Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Rediscovered two years ago, researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how the thing works.
There’s an arrestingly strange, complicated object on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan right now. Ostensibly, it’s there to welcome you into the museum’s exhibit on mid-century planning and design in Latin America. But don’t expect to understand it at first glance, and don’t be surprised if it stays in your mind as you make your way through the show.
A wooden board with metallic lines traveling over and away from painted variables and measuring sticks make up Carlos Gómez Gavazzo’s “development calculator,” which he created in 1960.
The device was actually something useful to Gavazzo, an architect and professor at Uruguay’s University of the Republic in Montevideo. A committed modernist who worked with Le Corbusier in Paris in 1933, Gavazzo built his career by exploring the post-World War II role of developmentalism on Latin America, particularly Uruguay.
Gavazzo taught courses on the theory of population density and the methods of territorial planning. According to MoMA, his calculator is meant to render it all to an exact science, correlating “land use, inhabitation, work, legal forms, investment output or capacity, and quality of life” in order to “determine the existing level of development in a given region which might, in turn, guide policy and design.”
In other words, there’s no better object to introduce this period of development in Latin America.
“We start with this because it really does capture the idealism and the whole proposition that architecture, urbanism, territorial management; that they’re all completely linked,” says Patricio del Real, curator of Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980. “There’s almost this elegant orchestra that the architect and the planner and the engineers, they’re all working together to create a well-tuned, balanced machine that the city, the territory, the nation should be.”
Uruguayan architects had developed an early interest in European modernism. German urbanist Werner Hegemann paid the country a visit in the 1920s. So did Le Corbusier, who invited Gavazzo to join him in Paris after seeing a house he had built as a student.
Gavazzo played a significant role in the way Uruguay approached its growth and transformation in the middle of the century. As head of the university’s institute of territorial planning, the architect always had “one foot in academia and another in government,” del Real says.
But his country did not fare as well as hoped. Low living standards sparked unrest in the 1950s, and by 1968 ongoing labor disputes led President Jorge Pacheco to declare a state of emergency. By 1972, Pacheco had suspended civil liberties in Uruguay. Gavazzo was forced into exile while a military regime ruled from 1973 until 1984. He passed away in 1987.
His development calculator was rediscovered two years ago in a storage bin at the university. Researchers are currently trying to figure out exactly how it works.
“It’s interesting because he’s a very important figure, but I guess the depth and complexity of his thoughts were kind of put aside,” says del Real. “After the military took over there were massive interventions into the schools. History became a difficult proposition, so the study of architecture became sort of just about the form, and ways of creating rather than the history of architecture itself. There was very little new research happening with archival sources, but now there’s a new generation that’s starting to look back at their own history and really start doing archival research.”
It’d be wrong, del Real stresses, to look at Gavazzo’s creation as some esoteric piece in the show. “Since the ‘50s he had been developing these methodologies that have to do with the conversion between mathematics, graphics, economy, territory and form,” says the curator. “Seeing it by itself, it’s kind of bizarre and strange,” he adds, “but it shows a very interesting relationship between the graphic and scientific aspects of his work.”
Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 closes Sunday, July 19 at the Museum of Modern Art.