Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 27, 2020
Fabiola López-Durán Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 312 pp.; 132 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781477314968)

In the last few decades, scholars have dedicated a great deal of effort to documenting and analyzing the impact of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernist planning ideologies throughout the world. While most ideologies were firmly rooted in a benevolent desire to improve deeply chaotic and oppressive urban environments, some—largely forgotten or ignored—deployed urban planning and architecture as racially motivated social-engineering projects. Nearly twenty years ago, Oren Yiftachel mused, “Far less attention has been devoted to the ability of planning to promote goals of an opposite nature, such as social repression, economic retardation or environmental degradation” (“The Dark Side of Modernism: Planning as Control of an Ethnic Minority,” in The Blackwell City Reader, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson [Blackwell, 2002], 535). Recently, research has focused on the origins of these problematic, if not outright perverse, policies and, just as importantly, on tracing the sociocultural, political, and economic realities of each geographic region that provided a fertile matrix in which these ideas embedded themselves, germinated, and propagated—forever altering the built environment.

Fabiola López-Durán’s Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity is a significant contribution to recording and explaining reproachable aspects of modernist planning ideologies founded on eugenics, the often-suspect science dedicated to improving human social behaviors and racial composition through biological reproduction. Her work explores two distinct but often overlapping and equally important research fields in spatial practice: the first is the study of imported and often imposed colonial and postcolonial urban planning ideologies, and the second is the origin, development, and application of reprehensible modernist ideologies. In the case of the former, her focus on France’s relationship with Brazil and Argentina explores the contexts and methods that enabled the introduction of foreign planning and architectural ideologies. In this sense, her research parallels Arturo Almandoz’s book Modernization, Urbanization and Development in Latin America, 1900s–2000s (Routledge, 2014). In the case of the latter field, López-Durán painstakingly demonstrates the perverse application of modernist hygiene ideology in urban planning and architecture to control and segregate nonwhite populations in Latin America; in this context, her research provides an important complement to Robert Peckham and David M. Pomfret’s Imperial Contagions: Medicine, Hygiene, and Cultures of Planning in Asia (Hong Kong University Press, 2013).

López-Durán, an associate professor of art history at Rice University, is an authoritative voice in the fields of Latin American urbanism, history, and theory. This book is a significant addition to her already impressive corpus of work that includes essays on Le Corbusier’s relationship with Brazil and the impact of the Argentinian meatpacking industry on the Pampa. Eugenics in the Garden comprises an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue (as well as notes, a bibliography, and an index, plus numerous photographs and illustrations) held together by the central theme of Latin American eugenics-driven urban planning ideologies and their application. While each chapter is skillfully developed as a standalone essay with a shared thesis, the book would benefit from additional narrative integration binding chapters 2, 3, and 4 together.

In the introduction, López-Durán carefully describes the later nineteenth century in the midst of evolutionary debates on the inheritance mechanisms of psychological and physiological characteristics. She explains how Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s early nineteenth-century proposal for the “inheritance of acquired traits” was fused with Francis Galton’s 1883 eugenic argument to produce the (apparently benevolent) idea that improving environments could improve people, and these improvements could then be passed on to the next generation. Subsequently, she narrates how mostly French scientists, physicians, politicians, planners, and architects appropriated Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas to justify the engineering of new racially acceptable societies. Having presented this ideological background, in the first chapter she addresses the transformation of neo-Lamarckian evolutionary ideas into modernist, ideology-driven urban utopias. The author skillfully compares these visions of utopian societies with similar examples found in early twentieth-century Latin American literature, a telling proxy for sociocultural and political thought exhibiting a desire for racially homogenized urban societies.

In the second chapter, López-Durán presents the first case study to demonstrate these ideologies at work, focusing on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the first decades of the 1900s. Through careful documentation and exhaustive analysis, the author demonstrates how Brazil’s political and professional class in Rio de Janeiro, including planners and architects, deployed French eugenic planning ideologies to justify the demolition of the hill and neighborhood called Morro do Castelo in the early 1920s. The demolition included the eviction of the area’s black residents and the subsequent implementation of a racially idealized design for the city. In a particularly compelling chapter ending, López-Durán confronts the reader with Le Corbusier’s seldom-discussed relationship with racist ideology. The third chapter presents a second case study, this time focused on Buenos Aires, Argentina, from the late nineteenth century through the mid-1950s. Though similar to chapter 2 in its look at spatial manifestations, it differs by establishing a damning relationship between Argentinian criminal typology and the spatial ideology of eugenics. López-Durán’s writing reveals chilling examples of social engineering and social control enabled by population selection through schools, clinics, nurseries, and parks. Though chapter 4 does not highlight a city, it does provide a powerful indictment of Le Corbusier’s legacy by examining his design ideology, his relationship with French eugenic society, and, specifically, the now-controversial figure of Dr. Alexis Carrel. Finally, the epilogue closes the book by providing a window into intimate yet formative memories that inspired the author’s work.

To me the book elicits a desire for further development. First, the author tends to have a limited lens, as López-Durán chose to focus on a French-centered view of the neo-Lamarckian evolutionary debate. She meticulously traces these ideas and their influence on French society and policy, strengthened with the opening of the Musée social in Paris in 1895, and their subsequent transmission to Latin America through professional and academic intellectual exchanges. There is no doubt that French ideologies and francophilia were major factors in the development of Latin American modernist thought; yet, Latin America was also deeply influenced by scientific and planning strategies that originated in other European countries, such as England, most notably through Herbert Spencer’s (sparingly mentioned) philosophy, the Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875, and Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city.” Another aspect that would be worth investigating in the context of Latin American urban planning and architecture’s social engineering ideologies is that of arielismo, a social, cultural, and political philosophy that engulfed various countries of the region as they reacted against the United States’ rising hegemony. Finally, in a future iteration, the author could cast a wider net: though the book focuses on Brazil and Argentina, which, to be sure, are exemplary in supporting her thesis, it would strengthen her title argument to study the thesis’s applicability to a wider spectrum of Latin American nations. While López-Durán masterfully weaves a historic narrative that ties Brazil and Argentina to France’s obsession with neo-Lamarckian ideology, there are other examples to explore of applied European modernist planning throughout Latin America, including Caracas’s 1939 “Plan Rotival,” named after French engineer Maurice Rotival, in order to test the extent of eugenic thinking across the region.

These suggestions notwithstanding, López-Durán’s research is a major contribution to the growing record and analysis of the origins and applications of misguided modernist ideologies. Implicit in her work is a stark reminder that ideologies are not conceived ex nihilo but rather often embody the feelings and social constructs of groups and of their time. More importantly, her work is a timely reminder that social engineering, especially through planning and architecture, can all too easily become a vehicle for the application of racist ideologies; and these, regardless of the era, should be seen as unacceptable attempts to marginalize and dehumanize all those who do not fit into idealized utopian societies. For anyone interested in understanding spatial production and its implications, López-Durán’s work should form a fundamental part of their reading list.

Benjamin A. Bross
PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign