You can build a good city with modern forms. In this country, we seem to think that creating neighborhoods in which the forms work together to create a continuous composition—and one that both responds to a human scale and forms a larger whole appropriate to an urban community—takes bricks and mortar, stone, and age-old detailing. We also think that those monuments that draw our attention have to be similarly ponderous. In South and Central America, many cities show that both the monumental and the vernacular can be modern, and that Modernism can create an urban fabric that is lighter, more open, and more joyous than the heavy forms we are accustomed to in this country.
That much I had noted in reviewing last year’s excellent MoMA exhibition, "Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980," on these regions' architecture. Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sampling some of this in real life by visiting Montevideo, Uruguay, a city of about 1.5 million people on the River Plata. It had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960, when its agriculture helped to feed Europe, and has not grown since then. As a result, many of the structures that filled its blocks and line its 26 kilometers (about 16 miles) of riverfront snaking around countless inlets and small bays have the optimism and even exuberance of that era, and show it off in glass, steel, corrugated metal, painted stucco, and concrete columns opening up ground floors. There are plenty of old buildings in Montevideo, especially in the downtown and port area, but, especially the residential structures facing the Plata sport the grand lightness of modern materials and forms.
Typical is the Edificio Panamericano (1964), a slab of glass and concrete looking towards the expanse of the Plata (more than a river, it is a South Atlantic Ocean inlet whose other shore you cannot see from Montevideo) from behind a slope of grass. It is unusual in this setback, which gives it a monumentality distinct from the other apartment buildings, which are strung together along the Rambla to create a near continuous curve that snakes from near the airport in the south all the way to the downtown area. Designed by Raúl A. Sichero Bouret, it sails over its site on V-shaped columns below which retail nestles.
This kind of Modernist monumentality returns in Edificio Ciudadela (1958), by Bouret and Ernesto Calvo—a similar slab that fronts Montevideo’s largest square, the Plaza Independencia—as well as in the social housing project Unidad de Habitacion Sur (1956), by Román Fresnedo Siri, whose apartments float on an open concourse and are framed in brick, and again in the various buildings for the University spread out throughout the city. Yes, such forms can also continue the fabric of the street wall and even help stitch together corners, as Luis García Pardo did with the Pillar, a tower whose slabs are actually as thin as they appear because they are hung from the circular core that rises up within a spiral staircase.
At a much smaller scale, in the neighborhood called Villa del Cerro, Pardo designed small residential buildings, including his own home, studio, and rental units, whose three-story main part fronts the neighborhood’s main artery. A lower floor slides underneath, and then rises up to a two-story apartment block on the hill behind. It displays the separately posed forms and emphasis on planes and structure expressed as separate, interlocking elements that we expect from modernism developed in Europe a few decades earlier, but everything is lighter and more expressive in its detailing, some of which Pardo picked out in yellow and blue. Yet, it also seems to come out of and give order to the mixed forms and materials of the commercial and residential areas around the structure.
The most beautifully realized of all the buildings I saw in Montevideo was the Liceo Héctor Miranda (1954), designed by Acosta, Brum, Careri, and Stratta. It fills a full city block with forms that range from a two-story rectangle of classrooms to a butterfly-roofed extension and a square auditorium that commands the inner court. All these pieces intersect in the interior as well, leaving you to tumble down from the entrance area into the assembly hall or rise up to tiers of offices and classrooms. It creates a community of learning that, even if is somewhat worn down, still speaks of a belief in an architecture that educates and gives space to education.
That sense of things being worn pervaded all of Montevideo. The city is stagnant, though it works efficiently, and all structures—save the brand new shopping malls and Viñoly’s landed-from-Mars new terminal of the Carrasco International Airport—have the sense that they are slowly falling into ruin. That makes the modern buildings even more of the city fabric, as the wear and tear of time and use elides the differences in urban and architectonic approach between a classic and a modern approach that once were so strong. Perhaps someday Montevideo will have another influx of capital. Until then, the memorials to its modern moment remain, hard at work both to house their inhabitants and to make a beautiful city.