Latin America in Construction

An exhibition curated by Barry Bergdoll at the Museum of Modern Art in New York explores the rich architectural scenario of Latin America where 25 years of innovative designs and ideas faced all the challenges of rampant social modernisation and captured the imagination of the entire world.

Latin America in Construction, Tomás José Sanabria. Hotel Humboldt, Caracas, Venezuela, 1956
With a formidable mass of architectural drawings, models, photos and films – many previously little known and others commissioned for the exhibition – “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980” is the product of four painstaking years of research by its curatorial team.

As well as Barry Bergdoll, the lengthy process of constructing and assembling more than 500 exhibits occupied Patricio del Real, curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture, Carlos Eduardo Comas of the Universidade Federale di Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, Jorge Francisco Liernur of the Universidad Torquato di Tella in Buenos Aires and an advisory committee comprising specialists from each of the ten countries represented in the exhibition: Argentina, Brazil, Caribbean, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Revolving primarily around material from numerous different archives, the exhibition is the place and point of departure of an ongoing research workshop centred on modern Latin-American architecture.

Tomás José Sanabria. Hotel Humboldt, Caracas, Venezuela, 1956
Top: Tomás José Sanabria. Hotel Humboldt, Caracas, Venezuela, 1956. Above: Amancio Williams. Hospital in Corrientes, Corrientes, Argentina, 1948-1953. Drawing. Unframed: 259/16 x 37 5/8” (65 x 95.5cm). © Amancio Williams Archive.
As Barry Bergdoll points out, Latin American countries produced surprising works in that period, ones never duly taken into consideration by the history of modern architecture. “Latin America in Construction” is a baseline from which to acknowledge the role played by those architects.

The exhibition gradually immerses visitors in one of the most intense periods in the continent’s history – between 1955 and 1980 – when multiple political and economic changes were radically altering the scenario.

Before visiting the most technical galleries that concertedly showcase all the voices and personalities of the architects who transformed the South American continent, a “prelude” of films evokes the most significant moments in history. Indeed, Bergdoll is pleased the exhibition is able to inform but also seduce its visitors. The films all periodically portray the same image, replaying moments in history shared by the various cities: Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Havana and Mexico City.

Emilio Duhart. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), Santiago, Chile, 1962-1966
Emilio Duhart. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), Santiago, Chile, 1962-1966, dettaglio. Courtesy PUC Archivo de Originales
More screens in the next gallery compare the construction phases of two large campuses: that of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the first drawings of which were produced by Pani and Enrique del Moral in 1947; and that of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, to the design of which Carlos Raúl Villanueva devoted many years’ work. The next is exhibit is Lúcio Costa’s archive of drawings featuring the iconic masterplan of Brasilia, flanked by the other projects in the competition for Brazil’s new capital.
The exhibition space extends from the central gallery, which opens with a model of the São Paulo Museum of Art designed by Lina Bo Bardi, towards several areas defined by walls intentionally left unfinished at the top with metal structures, almost as if to underscore the metaphorical sense of the title “in construction”. This space is majestically dominated by drawings and models of works ranging from the territorial scale to the single house; they include Roberto Burle Marx and Alfonso Eduardo Reidy’s Parque do Flamengo in Rio De Janeiro, the Bank of London building in Buenos Aires by Clorindo Testa and Enrique del Moral’s Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City.
Cuba Pavillion, Montreal, Canada, Vittorio Garatti, 1968. © Archivo Vittorio Garatti
Cuba Pavillion, Montreal, Canada, Vittorio Garatti, 1968. © Archivo Vittorio Garatti

There are also urban-planning projects, collective and individual housing, campuses, universities, public buildings/spaces, sports infrastructures, religious and cultural buildings, and hospitality structures. The history of a continent is illustrated via the ambitious efforts of local architects asked to respond to needs dictated by political and social change. The most telling moments in this story are reconstructed and documented in a long and mixed timeframe that runs through the room.

In the “Export” section, Latin-American architecture travels to the international context with several designs that crossed the ocean, such as the Venezuela Pavilion designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva for Expo 1967 in Montreal and the Mexican Pavilion built for the 1968 Milan Triennale.

Esguerra Sáenz y Samper. Luis Ángel Arango Library (Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango), Bogotá, Colombia. Cover plan of concert hall. 1965
Esguerra Sáenz y Samper. Luis Ángel Arango Library (Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango), Bogotá, Colombia. Cover plan of concert hall. 1965. Drawing, ink on tracing paper. Unframed: 39 ½ x 32 ¾” (100.3 x 83.2cm). © Archivo de Bogotá Cuba

The curators opted not to include designs by the European and American architects who worked on the continent from afar, preferring to focus on the many from South-American countries who may have drawn on the international vocabulary of modern architecture but always retained their link with local tradition. This created a special tension in works born out of the interaction between global and local languages, and spawned a rich and original exchange of ideas, influences and partnerships – as in the celebrated example of Alexander Calder’s acoustic clouds on the ceiling of the Aula Magna of the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas.

The curators’ choice of materials and their arrangement mean visitors are in for a surprise-packed exhibition experience.

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