoMA exhibit.
In another welcome turn, “Moderno” calls out more of the contemporary crosscurrents between nations. In its attempt to avoid comparisons, the MoMA curators screened out most North American and European architects who built in Latin America during this era, and relegated work by Latin American architects outside of their country of origin to a separate export section. This creates a motley array of projects in the MoMA exhibition’s final hallway, including pavilions for expos in Milan, Montreal, and Osaka, designs for major buildings in Spain, and a rough sketch for the central plaza at Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., by Barragán, a consultant on the project.
A spectacular model for the 1968 Mexican pavilion in Milan by architect Eduardo Terrazas distills the design for the Olympic games (here credited to Terrazas, Ramírez Vázquez, Brit Beatrice Trueblood, and American Lance Wyman) into an approximately 4-foot by 2-foot lidded box, like the most fabulous dollhouse in the world. But why no other images from the actual games, and why not put this artifact over near the stadiums section?
There’s also the question of the numerous modern architects, Bo Bardi and Villanueva among them, who were born abroad but moved to Latin America. Without resuming the tired narrative of Le Corbusier bringing Modernism to this part of the world, it still seems possible to talk about who came from where and studied or worked with whom.
It’s difficult to address these matters in an exhibition, but I still think the curators of “Latin America in Construction” could have offered more guidance about the superlative artifacts assembled. I came away from the galleries overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, but very excited to plan my next trip south.