Latin American Design and Architecture Through the Years

Vía The New York Times.


Lina Bo Bardi in her Glass House in São Paulo, Brazil. Credit Chico Albuquerque/Convenio Museu da Imagem e do Som- SP/Instituto Moreira Salles

THE well-worn phrase “Mi casa es tu casa” may be a perfect expression of Latin American warmth and hospitality, but it leaves some basic questions unanswered, especially if you are interested in architecture and design. What kind of house? And what is inside that house?

Three exhibitions, two already underway and a third, “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980,” opening on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, aim to address those issues. Though organized separately and somewhat different in focus, they collectively provide a comprehensive picture of trends in Latin American architecture and design since World War II while suggesting a pattern of regionwide innovation that did not receive full recognition while it was occurring.

“The main verb here is ‘recalibrate,’ ” said Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of the MoMA exhibition, which will run through July 19. In common with the other two shows, which focus more on design, its goal is to challenge orthodoxy and, he said, make “a big polemical point, showing Latin America as a center of experimentation and originality, with as many ideas going out as coming in.”

A Mexican rug, at the Americas Society. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In one way or another, each of the shows refracts off a 1955 MoMA show that looked at the past decade of Latin American architecture. At the Americas Society, an exhibition of furniture, ceramics, glassware and other objects called “Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela,” which runs through May 16, covers 1940 to 1978, while the Museum of Arts and Design focuses on the past 25 years in “New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America,” which closes on April 5.

Though the Museum of Arts and Design exhibition is organized around paired “urban hubs” that include Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires; and San Salvador and San Juan, Puerto Rico; developments in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela dominate all three shows. The construction of Brasília in the late 1950s came to symbolize Latin America’s outsize ambitions and pioneering spirit, but the MoMA show emphasizes that the Mexican and Venezuelan governments also used their new wealth from industrialization and oil to stimulate the construction of housing, universities, hospitals, libraries and museums with local characteristics.

The relationship between the new MoMA show and the two design exhibitions was stated most succinctly by Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, a Brazilian curator who is the author of “Modern Furniture in Brazil” and also worked on the Americas Society show. “Traditional objects were incompatible with this new modernist architecture,” she said in an interview last month. “New products with cleaner lines and less ornamentation were needed.”

The exhibitions also reflect the growing international appreciation of the architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi, the subject of several recent books and critical assessments. (Her work is also on view in an exhibition at R & Company gallery in TriBeCa.) Born in Italy in 1914, she immigrated to Brazil after World War II and developed a style that the critic Martin Filler, in an article last year in The New York Review of Books, describes as “intriguingly contradictory but intelligently resolved,” with designs that were “structurally audacious yet uncommonly comfortable, unapologetically untidy yet conceptually rigorous, and confidently dynamic yet suggestively hybrid.”

At the Americas Society exhibition, visitors are greeted at the entrance by an enlarged photograph of Bo Bardi standing in the living room of the Glass House she designed for herself and her husband, the critic, curator and museum director Pietro Bardi, after they settled in São Paulo. The MoMA exhibition features the same house, as well as Bo Bardi’s projects for the São Paulo Art Museum, the Pompeia Leisure Center and the Solar do Unhão complex in Salvador, and the Americas Society exhibition also includes her modernized version of a traditional wooden chair from Bahia that has origins in Africa.

The “New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America” exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design. Credit Michael Nagle for The New York Times

“Partly we are very hungry for both female and alternative models, probably in reaction to a star architect system,” Mr. Bergdoll, who is also a professor of art history at Columbia University, said about the Bo Bardi phenomenon. But in doing so, he also cautioned, “we are reinventing her posthumously as a star and making her into such a heroine that her paradoxes are being obscured.”

At MoMA, Bo Bardi’s Glass House is part of a section that focuses on the homes that globally prominent architects, like the Mexicans Luis Barragán and Juan O’Gorman and the Brazilian Paulo Mendes da Rocha, built for themselves. That makes a point central to architecture in the region: In developing countries with vast open spaces, and that were late in urbanizing, architects could give free rein to their imaginations in ways they could not in centuries-old cities in Europe or even in the eastern United States.

The reference to “New Territories” in the title of the Museum of Arts and Design exhibition was potentially dangerous because it could imply to Latin Americans that only now is their creativity being “discovered,” à la Columbus. But Lowery Stokes Sims, the museum’s chief curator, said that “new territories” was being used not in a geographic sense but to refer to new genres, strategies and materials that were being incorporated into artistic production.

“Everyone was aware of not playing into stereotypes of Latin America,” she said, adding that “Global Latin America” and “New Frontiers” were other titles considered. But after traveling in the region, talking to “young designers deconstructing design icons” and concluding that the “upcycling of materials is almost an aesthetic,” she wanted a title that would evoke a place “where art, craft, design and science come together.”

Such repurposing of glass, metal and other substances is a salient characteristic of Latin American design, often as an ingenious response to financial limitations. But Jorge Rivas Pérez, a Venezuelan architect, designer, critic and a curator involved with both the Museum of Arts and Design and the Americas Society shows, also emphasized the influence of two competing impulses.

A rendering by Luis Barragán, at MoMA. Credit Barragan Foundation, Switzerland/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“In Latin America we are bombarded by a longing to belong to our countries and simultaneously be cosmopolitan and international,” he said. “That desire to be local and at the same time be part of the global scene has been happening in Latin America since the 1940s, when designers tried to use the vocabulary of modernism then in vogue, but also recognized a need to adapt it to local materials and to systems of production based on local techniques and traditions.”

That tension is very much on display at the Museum of Arts and Design exhibition, in objects like a Chilean tapestry fusing traditional Mapuche Indian motifs with matrix bar codes and Mexican lamps that resemble fishermen’s baskets. But the most striking example may be a Brazilian mirror and side table from 1996: made of onyxlike black acrylic and shaped with lasers, they nonetheless contain curlicue baroque design features that date to the 18th-century colonial period.

For Americans, some of the Mexican works and styles on display in both of the design shows may seem familiar, and not just because 20th-century American craftsmen like the silversmith William Spratling and the furniture designer Michael van Beuren, each represented in the Americas Society show, relocated to Mexico. In reality, many elements of the midcentury “California style,” like other trends, originated in or were adaptations of developments just across the southern border.

Throughout the 20th century, “there was a continuous, permanent dialogue with the United States, flowing in both directions, and it was a dialogue of equals,” said Ana Elena Mallet, a Mexican curator specializing in contemporary design who was a consultant for both design shows. “That process has only accelerated with Nafta,” she added in reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement that went into effect in 1994 and effectively made the United States and Mexico a single market.

That relationship underlines an oddity about architecture and design in Latin America that is implicit in each of the exhibitions. Until the advent of cable television and then the Internet, Latin Americans, creators and consumers alike, were often more aware of trends in Europe and the United States than in nations neighboring theirs: Whatever similarities in style that emerged regionally were largely the result of discrete, parallel responses to the challenges of urbanization, poverty and the need to somehow integrate modernity and tradition.

“Even for Hispanics, some of these things will be revelations,” Mr. Rivas said. “Yes, there was a revolution in design, but diffusion between countries was very limited.” Of the objects on display, “90 percent have not left private collections in their own countries and have never been shown in a public exhibition before,” he added. “So it is a marvelous coincidence that all of this is coming together in New York City.”

“Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980” runs Sunday through July 19 at the Museum of Modern Art; 212-708-9400, moma.org.“Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, 1940-1978” continues through May 16 at the Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue, Manhattan; 212-249-8950, as-coa.org. “New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America” runs through April 5 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan; 212-299-7777, madmuseum.org.

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