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Latin temperament

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Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America 1930-60 By Valerie Fraser. Verso, 2000. 280pp. £17

'Architecture or Revolution' proclaimed Le Corbusier, but in Latin America there was often both. Le Corbusier was writing in about 1920, no doubt with the recent European Marxist revolutions in mind, but in Latin America revolutions could be followed by a spurt of architectural activity to establish the credentials of the new regime (as in Mexico), or else they followed - and may in part have been prompted by - such activity (as in Brazil).

Nevertheless, Le Corbusier was arguably the key figure in the mid-20th century architectural culture of the continent, and the time-span for this book might have been set between his first visit to South America in 1929 and his final visit in 1962. In the intervening years, the towering figure of Oscar Niemeyer, the pupil who in many ways outstripped his master, created his most influential and individual works.

Latin American architecture had from the first continued with enthusiasm the flamboyant, even hysterical, decorative tendencies endemic in the Iberian peninsula, and where, for example, the Jesuits actively sought to embrace the native Indian populations and culture, their decorative traditions were added to the mix. The sheer exuberance of the vegetation set a standard it was hard to emulate.

Faced with a wave of rationalist thought under the impulse of the Modern Movement, Latin American architects had a problem of assimilation. They answered it, powerfully and expressively but without losing touch with rationalist theory, in Mexico through the work of the muralists and in Brazil through a voluptuous language of curvilinear form.

The latter may have owed something to European Surrealism but its accent is entirely Latin American, and Niemeyer's achievement in making his synthesis at Brasilia is comparable to Lutyens' assimilation of Moghul architecture at New Delhi.

It was too much, however, for purists such as Sigfried Giedion and Max Bill, and even for Kenneth Frampton, to whose collective condemnation Valerie Fraser attributes the subsequent eclipse of Latin American architecture in world attention.

The more recent resurgence of that influence via the domestic work of Luis Barragan - inspired by the naive simplicity of provincial colonial work and the hot colour of the skies - is outside the scope of this book devoted to architecture as an instrument of public policy.

Valerie Fraser is reader in art history and Latin American studies at Essex University, and she has written a readable and lively account, focusing on just three Latin American countries - Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil - whose governments, 'despite their very different political standpoints, embraced the new architecture as an efficient means of promoting an image of a progressive nation-state'.

Also, as she frankly admits, the book would not have been ready in time for the research assessment exercise in 2000 if its scope had been wider! So there is nothing about Argentina or Uruguay, for example, two countries with significant architectural output in the period.

For a book linking architecture to politics in this way, more information about the politics would have been useful, particularly for an architectural readership.

The Mexican revolution is referred to, but neither its date nor its political colour are described, and we are told very little about the Brazilian president/dictator Getulio Vargas (patron of the famous Ministry of Education in Rio of 1936), or about the Venezuelan dictator Perez Jimenez, patron of Carlos Villanueva's University of Caracas of 1950-54 (a World Heritage Site) and of the huge re-housing schemes outside Caracas.

However, Fraser is well versed in Modern Movement architectural theory, and comments pithily on its application and interpretation in a Latin American context.

Her account of the career of Juan O'Gorman, the progenitor of hard-edge functionalist architecture in Mexico, whose first clients (for separate but adjacent houses) were the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and who subsequently devoted most of his attention to the design and execution of the massive mosaic murals on the blank external walls of Mexico University Library, is particularly interesting.

With personalities likely to become more prominent in British local government, we may yet find that our own architecture and politics become more entwined.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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