by RAY JOSEPHS
THE traveler who ventures into Latin America in search of ancient historic edifices and sleepy cathedrals is due for a surprise. They are still around — but behind so much scaffolding that he can hardly locate them. In the past decade the Good Neighbors have done more building than in the preceding hundred years.
One reason the Latins have been able to exceed the supposedly technique-wise U.S., since the war’s end, is that save for the extreme south of Argentina and Chile, temperatures in Latin America are not so cold as here. Buildings are lighter. Central heating is unusual. Cellars are almost unknown. This doesn’t mean simple plaster and lath will do. Cuba and the Caribbean are regularly swept by hurricane winds. Chile, Venezuela, and many of the Central American countries have frequent quakes. But reinforced concrete will stand up. And with it Latin America has accomplished important results.
Use of concrete, hollow tile, masonry, and other materials in original ways was dictated by necessity. With an abundance of cement, gravel, and stone — and until recently little locally produced steel — cost and proximity set imaginations working. Hardwoods were employed in startling ways — as bricks, facings, beams, in place of metals. Brazilians found almost a hundred substitutes for imports. Often the items didn’t work so well as those made in the U.S.A. Locks, iceboxes, bathroom fixtures, were second or third quality by our standards. Latin America is still unable to make elevators — and I’ve puffed up many a ten-story building where, a hole in the floor holds promise of future mechanical ups and downs. Some buildings collapsed before they were finished, but Latin America continued to build.
Design of homes, offices, and especially of public structures has shown vigor and originality. Bogotá, Colombia, located at 8500 feet in the cloudy Andes, is sunless much of the year. Almost every edifice erected in the last decade has turned to unprecedented use of broad bands or solid walls of glass, drawing in sun for both light and heat.
Rio and most, of Brazil have an overabundance of sun. Architects have pioneered with tenand fifteen-story walls of adjustable louvers of pre-cast, asbestos cement. These screen out excess light and heat while channeling in every breeze. Unlike many of our shadeless Southern cities, most Latin capitals require planting as part of street and site development. They’ve also had sidewalks placed under arcaded buildings. Downtown districts in Havana, Santiago, and Buenos Aires are crisscrossed with arcades and galleries. These offer shade as well as protection from short but frequent rains.
Latins also have a stronger sense of drama than we in setting their buildings off. Hollywood bathrooms, streamlined kitchens, and rumpus room gadgetry which run our costs up are simply skipped in favor of ample interior space. Two laps around your room in Buenos Aires’s Plaza or Alvear, Rio’s Copacabana, or Santiago’s Carrera seem practically a mile.
Labor to do the building job has also proved surprisingly ingenious, especially considering the lack of technical schools or competent demonstration. Builders were not called away to war or drawn off by better-paying, wartime factory jobs. Moreover, the Latins were not plagued by the complex craft restrictions and strikes which affected much of our building. Unions in Latin America are strong, and the construction trades, as here, are one of the best organized. But fewer rules are enforced.
In much Latin home construction, the owner often pitches in —or hires himself a foreman and a few assistants, sketches a plan on the back of an old envelope, and finishes the job over a long series of week-ends. In Argentina every completed home calls for an asado or barbecue celebration. In Chile you break out with wine. In Brazil, which pioneered the coöperative apartment to solve financing long before it became general here, owners generally participate in a junior version of carnival. The fact that they may have changed five times before the structure was ready does nothing to dampen enthusiasm.
Governments have an important role in Latin housing and building. Chile’s Corporación de Fomento (Development Corporation), a federally sponsored but autonomously operated nonprofit agency, devotes half its energies to projects which will aid housing. Chile’s progressive program, begun in 1911, is one of the oldest in the Americas. So is that of Uruguay, whose National Mortgage Bank lends workers up to 80 per cent of the cost of land and home, and allows them twenty years to repay at infinitesimal interest.
In Venezuela and several other countries, the Banco Obrero — the semiofficial Worker’s Bank — is the chief housing expediter. Almost all such official or semiofficial projects are self-supporting, but ability to repay is considered secondary.
Most Latin governments have also gone into the related aspects of making land available at low cost, using terrain more advantageously, and tackling the traffic problems involved in rendering the more distant areas easily accessible. Land values have never been as high as in the U.S. Yet municipal, state, and federal authorities have been ruthless in condemning space needed. “If anybody has to be pinched,” officials in many countries told me, “it’s better that the landowner feel it.”
Caracas, capital of Venezuela, recently used the technique for a double purpose. A 22½-acre district of disease-breeding slums, dives, and brothels at the city’s most important gate had always been known with characteristic Caraqueño humor as El Silencio because it was anything but. The buildings were completely razed, and on the site Latin America’s largest housing project was erected. There are units for four thousand families. Schools, clubs, sports fields, theaters, and a shopping area are designed for needs. Also included is a unique, purely Latin feature — a lottery shop where every week some tenant wins a month’s rent.
Such projects, combining housing, health, and education as part of a unified social and economic plan, have reached their culmination in new Latin university building. Both Caracas and Bogotá are erecting vast new university cities. The former has taken a spacious area outside town and has laid out the country’s first, campus, on which are rising buildings for study and research, housing for professors and undergraduates, and most important, facilities for public use. Bogotá, employing its own architectural school to implement design with an over-all plan drawn by Le Corbusier, is emphasizing normal schools.
Rio’s blue and silver skyscraper Ministry of Education offers a foretaste of what Brazil is doing in school building. Built on high columns, it enables you to walk directly from tiled gardens, which extend under the building, into the elevators. The stilt idea has also been employed to overcome difficulties of terrain.
The visitor from north of the border is certain to ask why countries generally regarded as backward have been able to produce so vibrant and up-to-date an architectural concept and building effort. To the Latins, their results are an expression of cultural maturity. Avantgarde writers, artists, and intellectuals were willing to accept theories which did not secure a following in Europe or the United States.
The Latins admit, however, that although they have a unique style of architecture, they have to go a long way to achieve the necessary quantity. Two thirds of the people still need better housing.