Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 10, 2023
Patricio del Real Constructing Latin America: Architecture, Politics, and Race at the Museum of Modern Art New Haven and London: Yale Universtiy Press, 2022. 320 pp.; 33 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780300254563)

In recent years, architectural history has seen a sizeable growth in research focusing on the built environments of Latin America. Architecture, architects, and increasingly systems and institutions from this area of the so-called “Global South” have been brought to light, analyzed, and given critical attention to the point of shifting the supposed centers and axes of “canonical” modernity. Patricio del Real’s recent book, Constructing Latin America: Architecture, Politics, and Race at the Museum of Modern Art is a most welcome addition to this expanding body of scholarship. 

To be sure, this book can be categorized in a variety of manners. It is an institutional history with far reaching concerns and loci of thoroughly researched investigation. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is unique as an institution, at least in regard to its renown and purported inevitability—an idea that the author is at first self-conscious about but also apparently willing to underscore as fact. The author recognizes MoMA as both an apparatus clearly situated and often complicit with other governmental institutions of the United States, a supreme hegemonic regional and later global power during the period that this book covers. MoMA is likewise cast as an integral part of New York City’s cultural fabric, itself an imperial city with regards to capital, finance, fashion, and cultural production. This institution has clearly been shaped by these circumstances which is what has made it a meaningful player in curating and disseminating art and architecture globally as well as constructing broader worldviews that have defined cultures not only for audiences in the United States but also around the world. 

While Constructing Latin America is very much about MoMA, it can be categorized as “Latin American” history because the author clearly treats this institution as a powerful lens by which the region was both seen, understood, and constructed. This book carefully charts out a transnational condition between this institution and major regional players such as Brazil and Mexico (and to a lesser extent Cuba, Peru, Venezuela, and other nations) while focusing on how institutional dialogues between MoMA, other US offices of culture, diplomacy, and geopolitical power and political economy, and similar entities throughout the Americas aided in the fomenting of various national propagandas of exceptionalism. The author examines the suggestion if not outright indoctrination of aesthetic and racialized stereotypes, as well as the formation of broader regional concepts and arguably a consciousness: the construction of a decidedly modern “Latin America” that could feed into both US imperial as well as varied Latin national agendas of Pan-Americanism. In this regard, del Real’s book is a fascinating and deep perspective into the region that contributes to the equally expanding field of colonial and post-colonial studies in so far as it is a scholarly treatment of cultural colonialism and imperialism, or in the words of the author a study on “aesthetic kleptomania caught in the logic of global accumulation and dissemination” (3).

A timely and particularly intriguing aspect of this book is its perspective on the social construction of race. This analysis looks at the formation of varied Latin American racial constructions, claims to racial hybridity, and nation-building projects; how these aspects were defined by disparate Latin American governmentalities (most of which were authoritarian); and lastly how these racialized modernizing projects were selectively portrayed by the museum’s Department of Architecture in a manner that clearly “spoke” to its largely American audience on the United States’ own pressing issues of racial relations, Depression era and post-War state construction, industrial/material “progress,” and of course the growing acceptance of modernist architecture. Del Real effectively reinforces the notion that “whiteness” has historically been attached to such concepts as progress and modernity. This portrayal of the embrace of modern architecture in Latin America had the potential to speak of a particular hierarchy of race that existed across the region and within the varied nations that comprised this land to the South.  Modernity’s acceptance by a place commonly thought by many US citizens to be backward or non-white could imply the triumph of white or even US hegemony throughout the Americas.  This narrative of “whiteness” however was nuanced, as del Real skillfully reveals in this book, with MoMA’s repeated focus on Brazil and Mexico, two aggressively modernizing states bolstered by schools of nationalist anthropology and sociology that produced compelling doctrines on ethnicity and race in their respective countries: brasilidade and mexicanidad. 

The former, technically a framework for national identity that imagined an idealized ethnic and racial hybridity of the European, Black, and Indigenous peoples of Brazil, was nevertheless colored by the white supremacy manifest in Brazil’s twentieth-century immigration policies that favored white Europeans. This skewed hybridity was arguably visible in much of the new modernist architecture being produced in Brazil, such as the Ministry of Education building by Lucio Costa which was exhibited in MoMA’s Brazil Builds (1943) as an especially noteworthy sign of Brazil’s constructive prowess and forward outlook. This building in particular served as a monumental reminder of the modern (especially CIAM) architecture’s supposed internationalism but also its irrefutable privileging of European rationalism, integrated with louvers for the torrid sun, tropical Brazilian flora, and Portuguese painted ceramic tile. The architecture of brasilidade was clearly, as del Real notes, just a “‘colored whiteness’—seductive yet well-behaved, divergent yet familiar” (13). These qualities—largely digestible by a US public conditioned by racial norms that condoned segregation and exoticization—was a significant reason for MoMA’s showcasing of Brazil. 

Mexico’s mexicanidad, however, portrayed a slightly different and more complex narrative on the role of race in the modern state that had some potential to critique race relations in the United States. Mexicanidad was likewise an ethos of modernization defined by a racioethnic and socioeconomic integration. Brown skin and the stylized aesthetics and motifs of Indigenous peoples were not only present, but also centered in much of the Mexican art of the mid-twentieth century. Muralism replete with racial diversity, revolt, and the struggle for social revolution and justice, was highlighted in MoMA’s show Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Rivera (1933). Integración Plástica, or the integration of sculpture, mosaic, and murals, with more toned-down narratives of revolution nevertheless saturated by Indigenous figures and mestizo people of color engaged in a story of large-scale nation-state construction, was also included in Latin American Architecture since 1945 (1955) most notably with the inclusion of images of Mexico’s new University City. 

While the exhibition on Rivera, showcasing an art pregnant with the artist’s views on revolutionary nationalism and Indigenous suffering under colonial conquest, could have been a clearer break with an otherwise white-supremacist curatorial agenda, the later exhibit’s inclusion of modernist Mexican architecture with non-white, Indigenous, and other racially hybridized peoples, artistic techniques, and aesthetics was perhaps more in keeping with the continuity of MoMA’s construction of “Latin America.” This Latin America, as noted, undoubtedly privileged polychrome regionality and accepted Indigenous pictorialism so long as its supposed “bombast” was contained by being secondary to and supported by an architectural framework that could be variously defined as “Western” or white European. This indigeneity of the past in these Mexican architectures could only fit the narrative if it played into a palingenetic nationalism that announced the modern day and futurity of the nation in which it was built. This racialized futurism in support of containment and tempered acceptance was not just reflective of the biases of the curatorial leadership of MoMA’s architectural department, however. It was, in truth an echo of the more conservative ideologues that helped construct the notion of mexicanidad—José Vasconcellos’s well known book La Raza Cósmica did not only champion a eugenicist inspired cosmic race of bronze but also openly called for suppression of “Indian” cultural characteristics and the adoption and primacy of European behaviors and ideals.

This book’s most intriguing contribution is to Latin American studies and the discourse of “Latin America.” The author is clear to note how the exhibition was a powerful tool and how the selective curation of aesthetics, forms/spaces, materials, landscapes, and so on within the gallery was actively employed to create distinction—otherness—in both the built environments as well as the people being described. Del Real’s framing of MoMA’s curatorial practice as a way of producing a reductive exoticization of a massive region characterized by easy to pick up on “recognizable formal expression(s)” (5) is a sharp assessment. This is the core of his argument that the museum was a key player in constructing this abstract notion of “Latin America”—and to be clear, he notes that there are multiple “Latin Americas” many of which are not just the product of US territorialization of the physical and psychological qualities of the Western Hemisphere. This argued “construct” of Latin America seems most credible in regard to how MoMA is portrayed largely as an arbiter of style. Style, of course, is a construction of what is deemed elegant, fashionable, ultimately acquirable, and thus inextricable from consumer capitalism, material desire, and status seeking. The author thus takes steps in placing within the readers’ grasp the idea that despite any hope for optimistic cultural exchange conducive to the “Pan-American” imaginary felt in the wake of the “Good Neighbor Policy,” “Latin America” was still cast as something external to “Western” culture. Though external, it nevertheless operated within a market targeting specifically “Western” and most likely elite audiences.  Objects of culture could be purchased, architectural ideas could be appropriated, and of course tourism to the “south of the border” was just a PanAm ticket away.

This text will become a clear point of reference in future works on cultural imperialism, the Latin American imaginary, as well as museum and curatorial studies and criticism. This book leaves many areas underexplored that will hopefully direct future scholarship. With this text centering on one hegemonic institution—and thus creating the risk of giving it more attention than it deserves in the construction of “Latin America,” we should hope to see in the near future a more concentrated and expanded study of travelling foreign architectural and art exhibitions in Latin America; a greater focus on mid-twentieth- century Latin American curatorial practice and the various exhibitions on modern architecture and art produced in that region; and a thorough look at the Pan-American architecture congresses. We might also hope for an expansive work that delves into the numerous architectural journals that proliferated throughout Latin America and which undoubtedly were of greater consequence to their Spanish-speaking audiences in the construction of what “modern Latin America” was to them, and how it was defined by a much broader aggregation of rational/international, nationalist, regionalist, and organic architectural modernities that most of us “north of the border” have little if any exposure to. 

Finally, the conclusion of del Real’s book attempts to address grievances of MoMA’s lengthy history of cultural imperialism with a reflective and critical review of the 2015 MoMA exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980. This monumental exhibit, rich in narrative and abundant in models and archival drawings, was rightly cast as a collaborative effort that brought together historians, curators, and archivists from manifold nations in Latin America. For many of them, the exhibition perhaps became an opportunity to make their voices heard within this hallowed authority on global modernity and thus have some agency in shaping the narrative of this imagined community that we call Latin America. The show also furnished a chance to deconstruct this concept, something that was sometimes done by using reinvigorated national narratives that perhaps foreshadowed the resurgent nationalisms that we now see not only “south of the border” but also globally and within our own borders in these United (?) States. But it was also noted as a grand opportunity for MoMA to hand-pick numerous objects from their places of origin for its already abundant collections. While this book acknowledges this with some handwringing, it ultimately accepts these actions. We, along with the author, could perhaps more actively challenge this. If this book is in fact a sharp and incisive critique on cultural imperialism, ought we to accept this behavior as inevitable and as a common good because it ensures the preservation of the architectural artifact? Or should we, in this day of reparation and restitution, perhaps make more active calls to MoMA and other museums to do more? If MoMA is being cast, however uncomfortably, as a heroic institution that through acquisition is addressing the admittedly real problem of meager budgets and deferred maintenance that exists in many architectural archives still extant in various Latin American nations, why not call on it and other supposedly global institutions to task by demanding they make greater efforts in addressing the problems at their roots? Instead of being extractive, would it not have been more meaningful if this book called for stronger partnerships, generous investments, and a commitment to preserving the integrity of various Latin American architectural archives in their home countries? Could this not help the architectural historians of these countries better articulate their own constructions and deconstructions of “Latin America”?

Albert José-Antonio López
Assistant Professor of Architectural and Planning History, School of Architecture and Planning, University of New Mexico