Modernism in Quito, Ecuador: 1955-1980


Image details

By Glenda Puente

In an effort to promote appreciation towards an unjustifiably unknown heritage, both locally and internationally, this essay will depict the economic, political and cultural context in which mid-century modern architecture took place in Ecuador with a focus on work in Quito, the capital city. The selection of work – see accompanying slide show - excludes single family housing and instead highlights medium and large scale projects built between 1955 and 1980, the same timeframe as that of the current exhibit on Latin American Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

Photo (left): Templo Nacional La Dolorosa, Phase 1: 1970, Phase 2: 1978, Milton Barragán Dumet (EC). Photo Courtesy: Milton Barragán Dumet

Latin American architecture has been glorified by audiences in the United States since the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, exhibited Brazil Builds in 1943.1Twelve years later, in an effort to highlight the entire region, architecture historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock launched the exhibit Latin American Architecture since 1945, and sixty years later the MoMA has just opened Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980. By now, in the context of MoMA pedagogy, it is common understanding that what makes Latin American modernism significant is its elegant adaptation of the European model of modernism – the literal acclimatization the style had to endure in order to survive in the tropics. Coupled with the sponsorship of many countries’ governments, the result was an impressive architecture portfolio of the period. This photo-essay will provide an overview of the modern movement as it happened in Ecuador, a country that was excluded from both MoMA exhibits on Latin America.2

With recent headlines about its involvement in a lawsuit with Chevron, providing asylum to Julian Assange, Presidential Twitter wars, and being the first country in history to have an advertisement commercial during the Super Bowl, it is difficult to shine light on the fact that Ecuador is also home to exceptional work from the modern movement, especially when the work has not been as disseminated as that of other Latin American countries. Oftentimes narrowed to Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico,3Latin America is a region that includes twenty countries and five dependencies.4 In 1955 Hitchcock represented ten countries and one American dependency – Puerto Rico – and in the present exhibit Barry Bergdoll and team have done the same.

Quito in context\t
Founded in the sixteenth century on the eastern skirts of the still-active Guagua Pichincha volcano, in the Andes Mountains, the longest continental mountain range in the world, Quito lies on a valley at an average altitude of 9,350 feet, presenting cold, yet comfortable weather, as well as fertile land for agriculture. For this reason Quito became a very important Spanish settlement as soon as it was conquered. The Spanish conquistadores moved to the city in massive amounts and throughout four centuries built what in 1978, along with Krakow, Poland, would be the first city to be named UNESCO World Heritage site.5Quito was granted this title for housing the best-preserved, least altered historic center (Centro Histórico) in Latin America, a source of great pride for Quito’s citizens. However, most Quito residents, and the global architecture public alike, are not aware that Quito was also a fruitful site for modern architecture during the 50s, 60s and 70s. 
Modernism arrived to Quito in the 1940s.
 Prior to the 40s, the sterility of the Ecuadorian economy and the effects of living under political turmoil fostered a lack of motivation and represented an actual inability of the country to progress - this unfortunate condition was especially felt in the cultural realm and, within it, in the field of architecture. Colonial revival was in vogue, with very few examples of rationalist structures scattered throughout the city, most of them private residences that no longer exist. There was a general feeling of hesitation towards modernity; people feared losing the character of their colonial town which back then encompassed not much further than the area that today is referred to as Centro Histórico.
Image (left): Quito Today/Quito Historic Center. Photo Credit: Glenda Puente - Map: 2015 Google
A good amount of buildings erected in Quito throughout the 1920s and 1930s had constructive systems made entirely of reinforced concrete and possessed a rational and modern formal language, but because of the pressure from a conservative élite the majority of these contemporary works were forced to be clothed with neoclassical detailing or colonial characteristics. A series of ordinances passed between 1935 and 1940 required all modern architecture to evoke the past and hold “local” characteristics.
“Remove all the ornaments, the stone detail, the window framing, it is a modern architecture, a rationalist architecture, but appearances had to be kept … that evocation of our colonial past” – Inés del Pino.7
Modern immigrants and early period
The negative view of modernism begins to shift in the 1940s and the first few examples of modern architecture, clean of neoclassical or colonial traits, are product of European personalities that immigrated to the country because of the war in Europe – among them were Carlos Kohn, Otto Glass, Giovanni Rota, Oscar Etwanick, and Max Erensberger.8This group was responsible for introducing the first examples of modernity and also for establishing the position of the architect which, up to this point, was basically nonexistent in Quito. Before their arrival it was the engineers who played the role of architects, and because of the political and economic crisis, and the congruent lack of construction, there was never before a real demand, or even a concern, for architecture as a profession.
Photo (left): Andinatel Building, 1949, Oscar Edwanick (AUT). Photo Credit: Glenda Puente
The new era was further strengthened with the arrival of two Uruguayans who initially visited the country as students, through a world tour program Uruguayan architecture students still do today.9In the 1940s the tour’s destination was usually Europe but because of the war the students travelled through the American continent instead.10Guillermo Jones Odriozola, who was noted in MoMA’s 1955 exhibit publication for his house in Punta Ballena, Uruguay, and lauded for possessing a unique Wrightian influence,11received a commission to work on the Plan Regulador for the city of Quito in 1942, and invited Gilberto Gatto Sobral to work with him shortly after.12 
Both Uruguayans were graduates of the excellent architecture school at Montevideo, formerly headed by Julio Vilamajó, known in the United States as one of the two South Americans on the United Nations Building Commission.13Gatto Sobral settled in Quito and in 1946 became the first director of the brand new School of Architecture at the Universidad Central del Ecuador (UCE), within the department of engineering. This was perhaps the most influential happening of mid-century architectural history in Quito - architecture turned into an established and independent profession with an autonomous school, dependent of another educational department for the first couple of years but with its own curriculum focused on architectural studies. In addition, during this same time the country was finally coming out of a period of deep political crisis which had lasted two decades and provided with twenty-seven different heads of state.14The economy was at ease in the late 1940s thanks to a peak season in the field of agricultural exports – export of goods is to this day a major factor in dictating the economic scenario of the country. With this newfound progress came the creation of Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, a cultural organization, founded by Benjamin Carrión in 1944, created to foster the arts towards the development of an autochthonous national identity.15The projects for the two headquarters of this organization, one in Quito and the other in Guayaquil, were designed in the late 1940s but completed in the 1970s and were commissioned to two architects of Ecuadorian heritage educated abroad.This is note-worthy since up to this point the majority of practicing architects in the country were the already mentioned foreigners.
The 1940s ended with a lamentable event, yet crucial for the development of the profession and a catalyst for the creation of numerous other schools of architecture. Ambato, a city located 80 miles south of Quito, was struck by a catastrophic earthquake in 1949. The vast destruction was mainly caused by the precarious construction of the majority of the buildings, the use of inadequate materials and the almost intuitive manner in which they had been applied.16La Junta de Reconstrucción was created to plan the rebuilding of the city, headed by Leopoldo Moreno Loor, Wilson Garcés and Sixto Durán Ballén, a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Architecture – Alumni Medal 1945 -17 who returned to the country in 1947 and joined La Junta in 1949. Consequently, the 1950s commenced with a clear and evident change in mentality - architecture was a fully established independent profession and no longer a subordinate branch of engineering.18More importantly, a concern for design began to seem apparent in the general public as, both, public and private entities organized competitions and commissioned work.
Taking advantage of the public interest, the first graduates, with Durán Ballén as the school’s second director, worked towards diffusing and generating a public acceptance of a wholesome modernism. It should not be left unsaid that embarking on the mission of bringing a new kind of architecture in Quito over sixty years ago meant a lot of struggle, even during times of order. In the 1950s, there were only two well established cities, Santiago de Guayaquil, the main port in the coastal region of Ecuador, and Quito, the capital city hidden in a valley in the Andes region. The country basically depended on the efforts of the two cities, both in economic terms and the resources they managed. Ironically the physical connection between these two cities was poor. There was only one highway and one railroad which did not always function in the rainy season – December to May – due to the overflow of the Chanchán river over a portion of the railway. This isolated the two cities for some time and delayed trade, and the transport of building materials, making construction an overly elongated process. 
“Some of us had to check the progress of our buildings by bicycle, because there was no way to bring gasoline when the river flooded the railway” – Sixto Durán Ballén.19
Modernism consolidates 
Despite the adversity and hardship that surrounded construction, by the mid-1950s the models of modern architecture had become the norm. But while the first Ecuadorian graduates began to work in the field using the new concepts of modernity, in other Latin American countries the notion of modern architecture was already well established - in Brazil as early as 1935.20
Photo (left): Hotel Quito, 1956-1960, Charles McHirahan (USA). Photo Credit: Glenda Puente

It is worth stressing that Ecuador saw the world turn modern from afar. There was very little, if any, international outreach or the presence of internationally recognized modernists. Books were scarce or arrived late, so much of the dissemination of the modern movement happened thanks to the experience of students who were able to travel abroad and visit the studios and works of the masters.21Le Corbusier, “the Brazilians”, Gropius and the Bauhaus, were the most influential topics at school in Ecuador in the 1950s, but nobody directly related to any of these influences, or the influences themselves, traveled to Ecuador. The lack of international connection, however, did not discourage the students and young professionals who eagerly tried to keep up with the world. 

 “We traveled. Ecuador was overlooked, it was too small, and too poor; too antiquated” – Milton Barragán.22
Without a direct influence, Quito managed to compile a decent amount of worth-noting modern architecture. The first concrete examples were developed during the second half of the 1950s for the XI Conference of Pan-American Chancellors of 1960, scheduled to take place in Ecuador. The conference was cancelled due to the upheaval caused by the Cuban revolution; nonetheless the plans for several public buildings were developed under the direction of Durán Ballén, as Public Works Minister, and some of them were actually built.23Among the buildings erected are the Hotel Quito (image above), designed by the prolific South Florida-based office of Lucille and Charles McKirahan, the Legislative branch building (Image left), the student residence at UCE, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (image below). Some of these buildings were located in what at the time were areas isolated from the city center. Today the majority of them are immersed in the chaos of the city. Nonetheless, the works associated with the conference were greatly responsible for consolidating the modern movement in Quito, and providing the city with a contemporary image.

Photo (above): Palacio Legislativo, 1960, Alfredo León (ECU). Renovation, 2007, Milton Barragán.

Modernism evolves and expires   
The mid-century period proved to be exceptionally stable times in the economical and architectural fields. The construction boom ignited in the 1950s carried well through the 1970s, even though a military coup broke the democratic government in 1963 and prevented legitimate elections for five years, triggering political turmoil all through the 1970s. During this time, unaffected by the waltz between presidents and armed forces, modern architecture evolved into a more autochthonous endeavor. 
Photo (left): Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, 1960, Milton Barragán (ECU). Addition, 1975, Juan Espinosa (ECU) Photo Credit: Glenda Puente
As in other Latin American countries, the architecture became more inclusive of local characteristic. There is an evident decrease in the use of curtain walls during the 1960s allowing concrete to become the predominant material in most built work. As it happened in Brazil with the introduction of the curve, the rationalist box was molded into softer, more organic forms, in this case, as a reference to topographical features of the land (IMAGE 5). Brick was also more commonly used, and was actually exploited during the last two decades of the twentieth century, when high rise condominiums ruled the construction panorama - unfortunately modernism was out ruled by commercialism and imitation during these decades. 
Modernism today  
Many buildings from the golden era of modernism in Quito have been demolished, wrongfully altered, or simply left untouched to decay. A few large-scale, governmental buildings are amongst the ones that are still standing and fully operating, but these structures, that were once neighbor-less, or rightfully separated from other buildings in order to be appreciated, are now lost in the midst of a city that grew too fast too soon. The buildings sit behind tasteless fencing, careless landscaping and are permanently bordered by informal business during operating hours. These buildings were the product of two generations that passionately worked towards ameliorating the image of the city.
Photo (left): Templo Nacional La Dolorosa, Phase 1: 1970, Phase 2: 1978, Milton Barragán Dumet (EC). Photo Courtesy: Milton Barragán Dumet
Since the mid 2000’s a similar mission has flowered through the efforts of a new generation of architects that are building in the same spirit as that of the “evolved modernism”, considering the locality, both in concept and through the mindful use of materials, with an increased consideration for cost and resource efficiency, now building beyond Quito and Guayaquil, making it all the way into the Amazon jungle, towards an architecture of inclusion. What guarantee is there that what has been built during this architectural renaissance will not be gone in fifty years? If the general public, both local and international, remains unaware, none.
The content of this article was originally published as part of “Restoring the Modern and Revitalizing Its Context: A Case Study in Quito, Ecuador”, a Master Research Project submitted to the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Florida.


Glenda M. Puente is a member of the Florida chapter of Docomomo US and is Adjunct Professor at Florida International University School of Architecture.

1Brazil Builds: Architecture Old and New, 1652-1942/Construcao brasileira: arquitetura moderna e antiga 1642-1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Exhibit #213, January 13-February 28, 1943. Curated by Philip L. Goodwin. Photographs by G. E. Kidder Smith.
2 No works from Ecuador are included in the MoMA exhibition itself, but the catalogue features an image and some text about the CIESPAL building in Quito.
The first book in English about Latin America in the 21st century was “Building the New World by Valerie Fraser”, which focuses on Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico.
4Latin America as defined by the Real Academia Española. Countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela; Dependencies: Puerto Rico, French Guiana, Saint Barthelemy, Guadeloupe, Martinique.
5UNESCO World Heritage List:
6Inés del Pino (Historian, Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 7, 2010
8Adrián Moreno (Architect, Professor at Universidad de Cuenca) Interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 1, 2010
9Sixto Durán Ballén (Architect, Major of Quito, Minister of Public Works, President of Ecuador, BID Consultant) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 11, 2010.
11Latin American Architecture since 1945, pg. 56
12Jones Odriozola, Guillermo. “El Plan Regulador de la ciudad de Quito 1942.” Revista Trama 50, May 1990
13Latin American Architecture since 1945. Page 17
14Oleas S., Diego. 1994. Arquitectura en Ecuador: panorama contemporáneo. Colección SomoSur, t. 16. Bogota?: Facultad de Arquitectura, Universidad de los Andes.
15“Si no podemos, ni debemos ser una potencia política, económica, diplomática y menos –¡mucho menos! – militar seamos una gran potencia de la cultura, porque para eso nos autoriza y nos alienta nuestra historia”, Benjamin Carrión.
16Sixto Durán Ballén (Architect, Major of Quito, Minister of Public Works, President of Ecuador, BID Consultant) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 11, 2010.
17Columbia University Annual Report of the President and Treasurer to the Trustess with Accompanying Documents for the Academic Year ending June 30, 1945.
18Mario Zambrano (Architect) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 8, 2010.
19Sixto Durán Ballén (Architect, Major of Quito, Minister of Public Works, President of Ecuador, BID Consultant) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 11, 2010.
20Latin American Architecture since 1945. Page 16.
21Mario Zambrano (Architect) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 8, 2010.
22Milton Barragán Dumet (Architect, Sculptor) interview by Glenda M. Puente, June 10, 2010.
23Moreira, Rubén, and Yadhira Alvarez. 2004. Arquitectura de Quito, 1915-1985. Quito: Ediciones Trama