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Latin America in Construction: Architecture, 1955-1980

Clorindo Testa, Bank of London and South America, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1959-1966. © Archivo Manuel Gomez Piñeiro. Courtesy Fabio Grementieri.

New York
Museum Of Modern Art
March 29 – July 19, 2015

You might be tempted to walk past Development equation, the first piece in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Latin America in Construction: Architecture, 1955–1980. But don’t. Hanging unobtrusively to the left of the main entrance, the roughly five-foot-square metal-and-wood contraption sets the stage for the exhibit. Created in 1960 by Carlos Gómez Gavazzo, a professor of social theory and planning in Montevideo, Uruguay, the Development equation is a dense grid of rulers, protractors and thin metal rods with sliding handles, all set against a background of squares and triangles in chalkboard green and school-desk brown and divided into quadrants with names like “guidelines and conventions” and “functionality.” Although no one knows exactly how the tool functioned, Gavazzo intended the calculator to measure the current level of development in a given region according to factors like land use, investment output, and division of labor. Urban planners and politicians, he hoped, could use the results to achieve more effective and precise planning.

Gavazzo’s device is an apt symbol of the faith in state-led modernization and planning, based on the principles of scientific management and social engineering that animated much of Latin American architecture in the sixties and seventies. Caught in the vise of the global Cold War and struggling under the weight of ongoing socioeconomic inequalities and political instability, Latin American countries looked to architects and urban planners to help them tackle the region’s numerous social and economic issues and to forge a national identity through local inflections of international modernist style. Urban planners and architects thus had wide latitude to create a highly innovative, experimental architecture. Going far beyond mere imitation, they created work that critically engaged with the principles of development theory—as articulated and promoted by American scholars and institutions—and with the modernist International Style codified by Le Corbusier.

The stack tower of the UNAM Library, Mexico City. Photo: Leonardo Finotti.

Impressive in scale, design, and layout, Latin America in Construction offers a dazzling, nuanced introduction to the continent’s architecture and planning in the postwar era, deploying a rich, thoughtfully arranged array of scale models, sketches, film clips, and photographs to effectively demonstrate that no one style or voice emerged as essentially “Latin American.”

Many architects and planners attempted a grand synthesis of international modernism and local traditions. Take, for instance, Mexico City’s University City (1950–54). Led by Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, a team of more than 150 architects and artists devised a plan for the campus that, while adhering to the strictures of functionalism (separating areas of work and study from those for leisure and residency) and the boxy structures and flat planes of the International Style, also integrated references to the country’s pre-Columbian heritage by incorporating Aztec-inspired rubble construction and terracing and colorful murals featuring Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god.

By the mid-’60s, against a backdrop of protest, rebellion, and political repression, more critical voices emerged to contest universalist Corbusian visions of modernism and urbanization. Such alternative visions ranged across the political spectrum, from Catholic architects whose projects tried to preserve traditional values to more socially progressive architects like the Italian emigré Lina Bo Bardi. Located in a former steel-drum factory, Bardi’s Serviço Social do Comércio (SESC) Pompéia in Brazil (1982) cut across class, social, and regional divides by creating flexible spaces and by incorporating local building methods and materials. Perhaps the most radical articulation of such a vision was Ciudad Abierta (Open City, 1971), in Ritoque, Chile, in which the architect Alberto Cruz and the poet Godofredo Iommi, together with their students, constructed an experimental community in the midst of windswept sand dunes that attempted to create architecture in the service of poetry, and in communication with nature. Using vegetation and materials ranging from brick to wood, participants worked to create a space free from hierarchies, from references to the past, and from the dictates of planners. By 1980, most Latin American countries had abandoned the faith in state-led development as embodied in Gavazzo’s Development equation. Chile, Argentina, and Brazil were all ruled by military juntas, and the remorseless march toward the neoliberal orthodoxy of today had begun. Subject to the dictates of this new ideology imported from Europe and the United States, Latin American polities no longer argued that state-led development and architecture might overcome their countries’ massive gap between rich and poor, sprawling squatter settlements, and crumbling, insufficient infrastructure. 

Lina Bo Bardi, SESC Pompeia.

Midway through the show is a scale model of Buenos Aires’s monumental, Brutalist Bank of London (1959). The curators praise the structure for the way it ingeniously creates a porous border between the bank’s interior and exterior, symbolically opening the bank to the world outside. And yet perhaps the most resonant image from the model is a tiny gray plastic figurine of a man dressed in a deeply creased suit, holding a briefcase in one hand and two small suitcases in the other. He appears to be exiting the building, but instead of looking ahead, as one might expect of a person en route somewhere, he looks downward, grimacing. It's as if he were a ghost from Latin America’s past, the once-powerful, once hopeful architect exiting the world stage, leaving many to long for the heady days of mid-century optimism that Latin America in Construction so brilliantly documents.


Michelle Standley

Michelle Standley is a historian, writer, and artist with a PhD in History from New York University. She teaches at Pratt Institute in New York. For more see,


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