Pedro Figari (1861–1938) was active in several different cultural areas, as a philosopher, journalist, educator, lawyer, politician, and artist. He worked for the development of a universal humanism that included, and was based on, an empathetic knowledge of the cultural heritage of the region that was expressed in the local traditions, nature, and society. At the time he wrote this essay he was already a well-known criminal attorney, having gained fame for the “Almeida Case” (in the late nineteenth century); he had lobbied for the abolition of the death penalty (which was achieved in 1907), and had proposed new programmatic approaches to the issue of industrial education (in 1910). He reached a high point in his intellectual career with the publication of his philosophical essay “Arte, Estética, Ideal” (1912). He criticized the government’s aesthetic choices in the field of urban development in a number of articles published in the press in the early twentieth century. He was unrelenting in his opposition to the construction of the Palacio de las Leyes (where the Parliament was housed), calling it a monumental, eclectic architectural project conceived in a pompous, neoclassical style that would cost far too much given the Uruguayan treasury’s meager resources and the country’s woeful lack of schools.
In the article “Un poco de crítica regional,” Figari goes on the offensive with his opposition to a policy of “foreignization without consultation” as regards both aesthetic preferences and customs, if we consider that his proposal to create a local cultural “tradition” (that is practically nonexistent) is based on the selective adaptation of foreign environmental concepts and productive criteria. Not, in his opinion, by merely imitating (outdated) models that are already considered “counter evolutionary” in their countries of origin.
It is interesting to note that Figari views “tradition” as a set of practices and ideas that are characteristic of particular countries and regions, and states that it would be improper to “dress ourselves in an alien tradition,” by which he means European. In other words, imitation represents “a lack of self-awareness.” That was the basis for what he saw as the need to create a “productive culture of our own” when he crafted his program for the Escuela de Industrias in 1910, which he applied in his brief stint as acting director of the institution (1915–16) and completed in his 1917 report. It was the main argument in his criticism of the “grey Paris” with which Montevideo, according to him, seeks to emulate the French capital city. The monotony of grey had been imposed via departmental decrees that set standards for (not applying) color on building facades and for the paved surfaces of public pedestrian walkways made of cement. In Figari’s opinion, extolling a “conventual grey” city instead of a multicolored one will “tag us as a cartoon.” He relentlessly criticizes the government’s handling of urban public space and the lack of urban planning. He mentions the importing of “sumptuous monuments” and venues that try to imitate the monarchical culture of “The Louises,” stating that they “represent the opposite of our democratic, egalitarian institutional tendencies.” This almost ontological connection that Figari makes between constructive simplicity, practical realism, and an egalitarian democratic regime can been seen in all his political and cultural discourse from the beginning of the century through the 1930s.