Art in Latin American Architecture

By Paul F. Damaz | Go to book overview
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Modern Architecture
Detail of the roof terrace of Luis Barragan's house, Mexico City (facing page).

The development of the economies of the Latin American countries and the resulting social changes in the 1930's produced an acceleration of building construction on a scale that is by now legendary. The creation of now industries brought about the urbanization of areas until then devoted only to agriculture. In large urban centers, such as Mexico City, São Paulo and Caracas, to which a considerable part of the rural population had been attracted, city planning and mass housing became a prime concern. Prosperity, partly produced by the war needs of the United States and the search for safe real estate investments during a period of money devaluation, gave rise to uncontrolled land and building speculation that has not abated for the past twenty years. This vast amount of construction in Brazil at a time when the principles of functionalism were already well established in Europe afforded a young and open-minded generation the opportunity to develop an architecture that has become one of the most famous in the world.

Modern architecture was not accepted overnight in Latin America any more than it was in Europe or in the United States. Academicism was deep in the minds of architects and clients alike, and although in Brazil now architectural forms have been accepted since the mid-thirties, in the more conservative southerly countries private homes and apartment buildings are still being designed in the Parisian style in vogue at the turn of the century. However, either because the importation of culture had always been a normal fact regarded with favor in Latin America or because architects and intellectuals understood that the best way to show respect for tradition was to follow contemporary ideas, the fact remains that in most countries architects were able to make a clean break with the past. In this they were helped by the versatility and imagination of the Latin mind and by the vanity of the client or the government official who wanted to gain recognition for the cultural or social contribution made by a particular building. Architects were also encouraged by the laxity of building codes and a lack of fear to the point of irresponsibility, leading to experimentation and the endorsement by public officials of projects that would have horrified the entire United States Congress.

Architecture is a relatively now profession in Latin America, and none of the precursors or recognized founders of international modern architecture were autochthonous. The cultural appeal of the United States was non-existent before the last war, and Wright's influence came only later through a few of his disciples and was never strong. To learn the principles of modern architecture, Latin Americans turned to the European grand masters, and since they were still culturally oriented toward France, Le Corbusier became their greatest single source of inspiration. In 1929 he made his first tour of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Invited again several times, he lectured in Brazil and Argentina in 1931, 1934, 1936 and 1937, and had a great influence throughout South America. At the some time, other lecturers, such as the architect and art historian Alberto Sartoris, traveled in South America and helped to spread the principles of func

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