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MoMA builds a new audience for Latin American architecture

Sixty years after a landmark architectural survey, the New York museum picks up where it left off

New York

The architects Oscar Niemeyer and Luis Barragán notwithstanding, historians of mid-to-late 20th-century architecture have tended not to give Latin American builders their due. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition “Latin America in Construction” should change all that.

Aside from bringing together models, drawings and archival photographs, MoMA has commissioned new photographs of key buildings. But the general public is being encouraged to participate too. A partnership with Instagram, announced by the MoMA director, Glenn Lowry, in January, encourages people to upload images of Modernist buildings from across Latin America using the #arquimoma tag. A collage of these images will be featured in the show.

Cities in action

Brasilia, which was built from scratch in the late 1950s, is often seen as the apotheosis of a Modernist capital, but the exhibition challenges our assumptions about the city. Barry Bergdoll, its New York-based co-curator, says visiting Brasilia today is a revelation: “It’s not the city we were taught about.” He credits the civic planner Lúcio Costa with creating a subtle urban plan for residential and shopping quarters that are often overshadowed by the monumental official buildings designed by Niemeyer.

Though Brazil’s modern architecture is the most famed, including the contributions of Cuban architects was a must. “For Latin America, Cuba is central,” Bergdoll says. The inventiveness of Cuban architecture is typified by the way architects such as Hugo d’Acosta customised a Soviet-designed modular architectural system to suit local climate and needs. Prefabricated panels, cut in half or perforated, allowed for structures the original designers would never have imagined. Las Terrazas, a development in Cuba built in the wake of a hurricane that left thousands homeless in 1963, is an outstanding example of the adoption of this system.

Special significance

In 1955, MoMA first celebrated Latin America’s contribution to Modern architecture with the show “Latin American Architecture Since 1945.” Its curator, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, spent three weeks travelling through the continent and was astonished by much of what he saw. Among the buildings Bergdoll discovered in his travels, one has special significance: the Urnario, a small cemetery building in Montevideo. Designed by the Uruguayan architect Nelson Bayardo and completed in 1962, it is now listed as historically important, thanks to its inclusion in the MoMA show.

The exhibition is supported primarily by Emilio Ambasz and the International Council of MoMA.

• Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-80, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 29 March-19 July