Architecture and/or Revolution

On architecture in Latin America

Image of the Bank of London and South America in Buenos Aires, from “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980” at MoMA.

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980. The Museum of Modern Art, March–July 2015. Exhibition catalog by Barry Bergdoll et al., MoMA, 2015.

Justin McGuirk. Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture. Verso, 2014.

What are architects good for? They design buildings. Occasionally they design very nice buildings. But mostly they design garbage, as the skyline of any city will confirm. Think of those boxy stacks of glass, hundreds, thousands of them, each more banal and oppressive than the last. They come from the brains of architects — supposedly creative people! The truly “architected” buildings are worse. Novelty piles on banality. The top of the box gets sliced at a whimsical horse-ear angle, as with Chicago’s Crain Communications Building, or the base gets enlarged and whittled upward into a pyramid, as with San Francisco’s Transamerica. (This is to say nothing of the ghastly pickles and walkie-talkies that crown London, which may have the worst neoliberal architecture in the world.) Such buildings were dreamed up by people who get museum retrospectives, occasionally in museums they designed, and have the sheer nerve to think of themselves as artists.

Today’s big projects are first and foremost instruments of financial speculation. Take the High Line in New York, a once-abandoned elevated railway that has been converted into a park. It has primarily turned out to be a way to increase the land values in surrounding Chelsea (especially the sixteen-skyscraper Hudson Yards project) and only afterward should be understood as the work of some decent landscape architects. A real estate–enhancing development to spur more real estate–enhancing developments, it has also directed a generous amount of foot traffic to the nearby Whitney Museum of American Art, a hulking metal gunboat of a building designed by Renzo Piano, a once-great architect (remember when he turned the guts of the building inside out to make the Centre Pompidou?) whose recent work, such as the Shard in London, an office building whose shape has nothing to do with its actual use, is shameless. His Whitney has its merits, but mostly provides a context for the High Line: it creates a continuous aesthetic experience, from museum art to outdoor urban wonderland, in the ultimate service of pumping up condo prices.

What is occurring in architectural capitals these days feels like a warm handshake, the long wet smack of deal after deal being struck. Pompous critics (Martin Filler, the late Ada Louise Huxtable) may continue to call it “the building art,” but most architecture is a subsidiary of commercial and residential real estate, and no rhetorical posturing ought to convince us otherwise. To be stuck between art and the market has been the drama of the architect for a while: he (among the big names, thanks to the profession’s enduring sexism, there are still only a handful of shes) is trained in the arts but employed as a link, usually the least important, in a real estate supply chain. Anyone who dares to imagine a social role as an architect is quickly disabused by circumstance.

The result is that much of the field of architecture, having enjoyed a period of excitement and heroism around midcentury, now feels malign. Even the better works have something fundamentally vulgar about them. The snaking cantilever and gray-dark glass of Rem Koolhaas’s hulking CCTV tower in Beijing can create a kind of awe in the soul: the sense of space having been improbably bent, wrenched, and mastered. But it is also a dramatically amoral piece of work — the HQ for a propaganda network — consistent with Koolhaas’s oddly respected argument, in Delirious New York, that the speculative office towers that crowd Manhattan are what make the island great. (Koolhaas has since changed his position to “kill the skyscraper.”)

Skyscrapers are one thing: obvious symbols of the force of money. But since the end of the postwar era of urban development, the venality of architecture firms and of the developers who pay them has stood out most in projects related to public housing. Cities have become panoplies of bad work — depressing housing projects on the periphery, analogously depressing office towers in the center. Why, the logic seems to run, should people live in better buildings than money does? “As things go nowadays, one has only a choice of nightmares,” Lewis Mumford wrote in 1948. He was talking about Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan’s largest apartment complex, which had been built without much public input and was derided as a planning failure. Still, the apartments were rent-stabilized, not to mention cheap. More than fifty years after Mumford deplored the place, Stuyvesant Town — by then widely reported to be beloved by residents — was sold to a private developer, vexing public housing’s diminishing base of advocates. (The developer, Tishman Speyer, defaulted on its mortgage in 2010; the current owner, CWCapital, plans to sell it, which may place the remaining affordable units in jeopardy.) Meanwhile the number of public-housing units in the US has declined, even as demand increases.

Still, the massive investment in public housing in the quarter century following the end of World War II was not just a sign of a socially committed state but was greeted as a triumph for architecture. Modern architects and their proponents recognized housing as a crucial problem of industrial society and devoted enormous resources, intellectual and otherwise, to solving its dilemmas. Similarly, the decline of investment in public housing signaled a decline in the social commitments of architecture; the idea that architecture has become a shallow profession is now proverbial. How to get out of this funk? Can Anglo-American architecture be reunited with its social purposes, and thus reinvigorated as art?

One potentially useful way to approach these questions is to look to the recent history of Latin America — the region that, in the past sixty years, has furnished the most consistent challenges to the supremacy of capital and produced some of the most innovative architectural work.

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