By Ana María León | University of Texas Press | $50
Open Ana María León’s Modernity for the Masses: Antonio Bonet’s Dreams for Buenos Aires and you’re as likely to encounter collages by German Argentine photographer Grete Stern or an abbreviated history of psychoanalysis in midcentury Argentina as you are to find anything about the book’s subtitular character. We can read much of a country’s history through its buildings and a lot about a man through his pathologies, León seems to say, but we also need to know when and how to look elsewhere. While Modernity for the Masses is indeed anchored by Bonet’s architectural designs, León is careful to paint a full picture of the vast, complex cultural and political context from which they emerged.
Born in Barcelona in 1913, Antoni Bonet i Castellana belonged to a generation of cultural avant-gardists in Europe who believed the Americas to be a sort of tabula rasa. Architects of Bonet’s stripe saw the Western Hemisphere as offering more favorable conditions for practice: In 1938, he wrote to a colleague, “I want to start building, and you know here there is nothing to do.” Buenos Aires had the added advantage of being culturally and climatically similar to Barcelona, and therefore was a place where he could feel almost at home. Off he went across the Atlantic.
León sets up this story deftly: Instead of starting with Bonet, she begins with Buenos Aires. Modernity for the Masses opens with an image of people—union members, protesters, young men—standing in a public fountain and calling for the freeing of Juan Domingo Perón, the temporarily embarrassed, imprisoned general who would later become president. The scene is one of political unrest and unknowability. León cites a newspaper headline that likens the protesters to cattle, as if the rural Argentine Pampas had invaded the burgeoning metropolis. She gives us the big picture, then Bonet storms in, grand plans in tow.
Grand plans for public housing, to be precise. As emigration from Europe and migration from the countryside into Buenos Aires swelled, throngs of people needed places to live. For the city’s ruling class, the masses were also a well of revolutionary potential. Elite pressure to tame these unruly agents would come to inform all Bonet’s public commissions, which, because they were intended to be financed by the state, catered to its political needs. León examines three housing schemes that were designed at radically different moments in modern Argentine history and, consequently, varied greatly in their political motivations, aims, and ultimate effects. Though she closely examines the architectural form of each scheme, Léon is more interested in the image—of a country, of a city, of a certain set of politics—the projects instrumentalized, and how Bonet, and his vanguard architecture group Austral, participated in that process.
Take Casa Amarilla, a project in the La Boca neighborhood designed during the conservative military dictatorship that lasted from 1943 to 1946. Architecturally, it followed the tenets of CIAM, while also building on other cultural currents that linked the porteño intelligentsia to European metropoles, particularly Barcelona and Paris. (Bonet had lived in the French capital working for Le Corbusier before leaving the continent.) According to León, with Casa Amarilla “social housing and the masses it was designed to contain were elevated to a monumental scale through a sculptural form that was literally lifted above its surroundings.” Maps and architectural drawings reveal an almost grotesque monumentality, which, León notes, belied a more cynical aim: not to elevate the masses but, rather, to control them.
Modernity for the Masses is instructive in the way it clearly distinguishes between architectural aspirations and the actual (or potential) impact a building has in the world. With a keen, skeptical eye, León shows what comes of form when it mixes with structural and systemic forces. Try as architects might, they will never control the conditions in which their designs are built, nor those by which their creations are received.
The narrative continues with a pair of megalomaniacal projects, Bajo Belgrano (1948–49) and Barrio Sur (1956). They were variations on Bonet’s plans for La Boca, only the scope had expanded; his architecture would project a clean, “civilized” modernity onto Buenos Aires more widely. As a vision statement for Perón’s populist reign, Bajo Belgrano, with its orderly plan and immaculate plazas, represented a marked upgrade from the shabby public housing in which many working-class people had lived. Barrio Sur, designed during the tenure of the reactionary military regime that overthrew Perón a second time (both resilient and corrupt, he emerged for a third presidential term in the 1970s), employed the same formal orderliness but to different ends—not to house the working class but to displace them, to rid the city of their presence. “Antiseptic quality is presented as civic virtue,” León recounts.
Despite his avant-garde bona fides, Bonet, it seems, was agnostic as to who would ultimately fund his projects. At a 1975 conference in Santiago de Compostela, he blamed his lackluster building streak on the political “instability” of his adopted homeland, rather than any specific set of policies. Argentina, he said, had forfeited “its advanced position to Latin America” to Mexico and especially Brazil, “whose political stability, both in the democratic regime and during the dictatorship, has been notable.” Brasília, instead of Buenos Aires, showed the way forward.
In Bonet’s hands, the same architectural concepts, the same grand visions, could be used to appease and fulfill any interests, from those of a populist government to those of a right-wing dictatorship. He wasn’t the first architect to indiscriminately peddle his services (Mies could count communists, fascists, and capitalists as clients), nor was he the last (remember Bjarke Ingels meeting with Bolsonaro?). But as told by León, Bonet’s story serves as a prime example of the political malleability of avant-garde aesthetic ideas and of the particular susceptibility of architecture to being co-opted by political agendas. She makes clear that architecture, more than any other art, needs power to enact it.
In the end, none of Bonet’s projects for Buenos Aires were ever built. Call it bad luck, poor timing, or something else. I call it a reminder that when it comes to building for the masses, we need fewer grand visions and more political will.
Marianela D’Aprile is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work on architecture, politics, and culture has appeared in Metropolis, Jacobin, ICON, The Nation, and elsewhere. She sits on the board of The Architecture Lobby and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.