Modern Architecture

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Modern Architecture

Through the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, neoclassical architecture predominated in much of Spanish America. In Europe, modernist architecture began to develop after the Industrial Revolution. This new style, with its focus on economy and practicality, found a receptive audience in Spanish American countries, even though their industrialization occurred later. In particular, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965), who developed modernist functionalist ideas and first traveled to Brazil in 1929, gained many collaborators and disciples in the region. Elaborating on this modernist perspective, Spanish American architects added their local traditions, native materials, and unique concepts as the twentieth century progressed.


In the early twentieth century, modern architecture appeared in Peru with the arrival of the first foreign financial companies and the construction of their headquarters in the historic downtown district of Lima. These buildings include the Bank of Peru and London (J. E. Lattini, 1905), designed with iron structures and colored glass, and the Transatlantic German Bank (Claudio Sahut, 1914), which used reinforced concrete for the first time. The typology of the institutional building became very important in the development of Peruvian architecture in the twentieth century.

Although modernity made its mark in the early twentieth century through the use of new materials and structural systems that were innovative for the period, these institutional buildings retained a relationship with nineteenth-century designs, and so the composite systems of the École des Beaux Arts of Paris were what really defined this architecture. Thus, academicism was the predominant tendency of this period through the 1920s, and the culmination was its adoption in a series of buildings that marked the development of the city of Lima. The Rimac Building (1919), the Pantheon of the Founding Fathers (1924), Archbishop Loayza Hospital (1924), the Palace of Justice (1926–1938), the National Club (1928), and the Reserve Bank (1929) are examples of this architecture of classical and monumental style.

However, indigenist and Hispanist movements also emerged in 1920s, and they spawned the three most important architectural trends of the first half of the twentieth century. Neocolonial, neo-Inca, and neo-Peruvian architecture are all based on the use of an architectural repertoire from the pre-Hispanic or colonial past.

The neo-Inca and neo-Peruvian styles were not widely used in Peru because knowledge of the pre-Hispanic period was still incipient at the time. Their applications were limited to the design of the façades of new projects. The National Museum of Archeology (1924), Peru's Pavilion in the Paris International Exposition (Roberto Haaker and Alberto Jochamowitz, 1937) and the Museum of Anthropology (Hector Velarde, 1940) are examples of this nationalist architectural style. Examples of the neo-Peruvian style can be seen in works such as the Peruvian Pavilion at the Sevilla International Exposition (Manuel Piqueras Cotolí, 1929).

Neocolonialism had an influence in Latin America and became the dominant architectural current based on the reinterpretation of colonial elements adapted to academicist composition. The neocolonial style had more influence in Peru than in other Latin American countries (except Mexico). This was due primarily to the broad tradition of colonial architecture in Peru, which made it possible for both formal and theoretical aspects to be present in the works of neocolonialism's primary representatives: the Peruvian architects Emilio Harth-Terré (1899–1983), Héctor Velarde (1898–1989), José Álvarez Calderón, and Rafael Marquina (1884–1964); the Polish architect Ricardo Malachowski (1887–1972); and the French architect Claudio Sahut. This style used colonial elements such as balconies and portals but organized them around an academicist composition, in buildings such as the Archbishop's Palace (Malachowski, 1916), the Hotel Bolívar (Marquina, 1924), the lateral facade of the Palace of Government (Sahut, 1924–1930), and the Boza and South America Building (Harth-Terré and Álvarez Calderón, 1938). The common characteristic of these buildings was the reinterpretation of colonial elements based on an eminently academic composition.

The art deco and "buque" styles also made their way into the country during this decade. Both styles were linked to the international repertoire and were used either independently or in combination, with the buque style predominant. Buildings that combine the styles include La Casa Ulloa and the Baths of Miraflores (both by Velarde, 1937 and 1938, respectively). The Aurich Building and the Aldabas-Merlchormalo Building (both by Augusto Guzmán, 1933) are examples of the independent use of the art deco style, and the Raffo Building is an example of the buque style (R. Vargas Prada and Guillermo Payet, 1938).

In the mid-1940s, specifically in 1947, the Agrupación Espacio (Space Partnership) was formed with the primary objective of disseminating the principles of modern architecture. The Casa Miró Quesada house (Luis Miró, 1947) is emblematic of the principles of modernity, marking the beginning of the influence of Le Corbusier on Peruvian architecture. Buildings such as the Apartments of Calle Roma (Teodoro Cron), the Central Office of the Lima Yacht Club (Valega), the Casa Truel (Roberto Wakeham), and the Mater Admirabilis Clinic (Paul Linder) also show this influence.

A new period began in the 1950s that incorporated new elements of modernity, such as the use of the curtain wall in Miró Quesada's El Sol Radio Building (1954); the Hotel Savoy (1957) by Bianco; and Cron's Swiss-Peruvian building; as well as some elements of Brazilian architecture in the Atlas buildings (1954) of José Álvarez Calderón and Walter Weberhofer and the El Pacífico building (1957) of Fernando de Osma.

Modern architecture came to Peru in this way during the 1940s. However, its consolidation occurred a few years later, when the military government made it the official architecture. With the military coup of 1968, a process of association began between modern and military architecture, producing an architectural image of unity and homogeneity that the military government wanted to project. The Cartagena Agreement Junta, the Petro-Peru building, the Ministry of Fisheries (today the Museum of the Nation), the Housing Bank, the PIP Operations Center, and several ministry buildings are examples of this style associated with statism and control; it is also associated with nakedness, aggressive materials, and exposed systems.

Modernism remained strong through the rest of the twentieth century, but greater experimentation shaped building and home designs. At the Third International Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism (1978), the Peruvian College of Architecture gave the Peruvian Central Reserve Bank in Lima (Luis Tapia and Manuel Llanos) its top award, the Golden Hexagon. This building was the culmination of a series of institutional projects designed throughout the 1970s in a style known as brutalism.

Previously, the College of Architecture had given the Golden Hexagon to Emilio Soyer's Casa Velarde (First Biennial, 1970) and to the Iquitos Peruvian Armed Forces Villa by Victor Ramírez (Second Biennial, 1972), both designs with strong contextual components. The first project was linked to the search for what is truly Peruvian, without rejecting modern lines, and the second used context by taking into account the climate conditions of the Peruvian jungle where it was located and by using appropriate technology and materials.

In 1978, however, works of a new type began to appear. The Arenales and Higuereta Shopping Centers, for example, were linked fundamentally to the commercial environment and generated some alternatives, albeit timid ones, within the Peruvian architectural spectrum. At the same time, the Ramírez and Smirnoff Continental Bank building was an urban landmark whose prophetic location and modern design incorporated a material that was new to the institutional repertoire: the fair-face (caravista) brick, which was later adopted for use in various types of buildings, including housing.

The transition from military government to democracy began in Peru in 1978 with the Constituent Assembly, and came to an end with the second election of Fernando Belaúnde Terry as Peru's president in 1980. This turning point in the democratic order began a period of rediscovering architecture, shaped by the possibility of accessing information and new designs developed around the world. In this period, architecture once again became socially significant. The government promoted various competitions, such as the ones for the San Borja Towers and the Limatambo Housing Complex. Designs for use in the National Housing Plan became a big challenge for the new government, but El Niño storms had repercussions on the national economy and, therefore, on architecture.

In these years, something called Gremco architecture (Grupo de Empresas Constructoras) appeared in housing projects. Through various designs, this style expressed an alternative to the designs of José García Bryce (b. 1928), such as the Chabuca Granda Housing Complex in the Rimac district (1984–1985). The former had an explicitly commercial interest, whereas the latter was interested in recovering and revaluing historic places such as the traditional neighborhood of Rimac, and in using the architectural repertoire of the place, including the colonial vestibule, patio, and balcony, but with a contemporary language.

Beginning in 1985 Ramírez-Smirnoff made significant modifications to historic downtown Lima, and color was incorporated, especially in public spaces such as the San Martín Plaza and the University campus during the municipal administration of Alfonso Barrantes. At the same time, in the peripheral areas of the city, the government directed the development of places such as the Villa El Salvador Community, which became an example of urban organization and had a subsequent impact on the restoration of Huaycán.

The 1990s were marked by a variety of heterogeneous alternatives in Peruvian architecture. The beginning of a new government administration coincided with the presentation of the Seventh Biennial's Golden Hexagon Award (1988) to the Molina Credit Bank, designed by Bernardo Fort Brescia's architectural firm American Arquitectonica; this was hugely controversial because it highlighted the contrast between the extreme violence and poverty of Peru's poor with the ostentatious power reflected in the bank's architecture. But this work had significant international influence, and it initiated a more cosmopolitan architecture in Peru. Arquitectonica went on to create a series of key buildings in Lima, including the U.S. Embassy, which combines old motifs of pre-Hispanic looms on its façade with elements of high technology; and the Marriott Hotel and Office Building, a five-star hotel located along the Larco Sea on the edge of Lima. The firm also imposed its postmodern aesthetics on diverse projects such as banks, hotels, and shopping centers.

Municipal governments also provided spaces for active participation in the recovery of the city and public spaces, as in the Plan for Downtown Lima (1996–1997) and the Miraflores Central Park (1992). Outside the capital, cities were restored by projects such as the Las Musas Park in Chiclayo (1994), the Park of Huanca Identity (1994–1996), and projects in the Alameda de Chimbote and in Tumbes and Tacna that show regional presence in Peruvian architecture.

The end of the century brought a variety of designs characterized by their plurality, diversity, and heterogeneity, as can be seen in designs with regional characteristics such as the Sipán Museum in Túcume by Jorge Cosmópolis and the urban renewal of the Malecón de Ilo by Edgardo Ramírez Chirinos, as well as in recovered public spaces such as the Alameda Chabuca Granda in downtown Lima by Javier Artado and the Cultural Park of Lima by Augusto Ortiz de Cevallos. At the same time, the new business centers, five-star hotels, and the big new shopping centers of Lima—such as the Larco Mar Entertainment Center (1996–1998) of Eduardo Figari, Marina Park by Miguel Rodrigo, and the Jockey Plaza Shopping Center (1999) by Arquitectonica—are within the most cosmopolitan and neoliberal current and show a city, and an architecture, in constant change as it enters the era of globalization.


The transformation of Mexican architecture coincided with major social upheaval. In the first ten years of the twentieth century, Mexico was still focused on neoclassical designs. Substantial renovations and large building projects on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City represented national progress and showcased this style. A political crisis in 1910 launched the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), which significantly disrupted major building construction. As violence and political instability waned in the 1920s, the revolutionary elite began to propose new programs for social policy, economics, and culture. The government's preoccupations affected architectural design because the state began to commission housing for the working classes. Building economical and quality homes coincided with the modernist concern with efficiency and economy.

President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–1928) initiated these new urban policies and reforms, but the major transition occurred during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). The leader and founder of the Union of Architects in the Fight for Socialism, Juan O'Gorman (1905–1982), was one of Cárdenas's best known hires. For the government O'Gorman designed housing for workers with practical, basic designs, as opposed to the more elaborate buildings of the nineteenth century and the colonial period.

Although Mexican architects followed a basic modernist style, Mexican modernism began to add local tradition, materials, and designs to urban construction. Mural painting with indigenous motifs differentiated Mexican buildings in the postrevolutionary era. Using adobe, stucco, cobblestones, and unfinished wood, Luis Barragán (1902–1988) meshed the local with modern theoretical concerns. Even O'Gorman in later years incorporated an emphasis with national identity. He designed the library at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1950–1952) with a large mural emphasizing indigenous pride and the plight of the Mexican peasantry.

Mexican postwar architects in the latter half of the twentieth century began to experiment with blending the environment and buildings. Barragán designed many of the neighborhoods of Mexico City. Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel became famous for the way in which the houses incorporated the landscape with modernist rationality. Houses followed the natural patterns of the land, rather than trying to impose structure over the environment. Furthermore, Barragán used native vegetation, helping his designs to stand out and appear local.

In 1985 a massive earthquake destroyed many buildings in Mexico City. The rebuilding process was slow because it came during a time of economic malaise and dislocation, but in the late 1990s and the early twenty-first century Mexico City had a construction boom. A trend in Mexican architecture was restoring and reshaping old buildings, creating a blend between the old and the new. This process has occurred in trendy neighborhoods of Mexico City such as La Condesa. Javier Sánchez (b. 1969) gutted an old warehouse there and converted it into loft apartments for professionals. This was a significant change in terms of housing because most mortgages were for larger apartments and only for families. Also, the restoration promoted a new social environment. Redesigned, the building offered new communal social space with an open interior garden. Ricardo Legorreta (b. 1931) played a major part in restoring the old historic downtown of Mexico City. He designed new apartment complexes that bring together steel and concrete structures with colonial style courtyards and designs.


New architectural styles emerged in Brazil, as in Mexico, with dramatic social and political changes. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the architecture reflected lavish classical styles, symbolizing the nation on a road to progress and prosperity. However, in the 1920s, modernists slowly began to appear in Brazil's main cities. For instance, Gregori Warchavchik (1896–1972), a Russian immigrant, designed the Casa Modernista (1927), the first major modernist building in Latin America.

The critical transformation in design and style coincided with the watershed cultural, economic, and social upheaval of the 1930s. After the 1930 military coup, Getúlio Vargas took power and began to implement economic and social reforms. Vargas organized a competition in 1935 to design the Ministry of Health and Education headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. The winners included Brazil's famous twentieth-century architects Lúcio Costa (1902–1998) and Oscar Niemeyer (b. 1907), and their design emphasized Le Corbusier's functionalist ideas. The critic Mauro Guillén described the building as having "a large bloc of reinforced concrete built on 30-feet high pilotis, sun breakers, on the north side and glass on the south side (Rio being in the Southern Hemisphere), and a rooftop garden. The design occupied an entire city block, leaving room for a plaza" (Guillén 2004).

The most notable and largest testament to modernist influence was the construction of Brazil's current capital, Brasília. Costa developed a general master plan that contained numerous references to the automobile, reflecting the overall modernist concern with the mechanical, the industrial, and technical. The city was clearly separated into areas for housing, work, and leisure. Architects and urban planners involved in the project envisioned an urban utopia that would project equality and progress. Despite the effort put into the city, it has not achieved these lofty goals.

After World War II Brazilian architects began to experiment with the brutalist style. Paulo Mendes da Rocha (b. 1928), its best-known practitioner, designed the Brazilian Sculpture Museum in São Paulo (1988). Another important development is the preservation of older styles of architecture. The Brazilian government took on a major preservation project in Salvador, Bahia, which has a large number of colonial buildings in disrepair. In the twenty-first century new wealthy classes have been preserving and moving into old nineteenth-century fazenda (plantation) houses designed in the neoclassical and baroque styles.


Argentina, like Peru, did not see the early modernist development that Brazil and Argentina did. A possible explanation for this difference might lie in the way radical social and political change occurred in Argentina. At a time when Argentina ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, modernist designs appeared in 1916, but the liberal landowning elite remained in charge until the 1940s and never forcefully demanded modernist designs. When Juan Domingo Perón was elected president in the 1940s he brought major change to politics and public policy, but he never fully embraced modernism, preferring the older neoclassical styles. Consequently, modernism was received with ambivalence in Argentina.

Indeed, in the 1920s the young modernist architects Martín Noel (1888–1963) and Angel Guido (1896–1960), rather than embracing Le Corbusier as the major Brazilians did, often critiqued his work. These two sought a style and form more strongly associated with Argentina's own traditions. Juan Kronfuss (1872–1944), a Hungarian immigrant, found inspiration in Argentina's colonial designs rather than in the industrial process that influenced modernism. Likewise, Alberto Prébisch (1899–1970) designed buildings such as the Obelisk (1936) and the Gran Rex movie theater (1937), which incorporated the functionality of modernism, but still prominently displayed colonial motifs.

A few architects more fully embraced the ideal premises of the modernist movement. Antonio Ubaldo Vilar (1889–1966) designed many functionalist buildings that lacked notable design and concern for visual reception. His Banco Popular Argentino stood out for its technically advanced structure but its bland presence. Along the same lines, Ubaldo Vilar designed the tallest reinforced concrete building at that time-a technical rather than artistic achievement. In the first half of the twentieth century, at varying degrees and times, Spanish American countries began to use new modernist designs.

Since its arrival in Spanish America, modernity has been present in various ways and forms in architecture, sometimes in an almost solitary and literal relationship to the great principles of Le Corbusier and in other cases fused or integrated with the landscape. Over time, these forms have allowed a closer approximation to what is truly Spanish America architecture.

See alsoArt: The Twentieth Century; Cities and Urbanization.


Eggener, Keith. "Postwar Modernism in Mexico: Luis Barragán's Jardines del Pedregal and the International Discourse on Architecture and Place." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58, no. 2 (June 1999): 122-145.

Fraser, Valerie. Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America, 1930–1960. New York: Verso, 2000.

Guillén, Mauro. "Modernism without Modernity: The Rise of Modernist Architecture in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, 1890–1940." Latin American Research Review 39, no. 2 (June 2004): 6-34.

Gutiérrez, Ramón, Eladio Dieste, and Graciela María Viñuales. Arquitectura latinoamericana en el siglo XX. Barcelona: Lunwerg, 1998.

Scarpaci, Joseph L. "Architecture, Design, and Planning: Recent Scholarship on Modernity and Public Space in Latin America." Latin American Research Review 38, no. 2 (June 2003): 234-252.

                          Ana Patricia Quintana Meza

                                         Byron Crites

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