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Dossier : South America


Kathleen James-Chakraborty

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1Most of the scholarship in English and French on the contributions of European architects to the built environment of the rest of the world focuses upon colonial and post-colonial architecture or on recent developments, in which architecture has become a global commodity, with the brand names of European architects used to enhance the prestige of commercial and civic projects alike in other corners of the globe. Furthermore most of the architectural historians who have contributed to this burgeoning area of research have presumed that Europe and the United States provided the template for what was modern about architecture in the rest of the world. The four essays gathered together here remind us of the limits of such assumptions. Three authors convincingly demonstrate the importance of South American precedents to mid-twentieth century European architectural practice, while the fourth demonstrates the importance of exiles to a Brazilian architectural context in which modernism’s indigenous roots have been too often mythologized.

2There are a number of reasons why the paradigms developed to discuss the relationship of European architecture to that of Asia and Africa are inadequate for South America. One is who the imperial powers were and when they left. Britain and France played a relatively small role, colonizing only Guyana, independent since 1966, and the overseas French department of Guiana. Moreover, both of these, like the former Dutch colony of Suriname, which is sandwiched between them, have populations of well under a million people. More than 99% of the continent’s inhabitants live in countries that were once ruled by Spain or Portugal but have been independent since the end of the 1820s. This was before France moved into North Africa, much less Indochina, or Britain had consolidated its rule over much of northwest and northeastern India, and before either had penetrated the African interior.

3Another important difference is that, although many South American countries have large indigenous populations, all attracted large numbers of emigrants before independence and many continued to do so well into the twentieth century. These provided continuous infusions of information about architecture in other parts of the world, with Paris increasingly replacing Spanish and Portuguese cities across the course of the nineteenth century as the most influential model, even as large infusions of British and German capital helped shape cities and countryside alike, especially in Argentina, but also Brazil and Chile.

4Finally, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, South America was the location of several of the world’s most modern and prosperous cities. By the second decade of the century both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro boasted populations that crossed the million mark; Montevideo and Sao Paulo joined them as venues for office towers whose height and fashionable styling surpassed almost anything in Europe, with Bogata, Caracas, and Santiago striving to keep up. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the International Style each in turn made significant inroads in challenging the previous hegemony of the Beaux Arts for representative buildings.

5These conditions make it less surprising that Europeans would turn to South America, not only for opportunities to execute their own newest ideas, but also for inspiration. Although, as in the rest of the Americas, architects never dominated the design of buildings to the extent that they did in Europe, for most of the twentieth century South America’s middle classes were enormously receptive to modernism. It clearly expressed their ambition to replace earlier quasi-aristocratic elites, who remained associated with classical forms, and in some countries with landed estates. The new abstract architecture, as often now infused with surrealism’s biomorphic curves as with the International Style’s original industrial aesthetic, captured their hopes of a technocratic future that was exciting without being chaotic, and inexpensive without being merely efficient.

6Three of the four articles gathered here demonstrate the degree to which this South American optimism also inspired French, Italians, and Portuguese. Ricardo Agarez demonstrates how the vernacular architecture of the Algarve in Portugal has long owed to South American influences, and how this has continued even as architects design more and more housing there. Thibault Bechini’s account of European, and particularly French, engagement in Buenos Aires, often labeled “the Southern Paris,” challenged these imported experts, confronted with vernacular building traditions as well as a hunger for new European styles. At the same time, French participants in this exchange gained business and experience that enhanced their credibility back in France. Italian architecture magazines originally published South American examples, not simply because they were good buildings, Clelia Pozzi argues, but also because the carefully chosen selection of work, in many cases by Italian architects resident in Brazil, could be used to argue for a particular position within the debates over the form contemporary architecture should take. Later it was also a case of self-promotion as Gio Ponti, the influential founding editor of Domus, worked in Venezuela as well as Italy.

7In the fourth article Anat Fabel establishes the intellectual in which Brazilian architect Lucio Costa could map out a national modernism rooted in specifically Portuguese precedent, which she contrasts with the international setting into which North American scholars placed many of the same developments. That the work of this was often influenced in turn by the presence of émigré scholars at North American universities only encouraged this almost supra-national approach of acknowledging foreign influence.

8All four articles demonstrate the importance of the networks that tied such far-flung building cultures together. Agarez describes inhabitants of the Algarve, a supposedly provincial part of Portugal, who in fact shaped their domestic environment based on a familiarity with models from the other side of the Atlantic. Bechini details the tissue of diplomatic and financial connections that for decades linked French architects, engineers, and builders to their Argentine clients. Pozzi demonstrates that Ponti used the coverage of Mexican and South American architecture in Domus to insert himself into the Latin American postwar architectural scene. Fabel elucidates the multiple ways that Brazilian modernism and the precedents upon which it built were understood by scholars with ties to three continents.

9Together these articles, which address architecture erected from the late nineteenth until the middle of the twentieth century, demonstrate that the only thing new about globalization is its scope. People and ideas have long been on the move, enriching and transforming buildings along the way.

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Electronic reference

Kathleen James-Chakraborty, EditorialABE Journal [Online], 7 | 2015, Online since 15 September 2015, connection on 21 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kathleen James-Chakraborty

Professor of art history, UCD School of Art History & Cultural Policy, Dublin, Ireland

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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