The artistic and intellectual culture of all the Americas was irrevocably changed by the immigration of artists, architects, and intellectuals sent into exile by the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In 1939, Felix Candela, condemned to prison in absentia by Franco’s government, sought refuge in Mexico. His studies at Madrid’s Superior Technical School of Architecture included engineering and the mathematics of statics and strength of materials, and this expertise became essential to his career as an architect-builder.
The success of the construction company Candela founded in 1950, Cubiertas Ala, or “winged roofs,” was based on his economical solutions for large spans using hyperbolic-paraboloid umbrella structures made of “thin shell” reinforced concrete for warehouses and market buildings. In 1951, he designed and built the Pabellón de Rayos Cósmicos in Mexico City, the first structure made of thin-shell reinforced concrete in the form of a hyperbolic parabola. In the late 1950s, Candela lectured widely throughout the Americas and opened branches of his construction company in Venezuela, managed by Mexican architect Guillermo Shelley, and in Guatemala. In Venezuela, his company built new thin-shell structures in Maracaibo and Caracas for projects such as the Volkswagen factory and the club Playa Azul, working with the architects Dirk Bornhorst and Pedro Neuberger.
Armando Salas Portugal (left, right) and Alberto Moreno Guzmán (center)
The exhibition which was on view at the Wallach Art Gallery is centered on a collection of drawings and photographs that Candela donated to Columbia’s Avery Library and on material from the Félix and Dorothy Candela archive at Princeton University. The models and drawings describe in detail Candela’s favorite buildings: Los Manantiales Restaurant, the Chapel Lomas de Cuernavaca, the Bacardí Rum Factory, and the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
Thin-shell structures were built to withstand earthquakes and are still in use today, taking full advantage of the light and conditions in the cool climates of Caracas and Mexico City as well as the hot and humid climates of Maracaibo and Guatemala City. Candela’s contribution to architecture was founded upon a deep knowledge of the properties of reinforced concrete, which he had learned from studying the work of Robert Maillart, a Swiss civil engineer who revolutionized the use of structural reinforced concrete with such designs as the three-hinged arch, the deck-stiffened arch for bridges, and the beamless floor slab and mushroom ceiling for industrial buildings. Candela was a master of geometric imagination, and each of his solutions that use a double curvature structure forming the roof and support at the same time is unique. His forms adapted to the particular needs of the site or the program, whether for industry or the sacred spaces of a church. Not only did the structure become the space, but the structure was conceived in terms of the gaps that allow for a controlled natural light to radiate within the interior space.
The Bacardí factory is a particularly good example of Candela’s repeated use of the hyperbolic parabola allowing life-affirming natural light into the interiors. The resulting space accommodates programmed industrial processes and, at the same time, presents the formal geometry derived from the imagination of the architect. The beauty of the solution asks us to consider these spaces independent of their original use, inhabited by art and people rather than by industry.
Candela’s quick sketch method of structural composition arrives at the tectonic form conceived as a synthesis of geometry and a proprietary knowledge of the properties of thin-shell reinforced concrete. When these forms were built in Mexico, they could only be constructed using the specialized formwork and procedures developed by his own company.
In exile Candela wrote about a new freedom for a transnational identity. His conception of a new man that is “Pan American.” Thus he broadened his political discourse beyond anti-fascist activities. His hope was for a modernism in the Americas that would overcome the tragic circumstances of a world devastated by the imperial ambitions of Stalin, Franco, Mussolini, and Hirohito.
In only twenty years, Felix Candela’s prolific office worked on 1,400 projects, of which approximately 900 were built. But the quantity of built structures is not why Candela left his mark on the history of architecture. Instead it is due to the unique translation of a theory of structures into a constructed urban architecture that could be site specific and accommodate industrial, commercial, or religious environments.