Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Latin America: Where Modernism Still Means Something
Architects in Latin America remain inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, practicing a brand of Modernism that's politically charged
By Nalina Moses
At the recent Pratt Institute School of Architecture symposium “Breaking Borders: New Latin American Architecture,” Le Corbusier was name-checked more often than any other figure, Latin American architects included, with political revolutionary Che Guevara coming in a close second.
That speaks strongly about what architects in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean are up to. There's a vibrant strain of Modernism in these countries, which is in part a legacy of Le Corbusier's travels in South America. And unlike Modernism in the United States, which lost its progressive social calling when it became a conventional style for commercial and residential building, Modernism in Latin America has maintained a strong utopian bent. So today, as Latin American countries reposition themselves within a shifting global marketplace and address the needs of their growing cities, architects are implementing Modernist projects firmly rooted in political activism. You might say that contemporary Latin American architecture has been driven by both Che’s ideals and Corbu’s forms.
Corbusier and beyond
Le Corbusier, who was born in Switzerland and lived and worked in France, made three trips to South America—in 1929, 1936, and 1947— visiting cities in Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia. He completed only one building there, Casa Curutchet, a house in La Plata, Argentina, in 1954. And he supported a team of Brazilian architects in the design of Gustavo Capanema Palace, a government tower in Rio de Janeiro, in 1935. But while traveling through the continent, he lectured and befriended other architects, and also devised well-known city plans for Rio de Janeiro in 1936, Buenos Aires in 1938, and Bogota in 1951.
Le Corbusier had a strong personal and professional association with the legendary Brazilian Modernist Oscar Niemeyer, who is 20 years his junior. Over his epic career, the 104-year-old Niemeyer has taken Le Corbusier’s basic tenets and enriched them within a signature vocabulary of heroic, sensuous, curvilinear concrete forms and leftist political leanings. (At the symposium, architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, Assoc. AIA, affectionately described Niemeyer as “a communist architect,” reading aloud from one of his manifestos.) The work of Le Corbusier and Niemeyer inspired a generation of Latin American Modernists. Rendering austere forms using prevalent reinforced concrete and masonry construction methods, these practitioners took advantage of the warm climate to sculpturally open buildings to the landscape.
The most accomplished of these architects include the Colombian Rogelio Salmona, the Uruguayan Eladio Dieste, and Felix Candela, Hon. FAIA, from Mexico, each of whom made important technical innovations to shape a distinctive architecture. Despite these variations of expression, Modernism as both a formal language and an ideology took root throughout Latin America. In an interview after the symposium Ivan Shumkov, a professor at Pratt's School of Architecture and organizer of the symposium explained, “The Modern project still endures in Latin America. The belief that architecture can change society and their life is still credible.”
The practicing architects who spoke at the symposium, held last November, made it clear that architects must move beyond head-in-the-clouds utopianism to face the world and its imperfections directly. “Action is architecture,” said Giancarlo Mazzanti Sierra, an architect from Bogota, Colombia. “We are interested in an architecture that is defined by what it does.” He presented a library he had built in a poor neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia, that became a local icon, reimagining the community as a place of learning and progress.
Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect with Urban-Think Tank in Caracas, Venezuela, emphasized the need to shape “social hubs”—finely scaled public spaces that serve both the pragmatic and imaginative needs of a community. He presented MetroCable, a suspended cable-car system he designed for the congested and poor hillside neighborhood of San Agustin in Caracas, which provides much-needed transportation to and from the city center. Without transit options like this, residents in disconnected, peripheral communities would remain without social and professional access to the rest of city. MetroCable enables them to take their place in the civic life of Caracas.
Latin American architects are tackling these types of projects to address widening disparities and inequalities in their rapidly growing cities. “The slum romanticism that we are victims of should be resisted,” Shumkov warns. “Architects and city planners have the hard task of making informal settlements more livable.”
In Latin America, the core formal and social principles of Modernism continue to inspire architecture. As Shumkov describes, “Postmodernism barely arrived in Latin America. At the same time, it has been the place where Modern architecture has been fully accepted as the rule.” The ambitious political agenda at the heart of Modernism has also been fully accepted as the rule.
At the panel discussion that concluded the symposium (co-sponsored by student research group Latin Pratt), Brillembourg evoked Corbusier's Maison Domino project from the 1910s. This prototypical building system employed structural columns and slabs, with infill walls that were designed to incorporate rubble and scavenged materials, and Brillembourg sees it as a model that remains politically relevant today. Maison Domino is “a universal foundation for urban development in informal environments,” he says “In this sense, it is a political tool of establishing a built environment and territorial permanence. It is one of the methods in which people create their spaces and plan for their futures.”
At the symposium, MoMA architecture and design curator Barry Bergdoll pointed out that “the term ‘Latin America’ has always been an external construct,” applied by outsiders looking in. Now, in a dizzily global post-colonial culture, the notion of what Latin America is, and what Latin American architecture is too, are especially elusive. Frampton hit a hopeful note when he described a “positive provincialism” that could take hold, “a self-confidence coming from places not typically thought of as centers of thought.” Brillembourg feels that some Che Guevara–like fervor is fundamental, and notes, “One of Urban-Think Tank's favorite slogans is ’Viva la revolución de diseño,’ [‘Long live the design revolution’] because yes, we hail from a Latin American tradition of subversiveness, but [this is] because the fields of design and architecture demand a revolution.” This design revolution is just what one expects from Latin America, where a politically charged brand of Modernism has been uniquely thriving, and evolving, for nearly a century.
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