South America’s Visionary Architects

Across South America, visionary architects are combining the thrilling possibilities of their art with an incisive social consciousness, creating a paradigm that is setting an example for the world
South America’s Visionary Architects

Photography by Fernando Guerra

In 1955, as Americans mastered the Argentine tango in dance halls and watched Havana cast a spell over Sky Masterson, they learned that Latin American culture had another dimension to celebrate.

In an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that year, the New York institution declared that postwar buildings in Central and South America rivaled architecture in the United States and Europe “both in quantity and quality.” The urbanization galloping forward in places like Caracas and Rio de Janeiro boasted a vocabulary of concrete, color and climate that was both rooted in the modernism of the West and entirely distinct from it.

Latin America secured its place in the pantheon of global architecture with projects that were often as large as they were daring, such as Ricardo Legorreta’s sprawling Camino Real block in Mexico City, or the federal capital Brasília, associated with architect Oscar Neimeyer and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. Yet by the 1980s, new movements failed to sweep across Latin America with the same transformation that modernism had rendered at mid-century. Speaking of his native Mexico, for example, architect Fernando Romero says, “After the great Mexican architecture produced during the modern period, there was something of a crisis.”

Today the crisis is most certainly over, as Latin American creativity surges across movie screens and on museum walls. And while this new era’s architecture may not be as aesthetically uniform as the golden age to which it is inevitably compared, its creators share the democratic vision and spirit of their predecessors. As critic Justin McGuirk observed, “A new generation in Latin America has returned a sense of hope to the idea that the architect can make a meaningful difference in the cities of the developing world.” Here, we profile four destinations in Latin America where architecture is again reshaping local life, and inspiring emulation abroad.


The architecture coming out of Santiago is emblematic of contemporary Latin American design. Thanks to factors that include the end of the Pinochet regime and longstanding economic stability, the talents working in Chile’s capital have had the freedom to develop multiple approaches to sheltering the modern world.

Three Santiago-based architects represent this full range of expression: Mathias Klotz creates crisp shapes from humble wood and concrete; the firm Duque Motta & Arquitectos Asociados works with similar hard-edged forms, but finishes them in patterns that lighten their visual footprint; and the small, sculptural buildings of Smiljan Radić appear as if transported from another world.

The Santiago design community’s forerunner has been able to capture its kaleidoscope of perspectives in single strokes. Through his studio, Elemental, Alejandro Aravena has produced work as varied as a glass tower that looks like a tree branching into two and an office building in which seemingly impregnable concrete slabs slide past one another, both for the Universidad Católica de Chile. His oeuvre also includes multiple projects in incremental housing—an experiment in affordability that is constructed mostly as building shells, and which residents fill in and customize as their resources and personal tastes allow.

In recognition of this remarkable spectrum, in 2016 alone Aravena was tapped to curate the Venice Biennale of Architecture and won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, two of the industry’s most prestigious accolades. “Few have risen to the demands of practicing architecture as an artful endeavor, as well as meeting today’s social and economic challenges,” the Pritzker jury stated. In melding those two threads, he “has meaningfully expanded the role of the architect.”

Aravena suggests another interpretation, saying that the marriage of artistry and a commitment to the greater good is exactly what his counterparts have in common. “I would focus on the questions that architects are dealing with more than the answers,” he explains. “The question of rapidly growing cities that have to be built with very limited resources of time and money is an everyday practice in Latin America.” As people in the developed world grapple with new demographic pressures on urban areas, he poses, they will be learning from his circle of thinkers.
Tatiana Bilbao’s Casa Ventura in Monterrey.


Although commentators kick around its causes—trade agreements or the end of one-party rule in 2000, among other educated guesses—the creative community in Mexico City is burgeoning. And this boom is as loud as it is fresh. In its renowned Emerging Voices program, The Architectural League of New York has recognized a Mexico City-based practice for eight of the last 10 years.

For Tatiana Bilbao, who led these up-and-coming talents with her selection to Emerging Voices in 2010, the city’s creative renaissance dates to the opening of its first McDonald’s. “I remember very clearly seeing the lines form outside the restaurant, and realizing that it was time to act on a world stage.” Yet Bilbao squares the ambition of computer-aided, Instagram-ready design with the realities of Mexican construction—namely that the laborers who erect architects’ creations are trained in traditional materials and construction techniques. Bilbao has earned wide renown for employing simpler, buildable forms to poetic ends. Among the more notable, the Gratitude Open Chapel that she designed with Dellekamp Arquitectos for the holy route between Ameca and Talpa de Allende effects a sense of seclusion and soaring emotion from just several concrete monoliths. In addition, for the incremental housing prototype that became the darling of the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, Bilbao created a core of concrete block surrounded by spaces that are enclosed in shipping pallets, which can be dismantled and rearranged to accommodate expansion.

While Bilbao represents one group of Mexico City practitioners today, Fernando Romero illustrates a parallel path of lifting regional architecture to globalization’s tide. “The technology of one’s time allows a building to represent that time. Design is the translation of those forces into a building,” Romero says. The namesake of the design studio FR-EE is best known for completing the Museo Soumaya, a sensuously twisting form clad in aluminum that has spurred the revitalization of Mexico City’s Nuevo Polanco neighborhood. Currently he is collaborating with legendary architect Norman Foster on a new international airport on the outskirts of the metropolis. Whatever the architectural idiom, Bilbao says of her Mexico City colleagues, “There’s a sense that we are part of a generation, which is something very different from what we knew.”


The transformation of Medellín from the headquarters of Pablo Escobar into a hub of commerce and culture shows what can happen when grassroots humanitarian architecture becomes the rallying cry of a city. “Around the world, followers of architecture with a capital A have focused so much of their attention on formal experiments, as if aesthetics and social activism were mutually exclusive,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman after an extensive trip to Colombia’s second city. “But Medellín is proof that they’re not, and shouldn’t be. Architecture, here and elsewhere, acts as part of a larger social and economic ecology.”

Contemporary architecture began to flourish in Medellín during the mayorship of Sergio Fajardo in the mid 2000s. Building upon grassroots activism from a decade prior, Fajardo’s administration fought crime through transparency rather than fortification. The walls to the city’s Botanical Garden were literally torn down, and a science and technology museum by local studio Alejandro Echeverri + Valencia Arquitectos rose across the street.

Just as important, additional public investments have been directed to impoverished neighborhoods, and these education, transportation and other facilities are visible symbols of care for the common citizen. Multiple Medellín-based and Chilean architects have shared in this triumph, though the title of dean goes to Giancarlo Mazzanti of Bogotá. The tectonic España library, ribbon-like sports arena and other Mazzanti-designed buildings capture the energetic and egalitarian spirit of the city’s projects.
Kogan’s Catuçaba Farm, perched nine miles above the Pinga Rio Valley


The architects practicing in São Paulo remind us that the shapes of Latin American modernism offer functionality and drama today. “Brazil had the dream of a modern country, with no traditions, and the desire to do something new. They built an entire city with these ideals. We are merely continuing this magical moment in a more contemporary and technological manner,” says Marcio Kogan of the work of his firm, Studio MK27, and of the São Paulo scene generally.

Studio MK27 leads the city’s architecture community, alongside Isay Weinfeld’s eponymous design firm. Kogan and Weinfeld are both stewards of mid-century architecture, employing rigorous geometries with a certain casualness. For Weinfeld, the results blur lush outdoors and indoors, as in his Jenga-like 360º Building, in which inhabitable volumes and the garden spaces between them climb skyward.

The men also share a professional history, as longtime collaborators in both design and film. The duo made a series of acclaimed shorts together, which culminated in the 1988 feature Fire and Passion. Kogan says the attempt at longer-form narrative did not land quite as he had hoped. But in spite of the poor reception—perhaps even because of it—the effort focused his understanding of building. “It brought to me a different thought process, where I could incorporate movies into architecture, from the elongated proportions of a wide screen to the importance of light and the moment-to-moment emotions that one must consider when producing a script.”

MK27’s recently completed Jungle House, located in the coastal rainforest outside São Paulo, epitomizes a cinematic approach to Brazilian modernism. Kogan both tucked the concrete structure into a lush mountainside site and boldly cantilevered the monumental form away from it, so that one edge of the building blends with vegetation while another frames a panorama of the ocean. The perimeter of a pool is elevated slightly above its deck to raise swimming to eye-level height; a razor-like stair pierces an open volume to connect rugged landscape with human intervention. In reconciling mid-century crispness with Kogan’s personal interest in theatricality, Jungle House illustrates that Latin American modernism is still purposeful and thrilling. And it is exactly the blend of continuity and innovation that defines the continent’s most exciting architecture today.