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05.31.2011
Comment> Carlos Brillembourg
Origin Myths in Architecture
Covered plaza at the Universidad Central de Venezuela by Carlos Raul Villanueva, 1954.
Paolo Gasparini, Courtesy of Fundacion

The Bronx Museum of the Arts will hold a two-day conference in October on Latin American architecture and art practices from 1929 to 2011. More to the point, panelists will be discussing the intricate interactions between these disciplines within a critical theory of peripheral and marginalized culture.

In 1962, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck wrote: “Western civilization habitually identifies itself with civilization as such on the pontifical assumption that what is not like it is a deviation, less advanced, primitive, or, at best, exotically interesting at a safe distance.” Even Kenneth Frampton’s essay “Towards Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” reinforces the notion of center and periphery. In his essay almost all examples of architecture are taken from Northern Europe. Frampton’s essay argues for the kind of public space generated by dense urban form against the prevalence of the contemporary industrialized societies and the pseudo-public realms generated by megastructures in housing, hotels, or shopping centers.

Now we live in a modified form of McLuhan’s “Global Village,” and access to information has made the idea of periphery obsolete. Yet the center continues to monopolize the publicity and production of culture. During the last ten years, the longstanding strength of local culture has been subverted into an opportunity for global architects to acquire new markets. The Bilbao Museum is perhaps the first example of this new form of globalization. The City of Culture, a monumental work still unfinished overlooking the medieval city of Santiago, Spain by Eisenman Architects is a project exemplary of its last phase. In 2008 the economic collapse of the American and European markets largely put an end to this cultural phenomenon in Europe.

A global process of modernity claims a singular universality and also advocates a rupture with the past as a necessary step toward achieving the modern. The schism created by World War II in Europe and North America interrupted the culture of art and architecture that was so fecund in the early part of the century. As early as 1929, modern European culture could be represented by two iconic works: Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, and The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. These two works of architecture already present contradictory theories of modernism. Corbu posits a rational system of free plan construction within a hermetic envelope and a pre-determined geometric system interrupted by a vertical promenade in section. While Mies uses an open scheme of platforms and free standing walls made of precious materials that does not distinguish between interior and exterior spaces and points to a system that he would later call “universal space.” Modernism even at its inception was multivalent and not the reductive Modern International Style publicized and promoted by Phillip Johnson through the exhibitions and publications at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

South of the border, architecture has been classified as exotic and peripheral by the canonic historical texts of art or architecture written mostly by English or American authors who inevitably include a reference to the work of Niemeyer or Villanueva. These works are included as interesting variations on the original European object. Most historians now acknowledge that the South had a fundamental role in the formation of new modernisms in art and architecture as Europe and North America were engaged in war production and propaganda. The extraordinary diversity of modern architecture built in Brazil alone in the forties by Gregori Warchavchik, Lucio Costa, Flavio de Carvalho, Lina Bo Bardi, M. Roberto, Oscar Niemeyer, Alffonso Reidy, Jorge Moreira, and Bernard Rudofsky is a testament to the effervescence of this modern culture.

By 1936, what we might call the golden era of modern Latin American architecture made it possible to look at the three hundred year old colonial cities with new eyes. Now, to politicians, how to engage modernity became a practical problem to solve. The discussion centered on the “immediate tomorrow.” The concept of time was transformed; this would result in the large-scale transformation of the vibrant metropolises of Latin America and the Caribbean. Today modernity in this enormous territory is no longer the “immediate tomorrow.” The modern city is still incomplete: an urban landscape of inconclusive superimpositions, mistranslations, and mistaken strategies on successively larger scales.

Is it now possible to establish a modernity that is multifocal—one that does not need to negate the regional? Can we have a future without the subaltern? What art, architecture and literature now being produced in Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Habana, and Ciudad de México speaks to a modernism that is multivalent? To what extent were these cities the location of an international movement that incorporated avant-guarde art and architecture within the heart of the city? These are some of the questions that will be addressed at the October conference.

We are just now beginning to understand the significance and scope of this period and the substantial list of artists and architects who were previously unknown in the standard texts. We will look at the city from the point of view of the citizen and how architecture cannot be separate from the people that inhabit public and private spaces whether made by architects or not. Some terms taken from Homi K. Bhabha, Edward Said, and Vilem Flusser such as “ambivalence,” “hybridization,” “cultural difference,” and ‘the construction of cultural identities’ will be used to reveal the intrinsic contradictions of the contemporary architectural discourse in order to open a path towards a new discourse that is inclusive of the architectural other.

The Bronx Museum conference will investigate art practices in Latin America that did not follow the standard pedagogy of the art schools. Artists were often also students of architecture during of the golden period of 1929–1960. Latin American architects during this period were themselves influenced by art practices from Europe in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Carlos Raul Villanueva was living in Paris in 1937 studying at the Institut d’Urbanisme and was the co-designer with Luis Malaussena of the Venezuelan Pavilion on the Trocadero that won the “Diplome de Gran Prix” at the Paris Exhibition. Villanueva writes about his visit to the pavilion designed by Josep Lluis Sert and Luis Lacasa and built by the Republican loyalist government in exile.

The indelible first impressions that Villanueva collected included Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the poetry of Paul Eluard, Joan Miro's large canvas of an upraised arm and clenched fist, Alexander Calder's mercury fountain and mobile painted red to symbolize the Spanish Republic, and finally the documentary films shown almost continuously in the auditorium, Madrid ‘36 by Luis Buñuel and Spanish Earth by Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway that graphically depicted the suffering of the Spanish people during the civil war.

This encounter was fundamental to Villanueva’s identity as a modern architect following a period of 15 years as an eclectic designer in Venezuela. At Hotel Luteria on Boulevard Raspail, he would sometimes entertain his fellow Venezuelan artists Jesus Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Narciso Debourg. Also on the scene were such other artists, poets, and intellectuals as Dominique Vincent, Leon Joseph Madeline, Jacques Lambert, Paul Lester Wiener, Maurice Rotival, Antonin Artaud, Juan Larrea, Vladimir Mayakovszky, Julio Galvez, Max Jimenez, Juan Gris, Vicente Huidobro, José Bergamin, Rafael Alberti, Federico Garcia Lorca, Andre Malraux, Louis Aragon, and Waldo Frank. Later during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the expatriate Latin American artists living in Paris such as Lygia Clark, Julio Le Parc, Alejandro Otero, Helio Oiticica, Lucio Fontana, Carlos Cruz Diez, and Jesus Soto were all indebted to the architecture that they saw being built in Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

If Paul Ricoeur, Kennneth Frampton, and Alexander Tzonis’ advocacy for a “Critical Regionalism” was ultimately very Euro-centric, their method of discourse opens the way for dispelling longstanding bias and beginning a more complex discussion of modernism not only incorporating the very important work of Alvar Aalto and Jorn Utzon but forming a more “Atlantic” and “Carribean” view of American architecture. In 1928 the poet Oswald de Andrade in his “Manifesto Antropofago” advocated a “metaphorical cannibalism” as a defense against cultural colonialism. This vast territory called “Latin America” has been building art and architecture for the past four centuries and it is time to analyze what makes this modern art and architecture unique.

Carlos Brillembourg

Carlos Brillembourg is a New York-based architect, editor-at-large for Bomb magazine, and editor of Latin American Architecture 1929–1960: Contemporary Reflections (Monacelli Press, 2004).