Let’s follow the South American way
Eladio Dieste’s soaring brick forms show how it’s possible to achieve marvels on a low budget
I have never been to Uruguay. Now, I very much want to. My sudden desire springs from getting to know — in books, plans, drawings and photographs — the work of the engineer-architect Eladio Dieste (1917-2000). Many of you will be acquainted with Dieste’s exemplary warehouses, sports halls, farm buildings and bus depots in Uruguay and neighbouring Brazil, but these are new to me. Most of all, my eye has been caught by the mesmerising church of Cristo Obrero (Christ the Worker) crowning Atlantida, an ocean resort 45km from Montevideo, and consecrated in 1958.
Here, Dieste raised an imposing place of worship at low cost by making novel and daring use of brickwork treated like an improbably thin yet exceedingly strong version of reinforced concrete. The shell brick vaults undulating like waves over the cavernous and numinous nave of this church are true wonders of modern engineering and design. This church is clearly as poetic in its ingenious poverty as Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp or Sigurd Lewerentz’s parish church of St Peter’s, Klippan.
What intrigues me is the fact that Dieste was able to make such virtue of a limited budget. Here is one of the great modern places of prayer realised magnificently when money was hard to come by and where few would have expected a masterpiece.
Cristo Obrero is one of those buildings — along, I can see, with Dieste’s Gimnasio del Colegio Don Bosco, Montevideo (1983) — that proves it is possible to build magisterially and beautifully in hard times. At a time when Britain and much of the world is in recession, I wonder what stops us from building so imaginatively and well with low budgets when we have examples like Dieste’s to learn from? Dieste’s double-curved vaults are as light and as magical as they were cheap to build. In his hands, a sports hall or warehouse was conjured into a cavern of dancing forms and heavenly light. In Cristo Obrero, there appears to be no artificial lighting whatsoever. There must be some, yet here daylight is drawn through slits and chutes and alabaster-covered wall openings, and the result is evidently spine-tingling.
Dieste shaped his form of brick vaulting because reinforced concrete was too expensive. Here is real ingenuity from a man who had a profound sense of form, light and structure. From what I can make of his buildings, though, none would satisfy us in Britain today. Even if we can admire their forms and structures, they are surely too poor for us even if our economy tips into a “double dip” recession.
Why? Because they have little in the way of the costly services we consider necessities today. We expect to live in hermetic, over-lit, over-heated, over-cooled buildings that, by nature, are costly even when prosaic and with as much in the way of spirit as a distribution centre in Daventry. We could choose to build ascetically, innovatively and beautifully as Dieste did in Uruguay. But, you can bet your bottom peso, pound or euro that we’d prefer to go bankrupt than do a Dieste.
Jonathan Glancey is architecture critic of the Guardian