Navigation – Plan du site
Dossier : South America

Latin America Made in Italy

The Editorial Construction of a Domesticated Modernism
Clelia Pozzi


Depuis la première parution d'un dossier sur le bâtiment du ministère de l'éducation national du Brésil, dans Casabella Costruzioni en 1939, les magazines italiens ont fréquemment effectué des publications sur l'architecture moderne en Amérique latine. À travers l'analyse d'articles parus dans Domus, Casabella Continuità et Architettura : Cronache e Storia pendant les décennies du milieu du XXe siècle, cet essai passe en revue les circonstances de ces orientations éditoriales et révèle la présence de narrations tendancieuses mettant en œuvre une « italianisation » de l'architecture latino-américaine. Cette construction arbitraire met d'un côté en relief les influences sous-jacentes de l'architecture italienne de l'après-guerre, allant de la revendication d'un rôle principal sur la scène internationale au besoin de réconcilier des éléments étrangers de la modernité avec un style vernaculaire enraciné. D'un autre côté, les orientations des magazines italiens trahissent une pensée plus générale, à savoir la préséance des credos politiques et idéologiques des directeurs de publication sur un véritable panorama de l'architecture de l'Amérique latine. En démêlant cette vision tendancieuse, l'article vise à démontrer un acte d'instrumentalisation largement ignoré jusqu'ici. Il réinterprète en même temps la rencontre de l'Italie avec l'hémisphère sud comme un regard sur l'architecture italienne de l'après-guerre plutôt qu'un regard sur son pendant latino-américain.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Prehistory: Italian Relations Overseas

1On 17 December 1930, fourteen hydroplanes Savoia-Marchetti S.55A, commanded by the Fascist general Italo Balbo, set out on a great adventure from Rome to Rio de Janeiro. It was the first formation Atlantic flight, a heroic feat that proved highly symbolic in the history of political relations between Italy and Brazil (fig. 1). The arrival of the Atlantic squadron in the bay of Rio theatrically marked the beginning of a period of intense diplomatic exchanges between the Fascist regime and Getúlio Vargas’s government. Within a few years the relations between the two countries culminated in a phase of massive Italian immigration and a process of political and economic convergence, which allowed the Italian government to assert its influence in Latin America alongside an already dominant German presence. A year after the festive welcoming of Balbo to Rio, the Brazilian journalist Plinio Salgado founded the Ação Integralista Brasileira—a political movement of Fascist inspiration that became a major support to the Vargas government. But Mussolini’s dreams of a Fascist Brazil were soon shattered. At the end of 1937, in the wake of an attempted coup d’état, Vargas disbanded all political parties and establishes a dictatorship. The suppression of Fascist malcontents was harsh, quickly escalating to the point of becoming dangerous for the Italian diplomatic delegations. The Italian ambassador Vincenzo Lojacono was recalled in June 1938—leaving behind the hydroplanes that marked the apogee of the Fascist adventure in Latin America. Soon after, diplomatic relations between Italy and Brazil began to erode, and cultural exchanges withered with them.

Figure 1: Manifesto of the first formation Atlantic flight, Rome (Italy), 1930.

Figure 1: Manifesto of the first formation Atlantic flight, Rome (Italy), 1930.

Source: Umberto di Lazzaro.

  • 1 Bernard Rudoksky, “Cantieri di Rio,” Casabella-Costruzioni, vol. 11, no.136, 1939, p. 12–7.
  • 2 The young designers not named by Rudofsky soon became the most acclaimed and renowned architects in (...)

2So began a seven-year silence that kept Italy in the dark about the development of Brazilian architecture in the early 1940s. Before this happened, however, an article by the Austrian Jewish architect Bernard Rudofsky—who settled temporarily in São Paulo to escape Nazism—was published in Casabella-Costruzioni in April 1939.1 This was the first appearance of the Ministry of Education and the Brazilian Press Association buildings in the pages of a European architectural magazine. Rudofsky’s article gave numbers and figures of a construction spree, hitherto unnoticed in Europe, that testified to the prosperity of Brazil’s modern and experimental architecture. Rudofsky did not reveal the identity of the Brazilian architects—they were too young and humble to look for publicity, he comments—leaving his readers with nothing more than a visual suggestion of and praise for a modern and emancipatory episode.2 Then, in 1942, when diplomatic relations with Italy stopped because of Brazil’s wartime alliance with the United States, communications were cut off too. Cultural exchanges between the two countries were thus left suspended—with twenty-one pages that announced the sudden yet inexorable walk of Brazilian architecture toward modernism.

  • 3 See André Bloc, “Brésil,” L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, n°13–14, 1947; “Architecture of Brazil,” Ar (...)
  • 4 The canonization of Brazilian modernism inaugurated by MoMA’s Brazil Builds was later corroborated (...)

3This article addresses the Italian editorial reception of Latin American architecture, seeking to expose the limited and largely biased attention that Italian journals devoted to this topic in the 1940–1960s. Emblematically, the shadow of a selective look had already adumbrated the rediscovery of Brazilian architecture that followed the resumption of diplomatic and cultural exchanges with Italy in 1946. In those seven years of silence, from 1939 to 1946, Brazilian architecture had made a leap forward that might have gone unnoticed in Italy had American and European magazines not circulated its achievements.3 In fact, it was only after the publication of the 1947 monographic issue on Brazil by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui that the Italian audience became fully aware of the breakthrough of Brazilian modernism and of its consecration by the 1943 MoMA exhibition Brazil Builds.4 In 1948, commenting on the “discovery” of Brazilian architecture accomplished by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Luigi Claudio Olivieri wrote in Domus:

  • 5 Luigi Claudio Olivieri, “Una Nazione Balza in Testa all’Architettura Moderna,” Domus, no.229, 1948, (...)

Before the war—when the cultural exchange was regular—no news had reached us that modern architecture was thriving in Brazil. The names of Lucio Costa, Niemeyer, Alvaro Vital Brazil, the Roberto brothers, and Rino Levi . . . were almost unknown to us.5

4Right next to these words there is a picture of Bernard Rudofsky, but, ironically, Rudofsky’s article and the Italian encounter with Brazilian architecture had by then been forgotten. At first this might appear to be some kind of war amnesia. But a foreword to the article, a short editorial (presumably by Ponti), saluted the birth of Brazilian architecture with these words:

  • 6 Gio Ponti, “Brasile: Da Le Corbusier architetto allo ‘stile Le Corbusier’,” Domus, no.229, 1948, p. (...)

It is a kind of grandiose baptism, with which the new architecture—born in offices and among polemics—has become popular and official. It is a goodbye.6

  • 7 In 1960, on the occasion of the inauguration of Brasilia, the magazine Zodiac published “Rapporto B (...)

5What does that “goodbye” stand for? Is it a goodbye to the canon of the interwar modern movement and a welcoming of its first innovative offspring? This does not seem likely, for the article, following L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, goes on to present Brazilian architecture as a derivative appropriation of Le Corbusier’s work. But if the meaning of that “goodbye” remains elusive, there can be no doubt that this was a goodbye indeed. In fact, this two-page spread—with its account of Le Corbusier’s visits to Brazil, the description of brise-soleil and concrete constructions, and the images, among others, of the Ministry of Education building and the Pampulha Yacht Club—was the only acknowledgement of early Brazilian modern architecture that the Italian press would show until 1960.7 The reason for this hiatus lies largely in the absence, up to the 1970s, of a proper and comprehensive Latin American discourse on modernism, both in Europe and in Latin America itself. More specifically, however, in the case of Italy this hiatus is due to the postwar agendas of its architectural magazines. I want to argue, in fact, that as soon as Italian journals (re)discovered the murky origins of Latin American modernism, this baptism of sorts rapidly morphed into a myth, and, like every myth, it became available to be instrumentalized for national, ideological and political purposes. The story of the Italian editorial account of Latin American architecture is the story of one such instrumentalization. More precisely, it is the story of the crafting of media narratives that sought to perform an “Italianization” of Latin American architecture at the expense of its comprehensive portrayal. A rehearsal of this story then becomes necessary if one wants to understand the motives that prompted this partial look at Latin America and the premature “goodbye” to more inclusive accounts.

The Domestic Eye

  • 8 Philip Goodwin, Brazil Builds: Architecture New and Old 1652–1942, New York: Museum of Modern Art, (...)
  • 9 Giulio Carlo Argan, “Architettura Moderna in Brasile,” Comunità, vol. 8, no.24, 1954, p. 52.

6In the text that accompanied the 1943 exhibition catalogue for Brazil Builds curator Philip Goodwin stressed that Brazil’s modern architecture consists largely of governmental buildings.8 This singularity could hardly have been ignored in Italy. Rudofsky had already raised the issue in his 1939 article, and although his words may have been forgotten, others picked up where he left off. Commenting on the 1954 exhibition Architettura Brasiliana held at the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna in Rome, Giulio Carlo Argan observed that Brazilian architecture “was born by addressing the problem of large organizational centers, and has “descended” to the problems of the house, social housing, and urban planning only in a later moment. Hence domestic projects seem to be deduced in their formal layout from the architecture of the offices.”9 The process that seemed so straightforward to Argan, however, was reversed in the way that Brazilian and Latin American architecture was covered in Italian magazines. In fact, Domus and L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia—the main platforms of discussion on the topic—presented the architecture of Latin America as, first and foremost, a problem of domestic spaces. What is the reason for this inversion? In order to answer this question one needs first to dwell for a moment on the orientations of Italian architecture at the end of the Second World War.

  • 10 The definition of “istituzioni della cultura architettonica” was proposed by Ezio Bonfanti at the e (...)
  • 11 Casabella resumed publication only in 1953, and magazines like Stile, La Città, Urbanistica and A. (...)
  • 12 The American orientation of Metron is a direct consequence of Zevi’s connections with the United St (...)
  • 13 Rogers served as director of Domus from January 1946 to December 1947 only. After this, he was call (...)

7As the war wound down, a devastated Italy was confronted with the problem of reconstruction—understood as both a physical and intellectual effort. The first immediate necessity was to rebuild the houses destroyed by the war. Architects, meanwhile, required interaction with the international cultural circuit. To achieve these goals, figures like Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Bruno Zevi promptly transformed Italian magazines into genuine “institutions of architectural culture”.10 More than just vehicles of dissemination, they became the locus of Italian architecture’s coming into being as a discipline and a line of research as well as a profession. In the immediate postwar years this was true especially of the Milanese Domus and the Roman Metron.11 But if Metron was committed to rejoining Italy to the international—and precisely American—arena of modern architectural thought, it is Domus, with its enduring attention to domesticity, that soon came to play a fundamental role as the didactic and disciplinary centrepiece of the country’s architecture community.12 Under the guidance of Rogers, Domus emerged as the instrument of a radical revision of educated Italian taste, beginning with the most basic instruction, teaching people “how to dwell”.13 Therein is explained the meaning of The House of Man, the subtitle that Rogers appends to the magazine, alongside a series of practice-oriented articles addressing reconstruction problems. In the first postwar issue, for example, we encounter the column “First Aid: 5 proposals for 5 architects,” where different housing solutions are presented for people from various social classes and professions. Hence it is no surprise that, when Brazilian architecture makes its reappearance in Italian magazines via Domus, it does so in terms of a typological study of the “house for an architect”.

  • 14 Carlo Pagani, “Due Ville in Brasile,” Domus: La Casa dell’Uomo, no.222, 1947, p. 67.
  • 15 “Levi and Brazil, both Brazilian, belong to the surprising group of architects who have made of the (...)

8This is the case with two houses by Rino Levi and Alvaro Vital Brazil presented in the September 1947 issue. To Carlo Pagani, the author of the article, these amount to nothing more than the opportunity to study “architects building their own houses”.14 And, indeed, only a passing reference is made to their location.15 The singularity of this position can be measured by comparing the Domus article with the monographic issue on Brazil published by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui in the very same month. Where Domus’s presentation is specific and limited to considerations of the plans of the two houses, the French one focused on construction details, and encompassed the whole spectrum of Brazilian architecture. What this otherwise inexplicable opposition reveals is the emergence of a distinctly Italian position within the architectural debate around Latin America: the tendency on the part of its architectural press to equate Italian and Latin American architecture. One first explanation for this tendency may be found in the intense building activity that characterized both countries in the postwar years. Consider Lina Bo Bardi’s words:

There is shortage of houses, shortage of everything.

  • 16 Lina Bo Bardi, “Lettera dal Brasile,” L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia, no.9, 1956, p. 186.

We must act quickly. Build! Then we will see what happens.16

9It is a formulation that would easily apply to both Milan and Rio de Janeiro. Whether prompted by the war or by the demographic boom, Italy’s and Brazil’s impulses towards architecture proceeded from the same fact: the urgent need for housing. As long as the proposed solutions were transferable, their provenance was of little importance. To be sure, geographical specificity was not dismissed altogether: it mattered to the extent that it determined architecture’s objective conditions, the position of openings, the slant of the roof and so forth. And yet, in the interpretation of these conditions there was space for manoeuvring that allowed the concealment, and even the elimination, of distances and differences.

  • 17 Luigi Carlo Olivieri, “Casa a San Paolo,” Domus, no.232, 1949, p. 6.
  • 18 Lisa Ponti, “Le Più Desiderabili Ville al Mondo,” Domus, no.234, 1949, p. 7.

10This is exactly what was in place when Ponti resumed the editorship of Domus in 1948. Twenty of the twenty-five articles that the journal dedicated to Brazil over a ten-year period dealt with domestic spaces. But it is not just quantity that matters here. That this orientation is not simply dictated by the magazine’s focus on domesticity becomes apparent when one considers the subtext of these articles, for example those published in the first five years. The first article of the series deploys a number of architectural elements and tropes that set the tone for all the others: the patio, the porch, the rhythmic structure, the earthly architecture, the quiet atmosphere, the subtle taste for colours and materials, the Latin sensibility as an antidote to an “otherwise absent Brazilian physiognomy”.17 What is offered here is not a portrait of Brazilian architecture; it is a meditation on the Mediterranean house (fig. 2). Or conversely, as Lisa Ponti puts it, these are Mediterranean houses that “do not impose anything foreign upon Brazil”.18 In other words, they are Brazilian in so far as they are Mediterranean. Even the brise-soleil—the most Brazilian feature of all, the one that appeared to embody the entire national style—cannot escape this logic. If the concrete brise-soleil is conventionally recognized as a Brazilian re-elaboration on a Corbusian model, the example offered here is far from the canonical characterization of the device. These brise-soleil are made of stone—hence ascribable to a Mediterranean sensibility (fig. 3).

Figure 2: Patio house “Villa Cremisini” in São Paulo, Daniele Calabi (arch.).

Figure 2: Patio house “Villa Cremisini” in São Paulo, Daniele Calabi (arch.).

Source: Domus, no.232, January 1949. Venice (Italy), Università Iuav di Venezia, Archivio Progetti.

Figure 3: Patio house “Villa Padiglione Medici” in São Paulo. Detail of the stone brise-soleil, Daniele Calabi (arch.).

Figure 3: Patio house “Villa Padiglione Medici” in São Paulo. Detail of the stone brise-soleil, Daniele Calabi (arch.).

Source: Domus, no.233, February 1949. Venice (Italy), Università Iuav di Venezia, Archivio Progetti.

  • 19 In this regard, it is interesting to note that the only article dedicated to the use of the brise-s (...)

11One way to read this surprising substitution would be to inscribe the Brazil articles within the research on the Pompeian house conducted by Gio Ponti and Domus since the early 1930s. Resting on the intuition that the analogy of climatic conditions could reverberate into an analogy of architectural typologies, one could suggest that the Mediterranean house here serves as a proxy to advance an alternative discourse about Latin American architecture. To be sure, in Ponti’s poetics the spatial qualities of the Mediterranean house represent a break from the formalism of bourgeois domestic models. For us, one such rupture could mean the identification of an “other modernity” for Brazil, one that is rooted in the spontaneity of construction rather than in concrete and technology.19 And indeed, by 1952 one could have been led to believe that Brazilian architecture was quite different from the aerial skyscrapers and the technological devices depicted by Rudofsky, Brazil Builds, or L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. For Domus it was, above all, about the production of earthly and elegant houses, and not necessarily “modern” in a “modernist” sense.

  • 20 Although “foreigners,” Rino Levi, Bernard Rudofsky and Gregori Warchavchik had profound connections (...)

12But there is more. The articles insist on the direct Italian paternity of this architecture. And, indeed, most of the Latin American projects presented in Domus in these years were designed by Italian architects or by architects educated in Italy. Hence we encounter two houses by Bernard Rudofsky, four villas by Daniele Calabi, six projects by Rino Levi—some of which are published more than once—two houses by Gregori Warchavchik, an apartment house by Giancarlo Palanti, and a villa by Lina Bo Bardi.20 And when the work of non-Italian architects is published, it is described in terms that refer it back to Italy. Here is Olivieri, commenting on two villas in Chile by Valdes, Castillo and Huidobro:

  • 21 Luigi Carlo Olivieri, “Due Case Cilene,” Domus, no.233, 1949, p. 12.

in the field of architecture, certain distributive, morphological and aesthetic characters are valid in Chile as they are in Italy. These two Chilean houses testify to this phenomenon: here we find materials, colors, furniture, and cultural reminiscences that belong to our own traditional—and maybe even outmoded— experiences.21

13In other words, the architectural validity of these houses is inferred from their compliance with characteristics that Olivieri considered properly Italian. Meanwhile, figures whose career cannot be traced back to Italy, such as Reidy and Niemeyer, are mentioned only once in a five-year period. This is hardly a coincidence, and one cannot help but think that Rudofsky’s omission of their names in 1939 was, after all, prophetic.

14But what makes this penchant all the more intriguing is the fact that it does not seem to be confined to Domus—nor to Brazil, for that matter. Indeed, an analogous strategy seems to be in place in Metron. Here, for example, a 1948 article on the São Paulo Museum of Art emphatically praises the work of the critic Pietro Maria Bardi and his wife and architect Lina Bo, presenting them as a means to the maturity of Brazilian architecture:

  • 22 Lina Bo Bardi, “Sistemazione di un Museo in Brasile,” Metron, no.30, 1948, p. 35.

The insertion of the Bardi–Bo factor in the Brazilian culture cannot but be positive. Bardi will contribute a historical substratum, together with a moral and intellectual impulse; Lina Bo will add an element of precision, of exactitude, of poétique mathématique, without which rationalism cannot vibrate. The naïve enthusiasm and simplicity of the Brazilian neophytes will yield . . . to more mature experiences. And the Italian culture—through its architects and art critics—will then have more profound and fertile effects.22

  • 23 More recently, the same controversy has been reopened after the publication of the volume Brazil Bu (...)

15The cultural significance of these articles, with their arbitrary Italianization of Brazilian architecture, lies in part in the fact that they read, metaphorically speaking, like a coda of the Fascist adventures. It is as if Domus and the other magazines were trying to pick up where Balbo’s hydroplanes left off, only this time, the conquest is executed in terms of lifestyle and taste. That is, by projecting an Italian approach to architecture outwards, the magazines seem to be performing an operation that exceeds mere cultural promotion: they claim a leading role for Italy internationally in the postwar development of the discipline. To pass off an Italian sensibility as Brazilian, then, reads as nothing less than an attempt at appropriating Brazilian architecture. To be sure, this attempt is facilitated by Brazil’s elusive status on the postwar scene. Controversies about its originality in the face of the Corbusian derivation of its modern architecture abound in the literature of the time, ultimately undermining the possibility of a national style developed autonomously of imported models.23 One such negation of self-sufficiency makes claims to the ideological paternity of Brazilian architecture all the more plausible. And in this respect, the conspicuous presence of Italian architects in Rio and São Paulo even before the war may have provided supporting evidence for the Italian cause.

16Yet another scenario must also be taken into consideration, though. If the insistence on the Italianization of Brazil is an arbitrary manipulation, it stands opposed to the broad understanding of Brazilian architecture as the epitome of modernism. How could the Italian audience have reacted to such a blatant exhibition of modernity? What could they have read in this phenomenon as compared to Brazil’s longstanding “backwardness”? To be sure, Italian architecture too was trying to reconcile its “backwardness” and vernacular tradition with the modernism associated with Le Corbusier and European rationalism. And yet, modern architecture had not known a similar success there. Therefore, how could Italian architects understand Brazilian modernism if their paths had so diverged? One way to cope with this divergence would be to emphasize familiar features within the foreign other in an attempt at domesticating it to make it intelligible to Italian eyes. Hence the insistence on domestic spaces and the Mediterranean sensibility: they represent the means through which Brazilian modernism could be comprehended and reconciled with Italian architecture.

  • 24 Enrico Tedeschi, “Un Italiano sulle Ande,” L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia, vol. 3, no.17, 1957, (...)

17This line of reasoning would also explain the editorial strategy adopted by L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia towards Latin American architecture. It no longer surprises us, in fact, that the introduction to Argentinian architecture is eased by five villas by the former director of Metron Enrico Tedeschi, who immigrated to Argentina in 1948.24 And the hypothesis holds also for Venezuela, although the process here is reversed. After portraying Caracas’s modern eclecticism in two photographic essays, the magazine retreats into a more mature and familiar project: a hotel in Barinas, here presented paired with the Hilton hotel in Rome. Moreover, the full significance of this act of “domestication” becomes clear in the accompanying text. It is by Paolo Gasparini, an Italian photographer and critic close to Bruno Zevi, who would become the photographer par excellence of modern architecture in Venezuela and Brazil. Commenting on the exceptionality of this work in the panorama of Venezuelan architecture, he claimed:

  • 25 Paolo Gasparini, “Come poteva essere l’Hilton a Monte Mario: Complesso alberghiero a Barinas nel Ve (...)

In Venezuela the modern movement develops its maturity by confronting tradition—a term, this, that should not be understood in a formalistic sense, but in an environmental and human one. It is not by chance, then, that we have chosen an Italian magazine to present this project in Europe. In the past few years the Italian research in architecture has been progressing along the very line of an environmental qualification of modern forms. This is why the Italians can appreciate the spirit of this project.25

18There is an almost paternalistic point of view embedded in the editorial choice of Italian magazines that approximates a kind of censorship: Italians could understand only that which was already familiar. Whether more or less intense, this attitude precludes the acknowledgement of Latin America’s otherness for what it is. Or, twisting the claim even tighter, one could interpret this as the invention of a mythology of Latin America that ultimately serves as a self-portrait of Italy. The focus on domestic spaces, the penchant for Mediterranean materials, the compromise between vernacular and modern—all these belong to a reflection on the foundations of postwar Italian architecture, rather than on Latin American architecture one. But this should not surprise us. For if we accept the role of architectural magazines as Italian cultural institutions, what we witness here is nothing less than what is required of them: the production of a national architectural discourse and its institutionalization.

Instruments of Self-Promotion

19Beyond the institutionalization of national poetics and practices, however, there is a second impulse that marks Italian accounts of contemporary Latin American architecture. Beginning in the 1950s, a tendency becomes apparent that betrays the priority that the professional goals and political–ideological credos of the magazines’ directors had over a comprehensive overview of Latin American architecture. Although detectable in different magazines—notably Domus, Casabella-Continuità and L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia—the phenomenon is most evident in Domus. Here, at the end of 1952, a reconsideration of the editorial effort becomes perceptible. While the articles published before that date focus almost exclusively on Brazilian domestic spaces, from 1953 onwards other projects and figures start to appear, and progressively shift the focus of the magazine towards Venezuela.

20While the quality of Venezuelan architecture deservedly called for journalistic attention, what prompted this reorientation was the encounter between Gio Ponti and Armando and Anala Planchart, a rich Venezuelan couple who, at the beginning of 1953, flew to Milan to meet Ponti and entrust him with the design of their house in Caracas. Ponti enthusiastically accepted the commission for what became one of his most successful projects, the Villa Planchart. But this project not only marked one of the highest points in Ponti’s professional career; it also launched a rediscovery of Latin America that was promptly reflected in Domus. As if to prophesy the beginning of the new adventure, an advertisement for the “Italia” navigation company ran in the pages of Domus for a year, in 1951–2 (fig. 4). The image shows four transatlantic liners—whose interiors had been redesigned by Ponti himself—directed towards North and South America, as if they were ready to conquer the continent. And, indeed, what this image announces is the beginning of Ponti’s personal conquest of Latin America.

Figure 4: Advertisement for the “Italia” Navigation Company.

Figure 4: Advertisement for the “Italia” Navigation Company.

Source: Domus, no.256, March 1951.

  • 26 Consider, for example, the articles: Gio Ponti, “Illusività dell’architettura,” Domus, nos.276–7, 1 (...)
  • 27 Gio Ponti, “Idea per la casa del dottor T. a San Paolo,” Domus, no.283, 1953, p. 8–11.

21From the end of 1952 Ponti himself wrote all the articles that dealt with Latin American architecture. This is a matter of no little importance, for Ponti had written none of the previous articles on Brazil. Moreover, throughout 1953 each issue of Domus featured two articles on Latin America, one dedicated to a local architect, and one directly related to Ponti and his Latin American projects. So began Ponti’s dialogue with the Niemeyer of the Clube dos Qunihentos’s gas station, the Barragan of the Pedregal’s gardens, and the sculpted use of light in Brazilian skyscrapers.26 These articles read as an attempt, on Ponti’s part, to equate his architecture with its Latin American counterpart. It is as if Domus’s task was to establish a deep consonance that could justify Ponti’s professional claims in the Southern Cone. And sometimes Ponti’s articles go even beyond that and vindicate his superior mastery of the very themes identified as typical of Latin America. This is the case, for example, with the article “Idea for the House of Doctor T. in São Paulo,” where Ponti criticizes and “corrects” Levi’s, Artigas’s and Verona’s experiments with patios houses.27

  • 28 Gio Ponti, “Coraggio del Venezuela,” Domus, no.295, 1954, p. 1–7.
  • 29 Gio Ponti, “Idea per Caracas,” Domus, no.295, 1954, p. 8–13.

22But the subjugation of Domus to its director’s personal agenda becomes fully visible only after January 1954, when Ponti’s journey to Caracas prompted a number of articles that switched the magazine’s focus in Latin America away from Brazil and exclusively towards Venezuela. The first article of the series, “The Courage of Venezuela,” reads as an extended panegyric of the country, which at the time was thriving on enormous oil wealth. Venezuela is described as the “haven of courageous fantasies”; its architectures are “brave mirrors of a beautiful, harmonic, measured, elegant and weightless imagination”; its government is characterized by stable peace, an “exceptional, unique, immense treasure” that cannot be found in many world powers.28 Such profusion of laudatory comments serves as a prelude for Ponti’s “Idea for Caracas,” a provocative proposal of entrusting international—even better, Italian—architects with the design of significant project for the city.29 But what this homage ultimately leads up to is the publication of Ponti’s own project for Villa Planchart in 1955 (fig. 5). All the research published in Domus in the previous two years is conflated here. Ponti confesses:

This building is the offspring of my architectural experiences following my trips to Latin America. Some of the minor and very fine works of Niemeyer started a chain of refection, and by contrast the Pedregal gardens by Luis Barragan at Mexico City played just as important a role in my thinking.

  • 30 Gio Ponti, “Il modello della villa Planchart in costruzione a Caracas,” Domus, no.303, 1955, p. 8.

This building is, on the other side, connected to a series of research schemes that started with the project for the Institute of Nuclear Physics for the University of São Paulo, and developed into the studies for the Italian-Swedish Institute for the Lerici Foundation in Stockholm, and then for the Garzanti Center in Forlì . . .30

Figure 5: Gio Ponti, “Il Modello della Villa Planchart in Costruzione a Caracas”.

Figure 5: Gio Ponti, “Il Modello della Villa Planchart in Costruzione a Caracas”.

Source: Domus, no.303, February 1955.

  • 31 Brasilia will be documented only through a photographic reportage published much later, in 1966. Se (...)

23It is as if all Ponti’s articles could now be put in perspective, as if they had all been preparing the ground for his grand finale, the house that sanctions his successful conquest of Latin America. And, indeed, after the publication of Villa Planchart little more is left to say. Two more articles, dedicated to his Villa Arreaza in Caracas and to an anthology of Venezuelan projects, brought Ponti’s and Domus’s adventures in Latin America to an end in 1956. The identification of man and magazine was so pervasive that much about Latin American modern architecture has been missed in the process of validating its editor—not a single mention is made, for example, of Argentinian architecture—and not even a glamorous project like the foundation of Brasilia would revive Domus’s interest in Latin America.31

  • 32 Casabella’s attitude towards Brasilia seems to be wilfully dismissive. In March 1958 Anna Rosa Cott (...)

24A similar situation occurred at Casabella-Continuità, where Brasilia and Brazilian architecture in its entirety faded into the background, obscured by the interests of the editorial staff.32 In this case the favoured country was Argentina, a place to which the readers were introduced in a 1956 article by Marco Zanuso on the “vernacular prefabrication” of the Boca and the Dock Sud houses in Buenos Aires. Just like Ponti, Zanuso here writes as if he were preparing the ground for his own experiments with prefabrication in Latin America, to the point that his comments on the Argentinian houses sound like a challenge and a statement of future intents:

  • 33 Marco Zanuso, “Prefabbricazione popolaresca,” Casabella-Continuità, no.213, 1956, p. 57.

These houses hold in themselves the problems that the contemporary building industry tries to face, but cannot solve yet, the problems that architects have acknowledged for over fifty years now, but have not brought to maturity yet: industrialization, standardization, uniformity, prefabrication.33

  • 34 Roberto Guiducci, “Appunti sulla fabbrica di São Paulo in Brasile dell'arch. Marco Zanuso,” Casabel (...)

25A year later, Zanuso indeed offered his answer to the problems he identified in Argentina. Two articles on his Olivetti factories in São Paulo and Buenos Aires show examples of modular standardization that implicitly identify the Argentinian houses as a vernacular precedent for industrial prefabrication.34 But if the parabola of Zanuso’s interest in Argentina resembles that of Ponti, it is only thanks to Ernesto Nathan Rogers that Casabella’s penchant for Argentina became fully apparent. In March 1964 he published a monographic issue on architecture in Argentina. This was the only special issue dedicated by an Italian magazine to a Latin American country. The reason for this interest lay in Rogers’s direct relationship with the country, marked first by his teaching appointment at the University of Tucumán in 1948, and later by his participation as consultant on the master plan for Buenos Aires. Yet it is not simply gratitude that animates Rogers’s interest in Argentina. This “ambiguous and fascinating country”, as he calls it, is the source of conflicting feelings, which taint Rogers’s editorial with a veil of critical nostalgia for what should have been done and what still had not been done, politically and architecturally. He reminisced about his year in Argentina:

  • 35 Ernesto Nathan Rogers, “Note sull’Argentina,” Casabella-Continuità, no.285, 1964, p. 3.

There, too, there were quite a number of good architects, though they were not quite so committed to the ideological struggle. In fact, they were making the same mistake about Fascism as most Italian architects made during the rationalist period, deluded as they were that they needed only to renew the forms of composition to give a revolutionary thrust to the country; but the moral rot went much deeper that they suspected.35

26Moreover, describing the mañana attitude rooted in the country—an endemic habit of putting off decisions that for Rogers translates into the resigned quality of modern Argentinian architecture—Aldo Rossi sustained Rogers’s critique:

  • 36 Aldo Rossi, “Argentina, Buenos Aires,” Casabella-Continuità, no.285, 1964, p. 5.

Le Corbusier’s 1936 plan for Buenos Aires sums up in architectonic terms what I have said . . . Many younger man drew from this project . . . but it looks as if European architecture had not in the least been transformed, as if it had been reproduced here in parts, in a city whose elements were imported from other Latin countries . . . The heavy lines drawn by Le Corbusier on the regular pattern of the Spanish “cuadras” are very much in evidence, and it hardly seems likely that any other alternative will spring up from the life of the city. Thus the architecture of rationalism, an extraordinary representative of which is Bonet, in no way differentiates itself from the European experiences and almost suggests a crystallized European landscape.36

27In light of these comments, the whole issue assumes the bitter tone of an ideological complaint. This is not an account of the status of modern architecture in Argentina. This is Rogers lamenting a country’s inability to be truly modern, to pursue continuità—that is, to move past the tradition of the modern movement while proceeding from its very history to investigate the present. The notion of continuità is perhaps the most original contribution that Rogers made to postwar Italian theory. And to see it fail in a country where he had taught probably means nothing less than a personal defeat.

  • 37 Bruno Zevi, Storia dell’architettura moderna, Turin: Einaudi, 1975, p. XIV. Latin American architec (...)

28But if Rogers’s polarization of Casabella around his ideological credo never transcended the tone of bitter disappointment, the same cannot be claimed for L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia. This is the platform from which Bruno Zevi launched a series of vehement personal attacks, including a famous one on Brasilia. To be sure, the “rhythmic oscillation between avant-gardist outbursts and sudden regressions” made Latin American architecture unsuitable for canonization in Zevi’s History of Modern Architecture.37 Conversely, the magazine represented a better format to register his instinctive elaboration on contemporary figures and events. For this reason, we cannot help but wonder what lay behind Zevi’s impetuous indignation at Brasilia. What urged him to blast a project that other critics, such as Reyner Banham, revered?

  • 38 Bruno Zevi, “Inchiesta su Brasilia: Sei ? sulla nuova capitale sudamericana,” L’Architettura: Crona (...)

29In an early but often-repeated explication of Brasilia’s shortcomings written in 1960, Zevi constructs an image of a monumental, rhetorical and capricious city, declaring its deadly atmosphere to be the product of a political decision that dangerously recalls Mussolini’s Fascism—the frequent analogy between Brasilia and the EUR is not accidental (figs 6 and7).38

Figure 6: Brasilia (Brasil) under construction.

Figure 6: Brasilia (Brasil) under construction.

Source: L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia, no.51, January 1960. Copyright Agenor.

Figure 7: Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana under contruction, Rome (Italy), EUR, 1938.

Figure 7: Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana under contruction, Rome (Italy), EUR, 1938.

Source: Rome (Italy), Archivio storico fotografico EUR.

30If symmetry, colonnades and monumental scale are everywhere the language of repression and cruelty, chances are high that Brasilia could evolve into yet another anti-democratic experience. And for Zevi, deeply affected by the events of the Fascist era, this is not a chance that one can pass over in silence. So began his prolonged series of partisan attacks. First, we find proof of a privileged understanding of the situation:

  • 39 Bruno Zevi, “Brasilia: Le forme denunciano i contenuti tremendi,” L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia (...)

Going against the grain, going against the international rhetoric that magnified Brasilia, we have criticized its program, its master plan and its architecture. We have defined it a Kafkian city, showing how its construction would have fatally resulted in an anti-democratic product, because its very existence implied the endorsement of a fascist-like law against internal immigration, and of a police state to endorse it. The recent events have confirmed our fears.39

31Along the way, alternatives are deconstructed as unbelievable:

  • 40 Bruno Zevi, “In difesa di Brasilia,” L’Architettura: Cronache e Storia, vol. 10, no.109, 1964, p. X (...)

The architect Lina Bo, in a letter from São Paolo, criticizes our statements about the new capital: that it is a rhetorical and Kafkian city, anti-democratic because of its very pattern. Lina Bo’s criticism fails to convince us, and the diagnosis published in the issue 51 of this magazine has been eloquently confirmed by the most recent events.40

32Moreover, to certify the rightness of Zevi against the wrongness of others, we find signs of his correct moral position, which eventually evolves into the alliance with oppressed groups:

  • 41 Ibid.

Young people are wrong in believing in the myth of Brasilia. But if it comes to fighting generals, we are ready even to defend Brasilia.41

  • 42 Bruno Zevi, “Inchiesta su Brasilia,” op. cit. (note 38), p. 608.

33While the intensity of expression is a constant of Zevi’s writing style, the tone of his invectives against Brasilia suggests that this is first and foremost a political reaction. It derives from a reluctance to accept the disintegration of the democratic ideals in architecture—especially when the shadow of Fascism is revived by a passionate Communist like Niemeyer. The anti-Fascisim of Zevi’s youth thus reappears in a kind of renewed activism, as if the vehemence and the frequency of the protest could ward off the historical involution. Yet Brasilia is a reality, and in the face of the lost battle, once again, the magazine allows Zevi to claim that “we too, while engaged in this criticism, feel responsible for Brasilia’s flaws’.42

34As one historicizes the editorial choices of Zevi, Rogers and Ponti, a paradoxical realization becomes apparent: in the Italian criticism of Latin American architecture of the mid-twentieth century, Latin America seems to be the great absent. The Italian lens through which it has been observed is instead very well present. Indeed, what do Zevi’s condemnation of Brasilia as “Fascist” on the one hand, and its eclipse from architectural press, on the other, tell us, if not Italy’s inability to come to terms with its recent political ghosts? What does Rogers’s disappointment with the Argentinian mañana attitude illuminate, if not the project of continuità for which postwar Italian architecture has come to be known? And is not Ponti’s being hired by Venezuelan patrons the first instance of the exportation of the sophisticated Milanese design and architecture abroad? The Italian editorial account of the Latin American contribution to modern architecture unfolds as a form self-reflection, an auto-referential project where the object of criticism is obliterated to let the critical voice of the observer emerge. If all history writing is tendentious, then, to a certain extent, any account of Latin American architecture is destined to be distorted by the voice of those from elsewhere who write it. But if sufficient critical distance can afford insight into the gaps and prejudices that affect the mediatization of architecture, now is the time for an inquiry into the reception of Latin American architecture—and not only in Italian magazines. Perhaps this will help recuperaditorial lang="en cpsof Zevas teSawssrity to come to terms with its recent polittrong>go-top

Paulo a-div>">Hf chosng="eeditillust