Researching Architecture of the "Other America"
by Suzanna Engman
Graduate Program Coordinator at the School of Architecture María Isabel Oliver has studied Latin American architecture in Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
A variety of forces have shaped School of Architecture Graduate Program Coordinator María Isabel Oliver’s vision of her profession. For one thing, her traditionally male-dominated field presents special challenges for women. However, Oliver sees these challenges as opportunities, not as obstacles to be overcome.
“Contemporary times have benefited women architects,” says Oliver. “Whether we like it or not, we are considered minorities—even if women in the profession outnumber men! And minorities have attained certain privileges nowadays. This is certainly true for women because there are currently more studies of women in architecture and their contributions.”
Oliver observes a divide between historian/theorists and practitioners within the field of architecture, with women practitioners facing higher standards than men. “In order to get builders to respect you, you have to have a tough character and be extremely talented. The profession doesn’t allow for mediocrity in a woman.”
As a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University specializing in Latin American architecture and the mother of a four-year-old, Oliver herself falls into the historian/theorist category, which she feels is a little gentler on women. Her specialization, a nascent area, has placed her, again, in the minority category within the field of architecture. “Latin American architecture was almost invisible to the rest of the world, to Latin America itself and to the Caribbean,” she says. Latin American historian/theorists are scarce and in demand as university professors. In fact, the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras jokes that he stole Oliver from New York, where she taught at the Parsons New School for Design, and brought her back to UPR-RP, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
Photos courtesy of Julian Weyer. Buildings designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer include: (top) Ministry of Justice, Brasilia; (l. to r.) Museum of Contemporary Art, Nitero; Cathedral of Brasilia; Ministry of Defense Complex, Brasilia; (second row l. to r) National Congress, Brasilia; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brasilia; COPAN Building, Sau Paulo.
Some of the projects Oliver has worked on, for example a special edition of Design Book Review magazine that focused on some of the first publications of Latin American architecture, have drawn attention to the special qualities of the different countries that make up the “Other America.” Another publication, Just Add Water, edited by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), examined how water contributes to the aesthetics of deterioration in Havana, Cuba and how this is perceived as a tourism attraction.
After receiving a grant from the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, Oliver visited the Architectural Association in London to research the influential role of the original Department of Tropical Architecture in the formation, homogenization, and propaganda of a universal “tropical” discourse, in particular within the Latin American region. At the Department she uncovered a myth that tropical modern architecture expressed the formulation of regional or vernacular identities, a myth that that tropical architectural discourse fosters. “Instead, tropical modern architecture is an expression and adaptation of Corbusian modernism based on standardization and modern materials—pivoting doors, pivoting windows, use of brise soleils, for example,” she says.
Oliver is the founder of the Latin American research project iESCALA (Iniciativas de Estudio de Sociedad, Cultura y Arquitectura de Latino America). She is organizing a symposium at UPR-RP for Spring 2010 and inviting eminent theoreticians and practitioners from Latin America to discuss current theories and discourses on Latin American architecture. “Since the 1980s Latin American architecture’s discourse has been centered around issues of national identity, and now it is about issues of globalization and post-globalization,” she says.
A question Latin American architecture theoreticians debate is whether to include the Caribbean as part of Latin America. The answer is not clear cut, says Oliver. “Islanders are different. Being surrounded by water creates a different notion of space. Insularismo is also a part of this debate. Building materials and availability, humidity, changes of temperature are all differences. But the development of colonial architecture and modern architecture is similar to Latin America.”
Puerto Rico’s quality of being a part of, yet different from Latin America, makes it an ideal location for Latin American architecture studies. Oliver hopes that iESCALA is the first step toward creating a Latin American architecture institute on campus.