Latin American Cities: A 20th Century Notion of Social Imagination

By Adrián Gorelik


Marcelo Mingiano

Business Manager

About the book:

A perfect book for experts in Latin American studies looking to delve deeper into the urban, cultural and intellectual history of the 20th century in the region. Adrián Gorelik, the world’s biggest authority on the subject, spent more than 15 years working on the research that turned into this formidable volume. Here, he analyzes the historical progression of the notion of “Latin American city” between the 1940s and 1980s ─a concept torn between hopeful developmentalism, where a city is defined as a place of integration and social transformation, and a revolutionary utopia, in which a city is seen as an obstacle to social change. This is a foundational, indispensable book that tells the story of our region at a time when Latin America was a powerful, solid regional project, as evidenced by the political, planning and intellectual networks that formed across Latin America and with the United States, through the lens of the cities and urban issues.


This book deals with a brilliant phenomenon that took place in Latin America between the 1940s and 1970s, when the most intense social, political and cultural aspects of urban transformation caught the attention of the experimental branch of social sciences, which, at the time, was going through a reinvention stage. We know that a city encompasses the most diverse dimensions of social life, shaping them and giving them support, as well as fleshing out a metaphor at the same time. That’s how it’s been throughout history, but it does not mean that a city automatically takes center stage when reflecting about society: it is only under certain circumstances that everything is seen through an “urban” lens, from politics to social psychology. One of those random circumstances took place in the period we analyze here, when cities became indistinguishable from notions of modernization and development, and the three concepts occupied an influential part in public conversation, intellectual and political programs and state agendas. The result was the creation of the Latin American city as a notion connected to social imagination. Because the Latin American city we talk about in this book does not actually exist materially; it is not a “real city”, so to speak, but an artifact of intelligence, that organized all sorts of representations about the past and present of Latin America around the urban question, especially as far as the road to transformation is concerned.

The Latin American city was a very strong notion that not only activated Latin American social thought, but also caught the attention of the most diverse intellectual circles, particularly in the United States, where the analytical tools, as well as institutional models and economic resources required to study this idea of a city came from. Incidentally, the city attracted interest because it allowed a peek into different worlds that seemed to evoke different historical times at the same time: its explosive transformation coincided with the experience of many Third World cities, in regions where urbanization started with mass migrations from the countryside to the city, just like in Latin America; but, contrary to what happened in Asia and Africa, the Latin American transformation was backed by centuries of urban planning: since the 16th century, the cities in our region were an avant-garde experiment fueled by the European ideas that molded this land and were molded by it in turn.

This book then sets out to chronicle an intellectual history of the city to recover through the urban prism those brilliant mid-20th century decades, the period when Latin America was, perhaps most persistently, formulated as a project, be it from a developmental or a revolutionary point of view. The intention is to cast the city as the lost cipher that structured cultural, political and academic programs at the time—by placing it at the center of that era’s intellectual dynamics, so that it might be possible to bring a new understanding to the period as a whole.

To that end, this book is divided into four sections: an opening and a closer, with two middle parts. The Opening offers an overview of the Latin American city’s cycle, focusing on two issues: 1. How the city was conceived and the way that is interwoven with multiple dimensions of the political, intellectual and social sciences debate across the region (subjects, protagonists, institutions). 2. The role of the relationship with the US in defining the political magnitude of the city at a time when the Cold War was redefining both the academic, intellectual and political landscapes. This can be classified as a “cycle” because those subjects, protagonists and institutions that produced the Latin American city describe a full arch of positions: from developmentalism to the dependency theory, from modernizing optimism to its radical inversion: the revolutionary (and no less optimistic) demand that reserved for the city the opposing role in its social transformation model.

Part I: “On the path of ethnography” deals with the debates on migrations from the countryside to the cities and their urban manifestations: slums, favelas, villas miseria, barriadas and all kinds of marginalization instances —a term that would be the object of great controversy all along the cycle. The relationship between the countryside and the city has always been decisive throughout Latin American history, but it had never received so much attention nor been the object of so many theoretical speculations and experiments as in this cycle. The debates are about housing, social and ethnographic issues, and they defined the Latin American city, dealing with a phenomenon that reversed Latin American demographic patterns in just a few decades, turning the region into an “urban continent” just as plagued by inequality and scarcity as the “rural continent” was before, although the city made those problems conspicuous, and they became a top public concern.

[…] Part II: “Under the sign of planning” analyzes the rise of urban and regional planning, a specific academic-intellectual field to study and intervene in the city, which created an institutional mesh in an attempt to cover the whole region. Above all, it aims at understanding the profound impact that the word “planning”—and the tension it implies towards praxis—had on the field of social research. A simple search will show that regional and urban subjects have been included in social studies in every Latin American institution since their foundation, especially all those academic centers that always seem to have the words “development” and “planning” in their name and are part of international academic networks but, at the same time, have become involved with local transformation processes and national government demands, embracing the notion of planning as if it were a voluntaristic passport to social modernization. This book is divided in chapters, starting with the case of regional planning in Tennessee Valley and the basin planning that followed as its consequence in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. It then covers the developmentalist planning phase in Puerto Rico and Venezuela (Guyana City), takes the “architectonic detour” that is Brasília, and finishes at the institutional consolidation of urban thought focusing on Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, where it analyzes the role of the Cuban Revolution in that consolidation.

Finally, in the closing section “Travelling companions”, the whole cycle is rehashed from the point of view of history and cultural criticism, sometimes from a skeptical and sometimes from a more understanding perspective. Planning created its own historiographic field: the one that deals with the history of the urbanization process, but is exclusively skewed towards socio-demographic perspectives of cities. It was in that context, however, that the Latin American city needed a cultural perspective to be defined, and that task fell on Richard Morse, José Luis Romero and Ángel Rama, three very different men that helped us understand the end of an era in the conception of urban studies and its replacement by Latin American urban culture from a different angle.

As you can see, all of the sections go over the whole cycle, but each part offers a different perspective, since they use a different approach to rebuild the cycle: the language of ethnographic and sociological development, architecture, planning and cultural history, but also the dialects of governments or research centers, American foundations and grassroots groups. Like all past notions of social imagination, the Latin American city did not emerge as a uniform silhouette, but rather as a patchwork of mismatching, irregular pieces: social representations, scientific discourses, political programs, artistic imaginings, ideologies, etc.


Translated by Mercedes del Sol Acosta - Edited by Cecilia Della Croce