Eladio Dieste

Architect and engineer, Uruguay
Eladio Dieste was born in Artigas, Uruguay, in 1917. He received his engineering
degree in 1943 from the University of the Republic in Montevideo, where he taught
structures from 1943 until 1973. In 1953 Dieste begin his association with the engineer
Eugenic Montañez. For almost half a century, Dieste conducted research and worked
with reinforced brick. He developed structural masonry techniques using brick for water
tanks, factories, horizontal silos, churches, towers, and bus stations.
Dieste recognized that the conditions that generated modern architecture in Europe
and North America were distinct from those in Latin America. He reasoned that the
design opportunities presented in Latin American countries did not demand that solutions
resemble those produced in developed nations. He therefore understood that each culture
could integrate technological change in its own manner, according to its own reality.
Dieste relied on the rational economic use of construction materials and methods, a
respect for natural resources, and a knowledge of materials’ properties. Convinced that
development results from using regional techniques and technologies, he proposed
construction methods and materials that considered the social and economic conditions of
his country and the regions where he worked. Because Dieste used brick, one of the
oldest and most humble construction materials, his work proved that it is possible to
combine austerity and beauty and to understand local conditions while experimenting
Dieste employed the principles of simple and double curvature in concrete and
transferred it to brick and reinforced ceramic. This structural innovation allowed him to
benefit from the characteristics of the new material. His use of brick, as opposed to
concrete, offered lightness, responded to deformations, sustained the test of time, and
minimized maintenance. Because ceramic brick is more resistant to temperature changes
than concrete, it offers excellent thermal insulation. It is also inexpensive, acoustically
resilient, and easy to repair or modify.
Dieste experimented with two principal structural types: the Gaussa vault and the selfsupporting
vault. The Gaussa vault contains a double curvature that combines brick, iron,
and mortar. The word Gaussa, coined by Dieste, refers to vaults that he employed to cover large
spaces using a minimal amount of reinforcement. The second type of vault that he often
employed was designed to be completely self-supporting. In both cases, he relied on
skills of regional workmen and used machinery that he designed and assembled.
One of the best examples of Dieste’s work can be seen in the celebrated Atlántida
church (1960, formerly a rectilinear warehouse. Dieste conceived a series of linear brick
walls that are straight at the base and begin to undulate in the middle as they approach a
double-curvature, continuous membrane roof. The conoidal-shaped walls and the
Gaussian vaults create a monolithic and powerful form. The spatial light recalls Le
Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, yet its conceptual distinction is seen in the
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 688
changing brick textures and sculptural lightness. The bell tower is constructed with
reinforced brick.
Dieste’s search for structural expression and formal richness is also achieved in the
Church in San Pedro, Durazno (1971). This church was built over the ruins of a parish
church that had been destroyed by fire. The old parish followed the traditional layout of a
central nave and two aisles separated by columns. The new structure consists of three
folded slabs, two walls slanting toward the interior, and the roof, all of which are
constructed of reinforced-brick membranes. The church follows the plan of the former
parish but eliminates the columns between the nave and the side aisles, achieving a
unified space. The interior is sober, enriched only by an altar and a rosette that is made up
of a five-centimeter-thick hexagonal screen that is unified by iron spokes. The brick bell
tower can be climbed to admire the landscape.
In the late 1960s, Dieste collaborated with the Brazilian government to build a series
of markets, the most significant of which is the enormous structure for the market at
Porto Alegre. Its central pavilion spans 47 meters and contains double-curved vaults and
skylights. Dieste designed other areas of the complex with self-supporting vaults.
While exploring structural innovations with the Gaussa vault, Dieste began to
experiment in the early 1960s with self-supporting vaults. He first used these light,
supporting structures in his home (1962). Later, in Salto, Uruguay, he designed several
buildings: the Municipal Bus Terminal (1974), the factory for the soft drinks “Refrescos
del Norte” (1978), and the Turlit Terminal (1980) for a private bus company. He
continued to develop these vaults at the Production Halls of Massaro Industries (1978) in
Joanicó, Uruguay, where he constructed pre-stressed vaults for the roof structure that
spanned 35 meters between pillars. One of these self-supporting vaults, only 10
centimeters thick, cantilevered 16 meters out from the entrance of the building. His
explorations culminated with works at “Lanas Trinidad” (1979–91) in Alta, where he
constructed vaults spanning up to 40 meters. In the Shopping Center of Montevideo
(1985), his explorations resulted in the reinterpretation of the thematic ideas vested in the
Atlántida church. An undulating line in the middle of the wall mediates the wall’s form,
which this time is straight at the base and the top. The undulating characteristic in the
wall expresses structural pressure exerted by the set of two self-supporting ceramic vaults
of the roof. This characteristic further absorbs lateral thrust and wind pressure. The floor
slab is part of the entire structural system. It illustrates Dieste’s ability to integrate his
formal sensitivity and material knowledge with structural demands.
Since the 1960s, Dieste’s work has been seriously studied in Latin America. His ideas
inspired those interested in the development of an architecture that responds to a Latin
American context. Outside Latin America, both his structural innovations and his poetic
approach to construction received only peripheral attention. He remains lesser known
than other Hispenic structural innovators, such as Felix Candela or Eduardo Torroja.
A refined and subtle beauty characterizes Dieste’s work. It embodies sophisticated yet
simple structures that combine varying brick-changing tonalities and patterns with
technical rigor. His projects reflect three major considerations: an expressive force of
local tradition, an integration of artistic and moral issues, and a knowledge of material
property and capabilities.
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