Designing Seeds and Laboratories for the Green Revolution

Between 1930 and 1978, art, architecture, and agriculture stood at the vanguard of a soft war waged by the Rockefeller Foundation in the broader Caribbean. Fighting against food shortages to win the masses from the lure of communism, while leveraging the aesthetic realm to win support from the region’s elite, Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Foundation laid the foundations for a techno-scientific conversion of agriculture now known as the Green Revolution.

While the Green Revolution’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning genetic developments transformed yields in wheat by upwards of 400%, the creation of the program’s so-called “super-seeds” was the product of a design mentality, an aesthetic of fungibility, which transcended national, disciplinary and, eventually, species-specific boundaries.

Art to Agriculture

Pursuing national security and capitalist expansion, by the 1930s Nelson Rockefeller had his sights set on shifting the attention of Latin America’s cultural elite from Europe to the United States. In 1931, employing the Rockefeller family’s new Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to make connections that would later provide agricultural lands and political support, Rockefeller and his mother, Abby Aldrich, personally oversaw the introduction of Latin American art into North American spheres. This process began with MoMA’s 1931 Diego Rivera retrospective followed by Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art in 1940.

Concurrently, at Rockefeller’s suggestion, President Roosevelt created the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), which, under Rockefeller’s directorship, contracted with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and MoMA to install a North American vision of modern painting and architecture in key institutions throughout Latin America. Promoting modernist paintings of industrial landscapes, progressive depictions of women in the working world, and iterations of the International Style, Rockefeller ensured that North America’s image was one of pro-capitalist development.  

A fresco by Jose Clemente Orozco installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940.

A fresco by Jose Clemente Orozco, Dive Bomber and Tank (1940), painted as part of MOMA’s Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. Image by Dirk Knight courtesy of Flickr.

While romancing elite land-holding families in Mexico and Central America through the affairs of the art world, the Rockefeller Foundation began its first forays into agricultural development in Mexico in 1941. In partnership with U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, under the auspices of the newly formed Mexican Agriculture Project (MAP), Dr. George Harrar began to collect seed samples from across Mexico. These samples would eventually be used to create disease-resistant, high-yield hybrid seeds for national and international distribution. Clearing fields abandoned by other state agriculture programs, then spraying them with insecticides and fungicides developed by the MAP to create a “clean slate,” maize breeder Edwin Wellhausen trained a cadre of Mexican agriculture students in new methods of soil and seed treatment.

Importing a vision of scientific agriculture lifted straight out of the land-grant colleges of the North American Midwest, the terrain of each experimental station was divided into quadrants into which teams of students planted one seed type per rectilinear field section. Select furrows were then treated with nitrogen-fixing fertilizers while unfertilized control groups were established for comparison. Finally, by testing the performance of each seed type, categorizing kernel and cob size, robustness of the stalk, and resistance to disease and yield, scientists developed genetic crosses between the strongest seeds, producing new strains of maize or wheat.  Building on this methodology, the MAP quickly became a hive of agricultural development that went beyond the center’s early corn experiments to surpass traditional land-grant wisdom.

Norman Borlaug in a field of wheat showing a new seed type to international trainees.

Norman Borlaug (fourth from the right) in a plot of Sonora-64, showing one of the new seed types developed through shuttle breeding to a group of young international trainees, near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. Photo by the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center.

The science behind the MAP’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning breakthroughs was developed by the now-famed Rockefeller Foundation scientist Norman Borlaug. Recruited to the MAP in 1944 from his wartime position at DuPont (where he created the insecticide DDT), Borlaug relocated to Mexico to lead wheat yield augmentation and disease resistance research. Bucking agricultural wisdom of the time, Borlaug based his research on the idea that the long months of seed dormancy, seen as essential by small-stake farmers and experts alike, was a tradition and not a necessity. Thus, transporting seeds that grew in the central Mexican altiplano in the traditional wheat growing season to the northern coastal lowlands of Sonora for an unheard-of second season each year, Borlaug established a process known as shuttle breeding.  

This biannual process accelerated both the time it took for Borlaug to test his hybrids, as well as the slow pace of evolutionary change previously involved in seed breeding. With the new method, seeds tested in the spring planting, for example, could be crossed once again with a completely different set of seeds in the fall. This saved seed breeders the six to nine months previously required to plant each season’s top performer. Furthermore, while traditional seeds evolved to thrive in particular climatic and ecological conditions, and suffered when those conditions changed, Borlaug’s process selected for unusually flexible seeds that were able to adjust to the difference in sunlight exposure (photoperiods), climatic conditions, and environmental factors in each location. Crossing Japanese dwarf wheat varieties with hybrid Mexican seeds, Borlaug created seeds that could produce exceptional yields in both the dry, hot climate of the Mexican altiplano and the more humid western Mexican coast. In effect, the seeds that led to Borlaug’s so-called success were dislodged from their own native conditions and made more universally adaptable.

Two images showing the layout of a field at Chapingo and its design.

Left: Planted quadrants, Chapingo Experimental Station, Mexico, 1967. Right: Map of field rows for tomatoes and two races of corn with varying nitrogen and phosphorus treatment, 1944. Images courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

While the seeds which led to Borlaug and the MAP’s acclaim were able to adapt to varying climates and geographies, they were not designed for Mexico’s predominantly arid climate, nor for untreated soil conditions. In fact, the MAP’s so-called High Yield Varieties (HYVs) were only high yielding when treated to intense irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides. Thus, though Mexico’s campesinos (indigenous rural farmers) had been key to both the state’s post-revolutionary agricultural policies and the early aims of the MAP, hundreds of detailed field tests record the MAP’s efforts to produce hybrid maize and other commodity seeds whose input requirements exceeded the resources of Mexico’s small-stake farmers. As Borlaug’s seeds and methodologies were dispersed to Rockefeller-sponsored agricultural centers in Colombia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and finally India, the Green Revolution’s fungible “miracle seeds” proved to be miraculous only at the scale of the agro-industrial farms that could afford to maintain them.

Agriculture to Architecture

As Borlaug’s “miracle seeds” drew national and international attention, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture commissioned plans for the expansion of the MAP’s education and training facilities at the Autonomous University of Chapingo (Universidad Autónoma Chapingo). In plans drawn up by North American architecture firm Perkins & Will and Mexico’s own Alvarez y Carral, the shape of the MAP’s field tests directly influenced the architecture of what was to be its dedicated research facility and expanded campus.

Two images showing the design of a field and the windows of a laboratory building.

Left: MAP field tests, one of hundreds of planting charts on which form is repeated in the horizontal windows of Alvarez’s Chapingo campus, Texcoco, Mexico. Image courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center. Right: Windows Mirror Planting Charts, University of Chapingo, Texcoco, Mexico. Image courtesy of the Archive of Mexican Architects at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The shape of the field tests became the shape of the windows.

Just as researchers had divided the fields of corn and wheat into rectilinear quadrants, Mexican architect Augusto H. Alvarez designed the Chapingo campus to be the embodiment of this gridded scientific method. As students and researchers inside Chapingo’s classrooms, offices, and facilities looked out of their laboratories onto the world, they saw it through the same divided field rows that propelled the MAP to its success. The shape of the field tests became the shape of the windows—so that as students and scientists gazed out of them, the entire world in their view was divided into line-ruled segments that replicated their own experiments. Dividing the world into strict, rationalized, and controllable furrows, Alvarez’s design moved the ability to vivisect the non-human world on paper into three-dimensional phenomenological experience. His design mapped the form of the scientific method onto every living and nonliving thing in view. Alvarez’s windows offer a striking example of the aesthetics of fungibility, the idea that the clean slate of the project’s laboratory benches could be projected onto the world at large, and used to mold its contents.

The aesthetics of fungibility that shaped the MAP campus design led the Rockefeller Foundation’s approach to agriculture not only in Mexico, but also in Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras. In these countries, Green Revolution methodologies were pitched as the universal form of modern agriculture. For instance, in Colombia, where the Rockefeller Foundation had been supporting agricultural development in the Valle del Cauca since the early 1940s, this approach sought to overturn a vast array of cultural patterns, including the close family structures of the people in the valley.

Student Dormitory at the National University at Palmira, Colombia.

Student Dormitory at the National University at Palmira, Colombia. Photo by Neil MacLellan, 1957. Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

As part of this process, Rockefeller personnel pushed for the creation of on-campus housing to draw students from their family homes into solitary lives of scientific rigor. While the same International Style of architecture which shaped the Chapingo campus would come to shape Colombian-German architect Leopoldo Rother’s Palmira campus for the National University of Colombia, Rother’s campus exhibits an environmental sensitivity which points to the students’ and teachers’ biological natures. In other words, while the seeds and soils within Rother’s laboratories would be genetically and otherwise altered to exceed and overcome the constraints of nature and evolution, the school’s human constituents were still conceived by the architect as more sensitive to light and heat, and ultimately less able to adapt to new conditions.

Buildings seen from a corn field at the Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat.

The Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT), El Batán, Mexico. Image courtesy of the Archive of Mexican Architects at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Internationalization

The Chapingo and Palmira campuses were designed to house both domestic and international training programs for aspiring agronomists in one facility. Yet, campus protests and student strikes made it clear that tensions between the Rockefeller Foundation’s neoliberal agro-industrial approach and regional concerns over land redistribution and the fate of small farmers, would not abate even on a campus designed blend local and international interests.  

The aesthetics of fungibility envisioned the world made up of interchangeable parts

In the face of these protests, the Rockefeller Foundation proposed the construction of separate internationally focused research institutions in both Mexico and Colombia. So in 1967 Perkins & Will, as well as Alvarez y Carral, were again commissioned to design the second Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT), approximately 26 miles from the Chapingo campus it would partially replace. Designed around a tight series of easily replicable, tetris-like units, their plan for the CIMMYT embodied the aesthetics of fungibility, a vision of the world made up of interchangeable parts. It was not incidental that this aesthetic vision reflected the values and assumptions of commodity agriculture, a design mentality that had shaped nearly 50 years of breakthroughs in human genetics and plant cytology. 

In Columbia, local and international research was segregated in much the same way. The National University in Palmira focused on national agricultural solutions; the Rockefeller Foundation built a second internationally focused agricultural facility less than 20 miles away. Focusing on the global improvement of beans, cassava, forages, and livestock, the Colombian International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) broke ground in 1967. In contrast to the ecologically attuned architecture for the National University of Palmira, at the CIAT, Architect Jaime Ponce de León’s designed a facility defined by triumphal arches. Such features suggested victory over the soil as well as the seeds framed in their view.

Agritectures of the Green Revolution

The advent of the Green Revolution took place across disciplines as well as national boundaries. It fostered an aesthetic of fungibility reflected in both the architecture of Rockefeller-sponsored agricultural campuses as well as the genetic structures of the world’s primary commodity grains and crops. Mirroring the logic of architecture’s International Style, which attempted to cast off the constraints of regional aesthetic practices in search of something universal, rational, and modern, Green Revolution scientists designed so-called modern agricultural seeds and crops that were themselves dislocated from their regional ecosystems. Transporting what they considered to be the universal method of scientific agriculture into the broader Caribbean, experiments in yield escalation and genetic seed modification radically increased grain production in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and India. In as little as seven years each, this process transformed nations, for a time, from commodity importers to commodity exporters. What began as an experiment in breeding corn to feed Mexico spread throughout the Caribbean and beyond, not only leading to the global industrialization of agriculture, but also contributing to a modern, monocultural aesthetic uniformity.  

Featured image: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia.  Photo by Neil MacLellan. Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Nikki Moore is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History at Rice University. After completing her S.M.Arch.S at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT) in 2005, Nikki continued her graduate studies at the European Graduate School (EGS). Student teaching for Slavoj Žižek brought her to question the ideologies of nature and sustainability.  Her current object oriented research focuses on the industrialization of food-based commodities and concurrent development practices in modern Latin America, focusing on their symbiotic relationship to art and architectural practice.  Her work has been published in Europe, Brazil, and the United States. Website. TwitterContact.

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