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Jorge Liernur -KEYNOTE SPEAKER- on Latin American Modernism(s)

“I believe that we architects have the main role in preserving architectural heritage.”

Buenos Aires-based Jorge Francisco Liernur is an architect turned academic, and the author of several books on architecture. An expert on Modernism in the Latin American context, he was a keynote speaker at the Fifth International Iconic Houses Conference in New Canaan. His lecture can be watched in the (below) link.

Keynote Address Iconic Houses in Latin America: the Multiple Faces of Modernity
 

How did you first become interested in Modernism in Latin America?
When I started my career as a researcher, I focused on the history of architecture in Argentina, but I soon realized that I needed to compare developments there with other countries in the region. I decided to initiate a regional research plan, focusing on Latin America’s relationship with German Modernist culture in the 1930s.

So how did German Modernism come to Latin America?
There were many bridges between Germany and Latin America. However, as Modernism expanded geographically, you see different characteristics depending on the country it spread to. For instance, in Chile army relationships were very influential, as were the German immigrants in its southern regions. In Argentina, the German building industry played a central role. Here, as in Brazil, German philosophers were very well known by certain sectors of the intellectual elites. Many German Modern architects travelled to and worked in Latin America. The most relevant was Hannes Meyer in Mexico, but Gropius had a partner in Buenos Aires in the 1930s, while in the 1960s he worked together with Amancio Williams on a project. Mies built the Bacardi headquarters in Mexico, while Neutra was active in Cuba and Venezuela. Marcel Breuer and Joseph Albers had their own contacts with Mexico, Chile and Argentina.... and so and so on. I need to write a book to answer this question!

Where in Argentina do we see it at work?
We can see expressions of the presence of the German Modernist architectural traditions of the 1920s and 1930s in the urban landscape of the bigger cities, and particularly in the work of architects like Jorge Kalnay, Alberto Prebisch and Vladimiro Acosta. Moreover, leading architects such as Mario Roberto Alvarez applied many German Modern architectural ideas to their whole oeuvre.

Does German architecture remain influential today?
First of all I have to say that I don't like to use the word influence; I prefer to talk about a cultural dialogue or conversation. Anyhow, times change and the whole cultural situation is accommodated in different ways through time. The current relationship with German architecture has nothing to do with what happened in the early decades of the 20th century.

Why did you originally decide to become an architect?
Because I liked the wide humanist and artistic character of architecture, and because I was dazzled by the spectacle of the construction of the Bank of London and South America, by Clorindo Testa and SEPRA, in Buenos Aires.

As an architect, did Modernism influence you?
A lot, when I was practicing 20 years ago. And it still influences my work, because I still feel part of the profession and the discipline, just now with a different role.

So why the change to academia?
Because I felt that in this way I could make a better contribution to the renovation of architectural culture in my country.

What differences do we see in the various countries in your region regarding Modernism?
That’s a complex and difficult question, and again I’d need an entire book to even try to answer it! We’re talking about 20 countries, with very different histories, economies, and social, ethnic and cultural conditions. Also, there are many Modernisms in the history of architecture. So by definition there are many Modernisms in Latin America, just as there are in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere.

Do you have a favorite Modernist house in Latin America?
I’m afraid I have to be localist - the House over the Brook (Casa del Puente aka Museo Casa sobre el Arroyo, ed.), by Amancio Williams.

A house that was almost lost - so are things getting better for it now?
Fortunately, Amancio Williams believed in the importance of structure as the main part of a building. As a consequence, the house has not fallen apart. I believe that what is necessary for its value is, in the first place, social awareness of its value, and then the strong support of the authorities.

What problems do Modern houses currently face in your region?
Architecture is not considered as having a particular value, except that given by tourism, industry or branding. That makes it hard to have a broad debate on the preservation of Modern buildings in our region. Equally, ignorance about architecture seems to be dominant in every sector of society - although that’s partly different, perhaps, in Brazil.

Are there many house museums in Argentina?
Yes there are, but not necessarily because of their architectural value.

Chile has no museum houses yet. Any idea why?
I don't think I can give a definitive answer - probably in Chile it’s hard to identify one or two clearly canonical houses.

Do you have a favorite Latin American architect?
Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Because in his ideas and work he embodies the most serious aspirations of development and social justice, and as an architect he has the most profound understanding of the epoch in which we live, and architecture’s position in it.

What are your own hopes and dreams for architecture in Latin America?
I’d like the ideas of Paulo Mendes to be understood and discussed by architects and others in Latin America and beyond. I wish the profession would realize that architecture demands an enormous responsibility which does not end with the circumstantial demands of clients in the present, but has duties to humanity’s (and nature’s) past and future.

Every country in Latin America is different as you say, but what measures would help iconic houses to be protected across the continent as a whole?
I believe that we architects have the main role. In the first place, to educate architectural students about the value of these houses. After that we need to educate the social, economic and political elites. Mainly I think we need to develop public campaigns to create awareness throughout society.

How can Iconic Houses help?
By increasing awareness of these issues.

What do you expect of the conference?
That it could be a good opportunity to enhance our knowledge of Latin American houses, by filling in the important holes in the history of Modern architecture.

Which house tour in New Canaan are you most looking forward to?
Philip Johnson's Glass House. Because it is an extreme response to dwelling.

Jorge recommends watching the trailer of the documentary film Amancio Williams by Gerardo Panero.

Jane Szita

Photo: Jorge with Casa sobre el Arroyo/Casa del Puente (Mar del Plata, Argentina) in the background.

Publication date 19 March