Episode 1 (May 2018): Miguel Caballero Vázquez and Monumental Anxieties


This is entreVistas, chats about Latin American politics, culture and history, featuring faculty, students and visitors at the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.

What are monuments, and why are they significant? What do monuments mean to the people who built them and to the communities in which they are placed? These questions seem especially relevant at a time when we in the US are grappling with issues related to confederate monuments and debate whether they should be protected or destroyed. This episode of entreVistas considers the diverse purposes of monuments, the messages that they convey, and how their meanings change over time. Listen as CLAS MA student, Ámber Miranzo, and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities, Miguel Caballero, discuss various monuments including the city of Brasília, cultivated fields in Spain, and skyscrapers in the Americas.

Ámber Miranzo: Hello and welcome to entreVistas a series of podcasts of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago. I am Ámber Miranzo and our guest today is Miguel Caballero Vazquez, Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper Fellow here at the U of C. Professor Caballero, good afternoon.

Miguel Caballero: Good afternoon, Ámber, and thank you very much for inviting me. I am so excited to be able to share my research with you.

That’s the idea…This is a new series, entreVistas, and we are featuring academics from the University to tell us a bit more about their work in a way that is conveyable to broader audiences. So, to introduce your work to our listeners: you are currently writing the manuscript of your book, Monumental Anxieties, where you study the construction of public and private space in twentieth-century Spain, Mexico, and Brazil. You center your work around monuments. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Sure. I really like the title Monumental Anxieties because it is a bit dramatic, and—I am from Spain—I like drama. So that is one of the main reasons. The second reason is I am interested in monuments since monuments represent the past and regimes that they consider oppressive. So that is the anxiety that I am doing research on.

And how, why do you work on monuments?

Monuments are tricky. They are artifacts that can be addressed from many different points of view, as political artifacts, as art (public art I guess). You can address it from the relationship between the people and them. How they are built, how they are destroyed. Vandalism, iconoclasm. But it is always tricky. When I talk about this, the first thing that I like to do is to ask the person who I am talking to, what that person thinks that a monument is. I want to ask you Ámber, what do you think a monument is?

Maybe…you said public art…that makes sense to me. Yeah, public art.

Yeah, they’re public art. I'm studying something that certain political regimes did with monuments—that they used monuments as tools, not to remember the past, which is a typical understanding of monuments that we have, but to change who they are in a way. If you think of our contemporary societies in the twenty-first century, there are many cities that are building these monumental buildings that in a way are changing the identity of the city. Think of Bilbao in Spain, to a certain extent think of Medellín in Colombia—they are using urbanism, they are using monuments, to change how they are perceived. So, I am doing kind of like an archaeological research on when this idea that monuments can change your identity started.

In the twentieth century, which is when your research is focused, how have different ideologies conceived monuments and what futurities have they inserted into them?

Well, this particular use that I study—this use of monuments as tools for change, as triggers for change—, I am particularly focusing on regimes that are especially interested in changing who they are. So I am working with post-revolutionary regimes, I am working with revolutionary regimes, I am working with countries implementing developmentalist policies. That is why my focus is on Spain during the war, Mexico in the 1920s–30s after the revolution, and Brazil in the 60s when the construction of Brasília is so central to this developmentalist project. I think these countries and these ideologies made a particular use of monuments as triggers for change to accelerate the process that they wanted to implement in ways either revolutionary or developmentalist.

I know a bit about your work. Could you tell us a bit more about Brasília, for example?

Well, I guess Brasília is sort of a quintessential example of this, right? Brasília was built as a city monument. The entire city was conceived as a monument, protected as a monument, from the very beginning. If you see the plan that Lúcio Costa, the urban planner, wrote, the proposal that he made, Brasília is all the time considered an intimate monument. That is how he called it, so a monument to live in. And it was built kind of to serve as an example for the rest of the country, for the rest of Brazil, on how the new Brazil should look. Not just how it should look like, because you know Brasília is this super rationalist city, but how Brazilians should work, because Brasília was built in three years. Just imagine, building a city in the middle of nowhere in only three years.

In three?

In three years! So, it was not just building this city to show aesthetically how the country, how the modern Brazil, should look like, but also how modern Brazilians should work. They were kind of fighting this stereotype of Brazilians not working hard, etc.

So, Brasília itself is a monument as a city. And this is something that struck me reading one of your articles, is a cultivated field a monument?

Well, that’s the thing, monuments are a tricky category. I tend to consider a monument whatever a community considers a monument for them, right? This cultivated field, you bring it from an article I wrote about the Spanish Civil War, when during the war, they were protecting the monuments in Madrid, but they were also discussing how monuments should be in the future.

The Republican side in Madrid reached a certain agreement, [where] at least some people wanted to protect the monuments of the past. Other people wanted to destroy them. But there is this agreement that either you protect them, or you destroy them. The monuments of the future shouldn't look like the monuments of the past. So, there were some people proposing, or wanting, monuments that were more respectful to the working class or celebrated the working class somehow, that they were not authoritarians.

One example that one author, Antonio Zozaya, proposed was to celebrate the cultivated fields as a monument. His argument was that normally when you win a war, you first build a monument to celebrate the glories of that war and then you make sure that everyone has everything to eat, everyone is at peace, in comfort. He wanted to reverse that dynamic. He said first let’s make sure everyone has whatever they need to eat and survive and then maybe we build monuments. So that is what he was saying, the real monuments of the future, if we win this war, should be the cultivated fields because that is proof that everyone has a good life.

And Brasília, the same thing. These people that built the city, from the very begging, considered it a monument. It’s in the proposal before the construction, and also it’s the first entire city that was considered a monument by UNESCO, so UNESCO protected Brasília just how it protected cities from antiquity. It is a very strange case, a modern city built in the 60s protected kind of as a ruin from the past and with the same kind of laws for protection.

Where they building Brasília with a view to making it cultural heritage?

I would say in a way, yes. Brasília has a very iconic urban plan, it looks like a cross in the middle of the center of Brazil, in the middle of the sertão. Some people say it’s a plane, but from the very beginning they knew that they wanted to preserve that urban plan, that cross. It was protected with protection laws from the very beginning. Even before the construction, it was considered that these laws were necessary. But there are more implications about considering Brasília as a monument, and those are the implications I am addressing in my book manuscript.

During the construction, a lot of people from all around the world came to visit. A lot of very important people—critics, politicians. I am giving you the example of two European intellectuals who came to Brasília: André Malraux, the French novelist and Minister of Cultural Affairs of France, and Bruno Zevi, the Italian architecture critic. Malraux saw in Brasília kind of like a redeemer of what happened in the Second World War. Brasília is kind of like a renaissance of the enlightenment that was almost destroyed by the war, so he was very happy to see a city monument, like a city built following the path of the great monuments of neoclassicism.

Zevi, on the contrary, was totally opposed to Brasília. He thought it was terrible to consider a city as a monument because it reminded him of fascist architecture. He thought this was kind of the dream of Mussolini in a way, so he was totally against it. He thought that this will bring even some racial segregation. He was not that wrong about that. There were a lot of discussions when Brasília was inaugurated about who could live in the city and who couldn't. And there is this paradox. It was a city built as a capital, so bureaucrats should live there, but there was this paradox that the builders of Brasília, these people who had been building it for three years, that generally came from poorer areas of the country—and generally, there was a racial divide there, they were were Afro-Brazilians quite often—, they had a hard time to let them live there in the city that they had built. They had this battle for a long time because they really wanted to live in the city which they had built but they were not allowed to live there. So maybe Zevi was not that wrong in that regard.

So, going back to our main topic. In the cases that you have studied, what happens when the meaning of existing monuments change?

Well, I think when a new regime comes there is always discussion about how our cities look and how that look, how those monuments, or those represented regimes that were understood as oppressive to us, and what to do with them. What is tricky, I think, some intellectuals or artists or even the people from these new regimes, they did different things. This is something that should be thought about case by case.

For example, there is a big discussion that I study in this book about skyscrapers in Latin America. In the 1920s and 30s, skyscrapers—which is monumental architecture, for sure—were built first in the United States, not in Latin America. But there were some people, scholars and writers, for example Rojas in Argentina, who though they represented the United States, they represented the capitalist, and they had nothing to do with Latin America.

For others, such as Francisco Mujica, who is an architect that I study, the skyscraper was kind of like a return of a way of building, of building monumentally, that belongs to the Americas inherently. He said, these skyscrapers are the return of precolonial architecture, which was monumental. He's thinking about Mesoamerican architecture in particular. He said this kind of monumentality never existed in Europe, and it’s not by chance that skyscrapers are invented here in the “New World” because it belongs to the way we used to build back in the past before colonization.

Of course, this is a very essentialist argument, but that’s the point. He was an architect from post-revolutionary Mexico who was interested in these kind of essentialist claims that there are different ways of being and different ways of building in the Americas versus Europe. His concern was that Lain American countries have achieved political independence, but they haven't achieved aesthetic independence, and he saw in the skyscraper an architectural artifact that he wanted to embrace because he thought it was completely different from Europe and will bring total aesthetic independence to the Americas.

I addressed that more deeply in my chapter on Spain because it has to do with how this city, Madrid, [which was] under siege during the war with these Republicans. Some of them were anarchists, some of them were communists, some were leftist liberals, even conservative liberals. They had to protect Madrid and protect some of the monuments that represented the regimes that they were against. Think about this, Republican people protecting statues of kings, for example, or the royal palace.

Yes, this is the Second Republic.

This is the Second Republic. You know, at the very beginning of the war and during the Republic, there were so many burnings of churches and convents. There were a lot of people who destroyed the religious patrimony. What I study, I want to make that history more complex, because it was complex. Some people wanted to protect, and some people wanted to destroy. And not everyone who wanted to protect wanted to protect for the same reasons.

Let me give you an example of the communist, some communist architects, who were against this destruction. They wanted to protect. First, they wanted to protect a part of the city that they felt more represented by, but eventually they protected everything…as I told you, even the statues of kings. And I think it is because communists have this understanding of history that is teleological. They are thinking about the communist society [as] a result of this successional, these different societal phases that every society has to go through in order to achieve communism. For them, it was very important to preserve everything from the past as a way of showing people in the street the different historical phases they have to go through in order to achieve communism. They wanted to protect these monuments as a pedagogical tool, kind of like to tell Madrilenians: see we had the monarchy before, we had the church before. We're preserving them—we’re not commemorating them, we're not celebrating them—but we are preserving them for everyone to understand that if we achieve the historical moment, it’s because we went through that before.

So, in a way, monuments become fossilized?

In a way, yes. They are not celebrating anything anymore. They are as a pedagogical tool, kind of a reminder of everything the society went through until they achieved communism. This is in the mind of communist architects and communist Republicans.

I am afraid our time is up, but Miguel Caballero thank you so much for joining us here today.

Thank you, I am so happy that you invited me and that we could have this conversation.

Yeah, me too. This has been entreVistas. Remember that you can follow the Center for Latin American Studies on Facebook and iTunes. Bye. 

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