Monocle, September 2020
Agustín Dieste has grabbed monocle’s notebook and is vigorously scribbling in it. We’re standing inside the asphalt enclosure of a former bus station in Uruguay’s second city, Salto. In the book he draws the outline of a set of arches, adding arrows to show how the tension works. Soon he’s throwing out terms such as “double cantilever” and “horizontal thrust” in a gallant attempt to explain the engineering prowess of his grandfather Eladio. Yet for all the technical talk, the elegance of the work in front of us speaks for itself. Built in 1973 and in use until 2000, the repeating curves of Eladio Dieste’s bus station roof are remarkable for their minimal support structure. There are no side walls and only a thin column to hold up every set of arches. A fusion of functionality and form, the design is clearly modern. And yet the building material in question is humble red brick.
Eladio Dieste isn’t an international household name, even though he is fêted in his South American homeland. An engineer rather than an architect, his continued association with the buildings he worked on is a testament to the intricate involvement he had with them. At a time when the world is reconsidering how it builds for the future and social movements are calling for more inclusion, the cost-effective, democratic architecture that Dieste helped pioneer feels more appropriate than ever. Through his ingenious engineering calculations, he found a way to perfect wide-spanning, vaulted-roof constructions with just one layer of brick, rather than concrete. These rippling, hypnotic forms are largely self-supporting, allowing for vast open spaces. Using fewer materials – and ones that didn’t need to be imported – kept building costs down. “With that [engineering] formula, you could carry out construction with any workers,” says Agustín. “And you can find brick all over Uruguay.”
Over several days we embark upon a tour of Dieste’s work, guided by his architect grandson. We travel from Montevideo, the capital, to Salto and up to subtropical Artigas – where Dieste was born – on the border with Brazil. Architecture can be flashy and it can be elitist but Dieste’s buildings were often destined for utilitarian use by working-class Uruguayans. In fact, part of the reason why Dieste’s oeuvre isn’t better known internationally might be because it comprises factories, warehouses, churches, gymnasiums and a shopping mall, along with a few modest homes. And yet he had an aesthete’s eye for magical undulations of brickwork and a sensitive use of natural light. As US architectural historian Stanford Anderson once said, he took ordinary brick and elevated it “to a completely new level”.
Not that everyone who encounters his buildings is necessarily impressed. Over at the Caputto fruit-packing plant just outside Salto, technical manager Gabriel Romero is wrapping up for the day. Despite the industrial setting, it’s hard not to see the beauty of this 1972 Dieste project, from the thick foliage climbing up the walls of the factory to a brick water tower that resembles a church’s steeple. Every night it is filled with water to create pressure for the line workers to clean citrus fruit the next day. The huge factory floor is bathed in light thanks to the shape of the roof, known as a Gaussian vault. Every double-curved segment allows for a perfectly straight window to be slotted into place before the ripple continues. “For me it’s normal; I’ve been here for 25 years,” says Romero. “But for people from elsewhere, it draws their attention.”
Dieste’s agricultural and industrial work spans everything from the Julio Herrera y Obes storage deposit in Montevideo’s docklands to a huge grain silo in the town of Young; two more works from the 1970s, his most prolific decade. But it was arguably with churches that Dieste reached his expressive zenith. A deeply pious man, he built several in his lifetime, including a genre-defying refurbishment of a fire-damaged 19th-century basilica in Durazno, where he added a modernist take on a rose window.
But it is the Cristo Obrero church in Atlántida, east of Montevideo, that is arguably the fullest realisation of his engineering and design prowess; a copy was later built in a Madrid suburb, along with two other replicas. Finished in 1960, it was his first commission. It resembles a docked intergalactic spaceship due to the elasticity of its form. Twice a week you can sneak in for mass and marvel at an interior that somehow manages to be both austere and uplifting. Other than the fact that everything is made of brick – even a staircase – the building’s most striking feature is its lighting. Windows are either recessed in the walls or appear as dispersed stained-glass slits in the building’s curves and on the entrance door, creating a hallowed glow when standing inside.
Dieste y Montañez, the company co-founded by the engineer in 1954, still functions today. It occupies a space in Montevideo that is cluttered with desks and overflowing paperwork. Gonzalo Larrambebere, a partner, says that he worked with Dieste from 1976 right up until his death in 2000. “We always lose money and try to recoup it,” he says of the firm today. Dieste y Moñtañez has had to diversify beyond the vault work that made it famous and take on bread-and-butter engineering projects, such as a bridges and piers. Larrambebere calls Dieste a “structural artist” and laments that cheaper imported materials and an emphasis on trends has meant that the Uruguayan take on the bóveda (vault) isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was.
But the craft lives on. Across town in a café in the Carrasco neighbourhood, Michael Ramage is sipping coffee. Director of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge, he is in town for a timber conference – and to sneak a look at a few more Dieste buildings, which he fell in love with when studying under Stanford Anderson at mit. Ramage says that Dieste’s works are often ethereal. But even at their most pragmatic, their curves have a softening effect. “Working with gravity and geometry, he got amazing forms,” says Ramage. He has clearly been influenced by Dieste and other pioneers such as Spaniard Rafael Guastavino, who created the vault work at Grand Central Station in New York. Ramage’s practice, Light Earth Designs, built the Rwanda Cricket Stadium in Kigali in 2017, with its arches made from stone-covered earth masonry.
But it is the construction of the Flor de Maroñas Cultural Centre in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Montevideo that offers the brightest hope that a new generation will embrace Dieste’s work in Uruguay. When monocle visits, the finishing touches are being put to an arched roof informed by Dieste’s engineering techniques. The centre, due to be completed in August, is a sports facility, classroom and medical clinic in one; Dieste would no doubt have approved of this inclusivity. “If I show this roof anywhere in the world, they’ll know it’s Uruguay,” says lead architect Carlos Pascual, pointing to the curves. “This is Uruguayan architecture.”