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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. […]