By MICHAEL KIMMELMANAPRIL 30, 2015
Some years ago I sat on the gusty, sun-drenched roof deck of a beachside hotel in Rio de Janeiro sipping ice tea with Maria Elisa Costa. A half-century earlier, her father, Lúcio Costa, had devised the master plan for Brasília, which is pretty much where a new, extraordinary exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980,” begins.
A famous photograph from 1956 shows Brazil’s president, Juscelino Kubitschek, standing in the middle of an empty savanna, 400 miles from the nearest paved road. Four years later that spot would become the center of the new Brazilian capital.
Ms. Costa recalled how her father, who died in 1998, suffered from the criticisms that Brasília was a dystopian place, a cautionary tale of architectural hubris, a case study in the failures of top-down planning and pedestrian inconvenience. He watched a city conceived for 500,000 residents yield to the strains of a population several times that size, which gave rise to condominium towers, informal housing and other buildings he had never envisioned.With care, she pulled a different photograph from her bag.
“Latin America in Construction” recalls a not-so-distant time when architects and governments together dreamed big about changing the world for the better. From Cuba to Chile, Mexico to Argentina, cities in the region boomed. The task of providing everybody with homes ultimately proved unmanageable: proliferating slums outpaced new construction; poverty rose. By the 1980s, a pitiless neoliberalism swept aside much of the abiding faith in public largess and its social agenda.
Even so, what got built through the 1970s in places like Havana and Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Lima included some of the most inspired architecture of the modern age. The show is an eye-opener, rectifying a long-skewed, Eurocentric worldview, shedding light on a period neglected for generations outside the region. It’s the sort of exhibition MoMA still does best.
That it glides over politics, lumps some nations together and ignores others, like Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, provides fodder for detractors and for reams of future dissertations. It is next to impossible to discern from the show, say, what transpired in Cuba, where the United States’ embargo, Soviet prefabricated concrete-panel housing and Fidel Castro’s regime quashed a short-lived efflorescence of revolutionary architecture. The exhibition nods to an exemplar of that creativity, the National Art Schools in Havana, partly designed by two Italian architects, but it overlooks far less familiar projects, like the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas by Joaquín Galván and the medical campus in Santiago de Cuba by Rodrigo Tascón. Others will make up their own lists of the disappeared.
Such is the nature of the beast with an exhibition like this. Triage is inevitable. The organizers are at least upfront about it. On the plus side, works in the show by the singular and fascinating Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi include her glass house and her art museum in São Paulo, with its anything-goes public plaza, and the cultural and sports center SESC Pompéia, a paradigm of multiuse, nonprescriptive urbanism. I was even happier to find a hospital by João Filgueiras Lima, called Lelé, her compatriot, who should be better known. Havens of light, air and soaring space, his clinics are exalted examples of humane design.
Architects like Bo Bardi and Lelé make the point that Latin Americans didn’t just riff on Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier by adding a few sunshades and carioca curves. While Europe and the United States constructed their share of third-rate apartment blocks and dull glass office towers, Latin America was a locus of ferment. The exhibition’s curator, Barry Bergdoll, briefly contemplated a different title for the show: “When Latin America Was the Future.”
Back then, it was.
The region during that period was transformed by large-scale, state-sponsored development. A video in the exhibition shows President Kennedy endorsing a resettlement program in Venezuela at the same time a puckish young Mr. Castro extols a new housing project for Cuba. Dictatorship or democracy, left-wing revolutionary or right-wing junta, the exhibition argues, ruling parties across Latin America, and their paymasters in Washington and Moscow, shared what Mr. Bergdoll calls a “poetics of developmentalism.”
MoMA last surveyed architecture from the region 60 years ago. The curator then was Henry-Russell Hitchcock. He commissioned a photographer to document some notable buildings from the previous decade and proffered a unified theory of Latin American style. The show naturally extolled Oscar Niemeyer; some private houses and other projects in Latin America became minor shrines to a vague tropical modernism. The approach was formalist and breezy, a colonialist’s snapshot.
“Latin America in Construction” takes another tack. Visitors navigate dense rooms packed with models, drawings, photographs, pamphlets, blueprints, films — a gold mine of original material conveying a cacophony of ideas and belying any single aesthetic.
You can shake your head at the variety of projects missing from the 20th-century canon: rural churches by Eladio Dieste, an Uruguayan engineer, which rival Ronchamp; a middle-class housing complex in Bogotá, Colombia, by Rogelio Salmona, melding public and private space; a bank headquarters in Buenos Aires by SEPRA Arquitectos and Clorindo Testa that outmuscles Paul Rudolph and Richard Rogers before the fact; an architecture school in São Paulo by João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Cascaldi that makes Brutalism look weightless and balletic; a housing development called Previ, in Peru, enlisting global designers to anticipate cutting-edge doctrines about incremental and participatory design.
The list goes on.
Arriving into the second decade of the first urban century in human history, when more people now live in cities than don’t, the show is well timed. Experts today predict that three-quarters of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, a third living in slums, mostly in the so-called global south that includes Latin America. Once again, the region is the future.
The exhibition recalls an earlier era when architects there believed that social challenges should be tackled by design, that humane societies deserved beautiful new forms, and progressive development put faith in art, nature and the resilience of ordinary people.
There isn’t a lot of visionary thinking today. “Latin America in Construction” seems possessed by a bygone optimism. The photograph that Ms. Costa retrieved from her bag was not what I expected. It wasn’t a picture of Brasília pristine, before the criticisms and the changes.
It showed a smiling, elderly man sitting in a bar, nursing an espresso. The man was her father. The bar could have been anywhere.
“That’s the point,” she told me. Over the decades trees have softened her father’s housing blocks. The capital’s public buildings by Niemeyer still look like Buck Rogers fantasies in an alien landscape, but Brasília, like Washington, was designed to be monumental and its government landmarks were never that much less pedestrian-friendly than those in Washington.
The city Lúcio Costa dreamed up in the middle of nowhere has become “a city,” was Ms. Costa’s point, “not a tourist city but a real city” imperfect like any other, where one day its planner could return to enjoy a coffee in an ordinary bar.
“My father,” she said, “was a lucky man.”
Dreamers often are.
“Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980” runs through July 19 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.