“Meta Pavilion No 05 (Santa Maria Island, Chile)" (2011, digital collage by Pezo von Ellrichshausen)
Courtesy Pezo von Ellrichshausen/Carnegie Museum of Art “Meta Pavilion No 05 (Santa Maria Island, Chile)" (2011, digital collage by Pezo von Ellrichshausen)

This is the final weekend to catch Building Optimism: Public Space in South America at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center. Videos, photographs, models, and several films illustrate projects in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela by the likes of Lina Bo Bardi, Elemental, Herzog & de Meuron, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Given that the museum is in Pittsburgh and quite a distance away from this exhibition's subject matter, ARCHITECT spoke with the curator, Raymund Ryan, about what U.S. architects can learn about public space design from the southern continent.

The exhibition is called Building Optimism. Are you seeing this optimism on the side of the designers or the clients? Or both?
[Laughs] Well, hopefully also the citizen. I think all of the above, but I think the citizen is the key person in all of this. Thinking about Medellín, [Colombia], and not wishing to be naïve about the problems that every city faces, it seems there that they have been able to build a series of libraries, sports buildings, and a new transport system that by careful site planning, for example, and by, in some cases, literally opening up the building to a neighborhood, are able to achieve a whole lot more than a simplistic architectural project. This series of libraries ... they’re libraries, but they really are social centers ... and, of course, we see this in library design all across the world, with new ideas about what a library might be. But in the case of Medellín, they’re also blessed with a fantastic climate, so they’re able to have these inside-outside spaces and they’re able to utilize, in several of these projects, a very agreeable public parkland kind of attitude, as opposed to architecture being a sealed volume that only a few people get inside of.

“Sports Halls for the 2010 South American Games, Medellín” (2010, chromogenic photograph)
Iwan Baan “Sports Halls for the 2010 South American Games, Medellín” (2010, chromogenic photograph)

Why did you choose to highlight public space design in South America?
The quality of the work in South America has been very impressive for the last 15 years, and we thought about making it South America as opposed to Latin America, in part, because we have made several projects here with strong Mexican components. So we thought, "OK, for this show, let’s look south of the Panama Canal."

I think there’s been a kind of renaissance in South America. We know that South America, and Latin America more generally, has a wonderful history of architecture and design, back in the '50s and '60s, with many strong projects. And then perhaps it went a little bit quiet in the '80s and '90s. I mean, there is an argument that South America benefited by not being too absorbed in Postmodernism. Again, at the risk of being naïve, many of these projects that are in the exhibition are not about the very high-end residential buildings or fancy shopping centers that you might find, for example, in Southeast Asia or the Gulf. They’re much more about places for everyone.

Have you seen any similarities or differences in South American public space projects versus those in the United States?
I think maybe as a program, some of the GSA [General Services Administration] buildings over the last 15 years have something in common with some of these projects. I’m thinking of the courthouses by—I can’t remember all the architects—Richard Meier or Morphosis, perhaps? I think there is a spirit there about rethinking what a city building is in the early 21st century, so I think there’s something in common.

There’s also a connection to the role of landscape urbanism, if I have the phrase correct, which is the idea that landscape isn’t only beautiful flowers, but is also about plumbing and how to deal with traffic and other very pragmatic issues. I think there’s a connection there, right? In many cities in South America, for example, a project from Urban-Think Tank is about, let’s say, lighter means of communication. Many of these cities, in fact, now have what are essentially ski lifts that go up the mountain to link the barriers on the hillsides with the city in the valley below. So transportation is a big key. I’m not sure if that directly connects to the U.S., but I know in L.A., for example, they’re now working on new light rail systems, so I think these are themes in common.

And in housing, we have Alejandro Aravena, who’s very interested—more than interested, he’s at the forefront—in thinking about local housing. So there are issues about housing and whether that’s taken off in the states—I’m not quite sure. Obviously, there are U.S. architects who are making residential buildings, sometimes very high-end ones—I'm thinking about the High Line in New York, for example. But then again, have we seen leading architects really get in line with low-cost housing? I’m not sure if we’re there just yet.

“Natal Gymnasium, by Herzog & de Meuron” (2014, chromogenic photograph)
Iwan Baan “Natal Gymnasium, by Herzog & de Meuron” (2014, chromogenic photograph)

Do you see public space design in the United States as behind where South America is, ahead, or the same?
I don’t see it as being behind, that would be kind of rude. At the high-end of the market, places like the High Line in New York are something that people all around the world are looking to as an example of how to take part of the post-industrial legacy and to use it not just for common good but also, in that case for commercial benefit, in terms of the redevelopment of Chelsea. So, I don’t see it as either/or. I think what’s interesting about many of these projects in South America is that they show us how even fairly modest projects can have a big impact in their communities, and that design isn't something very precious and that it’s not just, "Look at me, I’m a fancy piece of lighting" or something like that, but in fact design can be robust in everyday spaces.

Do you mean modest projects in terms of scale or budget?
In budget. I mean, there are many great landscape projects in America and we can see this as well. The role of landscape architects has tremendously changed in the last 20 years. Not only are several of these people becoming well-known names in the broader design or visual arts communities, but there are also interesting hybridizations between landscape architecture and architecture, and between landscape architecture and sustainability. I think these are very positive moves, so that the landscape architect isn’t only a person who does gardens. It’s much bigger agenda than that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.