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School of Architecture students and faculty joined architects from across the Americas in conversations about what defines modern American architecture.

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Hundreds of students and faculty in the School of Architecture joined architects from across the Americas in lively, sometimes controversial, conversations about what traits define modern “American” architecture during Latitudes 4, a two-day symposium reflecting on architecture in Canada, the United States, Mexico and South America.

Barbara Hoidn

Latitudes 4 took place March 29-30, 2012, at The University of Texas at Austin.Photo: June Jung and Selina Ortiz, Visual Resources Collection

The symposium, organized by the Center for American Architecture and Design, and co-sponsored by the School of Architecture and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), brought together a diverse group of innovative architects to challenge and define perceptions of the cultural, socio-economic and geographic challenges and opportunities characteristic of the region.

“Latitudes expresses the belief that buildings are artifacts rich in depth and meaning,” said Kevin Alter, professor in the School of Architecture and one of the symposium’s organizers, along with Associate Professor Barbara Hoidn. “It proposes, more specifically, that the careful examination of key examples of architecture from across the Americas might tell us something about ‘American architecture’ and about the range of accomplishment in the field.”

Hoidn, along with Professor Wilfried Wang, began traveling to Latin America with advanced architecture design studios in 2005, and preliminary research laid the ground for a more detailed knowledge of practicing architects in the various South American countries. Professors Michael Benedikt and Alter, in the Center for American Architecture and Design, have a long history and expertise on architects in the Americas and invited several prominent practitioners.

Kevin Alter

Professor Kevin Alter 

Architects from Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Ecuador and the United States spent two days discussing their specific projects, treating one another’s buildings as examples of some of the best from each region, each latitude.

Below are Hoidn’s and Alter’s thoughts on the symposium:

Q: What is the significance of this symposium?

Hoidn: The most significant challenge for coming generations is to understand the irreversible changes of the past 20 years with regard to the declining predominant and hegemonic Western point of view and the world and its large cultural implications. While not only architectural models but also ideologies have been exported from the U.S. to the South at the beginning of the 21st century, it is patently clear that much stands to be gained from the northern territories’ attention to the recent architectural achievements in South America.

Alter: Latitudes seeks to portray buildings as the complex artifacts they are, conceptually, materially, phenomenologically, technically and circumstantially. Rather than look to the Asian building boom, or to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates or even Europe, the Latitudes symposium focuses on glimpses of architecture’s future in the Americas.

Barbara Hoidn

Professor Barbara Hoidn 

Q: What are the biggest differences between South American and North American architecture?

Hoidn: The most striking difference is that there tends to be a higher level of expectation for building performance in the North, while the South’s direct engagement with materials and construction is really laudable. Similarly, the leadership role architects are able to play in the South by virtue of a less litigious environment allows for a more direct engagement in construction and invention.

Alter: North American architects lost a lot of ground to the building and construction industry in the 20th century. Extravagant spaces, specificity in materials, moments of magical perception of a space are reserved for museums or galleries. On the other hand, the South American architects face different levels of urgency in their urban environments, obvious economic limitations and constraints; yet the essence of architecture as a civil art shines directly through avoiding all luxurious extravagances.

Q: What are the most notable similarities between South American and North American architecture?

Hoidn: Latitudes! Working on the same continent in a topography/geography that once was shaped by the same natural forces. At best, a humble attitude toward an overwhelming and beautiful American nature; at worst, a thoughtless taking advantage of a wealth of natural resources and their consumption throughout the continent.

Alter: The most notable similarity is that all the architects who presented at the symposium are working on making buildings that are directly engaged with the circumstances of their respective places, and they take great care in how they conceive and construct them.

Q: Are there defining features of modern architecture in the Americas?

Hoidn: This was one of the key questions of the conference. To rediscover under the “outmoded” flattening influence of internationalism the specificities and the necessities for a more local architecture and to overcome the one-dimensional message of international modernism.

Alter: In bringing together this diverse group of innovative architects, we are also exploring the presence of an American modern architecture one that transcends national or North, Central and South American divides, and that is distinguishable from other models. American modernism revels in the opportunities of the new. Both North American and South American paths of American modernism share an aesthetic that consistently values the serendipity of nature and social occasion over composition.

Q: What effect has globalism had on architectures in the Americas?

Hoidn: The financial system of the past 20 years allowed real estate business to operate globally, offering global (Western) solutions to local problems. Architecture has been part of it, selling “old” solutions to new problems, like cars. Other cultures, in the meantime, articulated a clear voice and relative established positions in architecture and urban design.

Home page banner photo: June Jung and Selina Ortiz, Visual Resources Collection