Kathryn O’Rourke, Trinity University
Alberto Arai’s History and Theory of Mexican Architecture
Alberto Arai’s best-known contribution to Mexican architecture was the group of handball courts he designed for the new campus of Mexico’s National University in Mexico City in 1952. Set in the stark, rocky landscape of the Pedregal, Arai’s three-sided, open-air courts with inclined walls clad in volcanic stone evoked pre-conquest architecture and embodied Mexican architects’ renewed fascination with ancient Mesoamerican forms at midcentury. Less familiar, however, is the dense and highly theoretical essay, “Paths Toward a Mexican Architecture,” that Arai published the same year. Explaining the need for a distinctive national architecture, Arai explored the historical and material reasons Mexico lacked one and, in suggesting that overcoming these obstacles was fundamentally a psychological matter, offered an examination of subjectivity unprecedented in Mexican architectural theory. This paper examines Arai’s ground breaking essay and positions it in relation to long-standing debates about the modern uses of Mexican architectural history, the perceived failures of “functionalist” architecture at midcentury, and developments in Mexican painting in the 1940s.
Patricio del Real, Museum of Modern Art
My Home, mi casa: Phillip and Diego at MoMA
At the time of the publication of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s The International Style: architecture since 1922, mural painting was celebrated as the “art of our times.” At the center of this modern art form were the Mexican muralists, who had popularized it while, at the same time, keeping it firmly within the aesthetic and cultural values of the avant-garde. This presentation analyzes the strategies of incorporating Mexican muralism into modern architecture in Philip Johnson’s fist Architecture Room at The Museum of Modern Art. This little-known exhibition—eclipsed by the Rockefeller Center mural controversy—was part of MoMA’s repeated engagement with Diego Rivera’s work, and with Mexican art and culture that had taken New York by storm since the mid 1920s. With the Architecture Room, the Museum attempted to bring the practice of fresco painting into the private modern interior. Johnson’s room shows the marriage of Mexican muralism and the modern functionalist interior. It exemplifies the adaptability of a nascent International Style, and the ability of its cultural agents to incorporate parallel aesthetic visions of a modern style.
Helen Gyger, Pratt Institute
Revolutions in Self-Help: Peru, 1968–1986
Within months of seizing control in October 1968, the Peruvian Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces undertook to reverse longstanding attitudes towards urban squatter settlements, beginning with legislation that renamed the “barriadas” (a term now deemed derogatory) as “pueblos jóvenes” (young towns, or young communities). Neither capitalist nor communist, Peru’s “humanist revolution” promised a new society based on the values of “full participation” and social mobilization. The cooperative ethos of squatter settlements, evident in the shared labour of communal construction projects, became a privileged image: framed by slogans such as “Popular Revolutionary Work: Popular Participation is Revolution,” it offered an alternative model of development, based on the values of self-help and mutual support.
As this brief period of revolutionary experimentation was followed by the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1980s, this did not mark the disappearance of support for self-help housing, but rather its reframing. The extreme malleability of self-help in theoretical and ideological terms is demonstrated by the contrasting values and significance attributed to it in two key texts published a decade apart, both of which were rooted in the Peruvian context but had an impact internationally: John F. C. Turner’s anarchist-inflected Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments (1976), and Hernando de Soto’s neoliberal manifesto El otro sendero (1986; translated as The Other Path, 1989). While Turner’s theoretical framing of self-help housing—strongly influenced by his experiences as an architect of self-help projects in Peru in the 1950s and 1960s—was focused on community building and community development, de Soto framed self-help housing as a model of entrepreneurship and grass-roots capitalism. This latter formulation soon prevailed, and the rippling influence of de Soto’s arguments on international development agencies—such as the United Nations and the World Bank—shifted their focus from the provision of shelter, infrastructure, or community development programs to facilitating the formalization of property titles in squatter settlements.
This paper will explore how the self-help housing model is pushed to its limits under contrasting political and economic systems, and how these shifts in the formulations of self-help have had an impact on discussions of housing policy up to the present day.
Luis M. Castañeda, Syracuse University
Prefabricated Futures: Education, Politics and Modern Architecture in Mexico, 1940-1960
My paper stems from Architect-Bureaucrats: Architecture and State Power in Latin America, a book currently in preparation that provides a revisionist analysis of the presumed “golden age” of modernism in Latin America through three case studies of the relationship between architecture and politics in Mexico, Peru and Brazil. Its central claim is that the active participation of architects and designers in state politics was one of the primary factors that propelled this panorama of heightened architectural production. My paper presents part of one of these case studies. It examines Pedro Ramírez Vázquez’s involvement with Mexican cultural politics through his production of an understudied system of prefabricated schools between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. Eventually implemented throughout Mexico, Ramírez Vázquez’s portable, lightweight system was also exported to numerous developing countries around the world. This paper argues that the international dissemination of this system positioned radical efforts to reinvent the form and function of public education, a major concern in Mexico after its revolution (1910-1920), as part of a transnational context of no less politically charged efforts.