Brazilian architect maps architecture south of the border — and imagines a world without The Wall

Sunday, November 27, 2016 - 4:16pm

In the short story “On Exactitude in Science” by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a society obsessed with maps embarks on its most ambitious project to date. To them, maps always seemed too small, too inadequate in representing their world in all its vivid color. After all, why scale down when something is always lost in translation when doing so? They decide to create a 1:1 map of the world — each object, each person, each mountain, valley and clamorous river would be drawn in full detail, mirroring its own exact size and shape in the real world.

Spoiler alert: they give up. Maps may reflect the world around them, but they can become worlds themselves just as easily — more than plain old pictures, they become microcosms of the very places they are meant to encapsulate. Borges’s imaginary project of mapping, of world-building, proved too bold. A map can grow only so large, the world so small.

Brazilian architect and scholar Fernando Lara approaches his projects with similar ambition and scope, but also with more self-control. A lively, passionate speaker, he told the Borges story, and several others, at a talk at UMMA. Lara remarked with a laugh that his work, particularly the architectural “map” he was here to promote, had to be slightly more selective in which buildings it included, and which it left out.

Lara and his collaborator, Mexican architect Luis Carranza, wrote a lauded book about modern Latin American architecture in 2014 — the first ever comprehensive survey of the field. To complement their text, now a standard in architecture classrooms around the world, they designed an exhibition, “The Other of the Other: Modern Architecture in Latin America.” This enormous, interactive map of prominent modern buildings throughout Latin America has made its way to Ann Arbor after touring throughout the Americas over the past two years, and is currently on display at the Duderstadt Center.

The story of Lara’s map is indeed as compelling, layered and labyrinthine as a Borges story. In constructing an architectural map of their region, Carranza and Lara didn’t just transcribe the world around them. They traced architecture from the 20th century into the 21st, from the deserts of northern Mexico down the continent’s thin spine to the low hem of the Andes. In doing so, they charted Latin America’s tumultuous century of progress and conflict in its most noteworthy architectural creations, and challenged the traditional assumption of Western, North Atlantic dominance in contemporary architecture.   

“We needed to engage this North Atlantic knowledge center with our own narrative,” Lara said at his UMMA talk. “It was a strong desire to tell this story from the perspective of Brazil, Mexico, Argentina. That’s what drove this work.”

All too often, Lara believes, the story of contemporary architecture is told from the viewpoints of Europeans and North Americans. He used yet another colorful story to illustrate the traditional attitude: Picture a different sort of map, this one reflecting not the world as it is, but as it was conceived by Western thinkers. It’s a map of the classical arts, with Ancient Greece and Rome as its base, the pillars holding up the foundation and Europe and the United States at the top as the pinnacles of modern artistic expression.

Lara simply doesn’t think this conception is true — not now, not ever. Not even when maps like that were really drawn from the 16th century onward. Instead, he sees the colonial encounter itself as the basis for ideas of Western superiority in the arts. It may have been Europe’s encounter with the Americas that breathed new life — as well as free labor and a wealth of natural resources — back into a floundering Western Europe.

This same dynamic is alive and well today. After studying Latin America’s vibrant architectural heritage for decades, Lara feels now more than ever that nothing can be separated into hierarchies of merit, least of all the arts. The Americas are an interconnected place, and always have been. Latin America has never been truly separate from America — not architecturally, not politically, and not ethnically or linguistically.

“After writing this book on Latin American architecture, I no longer want to be a Latin Americanist. I want to be an Americanist,” Lara said. “We share a lot in the Americas — much more than we are aware of.”

The implications of Lara’s work extend beyond the Americas into the larger global architectural sphere as well. His own practice in Rio de Janeiro completes community-minded public projects for the Brazilian government — something that has dried up as the country faces a political and economic crisis of unprecedented scale in the modern era. Brazil’s mistakes and failures in architecture and public design reverberate throughout a world wracked with similar challenges: rapid and chaotic urbanization, well-meaning public works initiated by unreliable governments, alarming population growth and the rise of informal housing in slums and favelas.

It is the ascent of informal living, of the informal city existing outside and within the formally constructed metropolis, which drives Lara’s practice.

“Informality is everywhere — it’s a matter of degree,” he said, comparing Rio’s slums to the shoddy complexes thrown up for budding entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. “It’s a group of characteristics that can apply to urban settlements lived in by over one billion people today,” Lara added. As his interviewer cited, in the next 35 years, the world will need to build as much new housing as has been built in the previous 5,000 years of human existence.

Informality in Latin America isn’t the only architectural phenomenon that has informed architects globally. Latin America’s legacy of modernist innovation, which sits at the heart of Lara’s work, has the potential to offer the stagnant architectural sphere of the United States and Europe new ways forward. Because it was considered out of the architectural mainstream during the 20th century, visionary architects experimented with building styles in Latin America that wouldn’t surface here until decades later.

“When we look at modern architecture,” he explained, “It was tested in Latin America before it was built in the U.S.”

Flip through the pages of Lara’s book and see. A picture of a brutalist concrete building seems to be from 1970s Boston. The caption below, though, tells a different story: 1940s Mexico City, perhaps, or 1950s Caracas. The last century saw Latin America as the playground for the rich and famous of the United States. Little did they know that blueprint by blueprint, the region was being transformed into an architectural hotspot. Today, with the work of scholars like Lara, architects south of the border can finally get their moment in the sun.

This revelation — that Latin America has a great deal to contribute, in arts and in every other major global arena — seems comically obvious. But its significance has as much to do with contemporary politics as it does with architecture or academia. Just as the United States has been slow to recognize the contributions of artists and architects from other parts of the Americas, Lara feels its present-day political developments have generated an atmosphere of mistrust and exclusion for foreign cultures. An internationalist who values openness and heterogeneity to foster artistic growth, he was particularly critical of President-elect Donald’s Trump’s proposal to construct a 2,000 mile concrete wall.

Lara teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, just a four-hour drive from the U.S./Mexico border. It is not just the physical, but also the psychological effects of the proposed wall, as well as its symbolism in the international arena, that upsets the Brazilian scholar. To him, it speaks to the same closed-off attitudes and cultural hierarchies that portrayed Latin America as second-class, and treated Latinos as second-class citizens, for so long. So he decided to do something about it.

“We have the responsibility to propose things that make the world better,” Lara said. So at the start of classes this fall, the professor presented his students with a unique challenge: “We have to design the border without a wall.”

All fall semester, Lara and his architecture graduate students have been absorbed in their work. Now, the project is complete. Their border may lack a physical wall, but it is far from lawless. After all, Lara pointed out that just as drugs and human beings continue to pass north through today’s highly militarized border, illegal arms flow south, exacerbating narcotrafficking conflict and day-to-day violence. Crisscrossed with a network of humane law enforcement facilities and safety mechanisms, it encapsulates the ideal of the open border without sacrificing peace of mind.

The president-elect has offered one possible solution to the issue of immigration and border control. Lara and his students have offered another, but many American voters may have already made up their minds The United States might not be ready for Lara’s solutions. Just as with modernist architecture in the last century, once again, it’s Latin American thinkers leading the vanguard. Skepticism and reactionary views don’t seem to faze Lara; he learned his craft from a patient crowd, after all.

“We have to think of the border this way,” Lara concluded. “We may be generations away from it. But we must envision it.”