Anonymity and the Architectural Signature By Kerr Houston
Architecture, in practice, is a surprisingly anonymous art. Sure, there are exceptions to such a claim: we can spot Borromini in the witty torques of his churches, say, and Frank Lloyd Wright is widely known as the mind behind Fallingwater. Indeed, some architects have even managed to convert their names into virtual brands, so that we can speak of a Rem Koolhaas or a Zaha Hadid. But such instances are only exceptions to a larger pattern – for, as Jay Pritzker once observed, “architecture has always been the orphaned art. It’s tended to be anonymous throughout history.”
Take, for instance, the Pantheon, one of the most celebrated buildings in the history of architecture. It’s inspired numerous copies and drawn millions of visitors – and yet, architectural historians are not at all sure who designed or built it. Might the emperor Hadrian, who seems to have been interested in architecture, have had a hand in its conception? Perhaps, but the prominent inscription on its façade is far from helpful: tellingly, it names a patron (Marcus Agrippa), but makes no reference to a designer, engineer, or construction crew. Thus, we know who ponied up the funds – but remain clueless about those who provided the creative capital.
Admittedly, as the status of artists waxed during the Renaissance, some architects enjoyed a measure of fame: Alberti and Filarete even hobnobbed with princes. In Ottoman Istanbul, Sinan was rewarded by the sultan for his work. But even the works of these early ‘starchitects’ were typically unsigned, the identities of the designers known to the public through oral tradition – while painters and sculptors, by contrast, announced their accomplishments in bold signatures. Michelangelo signed his Pietà, and Van Gogh his Night Café – but Gaudí’s celebrated Casa Mila doesn’t bear any visible reference to its designer. And so it goes. We’ve all heard of M&T Bank Stadium, but who knows who actually drew up the blueprints? Money talks, it seems, even as those physically responsible for the building recede into the shadows.
Or so I thought, at least, until arriving in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago. Walk the streets of this city, and a very different picture emerges – for hundreds of its buildings feature clear references, in brass or steel letters or in inscriptions etched into their facades, to their architects, engineers, and construction companies. Indeed, the inscriptions are usually placed quite visibly, just above the lintel of the main entrance, and facing the street. And while they’re hardly monumental, they’re also hard to miss: discrete but insistent claims of authorship, you might call them, appended to the city fabric.
The phenomenon is initially jarring: why, you wonder, aren’t buildings everywhere attributed in such a way? But that initial thought soon gives way to more nuanced delights, as you begin to discern patterns in the inscriptions. For one thing, the surnames of the architects and engineers offer a view into the real ethnic diversity of the city. Abeles, Bernasconi, Bystrowicz, Duncan, Natino, and White: the history of Argentina – its Spanish inheritance; the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy; the proud minority Anglo population – is evident in these names.
So, too, are more specific histories. Take a stroll around the wealthy district of eastern Palermo, and you’ll quickly gain a sense of the local importance of the civil engineer Lazaro Goldstein in the middle of the century. His firm was responsible for three of the more prominent apartment buildings in the neighborhood, completed in 1954, 1957, and 1960; each bears his name. One commission, it appears, led to another, and in the process Goldstein worked with architects employing several distinct idioms: the first two structures, that is, are partly rooted in Beaux Arts principles, while the last employs the sleek lines and coolly confident logic of the International Style.
But why stop there? Do a little research, and you learn that Goldstein was granted a visa for travel to Brazil in 1954. There, he could have seen Lucío Costa’s recently completed River Building, or chatted with the builders of Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic Canoas House. The career arc of a builder, we realize, is dynamic, and characterized by temporary collaborations, transitional alliances, and shifting tastes. And those evolving relationships inevitably shape, in turn, the resulting structures. The carefully etched letters of Goldstein’s name thus open onto entire networks of relations.
Indeed, the very forms of the characters in the inscriptions point as well to larger histories. The serifs that punctuate the letters in an inscription in Belgrano are characteristic of the genteel history of that district, which was largely developed in the late 1800s and briefly served as the country’s capital. In turn, the organic aspect of the letters that name an N. Caputo as the head of the construction firm that erected a structure on Avenida Córdoba points to the influence of Art Nouveau – and thus to the expansion of that corridor in the early 20th century.
And what of the sans-serif fonts of the inscriptions dotting the facades along Avenida del Libertador, facing the city’s massive parks? Those luxury apartments were largely built in the 1950s – when Argentina was experiencing a financial boom, when the boulevard was widened and renamed, and when crisp, legible fonts came to stand for modernity.
In short, then, you could root a history of the city in its inscriptions. But they also speak, it seems to me, of more abstract ideals. Most of the inscriptions date to the middle decades of the century: to the age of high modernism. And as Paul Oliver and others have shown, the architects of that age were largely devoted to a rigorous search for appropriately contemporary forms – and to a related turn away from the vernacular idioms associated with tradition and with the supposed anonymous wisdom of a people. Folk traditions were eschewed; architecture was now the realm of professionals. The inscriptions that dot Buenos Aires act as a testament to such an idea.
But they are not, at the same time, merely cold and calculating or self-promoting. Rather, you might say that the inscriptions also humanize the architecture, by generating an air of responsibility and pride. The builders, by signing their structures, attached themselves to the fate of the building: the towers only stand, we intuit, because of the ideas and the calculations of these men. When we walk through the front door, we put our safety in the hands of Roberto Cardini, or Enrique Paz. Consequently, those buildings that don’t feature a signature come to seem somehow reticent, or unforthcoming; they are idle forms, unclaimed. They’re orphans, as Pritzker put it: disowned, and generic.
Still, as we know, nothing gold can stay – and so even the confident inscriptions of architects and engineers sometimes eventually give way to the sheer pressures of the city. On Jerónimo Salguero, near where I live, there’s a touching inscription in which a portion of the text – e hijos, or and sons – has come unhinged, and dangles at a limp angle. The father and the sons, once proudly connected in business and effort, are now separated, and the inscription thus resembles a sort of memento mori: a reminder of the futility of any claim to permanence.
Consider the inscription for a moment, and you soon realize that the building, in turn, will likely not last another lifetime. Horace Smith once imagined, in a sonnet, a hunter wandering through a wilderness that had once been London and wondering, when coming across a fragment of sculpture, “What powerful but unrecorded race Once dwelt in that annihilated place.” The architectural inscriptions of Buenos Aires provoke a variant of the same sensation: here, the race of builders is clearly named, but our awareness of the relentless passage of time is hardly dampened for that.
Indeed, you might even say that it’s intensified. In walking around the city, I’ve come across several inscriptions that occupy walls now covered in graffiti. The effect is fascinating: the graven permanence of the etched letters simply overwhelmed, visibly, by the bold, gestural colors of the spray paint can. The competing forms of ownership: conventional, professional credit challenged by the appropriative logic of the tagger. But I have yet to see, interestingly, an example in which the graffiti actually obscures or overlaps the inscription. It’s as though there’s a grudging, tacit respect for the original designer, the maker of the ground. The son may wish to challenge the father – but realizes, too, that he owes his very existence to the father.
How to summarize, then? The haunting 1946 short story “House Taken Over,” by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, offers a possibility, as it begins with a reference to the way in which buildings can act as the repositories of memories and associations. “We liked the house,” the story begins, “because, apart from its being old and spacious.., it kept the memories of great-grandparents, our paternal grandfather, our parents, and the whole of childhood.” Cortázar was writing at the very moment that builders around Buenos Aires were appending their names to recently completed structures in Retiro, Recoleto, Villa Crespo and elsewhere. And his words ultimately act, I think, as a concise summary of the appeal of those signatures. Buildings can help us to remember – even as they remind us of how much we forget, and have already lost.
Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.