An architectural model turns into a view of a driveway. The concrete lane shines in the sun, framed by an abundant willow tree and a background of fresh green treetops. The escape lines of a flat concrete ceiling disappear beyond the view of the frame, covering a garage paved with large, natural stone tiles. As the sketched-up view transforms into a still, then moving, image, an off-frame voice cues the set-up of microphones and cameras. The opening scene of Terence Gower’s “Ciudad Moderna” (2004) establishes a model space: the camera cues bring attention to the artifice of filmmaking. Similarly, the architectural model is also the set-up for scripted action.
Action. A posh car drives in under the driveway’s firm concrete slabs, pulls up near a sliding glass door, where a maid in uniform comes out to greet. The well-dressed female driver walks out to a patio with thriving monstera plants. All the scenes and the music in Gower’s video were sourced from “Despedida de casada,” a popular rom-com released in Mexico in 1966. As in the opening scene, the video selects and rearranges scenes from the movie to highlight the modern architectural spaces it features. Gower freezes frames, removes people and converts the picture to black-and-white to highlight landscaped gardens, façades in neat grids and brise-soleils, and staircases unfolding in precise geometries. If the recurrence of modernist elements through a range of residential and commercial spaces is too subtle, Gower makes his point more explicit by employing computer-drawn architectural sketches, reducing the narrative set to an analysis of architectural design. In compensation, each image is then revived into a short clip of the film in action: women in stylish outfits and flawless up-dos; men in lounge shoes (one who neglects to remove them when jumping into a pool); a woman wearing a bikini, sunglasses and a straw hat fires a pistol at a body in a swimming pool; casually dressed men engage in a comical fight.
Driven by freeze-frames and models, the video announces a clear exercise of analysis. Action and sound, meanwhile, give it entertainment value and a comical undertone. They hint at a fragmented, but highly recognizable plot, and release a far less simple, but also far deeper engagement with the modern architecture of a fictionalized Mexican city.
Mexico City was one of the centers of architectural modernism in Latin America in the twentieth century. The credits to “Ciudad Moderna” include the names and addresses of the buildings in Mexico City and Acapulco that the video features, along with the names of the responsible architects and the year when each was built, ranging from 1956 to 1964. Among them are creations of iconic modernist architects in the country, such as Guadalquivir 109, designed by Mario Pani Darqui and built in 1956, and landmarks of national modern architecture such as the Museo Nacional de Antropología, completed in 1964, just two years before “Despedida de Casada” was released. It was not Terence Gower so much as his source film that sampled this modernist urban environment as the setting for a marriage-divorce comedy among a circle of well-to-do characters in Mexico City. Gower’s video suggests that, more than representing the aspect of a modern city, “Despedida de Casada” projects a vision of a modern lifestyle that was powerfully embodied by that architecture; inhabiting structures that were barely out of the architectural and governmental imagination with a corresponding imagination of a class’ habits and outfits.
Equally present in this imagination—although consistently lost in the architectural sketches—are the surfaces and environments that marked a Mexican style of modernist architecture. In many ways, Latin America and the mid-century Global South actualized modernist architecture and urban planning in a way that Western Europe and the United States never did. The foliage and the stone tiles in the opening frame, the murals on the Televicentro and throughout the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) that incorporate pre-Colombian patterns into a modern design, the swimming pools and waving gardens of the leisured class, and other surface accents speak for a movement that found a particularly authentic possibility to actualize modernist ideals in the clear sky of Latin America and in the native primitivism of pre-Colombian geometries. Whether led by public or private initiative, this went along with new visions of nation-building and cultural emancipation that took shape around the middle of the twentieth century.
Intriguingly, all of the music selected into the video is Brazilian, or, in the case of “Mas que Nada,” a Spanish-language version of a Brazilian song. Underscored by Gower’s selection, the prominence of bossa nova and new sambas in this Mexican film reflects a parallel exchange with the South American country, and an internationalization of a new Brazilian musical style mirroring the fame won by a Brazilian strain of architectural modernism as early as the 1940s. In Gower’s video, music and scenes of live musical performance fill in for an entertaining, spirited sequence; to a knowing ear, they also complement a complex story of modernity and its projections in Latin America.
Beyond the use of architectural models—a clear, if sterile device—Gower’s strategy to select and re-animate scenes from a single film also renders a vision of modernity that fueled artistic and commercial cultures in 1960s Mexico. “Rendering” is a way to define how Gower displays spaces and actions in “Despedida de Casada” that are cut to a larger pattern of imagined modernity. With nuance, Gower’s clever visual argument recalls the history and form of the translation of the modern city in Latin America. An essayistic reflection on one film’s assembled iconography of modernness between architectural form and social habit, “Ciudad Moderna” ultimately scales up to broader questions of how culture at large has performed in the modern city. (Marina Resende Santos)
Terence Gower’s “Ciudad Moderna” is on view at the Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, through April 19.