Latin America Shines

Form Latin cover


A book review by Michael Webb

MoMA has a strong sense of history and Latin American in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980, an impressive catalogue of visionary architecture and urbanism (like the exhibition it accompanied last year) is conceived as a sequel to the museum’s landmark presentation of 1955, Latin American Architecture since 1945. The earlier exhibition was well-timed. The US courted Latin America during the war years to ensure it did not join the Axis, and admired its surge of creative energy. At a time when little was happening north of the Rio Grande and much of Europe lay in ruins, Latin America was a beacon of hope and a model of free-spirited modernism.

That beacon shone even more brightly for a decade in an alliance of visionary architects and progressive administrations, before it began to sputter. One country after another succumbed to military coups and the political repression that followed. Castro followed the Soviet lead in snuffing out modernism, and left the complex of National Art Schools half abandoned. Brasilia’s Plaza of the Three Powers, conceived as a symbol of good government, became a façade for a harsh dictatorship. Latin America has always been hobbled by reactionary elites and disrupted by populist demagogues, but life goes on regardless. Architects continued to innovate, but some of the idealism was lost in the 1970s and market forces tended to quash what was left.

This book is doubly valuable: for scholarly essays that provide context, and for its focus on exemplary projects, country by country. Here are the masterpieces of this era: Clorindo Testa’s Bank of London in Buenos Aires, Affonso Reidy’s Museum of Modern Art in Rio and Oscar Niemeyer’s Copan housing in São Paulo, Rogelio Salmona’s Torres del Parco in Bogota, Eladio Dieste’s workers’ church in Uruguay, and Carlos Villanueva’s university campus in Caracas–to name just a few. There is much more, but a survey as geographically broad as this can include only a sampling of significant names and buildings. Far too little has been published on Latin American architecture in English; this catalogue may inspire others to explore this rich field in greater depth.

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980. Edited by Barry Bergdoll, Carlos Eduardo Comas, Jorge Francisco Liernur and Patricio del Real. The Museum of Modern Art, $55.

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