18 July 2008

Carlos Raul Villanueva

tropical modernism: the power of estrangement
La Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, Aula Magna (Convocation Hall) interior. Acoustic panels (The Clouds) by Alexander Calder.

Ruth Alejandra Moro

I remember the first time I saw blue shadows, light-diffused shadows on snow. In the warmer and brighter tropics shadows are a strong dark or a well-defined black. I arrived in Toronto in early March, still winter, and everything was foreign to me, but soon I realized that I was the foreign one, not the other way around. All my contextual understanding was displaced; in a battle between rejection and acceptance I had to both redefine the known and to make the unfamiliar familiar.

When Carlos Raul Villanueva arrived in Caracas in 1929, after finishing his studies at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he found a predominantly rural society under the dictatorial government of Juan Vicente Gomez. The leading architectural trend among the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was historicist: neo-colonial, neo-baroque, vasque style. The figure of the architect did not exist: the engineer was recognized as the master builder.
The son of Venezuelan diplomats, he spent most of his youth in Paris, living in a diplomatic environment surrounded by arts and culture when the first modernist examples emerged in Europe. It was the primitive environment of Caracas that acted as a provocation, a catalyst, igniting the creative process and confronting him with the most fundamental principles of architecture. As I did, Villanueva reinvented himself by understanding, transforming and appropriating the unknown. Slowly he discovered tropical weather, lush landscapes and the elements of Hispanic architecture: the colonial window with its multiple layers to protect from the sun; the traditional patio for cross ventilation; the use of colour to make spaces warmer, happier.
His first works were shy, conservative and academic, a reflection of the society he had encountered. In the 1930s he built a bull ring (La Maestranza) in Maracay, that along with the Museum of Beaux Arts of Caracas and the Museum of Natural Science, were part of a historicist period of his career. These and other pavilions and galleries built during this period, generated a sensibility towards the arts that would be very evident in Villanueva’s late work.
Meanwhile the modernist influences he brought from Europe were waiting in the background. He started to slowly introduce elements of modernist language while continuing to re-evaluate and re-interpret traditional Hispanic architecture. Two events greatly influenced this change: the death of Juan Vicente Gomez in 1935 initiated a period of political openness and modernisation in Venezuela, and working with Juan Bernardo Arismendi, his father-in-law, on private residential projects allowed him to understand the local use of the domestic space.
A clear example of his architecture at this time is the revitalization of El Silencio (1941-1945), a low rise social housing project in downtown Caracas.
Although the public façade portrays a historicist language through the use of mouldings, cornices and traditional columns; the private façades (on the interior courtyard) clearly show a modern language with no disguises. Commercial gallerias on the ground floor protect from the intense tropical sun while creating a strong link with the public space. This is a space of exchange that even today remains active, in spite of the rapid and aggressive growth of the surrounding area.

It is finally in the Ciudad Universitaria, the main campus of the Central University of Venezuela (1944-1970) in Caracas where modern and traditional elements, and the sensibility he had developed towards the arts, come together to generate a truly tropical modern language in an amalgamation of art, landscape, architecture, planning and urban design. Built over a 26 year period, under Villanueva’s sole direction and design, the campus is a city within the city.
The master plan that had started by copying rigid English and American models evolved into an organic pattern, open spaces without solar protection become delineated by covered hallways, pergolas, and patios; the concept of the covered plaza was introduced to provide a transition between public and private space in which to socialise. The deliberate contrast between light and shade produced texture, and colour was introduced through the incorporation of art into architectural elements such as windows, murals and facades .
The encounter with the unknown and unexpected, gave Carlos Raul Villanueva special awareness of its surroundings and another vision of himself. Finally after many years of observation, analysis, teaching, sharing and understanding the society he lived in, he appropriated it and made it his own.
After seven years, my understanding of Canada (its people, habits and beliefs) has changed, and so has the perception — the notion — of myself. A negotiation of identity has risen from personal experience, self-reflection and a contextual awareness making what was once unfamiliar, familiar now, and what was a battle, is now a dialogue.
Displacement is not the place where we become something completely different but the place where we can share the differences and extract the best from them.
My architecture, as well, has arrived to a balanced mid-point where the fusion of both cultures, the tropical and the northern, celebrates the most unexpected but harmonious results.

‘Ultimately, estrangement is not about encountering a complete alien, but also about encountering sufficient otherness to recognize strangeness in oneself. Through displacement-in the mind in time and in space, through travel and emigration- we revisit ourselves’.
Payne, Alina. ‘Displacements: Architecture and the other side of the known’
A1, Architecture and Ideas, vol IV (Winter 2000)

Mora, Ruth Alejandra. 'The power of estrangement'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Ruth Alejandra Mora and On Site review

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