Eladio Dieste's Cristo Obrero Church in Atlantida, Uruguay, 1958. Photo Leonardo Finotti. © Leonardo Finotti

The title of the exhibition appears straightforward: "Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980." But the show's effect—especially for anyone with an interest in modernism—is a shock to the system. At the Museum of Modern Art through Jul. 19, this sprawling survey of drawings, models, photographs and films feels like a secret history of art that verges on science fiction. Utopias abound. Even architectural authorities will be taken aback. "I have three degrees in architecture," says MoMA curator of architecture and design Barry Bergdoll. "But when I began work on the exhibition I quickly found out how little I really knew about this stuff." Bergdoll, who organized the show with curatorial assistant Patricio del Real and professors Jorge Francisco Liernur (Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Carlos Eduardo Comas (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil), is also a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University. His past curatorial efforts include major exhibitions of the work of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. He took a recent time-out from his various duties to chat with AiA via telephone.

 

1) Why does your show begin, so specifically, in 1955?

We picked 1955 for three reasons. Symbolically, that was the last time MoMA tried to appraise, regionally, the extraordinary mid-century effervescence of architectural experimentation in Latin America [with the exhibition "Latin American Architecture since 1945"]. So we thought, why don't we start where the last show left off? In some ways that's the least interesting reason.

Secondly, in the late '40s and early '50s Europe and the U.S. enthusiastically responded to what was going on architecturally in Brazil. It was a euphoric reaction: the torch of avant-garde architecture had been passed to the new world. But, beginning around 1955, you begin to hear very loud doubters. The euphoria became tempered by critique, especially by the widely publicized writings of Max Bill. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius and others were critical of the new campus [of the Ciudad Universitaria] in Mexico City. South America was no longer perceived as just a place of lyrical grace but indeed of complicated architectural positions. Our unspoken curatorial hypothesis is that after 1955, architects in Latin America began a more profound approach to exploration. It's not a show with a neat narrative. There are multiple dialogues and conversations.

The final reason is that 1955 is the historic high point of developmentalism. The key to this would be the state and its intervention in the pursuit of modernization. This [drive towards] modernization pervaded all dimensions of society within the newly developing continent. The first object you see in the show is the sublime wall construction by Carlos Gómez Gavazzo: Ecuación del desarollo (Development Equation), 1960. It's a developmental calculator. It allows the input of a variety of factors, from income to population density to standard of living, calculating the exact level of intervention appropriate for a planner in any environment-from rural to urban. We don't know today precisely how it was used, but it does point to the notion that parametric thinking predates our computer world, and that it influenced a history of social and policy decisions quite different from today's fascination with algorithmic production of form and ornament for their own sake.

 

2) Don't you find the concept of state intervention somewhat ominous?

No! I'm an old-fashioned liberal. I have a certain nostalgia for a state that wants to take responsibility for large-scale infrastructural projects, that houses its citizens and sees the need for public space. 1980 is the beginning of the neoliberal critique of developmentalism—and it's also the beginning of the critique of the left playing out in Latin American politics.

 

3) I would like to jump to an image very near the end of the exhibition. It's Nuclear City, a photocollage by Jorge Rigamonti. The work throughout "Latin America in Construction" is filled with utopian ideas and feelings. But it ends, partially, in disaster.

The final gallery contains a dialogue between utopian and dystopian visions. It ends in a critique of and doubt toward the prevailing optimism of the mid-century. We saw Rigamonti, in the previous gallery, as author of one of the administrative buildings of a new town laid out by the Venezuelans together with the Joint Center for Urban Studies of Harvard and MIT. Rigamonti was an architect involved in the building of new towns—one for oil and one for bauxite extraction. So, in terms of the state's developmentalism, he's an architect in both the literal and metaphorical sense. He built one of the finest, most beautiful and curious buildings in Venezuela—the Comedor Central de la Siderúrgica del Orinoco C.A. (1976) in Ciudad Guayana. In the midst of all of this, he begins to make, for his own private expression, photocollages that are very dystopic. They represent a world overtaken by the infrastructure of technological energy and an urbanism driven by the quest for that energy. That's why the set of Rigamonti images is paired with work by Amancio Williams. Williams proposed a utopian city for Antarctica—to settle an uninhabited continent. So the viewer exits the show not with a dark message but with that dialectic.

 

4) Please pick an image or object you are particularly fond of.

The vitrine with the two Eladio Dieste models. One of them, with the string, looks like an ancient musical instrument. It's paired with two plaster casts that look almost like elements from a paleontology gallery. The models connect to his design of the brick and terracotta Cristo Obrero Church in Atlantida, Uruguay. The building has extraordinary curving and counter-curving walls. A couple years ago the curators were in the Dieste office going over materials with his son. I asked him if there were any models. He explained that the two he had were too humble and that I wouldn't be interested. I think they're absolutely amazing. They sum up both Dieste and the optimism of the period: the models explore advanced structural engineering calculations and mathematics. They demonstrate how to create sophisticated curves entirely with straight lines. Anybody, including the farmers in the fields, could build this building. Dieste advances the technological but also figures out how to put that knowledge in the hands of the average worker. I think that's beautiful.

 

5) Why is this show such a shock?

I have three degrees in architecture. When I started working on the exhibition I knew very little about this area. It's a whole world we don't know about. The shock is multifold. In the U.S. we have such cliché ideas about Latin America. It's the place of barbed wire, dangerous drug trades, privatized space, chaotic cites, etc. So to see this period, with its buildings of transparency—from interior to exterior—and its permeability between public and private space seems doubly remarkable. It does not fit the average person's image of Latin America; and it reminds us of a time, not long ago, when transparency was thought to be possible.