Liberation Architecture

John Haber
in New York City

Latin America in Construction

Photography in Cuba

For the Museum of Modern Art, architecture was out to change the world. No, not just one privileged corner of the world, with prime views of Central Park, but cities, nations, and an entire continent. "Latin America in Construction" presents architecture from 1955 to 1980 as practically a single, ongoing construction project south of the United States. It outlines a quarter century of revolution beyond existing political and esthetic barriers.

It sees that project not as merely recovery from world war or the legacy of Modernism. Rather, it coincides with liberating impulses in sports, education, the arts, theology, and the very quality of life. Not coincidentally, it also locates the story's end in a resurgent militarism and capitalism. As a postscript, not everything was under construction. With a handshake between presidents and travel restrictions beginning to fade, America may finally see the world through Cuba's eyes. Yet to judge by "The Light in Cuban Eyes," those eyes may still prove difficult to see. Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer's Plaza of the Three Powers, Brasilia (Museum of Modern Art, 1958–1960)

A region in motion

"Latin America in Construction" takes MoMA back to its origins, before Modernism itself stood for privilege. The show builds on a legendary 1955 exhibition, curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and taking architecture to 1945. The museum's advocacy dates earlier still, to "Brazil Builds" in 1943. What has changed? For one thing, it has outgrown Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil. In the very first room, overhead screens present a panorama of constant motion, including Rio and São Paolo, but also Buenos Ares, Montevideo, Caracas, Mexico City, and Havana.

Joey Forsyte's film anthology is a prelude to "a region in motion," set along highways and air corridors. The rest of the room offers a point of departure. It has the expected jumping-off points, including Hitchcock's catalog. Le Corbusier had his prewar plans for Brazil, and Niemeyer, the country's best-known architect, was leaving his mark further north, on the United Nations in New York. Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo had their studio in Mexico, designed by Juan O'Gorman. And then, the show argues, just when Hitchcock was preparing to end his story ten years in the past, things really get going.

The show is overwhelming—and Barry Bergdoll, Patricio del Real, Jorge Francisco Liernur, and Carlos Eduardo Comas as curators mean it that way, quite apart from an additional show of photography from the Bauhaus to Buenos Aires and, elsewhere, of a Colombian artist trained in architecture, Mateo López. Rather than leaving it to the architecture galleries, they accord it primary attention upstairs, like Willem de Kooning or Matisse cutouts before it. They also place the bulk in a single space, its sole chronology a time line of revolution and reaction on the back wall. They partition off a central alcove, but only to help group a record number of photographs, models, plans, and sketches not by time or nation, but rather by function. They commission further "interpretive models" from students in Miami and Chile as well. Few will keep track of what was built as opposed to merely proposed, but then uncertainty comes with a revolution or a dream.

A final alcove has "utopias," like dreams within a dream. And the preceding alcove presents this revolution as a very real influence on others, with Niemeyer, for one, in Paris. (He worked, be it noted, on headquarters for the Communist Party.) The one side room attends to the relative peace of private homes and studios, including still-fashionable hammock-like chairs—by three different designers. All these hint at an alternative history, in which much of the planet was rebuilding after World War II. MoMA cites astounding figures for the sheer number of new housing in Latin America, including fifteen hundred units beside the Pan-American highway alone, but Rotterdam and London had ambitious reconstruction and growth as well.

If this upheaval has a single impulse, though, it comes not with the bare necessities, but with higher education. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Mexico City, took dozens of architects all by itself, O'Gorman among them, while the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), in Caracas, fell almost solely to Carlos Raúl Villanueva. Each remade the edge of a city, with new urban axes as well as new towers and new modes of life. At least as ambitious, Brasília carved out a new capital, starting in 1955. If this were an early modern novel, the western idealist and conqueror would plunge further and further into the jungle, only to have a savage nature and nature's savages swallow him whole. Instead, the city was built in record time.

After rooms for each of those, the show finds its heart and its sprawl. One can discern common elements, including vertical slabs amid tree-lined arc roads and central main arteries, to preserve a space to breathe. In Brasília, Lúcio Costa took care of the urban plan while Niemeyer towers above in every way. Elsewhere curved façades connect by walkways to slimmer columns. Yet the one unifying element is to see civic life as a whole on behalf of the people as a whole, encompassing not just international banking centers, but also leisure and the mind. Theaters, hotels, hospitals, museums, and stadiums multiply along with the universities, and a school in Havana has separate architects for each of the arts.

Which came first?

One can easily lose track of the names, while delighting in ambition, proliferation, and synthesis. Plans extend as far a cemetery in Montevideo. Talk about architecture for the course of a human life. One can take the time line as a record of liberation or a countdown to disaster, from imperialism to Reagan and Thatcher, with a few coups and the Bay of Pigs along the way. One can also marvel at the prominence and creativity of a woman architect, Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil. Her version of the glass house sets into a cliff, while risers add primary colors to São Paolo's art museum.

Was Latin America unique? At the very least, it kept the International Style alive, after world war had carried the dreams away. Along with Bardi's glass house, one will recognize the stilts, cantilevers, reinforced concrete, and broken-up boxes. Teodoro González de Léon's three-story geometry has nothing at its base, much like the Lever building in New York City. The entire show pays tribute to Modernism's "city beautiful." It comes close to realizing Frank Lloyd Wright and his imagined regulated skyscrapers and vertical city.

Others, too, have been rediscovering diversity, but as a conscious hybrid between localism and modernity. A tiled exterior at UNAM pays tribute to Latin American painting and MoMA itself will soon carry "transmissions" from Eastern Europe to Latin America. Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco designed murals as well. (Rivera included the portrait of V. I. Lenin that Rockefeller Center had made him destroy.) Meanwhile Alexander Calder contributed sculpture, if not Calder mobiles. Mies van der Rohe attended the rollout of "superblocks" in Brasília.

One can see the persistence of Modernism as a joy ride—or a nagging question for today. Does civilization really need more sports arenas, vertical car parks, museum atriums, and ramps to nowhere? Does it need landscapes divided between towers and roads, dependent on automobile access? Cities and suburbs are still struggling to leave these behind, without a corresponding investment in human capital and infrastructure. The movement's greatest inheritance may lie in capitalism and globalization.

Then, too, Latin America may look nothing like this after all. Your first associations are more likely to be poverty, drugs, and political or gangland violence. And that raises another question familiar from Modernism: can art and architecture still drive a revolution? Which came first, politics or the dream? Fidel Castro took a personal hand in plans for Cuba, but they had already begun under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista—and the country now looks locked in its rural past.

The period includes religious structures, such as a chapel in Mexico by Luis Bárragan, a church in Uruguay by Eladio Dieste from when Joaquín Torres-García was calling the land his home, and a planned monastery in Santiago by Alberto Cruz Covarrubias. Were they an outgrowth of "liberation theology" or its very core, in bringing space and light to worshippers and their beliefs to the world? As the time line comes to an end, participants are still fighting over a narrative for Latin America. They are also, by implication, fighting over a narrative for the Museum of Modern Art. Does it stand in need of diversity, or was it there all along? Can it bear the burden of its founding idealism, and can Latin American today?

Postscript: eyes wide shut

Cuba, too, saw things through fresh eyes. "The Light in Cuban Eyes" comes as a revelation, with the entirety from the new millennium. Yet its twenty-three photographers present an achingly familiar landscape. The country under Fidel and now Raúl Castro seems barely to have emerged out of the 1950s. It appears as a place of lost grandeur and crushing poverty, still as contested as India under British rule or the Middle East today. Here politics seems almost beside the point, when people and traditions are struggling to find themselves and a future.

Liudmila + Nelson's Untitled, from El Viaje (Robert Mann gallery, 2004)For Arien Chang, bare-chested boys make do with makeshift toys before the majestic metal doors of badly whitewashed buildings—the kind unhinged in sculpture by Yoan Capote. For Leysis Quesada, a woman in white looks to the sunlight gathering in a grand but empty interior, while a tobacco farmer shows his age in dry skin, pursed lips, and wandering eyes. The bulbous automobiles in Pavel Acosta's Stolen Talent, their license plates erased, belong to another time altogether, as does their place not on a highway but seemingly in a jungle. Even the medium looks dated, between black and white and muted colors, like René Peña's striped socks rising out of unlaced shoes. The husband and wife team of Liudmila + Nelson treat a billboard as a photo's only note of color, with Revolution in the cursive better known from Coca-Cola. Who is to say who has coopted whom?

Then there are those elusive eyes. Almost anything can step between them and the camera, not least the strong Caribbean light. It reflects off sunglasses and train windows for Lissette Solórzano. It fills eyes wide to the point of madness for Alejandro González. It splashes across a face lost in reflections and in thought for Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo. It leaves revelers in shadow, for Eduardo García, and a seated person isolated beneath heavy clouds by the sea. A leaf falls across a boy's eyes for Raúl Cañibano, just as he is setting out to clear a space for himself, and preposterously large and low-set headgear of traditional dancers for Adrián Fernández eclipses the dance.

People here seem caught between defiance and anonymity, like Pedro Aboscal's bass player nearly dwarfed by his instrument. Whose lips share opposite ends of a cigar for Néstor Martí or spray a cock with water for José Julián Martí? Whose form a grainy collage for Alfredo Ramos, like Lorna Simpson without the burdens or comforts of African American identity? Whose hand holds out coins for Juan Carlos Alom, and are they enough to last out the day? Whose profile shadow falls across a wall for Chang? Se Permuta, as he titles the photo, or someone has changed places, but with whom?

Along with light, shadow, and style, subjects share an intense physical presence, as discomforting to them as to the viewer. Ramsés Batista covers a gleaming bare breast with flower petals as if with welts, as La Tormenta. Liudmila + Nelson use cut paper to shape the ocean itself into a reclining nude. They also share an economy and culture groping for change, like Havana as a Monopoly board for Kadir López Nieves. Music here is a strictly analog medium, like staff lines printed across dice for Glenda León, with a spareness that John Cage would have understood. Liudmila + Nelson print Havana street scenes directly on vinyl.

Revolution has lost authority almost to the point of irrelevance, much as for Belkis Ayón in Cuba before them. Political oppression remains, but it is hard to pick out the oppressors. Pupo's spectators at a horse race hold binoculars in hands crossed behind their back, like secret police. Solórzano's rail passengers spread their legs on the far side of chains, as if on their way to prison without a guard. Can one still see Latin America as a site of hope and ceaseless experiment? Perhaps the real experiment is still to come.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Latin America in Construction" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through July 19, 2015, "The Light in Cuban Eyes" at Robert Mann through May 23. The latter review first appeared in New York Photo Review.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME