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ARCHITECTURE AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF CULTURAL IDENTITY

OR LEARNING FROM LATIN AMERICA


2007 Susana Torre and Geoffrey Fox
st@susanatorre.net
gf@geoffreyfox.com

Eladio Dieste. Shopping Center. Montevideo, Uruguay

This not a paper about African architecture. Neither is it a paper


about Latin American architecture. Rather, it is a discussion about
architecture and the construction of cultural identity, using Latin
America as a case study. Why is this relevant to this conference?
Because the conference poses as its central question:

Is there an

African architecture, and if so, what are its elements, space, form and
technology? If we substitute Latin American for African the very
Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 1 of 17

same issues were posed in 1985, stimulating

a vigorous and still

continuing production of discourses about architecture and cultural


identity in Latin America. The debates around these issues have been
expressed in theoretical and critical papers, in actual buildings
intended to express one side or another, and a roving gathering of
scholars and designers that now takes place in a conference every two
years, each time in a different country, alternating between the
northern and southern extremes of Latin America, a region that covers
most of two continents and islands between them. We suggest that
awareness of this fervor over similar issues in another world region
may be useful to African scholars in at least three ways: first, it may
serve to clarify which design and identity issues are uniquely African,
and which are more widely shared; secondly, it may help avoid some
of the less productive lines of debate that Latin Americans engaged in
for some time before abandoning them as fruitless; and finally, it is
always stimulating to both sides to share ideas with serious colleagues
of other backgrounds and outlooks.
We have said that these questions of a regional identity in
architecture and how to express it were first posed publicly and
dramatically in Latin America in 1985. This was the date of the first
conference of Latin American scholars and designers that shaped the
discussion in the years that followed. Some of the questions raised in
those early debates later were reframed or simply lost their relevance.
First lets look at the dominant discourses within which the
central question is inscribed: Is it there an identifiable architecture
common to and specific to our region whether Latin America or
Africa? Twenty-five years ago the central idea of the dominant
architectural discourse, which is to say, the discourse that had evolved
in New York, London and Tokyo, was post-modernism. Earlier, in

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1967, Robert Venturi had launched a gentle attack on modernity,


which had become a rigidly consistent corporate style in the United
States while its social programs remained unfulfilled in most of the
world. He called for a post-modern state of mind that acknowledged
ambiguity and contradiction, as is the case in the popular arts. By the
early 1980s, post-modernism had coined a repertory of architectural
tropes that were based on the formal elements of European neoclassicism, often merely superimposed on modern corporate styles.
These became the new memes, as Richard Dawkins has called them,
the ideas or slogans or design details that spread from one brain to
another like an infectious virus.

They were disseminated via

conferences, magazines and journals, and endlessly (and mindlessly)


replicated just as the earlier modernist memes

had been. In 1985,

during a conference on postmodernism and architecture in Buenos


Aires, Argentina, where none of the main speakers were from Latin
America, a small group of architects from Latin American countries set
up a parallel meeting in defiance of the conferences format and rules.
This became what they called the Seminars of Latin American
Architecture, or SAL (Seminarios de Arquitectura Latinoamerica). Sal
is also the Spanish word for salt, the basic condiment they thought
had been missing in the discussion of issues that, they felt, did not
represent the reality and concerns of Latin American architects beyond
the elite circles in the major Latin American capitals. What came out of
these

initial

discussions

was

the

realization

that

to

engage

postmodernism in a region where the largest part of the population


lived

in

marginal

conditions,

without

enjoying

the

benefits

of

modernization access to drinking water, paved streets, good housing


and schools, equipped hospitals and so on, made no sense. They felt
the social promise and the bare bones esthetics of modernity were still

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 3 of 17

valid and current in Latin America and that architects should once
again embrace them, albeit in a manner that reflected realistically the
conditions of the region, its poverty, and its lack of sophisticated
technological resources. There thus arose the call for what they called
an appropriated/appropriate modernity. In Spanish and Portuguese,
appropriate

and

appropriated

are

same

word,

apropiado

(masculine) or apropiada, and they meant it in both senses: the


aspects of modernity taken in by Latin American architects should be
appropriate, that is, suitable to local conditions, and should also be
appropriated, that is, taken over and remade to meet local needs. At
the inception, this concept was vague enough to be embraced by
people coming from very diverse countries and who in reality had very
different notions of what was appropriate and how to appropriate
others

ideas.

By

the

4th

SAL

meeting

in

1989,

the

latent

disagreements over its meaning came out into the open. Silvia Arango,
editor of the 1991 compilation of the key papers of this conference,
asked whether there was indeed a debate about Latin American
architecture, or whether all that was left was a dialogue among deaf
people. Yet there was a debate, with the majority position, led by the
Chileans Christian Fernandez-Cox and Enrique Brown, proposing the
construction of an appropriate modernity in opposition to the
modernities in Northern hemisphere countries that were heirs to the
goals of 18th century European Enlightment. This new modernity
should not be based on folkloric or nativist essences. Instead, it
should reflect the tension between the spirit of the time and spirit of
the place. The architectural historian Marina Weisman, one of the key
participants and the author of a major theoretical work, The Historical
Structure of the Built Environment, believed that place was of
greater importance than time, because people who culturally and

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 4 of 17

mentally inhabit different historical eras (pre-modern, modern and


post-modern) may coexist in the same place and society. This is
obviously true in large parts of Latin America, where people who
continue to observe ancient, pre-European customs and beliefs live in
the same towns, and often in the same households, with others who
are much more modern or postmodern.

Luis Barragn. St. Cristobal Horse Ranch. Mexico City

Within the debate, the appropriateness of place also came to


mean the use of construction materials that were not imported, and
intermediate technologies that were already in common use in each
region. Appropriate materials and technology were present in the
buildings of several Latin American architects whose work has been
canonized in the past twenty years through awards and publications,
such as the Argentineans Claudio Caveri and Togo Diaz; the Chilean

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 5 of 17

Christian deGroote; the Colombian Rogelio Salmona; the Cuban


Ricardo Porro; the Mexicans Luis Barragan and Luis Mijares; and the
Uruguayan Eladio Dieste. They all used brick and reinforced concrete,
signaling a formal continuity with traditional architecture. This work
was considered emblematic of an architecture that was appropriate to
societies that were poor in capital without becoming an architecture
of poverty. To these we would add projects that embraced the
poverty of resources in an even more explicit way, such as the
churches

designed

for

Pentecostal

congregations

in

marginal

neighborhoods of Buenos Aires by Norma Romn and Mederico Faivre,


and the projects built in Ritoque, Chile, and other locations by the
students and faculty of a Chilean school of architecture in Via del Mar.

The Open City. The Pilgrims Lodge. Ritoque, Chile

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The debates minority position claimed that the process of


modernization of Latin American cities during the first half of the 20th
century had already provided a legitimate starting point for modernity
in the region. This could be seen in the architectural designs of the
Argentinean Amancio Williams; the Brazilians Lucio Costa and Oscar
Niemeyer; and the Mexican Luis Barragan, respectful of regional
typologies and materials. Moreover, the origin of appropriation in the
arts had already been postulated by the Brazilians Tarsila de Amaral, a
painter, and by Oswald de Andrade, a writer and author of the
Cannibal Manifesto of 1928, whose iconic line is "Tupi or not Tupi: that
is the question." The Tupi are an indigenous Brazilian tribe that had
been accused of cannibalism; Andrades appropriation of the line from
Hamlet, he was suggesting, was a kind of cultural cannibalism, by
eating Shakespeare.

Ricardo Porro. School of Fine Arts. Cubanacn, Havana, Cuba

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The relationship of a Latin American architecture to a supposed


Latin American cultural identity became an even stronger focal point
of the debate, dominating the discourse for a decade or so. Several
participants attempted to define it in opposition to the cultural identity
of the English-speaking United States, and its early Puritan esthetic.
To some, the difference was self-evident when the buildings of two
Modernist architects the Mexican Luis Barragan and the Dutch Cor
Van Eesteren -- were compared. They further claimed that the
appropriation of the Catholic baroque by the indigenous craftspeople
who had carved many of the Colonial churches magnificent interiors
had set up the basis for an esthetic mestizaje which should be a
characteristic of Latin American architecture of all times. This line of
argument was opposed of those who believed that the cultural
identities of countries with a very strong influence of indigenous
cultures, such as Mexico and Peru, or African cultures, such as Cuba,
were very different from the cultural identities of countries that
received a huge influx of European immigration (primarily from Spain
and Italy) starting in the 19th century, such as Argentina, Brazil and
Venezuela. Other participants alleged that the idea of a Latin
American identity in architecture was dangerously close to the
nationalisms that flourished in the arts at the end of the 19th Century,
when architects insisted on defining a national architecture based on
the Colonial precedents.
In spite of these critiques and doubts, the question of a cultural
identity in architecture became entrenched in the emerging discourse,
and became the basis for the defense of the cultural and architectonic
patrimony. This allowed the architectural historians to take over the
architects protagonistic role in the formulation of discourse. The
evolution of their protagonism has been bolstered over the past

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 8 of 17

decade and a half by the numerous institutional mechanisms that


prominent SAL participants put in place in their respective countries.

Rogelio Salmona. Torres del Parque. Bogot, Colombia

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Among these were the Argentineans Marina Waisman and


Ramn Gutirrez (author of the first and only history of Latin American
architecture, published in 1985), the Brazilian Hugo Segawa, the
Chilean Humberto Eliash, the Colombian Silvia Arango, and the
Mexican Louise Noelle. These institutionalized supports included, in
addition to the SAL, a Latin American architecture biennial exhibition
and conference in Ecuador, numerous university-based architecture
magazines and research books with an emphasis on the historic
patrimony of Latin American cities. A few countries lacking resources,
like

Bolivia,

were

able

to

secure

financial

support

from

the

Autonomous Regional Government of Andalusia in Spain for the


publication of architectural guides, using the interest of the former
Colonial power in being recognized as the mother country. Wealthier
countries like Mexico and Brazil are now way ahead of the others in
the publication and dissemination of their architectural historical
research. As a result of this work we now know far more about
architecture in Latin America than a decade ago, although the
narrative has huge holes that remain unexamined, such as the building
culture of indigenous and African populations, and the role of women
in the formulation of modernity. The latter is only recently being
recognized by the patrimonial protection extended to two key
modernist houses whose clients and designers were the Mexican
painter Frida Kahlo, and the Argentinean writer Victoria Ocampo,
whose literary and cultural journal Sur had Jorge Luis Borges as a
contributor.
The impulse towards establishing precedents for the creation of
a Latin American architecture did not prosper. The importance of
Diestes, Caveris or Salmonas work has yet to transcend the region.

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 10 of 17

Togo Diaz. Apartment Building. Crdoba, Argentina

And in Latin America, architecture professionals and students are more


familiar with buildings that are published in American, European and
Japanese architectural magazines than with those built in their region.
Looking at past architecture exhibitions at New Yorks Museum of
Modern Art it seems as if only one Latin American architect is allowed
to emerge every 30 years: it was Oscar Niemeyer in the 1940s, and
Luis Barragan in the 1970s it may now be Eladio Diestes turn. So
waiting for acknowledgement from powerful world institutions is a
hopeless proposition. Unfortunately, the most contagious design
memes

remain

those

promoted

by

the

architectural

glossies.

Fortunately, the architectural discourse constructed at the SAL has


recently shifted from buildings to cities. This has been a very
productive change in the discourse, since Latin American urban centers
share three major conditions in spite of their great differences: 1) a
common urban pattern established during the regions Colonization
Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 11 of 17

(sometimes influenced by indigenous settlement patterns); 2) an often


savage replacement of its traditional urban pattern by buildings and
urban and suburban spaces that belong to Generica, that city that is
everywhere in the world without belonging to any specific place; and
3) the existence of huge, unassimilated informal settlements in the
periphery, and sometimes the center, of major cities (with Cubas
exception). Perhaps the most famous of these are the Brazilian
favelas, nowhere to be seen in the maps of Brazilian cities, in spite of
their size and prominence. Usually, the habitants of the formal city are
reminded of the informal one through urban violence, or in the form of
ambulant vendors and itinerant markets, which the local government
is forever trying to contain and regulate. Usually, it is also assumed
that the inhabitants of the informal city have brown or black skin,
creating a de facto racial economic apartheid. The new focus of the
discourse on the urban condition holds the promise of reuniting once
again the practitioners and the historians, as the formers proposals
are debated at the SAL gatherings and the latters studies examine
typologies of public and private space and social occupation rather
than formal styles. What this change seems to be saying is that the
participation of architects and scholars in defining the quality of life in
Latin American cities is far more important than whether there is or
not a Latin American architecture. Yet the question of cultural
identity served as a useful engine to set into motion a knowledge
process that could never have emerged from outside sources.
In closing, we could ask how the project of an African
architecture will evolve in the years to come. There are a number of
questions that constitute the conceptual framework of this conference.
We could add a few more. Given that the dominant discourse today is
on sustainability, and that the cutting edge of this discourse is being

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 12 of 17

defined in terms of technology and the density of urban settlements -what constitutes an appropriate and appropriated sustainability in
African countries? Other issues could be: what is the relationship
between traditional and modern urban patterns of settlement? To what
extent do ancestral social organization patterns and religion influence
urban patterns? What is the role of women and minority populations in
the creation of urban form? What are the relevant typologies of urban
public space? What are their uses? Should the discourse on form be
influenced by erudite precedents alone? What kind of networks can be
formed through the Internet to include the African Diaspora in the
discussion? What other regions in the world are relevant to urban
problems and solutions in African cities?

Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 13 of 17

A Bibliography on Modern Architecture and Cities in Latin America in English or with


English summaries
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Castedo, Leopoldo, A History of Latin American Art and Architecture, London, 1969.
Cetto, Max. Modern Architecture in Mexico. New York: Praeger, 1961.
Chase, Gilbert, Contemporary Art in Latin America, New York 1970
Coyula, Mario; Joseph L. Scarpaci, and Roberto Segre. Havana, (Cuba): Two Faces of the
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Davis, Diane E. Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Temple
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De Soto, Luis. "The Main Currents in Cuban Architecture." Columbia University, 1929.

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Eggener, Keith. Luis Barragan's Gardens of El Pedregal (Building Studies). Princeton


Architectural Press: 2001
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Meade, Teresa. Civilizing Rio: Reform and Resistance in a Brazilian City 1889-1930,
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Torre-Fox AAT paper Page 16 of 17

The Elusive Unifying Discourse: Teaching the History of Architecture in Latin America,
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LANIC (Latin America Network Information Center of the University of Texas at Austin), a
major clearinghouse of information about Latin American countries.
http://lanic.utexas.edu/index.html

About the Authors:


Susana Torre and Geoffrey Fox are co-authors of a history of the built environment in
Latin America from pre-Columbian times to the present, to be published in New York by
W.W.Norton. Torre is an architect and scholar. She was director of the Department of
Architecture at Parsons School of Design in New York City and has taught at Columbia
University and Yale University in the United States, the University of Kassel in Germany and
the University of Buenos Aires, among others. Fox is a writer and sociologist specializing in
Latin America. He has taught at New York University and is the author of Hispanic Nation:
Culture, Politics, and the Construction of Identity, among other books about Cuba, Venezuela
and Argentina.

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