Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 25, 2022
Ana María León Modernity for the Masses: Antonio Bonet's Dreams for Buenos Aires Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. 288 pp.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781477321782)

Some might caution that writing a book focused almost entirely on unbuilt projects by a lesser-known architect of the modernist movement would be tantamount to relegating one’s work to the margins of scholarship. However, using this exact formula is what makes Ana María León’s Modernity for the Masses: Antonio Bonet’s Dreams for Buenos Aires the valuable contribution to architectural history and Latin American studies that it is. Focused on the intersection of spatial politics and the politics of the Argentine state through the lens of Catalan architect Antonio Bonet, León reveals the intertwined histories of modern architecture and statecraft through an analysis of mass housing.

Significantly, the success of this study lies in León’s framing of Bonet and his work in terms of minor histories. Calling on the work of Branden Joseph, León positions her study of Bonet not as one meant to reinforce the dominant narratives of architects such as Le Corbusier, Joseph Sert, and Mies van der Rohe, but as an opportunity to open up and unsettle established categories of modernism. León does not present Bonet’s relationship to Sert or Le Corbusier in order to bolster Bonet’s importance; rather, the connections she draws effectively capture the rich, transnational texture of the modernist movement, and her focus on Bonet’s unbuilt projects allows the reader to consider other aspects of modernism that do not fit into established narratives. Through the figure of Bonet, León shows how architects participated in state projects targeted at the masses. She ties this directly to Bonet’s engagement with surrealism and the power of architecture to tap into the unconscious to “persuade, control, and discipline populations” (214).

León follows two interrelated phenomena: “the spatial politics of the city’s monumental center and growing periphery, and the construction of a collective unconscious to stand in for the masses in order to control them” (214). She attends to the issue of the collective unconscious through an emphasis on surrealism. Thus, Leon weaves other figures into her account, such as graphic designer and photographer Grete Stern, whose surrealist work intertwined with that of Bonet.  By carefully and creatively exploring such interconnections, León provides an engaging study of the interrelationships between surrealism and architecture that moves well beyond the usual suspects.

Modernity for the Masses strikes a balance between the detail of a single architect and the broader social and cultural context within which he worked, offering a clear representation of how Bonet was both a product and a creator of the architectural milieu of his time. To this end, the author’s focus on spatial politics means that there are significant passages that cover Argentine history and politics as well as the expected analysis of Bonet’s housing projects. This structure indicates León’s awareness that most readers will not be aficionados of Argentine history, which makes this book accessible to readers of all stripes. Though León’s research included working with archives, interviews, and Bonet’s biographer, the result is not a celebration of Bonet’s design achievements. Instead, León gives us a perhaps more realistic view of the agency of an architect: three of the four projects under study were unbuilt. In sum, it is at once a book that is about Antonio Bonet and spatial politics in Buenos Aires in the 1930s–50s.

“Wandering Ship,” the first chapter, culminates in a study of the Artists’ Atelier (1939)—the only built work included in this book—via an examination of Bonet’s formation as an architect in Spain, his work in Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris, and his relocation to Argentina. In describing Buenos Aires in the late 1930s, León leaves the reader with no doubt as to why a young architect would want to flee war-torn Europe for this booming city open to modernist aesthetics. Indeed, once there, Bonet quickly situated himself within the landscape of modernist architecture, and León frames this period via the architecture group known as Grupo Austral and its eponymous publication Revista Austral, both of which Bonet helped found. The publication provides rich source material for León to outline Bonet’s commitment to surrealism and the friction it created with other architects who had a more conservative approach to architecture. Concluding with an examination of the Artists’ Atelier, León frames this project as the one in which Bonet developed his understanding of Argentine culture and sifted through his European professional experiences to identify his own priorities and praxis.

Chapter 2, “The Machine in the Pampas,” is centered on the Casa Amarilla (1942) and sets the tone for the rest of the chapters on unbuilt state housing projects. Bonet worked with a team to design this project for the 1943 dictatorship. Meant to address the state’s housing problem, Casa Amarilla sought to reclaim monumentality for the masses, though León reads the project as a “stand-in for machinery of a totalitarian state struggling to contain and control an increasingly resistant population” (78). León effectively connects these aims with contemporaneous understandings of race and class as well as xenophobic attitudes that at once romanticized the pampas as a core component of Argentine identity and elicited fear of the unruly masses of immigrants who were leaving this rural region to relocate to urban Buenos Aires. León frames Bonet as engaging with these issues vis-à-vis the influence of writings on monumentality and the symbolic and emotional role of architecture by Roger Caillois, George Bataille, and Le Corbusier. Through lively readings of the photomontages produced around this project, León presents an interpretation of the building as a surrealist object. This leads to León’s ultimately positioning Casa Amarilla as an enigmatic project that could be read in contradictory ways: “was it meant to influence the military regime or was it a counterproposal to its madness?” (127).

León’s lucid depiction of the totalitarian regime’s project of ruling the masses makes the material of chapter 3, “The Peronist Unconscious,” all the more compelling. Designed under the auspices of the Estudio del Plan de Buenos Aires (EPBA, Study of the Plan of Buenos Aires) during the presidency of Juan Domingo Perón, the Bajo Belgrano housing project allows León to capture the Peronist propaganda machine and its relationship to modernism as well as Bonet’s moves to position himself internationally. By tracing Bonet’s role as a promoter rather than a designer, the author leaves readers with an impression of the architect falling more deeply into the realm of politics. Attributed to Bonet and Jorge Ferrari, Bajo Belgrano was meant to be part of a larger regional approach to building Peronist Argentina through what León describes as a pastoral modernity, which reflected Perón’s interest in creating a modern present through the construction of a mythic past. León connects Stern’s work on an advice column, contextualized as part of the rise of psychoanalysis in Argentina, with her work on the Bajo Belgrano promotional materials to underscore Peronist tactics to tap into the inner desires of the masses and keep them docile. León finishes the chapter by situating Bonet and Bajo Belgrano within an international context; though the project was poorly received at the seventh meeting of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in 1949, the EPBA’s image of the architect as expert was in line with international trends. As León drives home, Bonet was working as an expert in service of the Peronist propaganda machine.

Chapter 4, “Eternal Returns,” opens with the attack on the presidential palace and the ousting of Perón in 1955, together with Bonet’s work on a new housing project, Barrio Sur, a year later. Working to erase Perón’s legacy and present itself as modern and technologically efficient (and conservative), the new regime commissioned Bonet to design a large-scale housing project for an area of the city inhabited by Perón supporters and the working class. León captures the regime’s move to favor private financial institutions through the project’s attention to land extraction and private development to rebuild the neighborhood for middle-class, consuming Porteños—i.e., natives of Buenos Aires. Here, again, León captures Bonet as promoter, with an eye across the Atlantic as much as on the Argentine regime. Tracing his increasing interest in international attention, this chapter discusses Bonet’s return to Spain and his self-branding with the project of latinidad, which referenced the shared culture and heritage of Latin America and the Mediterranean and, as León argues, a nostalgia that reflects larger shifts in the discourse of modern architecture.

A short conclusion powerfully drives home some of the arguments that León threads throughout her study. An opening quotation from Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno allows León to more pointedly address a claim that is slowly built across the expanse of the book: that fascism and capitalism are ideologies that aim to control their populations. León shows us how Bonet grappled with these phenomena through his (largely) unbuilt projects, first when he was a foreigner and later as an “Argentine” with international aspirations. Participating in the myth of these different projects under different regimes, Antonio Bonet allows León to demonstrate the failure of the modernist project to house the masses.

Erica Morawski
History of Art and Design Department, Pratt Institute