Geography and Geometry in Latin America: Nature, Architecture and Society

Latin America was born under the sign of ambiguity.

By Roberto Segre. Foto: Kal Visuals / Unsplash

1.- The singular landscape of the New World

Latin America was born under the sign of ambiguity. When they arrived on the new lands, the spanish navigators doubted the existence of the unknown, sure as they were of having arrived on Cipango or the Indies. Acknowledging their mistake, they named the immeasurable continent America, counteracting the obstinate denomination of West Indies (Rojas Mix 1991: 12) insistently maintained by the Anglo-Saxons.  The Europeans denied the autonomy and identity of lands, sceneries and peoples, creating a system of alien counterfeits and shams (Sarlo 1999: 224). A dichotomy of places, names and institutions was persistently generated. The surprise of the unwonted presupposed their arrival in Paradise, El Dorado or the Hesperides, making the yearned Renaissance Utopia turn into reality. The unknown became gradually familiar in the imagery of the conquerors: direct transcriptions appeared as they ascribed names to the new geographic environments: “Nueva España” (New Spain); “Nueva Granada”; “Nueva Zamora”; “Trujillo”; “Cartagena” (Hardoy 1991). Some territories, by the force of their cultures, or the particular features of the sites, assumed colorful local appellations: Mexico, La Habana (Havana), Cuzco, Chile, Caracas or Montevideo.

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The Inca Trail. Photo: Kal Visuals / Unsplash.

The existence of well over one hundred million local inhabitants, as well as the presence of developed civilizations — the Aztecas, Mayas and Incas — did not have a parallel in Europe fit to match the attraction and interest produced by the unheard-of geographies. The policy of replacing the culture of the subjected by that of the domineering masters and the enslavement of the native populations — who in a couple of centuries were brought down to ten million across the whole continent — erased the greatest part of their historical ancestry: testimonial statements, documents, monuments and cities. Conversely, the dimension, extent and telluric power of Nature — in which the idyllic figure of the “Noble Savage”, invented by Rousseau, got absorbed — rendered possible, from Columbus to Baron Humboldt, succeeding surveys, investigations, descriptions and discoveries to be carried out on this infinite and hitherto unknown territory.


The Spanish proceeded to scour inch by inch the multiple environments of the  continent in order to take hold of it, to dominate and to exploit it (Virilio 2001: 38). They imposed their own set of values, voided the territory of its natural resources, reproduced the Iberic institutions speculatively, but did not manage to restrain  either the growing ratial mix process or the reflux of the local cultures, nor the influence of a myriad-facetted Nature, predominant and overpowering because of its extraordinary dimensions (Carpentier 1966: 22) and of its regenerative voraciousness, to paraphrase Mariano Picón Salas (Posani 1993; 53). The   omnipresence of Nature along the 500 years of occidentalization, combined with the close bonds that the pristine pre-Columbian civilizations maintained with it, appears in the literary interpretations of the Latin American reality — as in Martínez Estrada, Carpentier, Guillén, Rivera, Amado, Roa Bastos, García Márquez, Rulfo, Guimarães Rosa, Borges, among others — which magnify the assets of a natural context that is penetrating and sharply felt in the everyday lives of its inhabitants.

The grandiose majesty of the landscape establishes physical parameters whose multifold features of space and time (Calvino 1998: 109) break loose from any rational and homogenizing scheduling of the social befall: the mountains (the Andes); the copious flow of the mighty rivers Orinoco, Amazonas, de la Plata; the silence of the desert (Puna de Atacama); the infinitude of the plains (the Pampa); the close dampness of the tropical forest (Matto Grosso); or the fragmentation of the islands (the Antilles). The attributes of Macondo (García Márquez 1999: 16) have little to do with those of Paris, Madrid or London; the cyclic rhythm of the changing seasons — which ever since Ancient Greece has defined the rites and customs of European Classic culture — are denied here by the climatic uniqueness of the Tropics and by the Caribbean arrhythmia of a fragmented time, defined by the sudden presence of hurricanes and cyclones (Benítez Rojo 1989: XIV). The alienating empty spaces of the Pampa — metaphor of “the sea on dry land” (Scheines 1991: 53) — leads to the delirium, the fantasy, the loneliness, the introversion and the individualism of the “gaucho”. They are manifestations of the “real wondrous” (Carpentier 1964: XIII), which aroused the imagination of the Old World intellectuals, from Thomas More’s Utopia to the surrealistic poems of Blaise Cendrars, the latter inspired by the exuberance of Brazil.  Without any doubt, what happens in the physical dimension of Latin America does not come out estranged from Bataille’s Oxymoron — the union of the contraries in the flambé ice-cream (Fernández-Galiano 1996: 3) — nor from the “hatched” or grooved territories of Deleuze, furrowed both by the nomad and the sedentary  (Deleuze, Guattari 1988: 484; Consiglieri 2000: 330).


2.- Variations of the urban reason

The occupation of the American territory entailed the sprawl of a network of cities: in little more than a century (1630), 331 were founded (Hardoy, Aranovich 1969: 21),  superposing Cartesian Geometry to the diverse local topographic features (Altamirano 1989: 21): a planning device that is still in effect to this day in the methodology applied by Peter Eisenman in the City of Culture of Santiago de Compostela, based on the philosophic thought of Derrida (Muschamp 2001). There are several motivations for the universal establishment of a regular square grid, consolidated in the 16th century by the regulations of the Laws of the Indies, reasserting the identical streets and blocks that expand along the two orthogonal axes radiating from a central void (the Plaza Mayor or main square).

City of Culture of Santiago de Compostela by Peter Eisenman.

The first one motivation of religious character, assumed from the Biblical model, multiplied the Celestial Jerusalem — the Civitatem Dei — in the new lands, appeasing the conquerors’ catechizing eagerness: the cities’ cross-like structure recreated the four rivers that, according to the Genesis, provided a structure to the Earthly Paradise (Mattos-Cárdenas 2000: 70). It expresses the continuity of the mediaeval culture in the identification between God, man and Geometry, postulated by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas (Aquinas) within the Platonic tradition, and later reformulated by Descartes and Spinoza (Abbagnano 1967: 197): the formal structuring principle of the built environment, whose metaphorical meaning still endures in modern times, both in the Poème de l’Angle Droit of the calvinist Le Corbusier and in the mystical significance of the Lucio Costa plan for Brasilia (Costa 1995: 284).

The second motivation was fundamented on the objectives proposed by the Imperial Crown for the new territories. The city was the scenographic representation of authority and its functional and repressive institutions. Divine justice and earthly justice merged in the “holy emptiness” of the Plaza Mayor, with  the “Roll” or stick in the center, acting as a symbol (Fagiolo 1975: 36). The buildings of the “disciplinary power” were then erected in the compact blocks surrounding the main square (Foucault 1995; Deleuze 1980: 86) — City Hall, Government Palace, Prison, Church, City Council Meeting Houses, the Alcázar or Fortress — providing a structure for the political, economic and military functions in the territory under their jurisdiction. And finally, the population’s settling was done based on the functional and equitable distribution of land plots among the inhabitants, who occupied the square or rectangular subdivisions of the urban blocks, identifying the space order with productive discipline and life according to morals. The patio-house, inherited from the Greco-Latin tradition, adjusted to the regular square grid, defining the alternation of full and empty spaces; of public and private areas. This was how the first real estate operation of modern history took place (Fernández 1993: 124). It has endured until the present day over the whole Hemisphere, in the infinite square grid of the territory, minced into residential parts.

Conversely to what is widely supposed, a generalized application of the urban square grid type has not imposed a mechanical repetition of formal and spatial models (Argan 1965: 75). Ideal geometry has submitted to concrete reality, always changeable and dynamic according to the diversity of social functions and needs. The Albertian thesis of varietà in unità is applicable (Ungers 1998: 46; Leite Brandão 2000: 218), which today would correspond to the Deleuzian statement of “difference and repetition” (Solá-Morales 1994: 69). In the genesis of the Latin-American city, above the bureaucratic concretion of the Renaissance Utopia (Benévolo 1968: 1302), we can perceive the dialectic interaction of three basic elements: the special features of geographic context (physical environment); the formal and ethical will (aesthetics); the socioeconomic reality (politics). It is a prominent  articulation in the polarity of interests and motivations that distinguish — and in some cases oppose — social from individual issues; objective from subjective; authoritarian power from democratic community (Jáuregui, Vidal 2001). These factors have a bearing on the contrasting personality of Buenos Aires and La Habana; of Montevideo and Lima; of San Juan and Caracas.

3.- The multifold identities of contemporaneity

Social life in the colonial city originated a return of the local popular culture, developed from native traditions and from the growing presence of enslaved labor. The uncontaminated set of values imposed by the Europeans on the continent tends to split before the growing ratial and cultural crossbreeding, along with the sundry mythologies of religious syncretism (García Márquez 1990: 174). In the cities, class barriers are broken down; public spaces become gathering places, communicating vessels of the urban social kaleidoscope. In the artistic expression, a symbiosis comes up between high culture and popular traditions, ripened in the local variations of Latin-American Baroque (Gasparini 1972: 364). Nature comes alive in the ornamental motifs of church decoration; the Cartesian strictness of urban planimetry is softened in the multifold curves of façades and cornices; the sculptures’ white European bodies get tinted in black, indian and half-breed, with features that recover the ancient ratial traits of pre-Columbian civilizations (Uslar Pietri 1983: 81).

The colonial universe disintegrates with the modern project ranging from the early 19th Century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, until the end of World War II. The Bolivarian territory’s unity cracks into smithereens; urban society prevails over the rural world — it is the Sarmientian antithesis between “civilization” and “barbarianism” (Iglesia 1993: 22) or the Shakespearean one of Prospero and Caliban (Fernández Retamar 1979: 15). The promise of indefinite progress in the virgin lands attracts European immigration; the State perfects its repressive instruments, symbolized in the traditional urban fabric through classic monuments, axes, diagonals and rond-points (roundabouts), which are modernized in the avenues and freeways of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse [images below] (Segre 1999: 155). Original ambiguousness endures in the economic and cultural development: there is at the same time a search for identity in the construction of a modern society with deep roots in local traditions; but the intellectual and productive dependence on Europe remains, to be transferred later to the United States.

The Mexican revolution attempts to rescue the indigenous ancestral heritage — to this day still claimed (2001) by Sub-Commander Marcos — as well as the ethics inherent to the rural world, without renouncing the Internet. In spite of this, metropolitan models, with all the inner contradictions of advanced capitalism — social inbalance, authoritarianism, corruption, violence, environmental deterioration — prevail in the great urban centers: Buenos Aires, São Paulo or Mexico City are no different from “First World” capitals. Sanctuary in the prison of the labyrinth is Borges’s own option to escape the unintelligibility of the modern surrounding universe (Grau 1997: 179).

Postmodernism or the contemporaneity that marks the second half of the 20th Century manifests itself in Latin America through a critic of the “modern project”’s schematism (Habermas 1981: 15) and the assimilation of a number of complex factors that influence present reality, “integrating the topographies of uncertainty and chance, the disorder and effervescence of the tragical” (Maffesoli 1997: 14). This becomes evident in the accentuation and dispersion all over the territory of the dichotomies wealth-poverty and town-country. Precarious settlements are introduced in the city’s fabric by the accelerated growth of the population of scanty resources, even in the best neighborhoods; on the other hand, the infinite expansion of the megalopolis blurs the borders between urban and rural territories. This coexistence and overlapping of dissimilar social strata generate a “hybrid” and “crossbreed” culture, the product of constant blends and articulations of contrasting traditions and values (Zaera Polo 1994: 24; Canclini 1997: 151).

Civilian society having defeated the military dictatorships along the eighties’ decade, a new stage of democratic political life opens in the region. Communities begin to have a dynamic participation, in an attempt to reverse the lengthy time of authoritarianism, repression, technocratism, corruption and environmental decay (Lévi-Strauss 1957, 1994: 19). The relationship between individual subjectivity, community cohesion and Nature preservation, expressed by Guattari in his Ecosophy, defines the rules of political engagement applied in distinct territories of the continent: Montevideo in Uruguay; Curitiba in Brasil; Córdoba in Argentina (Guattari 1993: 8).  Nevertheless, antagonism and ethical and political differences persist. Whereas progressive movements culminate in nationalist or radical political changes — such as the ones that took place in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela —, the pressure of metropolitan centers and neoliberal dynamics associated to globalization, enhance the bonds of economic and cultural dependence and the assimilation of alien models without criticism (Vélez Catrain, Segre 2000: 21). Persistent attempts to dolarize local economies, the dictates of habits and customs associated to consumption, and the presence of deceptive representations of technological “overmodernity”, tend to weaken national identities in the function, shape and space unification processes that characterize the “deterritorization” of the current urban inhabitant (Augé 1992: 101).

Museum of Contemporary Art by Oscar Niemeyer in Niteroi.

With the purpose of highlighting the relationship between Man, Society, Nature, Ethics and Aesthetics, I have picked out three examples of urban-architectural interventions, related to my own personal experience as a critic, both in Cuba and Brazil: the National Art Schools of Havana (1961 – 1965); the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, by Oscar Niemeyer (1991 – 1996); and the works of Jorge Jáuregui in the Favela-Bairro (Shanty town-Neighborhood) Program in Rio de Janeiro (1993 – 2000).

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