Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s planning of Brasilia included the Plaza of the Three Powers, surrounded by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. (Copyright Leonardo Finotti)

Critical opinion was pretty much unanimous earlier this spring when New York’s Museum of Modern Art unveiled an ill-considered, badly executed and intellectually trivial exhibition showcasing the career of the Icelandic singer Bjork. This was carnival stuff, empty spectacle, trashy hagiography and, after earlier shows devoted to figures such as Tim Burton and a one-off derivative performance piece in which Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box, yet more proof that MoMA under its longtime director, Glenn Lowry, has lost its way. It is now merely a colonial outpost of the entertainment industry, which levels culture not in the interests of democracy, education or access, but with an unthinking, reflexive animus to anything resistant to commercial exploitation.

But that isn’t entirely true. Exhibitions of architecture at MoMA are still consistently good, and a bittersweet reminder of what the museum used to do, was meant to do and should still be doing. The latest, “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980,” is everything one wants in a MoMA show: historically thorough, visually sumptuous, educational, enlightening and provocative. It covers a subject, and region, too large to yield a single thesis. The curators say they aren’t interested in defining the “essential” Latin America, but rather aim to survey “a plurality of positions.”

But unlike so many other shows that are organized by geography or ethnic identity or other broad cultural grouping, this one never grows diffuse. The best description is one that might have been applied to exhibitions at MoMA decades ago: It is a laboratory for design, an archive of possibilities.

Architecture becomes a lens for gathering together the disconnected data points of Latin America into a more meaningful sense of what made history there different from history in other parts of the world in the middle 20th century. The Second World War didn’t devastate Latin America; development and construction continued without interruption. The emotional and aesthetic rupture of the war — there is no writing poetry after Auschwitz — wasn’t as dramatic, if evident at all.

But the great gulf between countries that had long been under the colonial yoke and the United States and Europe was painfully evident, especially after the war was over, and bureaucratic, industrial and organizational structure began transforming the United States. “Development,” often administered under military or dictatorial regimes, was in some places a higher ideal than democracy: Poverty was ever the salient social failing, made more galling by the small-world effect of travel, improved communications and communion at international organizations. Driving much of the design and construction in South America was an almost manic need to industrialize, modernize and extend national control into the vast heartland of a still rather empty continent.

Lina Bo Bardi. “Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), Sao Paulo, Brazil.” Drawing. Graphite, and ink on paper. (Copyright Instituto Lina Bo e Pietro Maria Bardi)

Hence, Brasilia, the great new capital city that was opened in the interior of Brazil in 1960. Also, many of the buildings that are now considered masterpieces of the era, including the headquarters for the Banco de Londres y America del Sur in Buenos Aires and a United Nations outpost known as CEPAL, which was built in the shadows of the Andes in Chile from 1960 to 1966. But “developmentalism” wasn’t universally accepted or consistently practiced, and there was heartfelt resistance to the idea from traditionalist architects, skeptics of what we would now call the dark side of globalism, designers who sought refuge in rural or grass-roots culture and religious groups. So while the exhibition is chock-full of concrete boxes, brutalist bagatelles and enormous Corbusian cruise ships floating on arid plains, it also features thrilling innovations in religious architecture (the churches of Eladio Dieste in Uruguay), experimental communities (the improvisatory architects of the Cooperativa Amereida in Chile in the 1970s) and a funky religious campus, the House of Spiritual Exercises, designed by Claudio Caveri in Argentina in 1965.

Homegrown talent

The exhibition opens with intersecting films that set the social and demographic background for the period: There was an enormous growth in population in cities across South America and, with it, the need for new infrastructure, including housing and public transit. At first, this sets up the story as closely analogous to the current day, in which mega-cities are blossoming in China and new city-states in the Arab Gulf are competing to skip a few generations of development and emerge more modern and global than fading capitals of Europe and the West.

But not all urbanisms are the same, and there are several differences between Latin America in the middle of the last century and the urban spectacles of today. The top-down, state-controlled cult of developmentalism was one. But also: Latin America wasn’t just a playground for European or American architects. Nor was it a testing ground for avant-garde experiments too expensive or disruptive to be pursued in established cities on other continents. Latin America generated its own architects, its own architectural ideas and its own regional adaptations of international ideas about modernism. It wasn’t Dubai.

Consider the work of the brilliant architect Lina Bo Bardi, born in Italy but very much a Brazilian in spirit and practice. Her Museum of Art in Sao Paulo opened the same year as Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and is at least equally as groundbreaking. A giant, column-free space is suspended on four huge legs, creating a rigorous modernist box above an open plaza. Art was originally displayed on glass panels, creating a gallery in which every work is radically independent of all the others, a genuine exercise in constructive leveling.

Bo Bardi is one of the stars of the exhibition, though her design dictum is terrifying: “I never look for beauty, only purity.” There are several ways to read that, but given the political tendency to authoritarianism that prevailed in many Latin American countries during this period, it sounds ominous. In fact, her work was keenly alert to local needs and popular sentiments, without vitiating its formality and monumentality. But there are other architects, and many examples of design, that will send a shiver down the spine in this exhibition, especially housing projects that will remind Americans of our own failed exercises in social engineering.

Unfinished business

The curators accept history as it is, without moralizing. In 1959, when Cuban revolutionaries toppled the corrupt and brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista, there followed (as so often happens in the aftermath of a revolution) a period of great excitement and experimentation in architecture and the arts. As MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll explains in the exhibition catalogue, while many Cuban architects fled to exile, international architects gathered, excited by the new regime’s social and architectural experimentation. Even the U.S. attempt to isolate the country had an impact: “The Cuban construction industry was hard hit by the material restrictions brought about by the US embargo, so that technical experimentation was at once a necessity and a creative release.”

A national arts campus designed for Havana in 1961-65 is almost allegorical in its promise and failure. It was planned for land that had been a country club, a thrilling act of appropriation that elevated art over the pastimes of the rich and elite, unthinkable in the wealth-worshipping, neo-liberal worldview today. Various architects contributed different pieces to the project, which was unified by the use of local brick and a gentle, shallow vaulting technique that suggested a landscape of organic bulges and berms.

Eduardo Terrazas. “Triennale di Milano, Mexican Pavilion.” 1968. Interior view with design based on Olympic logo. (Copyright Eduardo Terrazas Archive)

It was never finished, and the remains of much of what was built were abandoned and soon overgrown. Cuban priorities turned away from realizing the designs of individual architects toward an ethos of fast, efficient, prefabricated design. The Soviets contributed a factory to Cuba to manufacture pre-cast construction panels, and architects struggled (with occasional success) to design around these limitations. Today, there is debate about whether the campus should be taken up again, revived, restored and finished. Ultimately, this is a debate about history and our posture toward it: Reanimating an old building project means rekindling old ideas and ideals. It is a bit like the fear of zombies.

The allegory of Cuba’s abandoned arts campus remains with the visitor long after viewing the exhibition. Driven in part by the effects of a devastating hurricane, the enormity of its poverty and its isolation from much of the world, Cuba was forced to prioritize a dispiriting, generic and functional architecture. It also shifted its development priorities to the rural landscape, leaving cities like Havana to molder over the years. Necessity drives invention, but it also drives despair and the dehumanizing tendency to view social ills and wants as abstract problems unrelated to actual people and place.

Knowing what we know now

It’s tempting to compartmentalize the worst of the architecture on view, and the failed social and economic policies that governed much of Latin America, and conclude: Here lies a dark chapter of human aspiration, best forgotten and never repeated. But we can’t afford to do that. The greatest forces shaping civilization today require us to reconsider the best and worst of developmentalism, and Latin American innovation, if we hope to survive as a species. The planet is failing, and throughout the world, cities are exploding with new residents. Housing remains a crisis not just in the most desperate places, but also in the richest cities: If New York is to survive as a dynamic cultural capital, it must be open to the next generation of artists and intellectuals.

Individualism, prized for so long that we take for granted its enormous social and environmental consequences, will have to adapt. Organically, we see that process already underway, in things like the sharing economy, Zipcar and the distaste among some younger people for the demands of property and encumbrance. Social space and the public realm are gaining ground on the belief that we can survive in isolated suburban boxes, cocooned from the hour the alarm rings in the morning to the moment at night when we drop exhausted from meaningless toil — on the behalf of a new class of elites who reward greater productivity with less money, less time and less dignity.

People do want leisure. People do want simpler lives. People do want to live with and among other people. Man is still the social animal. The tide is turning, and though much of the architecture here is associated with the fear of social control and authoritarianism, it can be repurposed, reconfigured and reconceptualized for an era in which we live in greater balance with nature, greater proximity with our fellow man and greater freedom to pursue long-dormant human ideals — learning, cultivation, art — that aren’t cherished by the market.

If you look only to the past, “Latin America in Construction” is a bit terrifying; if you consider the needs of the future, it is a compendium of where we might direct the best of our energies.

Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980 is on view through July 19 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For more information visit