The Future Was Latin America: Barry Bergdoll on the Region’s Legacy of Visionary Modern Architecture

MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll on the goals of the museum’s latest exhibition, “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980,” and how the region was a “place of origins for ideas”

Aerial view of Brasília in construction, 1957. Lúcio Costa’s Plano Piloto (Pilot Plan), which outlined the city’s expansion, famously posited an image of modernity through the ideogrammatic form of an airplane. Costa later noted that Brasília’s monumental scale “gave an emerging city the inalienable status of capital.”

Courtesy Arquivo Publico do Distrito Federal

If recent literature on the region is any indication—Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (Verso Books, 2014) comes to mind—then all eyes are on Latin America. But architects would do well to look backwards, says curator and academic Barry Bergdoll. Central and South America’s respective roles in the history of the modern project, and the radical architectural culture it nurtured, have routinely been neglected, even up to the present. Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is a necessary emendation to this historical oversight. Ahead of the exhibition’s March 29 opening, Metropolis editor Samuel Medina spoke to Bergdoll about its timely arrival, MoMA’s own history with Latin America, and what’s left of this rich legacy today.

Samuel Medina: What was your interest in Latin America as a point of departure?

Barry Bergdoll: Do you have an hour? [Laughs] I wanted to do this show even before I arrived at MoMA, partially because I realized that a museum curator should not simply undertake projects on what they already know well. Rather, they should also pursue projects outside their interests to find what kind of collective ignorance they share between them. Together, we might go some way toward shedding light on what we don’t know. More personally, I was stunned by how Latin America had been systematically not part of my own historical education in architecture—despite the fact that I have three degrees in art and architectural history. Most history books on modern architecture in the English language assign a subordinate role to Latin America, and I was intrigued if it might be possible to see whether, in the postwar period, the region had been a full actor in a transatlantic development along with North America and Europe. Not simply as a place where the pupils of Le Corbusier went to build, but a place of origins of ideas.

SM: What form did the initial preparations for the exhibition take?

BB: First, I surveyed the holdings of Latin American architecture at MoMA. Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that while the museum had done a couple of very famous shows on the subject up to the midcentury—Philip Goodwin’s Brazil Builds in 1943 and Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s Latin American Architecture Since 1945, which opened exactly six decades ago—it left virtually no residue, no pieces in the collection. The pieces from the Hitchcock show—all photographs—don’t exist anymore. In the seven or eight years since beginning my search, we’ve made transformative acquisitions for MoMA. We have a growing and, I think, very good collection of Latin American architecture that can rival our holdings in United States and European architecture.

Peruvian architect Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré’s project for a hotel in Machu Picchu (1969) employs the visionary forms of megastructures being developed contemporaneously in Japan. Unlike the work of the Metabolists, Mazuré’s scheme incorporates the site’s natural topography. A motivation behind MoMA’s latest exhibition, Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955 to 1980, was to present the region as “a place of origins of ideas,” says curator Barry Bergdoll.

Courtesy Archivo Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré

SM: Let’s go back a bit. Given the admitted “gaps” in your own architectural education, how did you safeguard against any biases or faulty starting premises?

BB: In the time since starting my position at MoMA, I’ve had other projects that I was devoting much of my attention to. But, alongside these, I began organizing scholarly think tanks to pool reactions and responses from some highly qualified and highly regarded people from Latin America. I did this so I wouldn’t create an exhibition that was entirely conceived from a U.S. citizen’s point of view. Out of these workshops and symposia, I had the idea of inviting two specialists from South America—Jorge Francisco Liernur from Argentina and Carlos Eduardo Comas from Brazil—to help formulate our hypothesis. We then formed an advisory committee consisting of a specialist from each of the ten countries represented in our exhibition. So it’s been a very long process of construction.

As for my own experience with the material, the only country that I knew fairly well going into this was Mexico. I had the privilege of visiting the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico—known to most of us as “University City”—which is an absolutely extraordinary piece of urban design and collection of architecture. I questioned why it wasn’t more prominent in what I’d been taught in architecture, and wondered why the appraisals I encountered in English-language histories were so inadequate in comparison with my physical encounters there. As I began looking into works in other countries in Latin America, I became very intrigued by the experimental work realized there in the last half century. If you look at a photograph of the Bank of London and South America in Buenos Aires, you think, “Wow! They need to put that next to the Centre Pompidou.” Then you look at the date and say, “Hey—this was built a decade before the Pompidou!”

Completed in 1966 and designed by the architect Clorindo Testa, the Bank of London and South America in Buenos Aires audaciously reinterprets Modernist devices such as brises-soleil, prefiguring the ultimately rhetorical futurism of the Centre Pompidou (1977).

Courtesy Fabio Grementieri

SM: Do you see this new exhibition as a commemoration of the 1955 show, a continuation, or neither?

BB: I don’t really think of the new exhibition as a commemoration. It’s, of course, a nice coincidence that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Hitchcock show, but there are huge differences between that show and ours. First, Latin American Architecture Since 1945 is a sort of reportage of contemporary architecture built in the ten years prior to its historical point of reference—1955. That’s exactly the same formula Hitchcock had applied in the International Style in 1932, which rather famously presented a survey of modern architecture constructed from 1922 onwards. This new exhibition breaks with this model because we aren’t looking at “Latin America Architecture since 2005,” but architecture from 1955 through 1980. Another big difference deals with the actual content of our show. Hitchcock’s was a photographic show, compiling images captured on a mission several weeks long to Mexico and South America. Ours, on the other hand, is an archival exhibition. We discovered original renderings, drawings, blueprints, models, photographs, and films from the period. It’s really a historical investigation with firsthand documentation taking the main role. All of that, I suppose, is a protest of thinking of it as a commemoration of the Hitchcock show. In fact, what interests me more is why it took MoMA 60 years to come back to that period.

SM: Was that part of some kind of disciplinary attitude within MoMA itself—the reason it took so long to revisit this quite rudimentary entry point?

BB: I think it had to do more with political reasons—with U.S. engagements in cultural politics in Latin America, with the transition from the Second World War to, let’s call it, the “High Cold War.” The latter end of this timeline marks the point when the Latin American dictatorships threw in the towel, and when U.S. policy went to another, earlier place where it had been in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, there was a very close relationship between the exhibition policies of MoMA and, through Rockefeller, the politics of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. But, all of that is very far away from the upcoming exhibition. It goes back to the cultural conditions of 1955, when the last show was produced.

Following the founding of the revolutionary socialist government in Cuba, its new leaders initiated an extensive program of housing, cultural, and recreational projects worthy of the nascent ideology—the National School of Plastic Arts in Havana among them. The design, by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Roberto Gottardi, broke with Modernism’s platonic geometries, incorporating a serpentine plan and regional building techniques (Catalan vaults). Originally envisioned by Fidel Castro as the “most beautiful art school in the world,” construction was stopped in 1965, just as the euphoria of the revolution nosedived.

Courtesy Archivo Vittorio Garatti

SM: The new exhibition picks up right after the closure of Hitchcock’s exhibition, just a few years before sweeping changes took hold in Latin America—the victory of the Cuban revolutionaries, Kubitschek’s strong-armed democracy in Brazil and the subsequent military coup there, the briefly socialist Chile, and so on. How does the show address these world-historical moments?

BB: What we’re looking at is a very complicated period of dictatorships and political turmoil coinciding with extraordinary architectural production. As we argue in the exhibition, much of this architecture can be understood in relation to the politics and practices of developmentalism, as it’s defined in national and international policies on every level from national governments, be they left or right, to the United Nations and, of course, U.S. developmental policy—particularly after the Alliance for Progress was launched by Kennedy. We see this political framework as the major ideological motor driving so much of the work—much of which is, in fact, public—that we feature in our exhibition. These, in turn, come from various political stripes, everything from a right-wing dictatorship to Castro’s Cuba as an alternative vision of development. So with that, the dates 1955 to 1980 start to make a certain amount of sense.

Not only does 1955 mark the date of the last show, it signals the moment when European and American critics begin to criticize Latin American architecture—so admired by Hitchcock, Goodwin, and the architectural press just a few years earlier. At the time, there began to form a disillusionment with it, most notoriously through Max Bill’s speech criticizing Brazilian Modernism at the 1953 São Paulo Biennial. Our hypothesis was that these criticisms led to Latin American architects adopting stronger theoretic positions on what their architecture was about. So what we’re looking at is the aftermath of this critique. The euphoric period has ended, and architecture becomes both more eclectic and emphatically engaged. From there, the show moves full swing into the politics and the poetics of developmentalism, and all of this comes to a pretty clear and rapid end with the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the emergence of the Neoliberal world in which we live. It’s possible in 2015, then, to look back at the pre-1980 world as really belonging to a completely different set of cultural, economic, and political realities than we have today.

PREVI in Peru, which brought together international architects such as James Stirling, Aldo van Eyck, and the Japanese Metabolists Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, and Fumihiko Maki, was a concerted effort by the Peruvian government and the United Nations to formalize the housing of migrants.

Courtesy Archivo de Bogota

SM: What shifts in the architectural culture of the period clearly presented themselves as you undertook the archival research for the exhibition?

BB: One was really the moving to the fore in the national and architectural agenda of the thinking about housing. Not that there aren’t antecedents—there are very significant housing projects from between the two wars, some of which featured in Hitchcock’s survey. But certainly after 1955, and up until 1980, housing is a major preoccupation. That’s something really interesting for us to present in New York, because it also corresponds to our ongoing period where there’s an eclipse in interest in housing in the United States.

Also emerging in that housing debate is a whole panoply of positions, some of which have to do with self-help models, others with hybrid models. So there’s a reflection on what we would today call the “informal city”—on self-help or what they call in Spanish autoconstrucción. Many projects displayed in the exhibition, particularly PREVI (Projecto Experimental de Vivienda) in Peru, attest to the rich heritage of debate and formal experimentation of housing that was a very dominant characteristic of the period.

SM: How do you see these bottom-up strategies—some of which are clearly informed by the alternative housing models implemented in the 1960s and 1970s—playing out now, in 2015?

BB: It’s quite a complex relationship, actually. And, I think, one can’t lose sight of how totally different the economic, political, and ideological contexts of those decades are from today’s. There are certainly resonances one can identify in contemporary work, such as elements of the PREVI project that we see in the buildings of someone like Alejandro Aravena in Chile—although he’s adapted them to a market context. But we should remember that you cannot step in the same river twice, and that the whole situation has changed. Now we have activist-architects like Aravena who partner with mayors, whereas the PREVI experiment was financed by the United Nations and the government of Peru—it’s a top-down sort of thing. It might be autoconstrucción, but it’s top-down. It’s extremely important to understand the historical context in some of its complexity so that the questions asked can be the productive questions rather than reductive questions.

Lina Bo Bardi’s sketch of the São Paulo Museum of Art illustrating the generous public space nestled beneath the museum’s elevated floor plate. With the exception of Oscar Niemeyer and, perhaps, João Batista Vilanova Artigas, none of the architects of the period have received the same scholarly attention or appreciation like that which was posthumously foisted on Bo Bardi. A MoMA exhibition dedicated to her work, and organized and researched, in part, by Bergdoll, is forthcoming.

Courtesy Instituto Lina Bo e Pietro Maria Bardi

SM: How do you hope the exhibition is received?

BB: It’s pretty simple: I think we brought together a large roster of really significant architectural accomplishments. The aim is not to provide an example of how to do this or that—it’s not meant as a template, but as a springboard for interesting debate. That said, the major thing I want to accomplish with this exhibition is to promote these buildings and projects to the same status as great works—this being a completely different ambition from Hitchcock’s—by Mies, by Le Corbusier, by Wright, and by any number of other architects displayed periodically at MoMA. Every generation can have a different dialogue with Le Corbusier’s body of work. I’d like to start to achieve that for many, many different practitioners. In the process, Latin American countries would really become part of the architectural and historical legacy that we engage with. And so the exhibition doesn’t supply much in the way of answers, nor is it highly conclusive in what it shows. It takes the title quite seriously—Latin America in Construction—and offers a view of the period in construction and our own understanding of construction, so people can engage with it and carry it further. So it really is an extremely rich visual sweep.

SM: If the exhibition aims to expose the forgotten talents of this neglected epoch, what do you make of figures like Lina Bo Bardi, who has, in recent years, achieved a posthumous fame and recognition typically reserved for the proverbial Modernist “fathers”?

BB: Yes, as some of these antecedents that have been forgotten are now newly being discovered—through our exhibition and beyond—there’s also the danger of not understanding them in their full complexity. Lina Bo Bardi has almost traveled further along this path than the one I’m talking about. There’s such a fad for her right now that we run the risk of smoothing over the complexity and—I hate to sound like I’m paraphrasing Venturi—the contradictions of her work. She’s being elevated to some kind of holistic saint of everything contemporary society stands for now, at the expense of revealing her historical accomplishments and shortcomings. As if Lina Bo Bardi is going to be the thing that’s going to solve the world of greed and rape that we see. Just because we love the fact that she was a socially engaged, strong female architect, we’re now going to make her into the Frida Kahlo of architecture? Suddenly it’s all masterpieces. Hers was a very serious, thought-provoking life, and she deserves to be engaged critically, not to become an object of politically correct reverence.

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 runs through July 19.

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