Latin America in Construction

SIXTY YEARS AGO, MoMA’s landmark exhibition “Latin American Architecture Since 1945” surveyed the modernist tide then sweeping the region. Latin America in Construction looks at the quarter century that followed—the high period of desarrollismo (“developmentalism”), when governments of the most varied political complexions converged around a shared agenda of state-led growth. These were years of frantic urbanization—between 1950 and 1980, several major Latin American cities more than trebled in size—creating stark infrastructural challenges. As the book, an exhibition catalogue with accompanying essays, makes clear, they were also years of bold experimentation, as architects and planners from Mexico to the Southern Cone adapted the formal vocabularies of modernism to local cultures and priorities. In the process, they developed new ideas of urbanism and of public space—most dramatically in Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s work on Brasília, the federal capital built from scratch in Brazil’s interior after 1956. Costa laid out the city along two main axes, which Niemeyer planted with government buildings and housing; the regular, slablike forms that march down the Ministerial Esplanade, seen here as latticework sketches of their future selves (below), testify to the coherence of the scheme as well as the urgency with which it was carried out. In Mexico City and Caracas, the university campuses designed by Mario Pani and Enrique Moral and by Carlos Raúl Villanueva provided templates for miniature reinventions of the civic realm as well as schooling; Lina Bo Bardi’s art museums, in São Paulo and Salvador, similarly sought to open up cultural institutions to the life of the street.

Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Ministerial Esplanade, 1958–60, Brasília. Photograph of construction site.
Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Ministerial Esplanade, 1958–60, Brasília. Photograph of construction site. Mario Fontenelle/Arquivo Publico do Distrito Federal

Latin America in Construction covers a period of political upheaval, before projects for radical social change were snuffed out by military dictatorships and neoliberalism’s continent-wide ascendancy in the ’80s. It serves, then, not only as a much-delayed sequel to the 1955 show, but as an autopsy for a dead epoch. Yet the distance between that era and ours may not be as great as it seems. Even during the heyday of desarrollismo, many of the problems of “underdevelopment” had come to seem permanent rather than passing; hence the impulse—visible in the PREVI housing scheme in Lima and in Acácio Gil Borsoi’s 1963 design for prefabricated favela dwellings—to adjust form and function to the realities of poverty and “informality,” rather than envisage their abolition. In that sense, perhaps Latin American high-modernist architecture was already bringing us news from our future.

Tony Wood