How Latin America Was Built, Before Modernism Came Along

NEW YORK — For design-minded travelers, the principal calling cards of Mexico City, Lima or São Paulo — Latin America’s megacities, each of them larger than New York — have been their delirious modernist structures. Although many are now in disrepair, these cities’ tower blocks and raised highways reflect the ambitions of nationalist governments in the 1950s and 1960s.

Posted Updated

, New York Times

NEW YORK — For design-minded travelers, the principal calling cards of Mexico City, Lima or São Paulo — Latin America’s megacities, each of them larger than New York — have been their delirious modernist structures. Although many are now in disrepair, these cities’ tower blocks and raised highways reflect the ambitions of nationalist governments in the 1950s and 1960s.

Recent exhibitions, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015, have positioned the modern moment as Latin America’s architectural golden age. And modernist architects like Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer and Mexico’s Luis Barragán have occasioned frequent exhibitions, fashion editorials and monolithic Instagram bursts.

The millions who live in these cities, though, know that there’s a whole prehistory to their modernist urban experiments. It’s a tale of ambition, nationalism, violence, technical innovation and economic transformation, playing out on grand avenues and in palatial parliaments.

Telling that tale is the goal of “The Metropolis in Latin America, 1830-1930,” a revealing and often romantic exhibition at the Americas Society. It turns the clock back 100 years on six Latin American capitals: Buenos Aires, Havana, Lima, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil’s capital from independence until 1960) and Santiago. These cities became laboratories for experiment and risk long before the International Style learned Spanish and Portuguese.

This show was first seen, at a somewhat larger scale, at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, last autumn’s ultra-size jamboree of Latin American art, architecture and design in museums from Pasadena to the Mexican border. (New York is enjoying a select harvest of PST’s best shows: “Golden Kingdoms,” a showcase of pre-Columbian gold, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the dumbfounding “Painted in Mexico” opens at the Met on Tuesday; and “Radical Women,” the Hammer Museum’s acclaimed congregation of experimental Latin American artists, just arrived at the Brooklyn Museum.)

The show’s curators — Idurre Alonso, the Getty Research Institute’s associate curator of Latin American collections, and Maristella Casciato, its senior curator of architectural collections — have intermingled maps, planning documents, photos and other records of urban construction from all six cities, drawing out a hemispheric narrative of colonial inheritance and republican aspirations.

A prologue introduces us to the pre-Columbian city through post-conquest historical maps of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital that became Mexico City, and Cuzco, the former Incan capital in Peru. It also presents Spanish viceregal urban design, captured in an engraving of Santo Domingo, the first colonial city in the New World. Its rigid grid system, featuring a large central plaza and blocks arrayed around it, became the model for the cuadrícula española, or Spanish grid, that would be promulgated up and down the Americas.

In these colonial cities, the cathedral, symbol of European civilization and imperial supremacy, would sit at the center, with commercial and military buildings often nearby. Lima’s cathedral, with its pair of neo-Classical spires framing an epic door, appears here blown up to mural size; a smaller photo captures Mexico City’s more Baroque cathedral, lording over the massive Zócalo. The cathedrals’ opulence reflected not only far-off religious and military power but also local wealth and social stratification.

All but one of the countries studied gained independence in the first quarter of the 19th century; Cuba’s independence came at the end of the 1800s. The new governments, most republican, imperial down in Rio, set out to remake their colonial capitals with new national parliaments and federal ministries. Architects often mixed indigenous, colonial and beaux-arts tropes to serve new national ambitions.

Those were expressed through new public monuments, including humorously near-identical equestrian statuary. Bernardo O’Higgins, a hero of Chilean independence, is commemorated on horseback in a Santiago square, while Simón Bolívar gallops in Lima and José San Martín rears up in Buenos Aires.

Mexico City, by contrast, looked to its indigenous past for national icons. A statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, stands on a pedestal overseeing the new city that had arisen on the ancient Tenochtitlán. Redrawn by the Spanish, it was now a source of republican pride.

We discover many of these statues in hazy prints of silver and sepia, and indeed this is as much an exhibition of early photography as it is of architecture and urban planning. By 1900, shutterbugs in these Latin American capitals were snapping plush urban parks in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, spaces of leisure for the new bourgeoisie. Both of these cities received radical makeovers at this time, with ostentatious, oversized thoroughfares built on the Parisian model. An unnamed photographer’s family pictures capture Buenos Aires’ lordly Avenida de Mayo, a boulevard built in commemoration of Argentine independence and in palpable imitation of Baron Haussmann’s extended axes.

And as for the vintage photographs of Rio, it is hard to look without desperate jealousy. The most beautiful city on the planet appears, by some measure, as the most sophisticated of the capitals examined in this exhibition, although the photographers and mapmakers here had far more interest in Rio’s boulevards and gardens than its favelas, the first of which arose in the 1890s.

In two exquisite photographic panoramas by Brazilian photographer Marc Ferrez, dating to around 1895, Sugarloaf Mountain looms gently over Botafogo and Flamengo — the boulevards and alleys of the capital in seductive harmony with the beach and the hillside. Ferrez also shot Rio’s ritzy cinemas and lush botanical gardens, as well as new infrastructure. A tramway cuts through the underbrush to Corcovado, the verdant peak that would soon be topped by the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Eventually a new generation of architects and urban designers, less hung up on European models, would transform these capitals once again. There is a hint of what’s to come in a 1927 photograph of Rio’s Praça Marechal Floriano, whose undulating mosaics of white and black would soon be replicated in Roberto Burle Marx’s wavy boardwalk on Copacabana Beach. Burle Marx would go on to landscape a new capital, Brasília, that would take national ambition to extremes. Buenos Aires would invite Le Corbusier, the Swiss apostle of tower blocks and bulldozers, to reimagine the Argentine capital from scratch. Cuba would take a different approach to national reinvention, one that, paradoxically, has left much of Havana’s earlier architecture deteriorating but in place.

Latin American cities would become spaces of utopian fantasies, frequently followed by political nightmares. But before the new towers arrived — and before, more recently, Rio’s white-elephant Olympic stadiums and Mexico City’s big-money museums — they were already cities of dreams.

“The Metropolis in Latin America, 1830-1930”

Through June 30 at Americas Society, Park Avenue, at 68th Street, Manhattan; 212-249-8950, as-coa.org.

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.