Search results for "Felix Candela"
Tectonics of Transparency
MIT researcher aims to expand the role of glass in construction
The two architects whose work best adapt to the Los Angeles sensibility and natural terrain, and coincidentally are my favorites, are Rudolf Schindler and John Lautner. Both of these architects spent time working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s office in LA before doing their own early work, which in both cases was influenced by Wright. Lautner—raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a wilderness, lake area adjacent to Wright’s original home base in Wisconsin—studied at Wright’s Taliesin East in Wisconsin. Later Lautner worked in collaboration with the Wisconsin master in his LA Brentwood “Sturges House,” a house which dramatically cantilevered a large terrace in the air over a sheer drop in the hillside terrain. This work had a clear influence on Lautner’s later LA houses, which often were sited atop hills overlooking ravines to give airy vistas of lower, greater LA. Schindler’s best LA, work, in my opinion, are low-budget apartment complexes in Studio City and Silver Lake, radically terraced into differing levels of quasi-mountainous terrain. These projects were influenced by Viennese social housing and equally by Adolf Loos’s interior “open plan.”
Both Lautner and Schindler’s early LA work begins with their take on Frank Lloyd Wright’s “open plan” adapted to the quasi-mountainous ravines of the LA hillside. Schindler’s work is heavily landscaped, perhaps reflecting the influence of Wright’s frequent visits to Japan, whereas Lautner’s work is often completely suspended from and set into its natural setting.
Lautner’s idea of nature and site specificity differs from Wright’s seminal works like Falling Water, which are romantic, scenographic fantasies, often left unfinished (sometimes due to client’s lack of funds or a “falling out” with the architect). On the contrary, Lautner’s houses are built for permanence. Lautner’s first LA houses, such as his own house in Silver Lake from 1940, are close in feeling and in their use of wood timbers to Wright’s work of the same and slightly earlier periods.
Although Lautner’s classic work is associated with luxury, Lautner in his early LA practice, like Schindler (who he admired) experimented with low-cost houses, highway motels and gas stations, as well as rustic, isolated vacation cottages.
What is characteristic of Lautner’s classic houses is the centrality of the swimming pool in his design. Lautner is a Cancer, like his fellow Cancer-sign architect, Robert Venturi, who based his early house for his mother on the central fireplace; Lautner also based his compositions on a central hearth-like focus, substituting the swimming pool for the fireplace. These LA houses incorporate the remnant of mid-western Wrightian nature worship, based around the Wrightian house’s fireplace, re-directed to Southern Californian hedonistic sun/water worship, epitomized by the terrace’s swimming pool. The pool was the center of Lautner’s luxury houses. (As a Cancer water sign, also connected with childhood memories, Lautner’s work seems to relate to the water-environment of the Lake Superior area where he grew up.) Lautner’s last works, sited near the Pacific Ocean, substitute the sea, surrounded by sky and earth, for the swimming pool, as central metaphors of man to nature.
The organic metaphor in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work was perhaps first encountered by Lautner in Wright’s Racine Wisconsin S.C. Johnson Research Tower from 1944–1950, whose interior, supporting columns resemble large “inverted” lily pads, floating in the pond of a 19th century Crystal Palace–like Botanical Garden or perhaps gigantic, mushroom-like plants.
The middle-to-late Lautner houses, which substituted concrete for wood as building material, often use undulating concrete, shell forms, which develop organically to link the house to the surrounding land or sea. Lautner by then had turned his attention to structural engineering, partly under the influence of the aero-space industry located in post-war LA, but also manifested in Lautner’s awareness of the works of post-war Italian structural engineers/architects such as Pier Luigi Nervi, who had used reinforced concrete in curvilinear, folded forms, as well as the concrete structures of Baldessari. Another major influence on Lautner’s practice was the shell forms of the Mexican, Felix Candela, as well as the forms of the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer. Lautner’s Malibu Cliff House, 1990, and his Acapulco Marbrisa House, 1993, have echoes of Nervi’s spiraling forms as well as relating to Saarinen’s TWA Airport Terminal at JFK as well as his Yale, New Haven, Ingalls hockey rink.
Lautner’s first use of reinforced concrete is in the roof of his 1963–89 Sheats/Goldstein House, whose forms echo Louis Kahn’s concrete ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery.
The Sheats/Goldstein House was the first Lautner house I personally experienced. The house is precariously perched, like a tree house, in a wooded area on a hillside overlooking Beverly Hills. In this house, views of the swimming pool are central. From the houses’ upper level we first glimpse the pool seen from above; the pool is situated at the middle, terrace level of the house. On a lower level we can actually look through the pool’s water from an underwater vantage point through a sheet of thick, transparent glass, rather like the view of penguins in their underwater habitat we see in zoo architecture.
The house is surmounted by the concrete roof, resembling a Louis Kahn in its geometric form, and seems to be a metaphor for the light experienced in a timber house in the forest wilderness (not unlike the summer cabin in Michigan where Lautner was born). Lautner’s Sheats/Goldstein House uses 750 drinking glasses set into the roof’s concrete to re-create a speckled, flickering light suggesting a primeval forest canopy.
The house makes use of many, contrasted, interwoven textures, overlapping layers of thick quasi-transparent glass, wood paneling, rug and ripped floor surfaces, all of which interact with shifting glimpses of light and fragments of outside foliage lightly reflected on the interior glass partitions and windows.
Lautner employs the use of overlapping layers of glass as interior partitions to capture surface light reflections of people moving around the transition spaces linked by various staircases. This interior glass reflects and connects people’s gazes and bodies with the doubling indoor/exterior sunlight. These glass reflections also intermingle to the reflective surfaces of the water in the pool. The internal glass relates subtle movements of people transiting the space with reflections of the various textures of the wall surfaces and floor coverings as well as the flickering outdoor light.
Lautner’s use of glass in this and other houses is vastly different from that of modernist architects where window glass makes a clear divide between outdoor light and interior space. (A notable exception is Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion where thick glass, the marble’s polished surfaces, and the water of the reflecting pool allow the transiting observers a subtle Lacanian “mirror stage” glimpse of their own gaze, superimposed on the material’s surface and the gaze and bodies of other observing spectators.)
Lautner’s final works, in their gentle, curving, enfolding, somewhat organic surfaces evoke and interconnect the house’s interior and exterior surfaces with the surrounding natural forms—sea, earth, and sky. Lautner described the concrete roof of his late, Baja California seaside Marbrisa House as “a roof to sandwich life between earth and sky to the surrounding sea.” His Michigan lake/wilderness natural childhood experience was deeply influenced by ideas of Nordic, Germanic, and Irish nature mythology as well as by his philosophy teacher father and his artist mother and it is now re-oriented/re-created in the new Pacific Ocean setting of Southern California.
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.
The San Diego architect Teddy Cruz is fond of telling local audiences that “California doesn't end at the Tijuana border but stretches all the way to Mexico City.” Cruz is trying to make the point that the two economies are inextricably linked. Indeed, his own work shows how materials, goods, and culture move constantly back and forth across borders.
Mexico, of course, has had an extraordinary architectural culture—longer than our own. And the work now coming out of that country makes it clear to me just how powerful and creative the visual and intellectual resources are for Mexican architects. And just how much we nortenos can learn from our southern neighbors.
For the fourth year in a row, the just-ended World Architecture Festival in Barcelona was loaded with outstanding work by Mexican architects. I served on the Civic and Community jury (with University of Michigan dean Monica Ponce de Leon and Barcelona architect Fermin Vazquez). The first out of sixteen projects presented was a small private chapel in Acapulco, Mexico by the young Mexico City firm Bunker Arquitectura. The Sunset Chapel is set on a wooded hill over looking the Pacific Ocean just south of the city. The site is dominated by a huge boulder that was impossible to move or break. Ingeniously, the architects of Bunker created a structure emerging from a small base that gently touches the ground and lifts the chapel space some 16 feet up and over the boulder. The concrete structure is windowless, mimicking the giant rock but also looking as if it had been carved by a precise mason. Then at the chapel level, narrow carved windows open up to bathe the space in light and provide stunning views out to the Pacific Ocean and the sunset.
The entire Acapulco structure is very small and simple in plan and elevation but nonetheless a statement of the power of form that we have come to expect from the architecture of the region. From Pre-Columbian cities and monuments and the hybrid Colonial period resulting from Europe crashing into the indigenous cultures, the region produced (but admittedly also destroyed) cities and monuments of an elegance and sophistication absent in North America. Mexico has more sites—29 to be exact—on the UNESCO World Heritage list than any other country in the Americas. Their cities exhibit an urbanism rare north of the border, from Emperor Maximilian's Haussman-inspired Paseo de la Reforma and Puebla's Mexican baroque monuments to the modernism of Acapulco’s seaside resorts. Even the border settlements in Mexico from Tijuana on the Pacific to Reynosa near the Gulf of Mexico exhibit compelling urban and spatial qualities entirely absent from their suburbanized American counterparts just across the border.
The Mexican tradition of modern architecture while it borrows heavily from European and American influences is a unique formulation that rivals any in the Americas, arguably excepting Brazil. It has produced outstanding structures like The Institute of Hygiene in Popotla (1925) by Jose Villagran and the Ciudad Universitaria complex (begun in 1950) outside Mexico City by a collaborative of talented designers to the extraordinary structures of Luis Barragán and Spaniard Felix Candela.
In recent years through Emerging Voices and Young Practices, the Architectural League has been highlighting many firms, like Bunker, that are too interesting to ignore, among them Productora, Tatiana Bilbao, Frida Escobedo, and Ivan Juarez. (And see our Studio Visit in this issue with Fernando Romero of FREE). In October, the Bronx Museum held a two-day conference on Latin America, while last night I attended a lively panel on the same at Pratt, and Barry Bergdoll of MoMA is planning an exhibition on Central and South America. The vibrant work to the south of us has long been there, it’s about time we started paying attention.
The work and ideas of Buckminster Fuller have been an important touchstone for many of today’s architects, designers, and artists. In her essay for the Whitney Museum’s publication that accompanied the recent Fuller exhibition, Elizabeth Smith, chief curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), traced these influences on a current generation, including Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson. With major exhibitions on both Fuller and Eliasson now on view at the MCA, AN asked Smith to discuss Fuller’s continued relevance, interest, and significance with Eliasson.
Top: Estate of Buckminster fuller; center: Nathan Keay; Bottom: Leah Broaddus/special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, SIU Carbondale
Elizabeth Smith: You’ve been thinking about Fuller for a long time. What is it about his work in relationship to your own that you find productive?
Olafur Eliasson: With Fuller’s work, there’s experimentation on so many levels, and of course I have been inspired over the years again and again, beginning with one of my very first pieces titled 8900054. Principally, it was a Fuller dome, and that was the first time I worked with a mathematician and geometrist called Einar Thorsteinn who was a friend of Fuller. My idea was to make a work almost like a Fuller ready-made. At that time, in ’96, he was not at all exposed in the architectural frame of reference, so people reacted to him as a utopian and a person who was very hard to map within the context of spatial thinking. What is exciting and interesting is that in the last 15 years, he’s been integrated into architectural or spatial history in a much more performative and productive way.
Tell me more about Einar Thorsteinn and your collaboration with him.
Well, there is so much to be said about him but most importantly, he was educated in the late 1960s at Frei Otto’s office in Stuttgart, and he was involved as a student with the erection of the Munich Stadium that became so famous with the tensile suspended roof structures. Einar then went back to Iceland. In 1973, he founded Constructions Lab and although involved with architecture, he moved on into different types of mathematical and geometrical research. He also invited Fuller, whom he had first met in ’66, to come to Iceland. Einar had done a handful of dome houses where people are actually living to this day in Iceland. On top of that, Einar is an artist himself and is developing a number of different projects on his own terms.
He has worked in my studio for more than ten years now, and when I say work, I mean that he is deeply involved as a collaborator, and sometimes solves pragmatic challenges with me. Coming from Frei Otto and Fuller, through crystallographic and spatial pattern principles that typically derive from non-modern or non-Euclidian languages, Einar is of course a great resource and of much inspiration to me. I myself have looked into both Fuller and Frei Otto but also into people like Paolo Soleri and Felix Candela and others, who have had these utopian approaches. The inspiration is not necessarily a formal one, based on the language they created; I do think that one of the most striking things about these people and Fuller especially is their conviction in the worth of what they were doing. They would link social aspects with engineering and environmental questions. They would not compartmentalize things like one sees in the general architectural practice of today; they would challenge everything at the same time in a very productive way.
Do you think it was easier for an artist like yourself to recuperate the ideas
Well, as an artist, I look for languages where I can examine and challenge ideas about singularity—about the person in the world—and about plurality—about collectivity in the world. Fuller successfully created a language that sustains a clear notion of what individuality potentially could be and the sense of responsibility that an individual has. On the other hand, within that language, within that same question, he also has a specific idea about collectivity and its consequences and what kind of responsibility that requires. If you think about it, there are not so many types of spatial practice that would sustain both an explicit idea of individuality and an explicit idea of collectivity. You could say that typically, you have either collective kinds of spaces or spaces that are very much based on individuality. And today I find that we have to take up the great challenge in society to embrace collectivity and individuality rather than polarizing the two, which is the case on the political scene, for instance.
Was agency of the individual as important an idea for Fuller as it is for you?
I’m not saying that he was not a utopian thinker who to a great extent externalized fundamental values into a kind of a dot on the horizon where we would want to be heading. I think he was, as were his contemporaries, utopian in the sense that he implicitly worked with this idea of, “Once we get there, we will be fine.” Where clearly now, both as an artist but also as a participant on Spaceship Earth, I say we have to be fine while we go along, and it doesn’t work to externalize our values into a certain goal; the process with which we move along needs to perform the values by which we live. So one could say that there has been an internalization of Fuller’s values in terms of his utopian tendencies.
The struggle we see in architecture today is: To what extent can one embody the environmental movement, the green movement? In architecture there is that little bit of struggle now whether we should be modern and claim a goal and then create a green movement, or whether we should try to mobilize, create an architecture based on our individual sense of responsibility. One could split those two kinds of architecture into a normative architecture, which is the modern one that tries to create a generalized idea of how we sustain ecological architectural principles, and this is something that Fuller in a sense initiated, and a more non-normative movement that we individually define because this also allows for a different kind of emotional involvement.
To me it seems that Fuller’s approach is as much about setting a goal and pragmatically reaching it as it is about living one’s life in a way that significantly demonstrates ethical values.
Looking at Fuller’s work, the question is also, what does an exhibition like this do?
I think there is an incredible potential in Fuller, but how are his theory, his arguments, values, and tools reintroduced to a contemporary spatial practice? How does one see the tools in today’s context rather than as historical tools? I’m very interested in that question: Are we looking at new drawings by Fuller that happened to be made 50 years ago, or are we looking at 50-year-old drawings today? I think it’s incredibly important to consider his contribution contemporary. I think we need to adopt a contemporary view as we walk into the museum and we have to imagine that Fuller is a 23-year-old architecture student.
That activates or introduces a certain performative aspect to an exhibition like the one at the MCA, which I think can be strikingly convincing. I find it productive because clearly, the effort in the show has been to describe the legacy of Fuller, and he in every way deserves that and it hasn’t been done so far. But we also have to acknowledge that this can be slightly stigmatizing because you suddenly see the tools in a vitrine rather than in your hands. And as an artist I believe that one of the great challenges, and one of the great things about art, is that it insists on being in your hands rather than in a vitrine. So I think the greatest potential of a show like this becomes apparent if we consider it a fully contemporary exhibition.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe is on view through July 5 and Take your time: Olafur Eliasson is on view through September 13.
Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner
10999 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Through October 12
The great limitation of architecture exhibitions is that they generally display only representations of buildings through two-dimensional images and models—pale shadows of the original work. This diminishes the impact of any building, especially work that is dynamic and multifaceted. Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner, a landmark exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, boldly challenges that constraint by recreating the experience of walking through the architect’s studio and the visionary spaces he created, juxtaposing video projections, large cutaway models, and drawings of six houses, all selected to illustrate themes the architect explored. These are the highlights of an engrossing exhibition that chronicles Lautner’s six decades of practice, from an apprenticeship at Taliesin in the 1930s to his death as a proudly independent though embittered master in 1994.
Historian Nicholas Olsberg curated the exhibition jointly with Frank Escher, a principal in the LA firm of Escher GuneWardena Architecture and a former Lautner associate. Escher also designed the installation, placing the drawings under sheets of Plexiglas, taped onto tilted MDF boxes at the height and angle at which they were originally created in Lautner’s studio. “Lautner considered himself a terrible draftsman,” said Olsberg. “He would hold a thick pencil in his fist, but what results is magical because it’s three dimensional. The line is bold and decisive, the plans and perspectives match exactly. The drawing is effectively a model.” The six cutaway models were fabricated by a company known for creating sophisticated maquettes for the aerospace industry. These are displayed at eye-level to draw you into their volumes, and the videos are projected high on the walls so that they can be viewed from across the room.
Murray Grigor, who won acclaim for films on Mackintosh, Wright, and other masters, made the six video loops in parallel to his documentary feature on Lautner, Infinite Space, premiering at the Hammer’s Billy Wilder Theater on September 18. Using a 27-foot crane, Grigor takes the viewer up and over these houses with the lazy grace of the hawks that sail over the Marbrisa house in Acapulco. He is equally adept at capturing the view of a first-time visitor walking through the interior. Unlike many documentarians, he uses no zooms or jump cuts, and his compositions have the same spatial balance in two dimensions that one’s eyes can appreciate in three. He’s an invisible presence, analyzing the shifting perspectives and the play of light and reflections without drawing attention to his camera. In the glass-walled mountain cabin of Idyllwild, the Rubik’s Cube of the Schaffer house in the Hollywood Hills, and the soaring aerie of the Chemosphere, he is able to compress an hour of experience into two or three minutes of imagery. The grand sweep of Marbrisa, the Elrod House in Palm Springs, and the Turner House in Aspen are caught with the same fidelity as the intimate spaces of earlier work.
The Hammer exhibition shows how drawings, models, and images can be woven together as seamlessly as Lautner combined wooden slats, expanses of glass, and soaring concrete vaults. It will delight aficionados and broaden understanding of an architect who was, in his lifetime, ignored and even denigrated by many of his peers. If Lautner, an expressionist and apostle of organic architecture who swam against the mainstream of cool rectilinear modernism, had been as widely published and sympathetically reviewed as Richard Neutra, he would probably have realized some of the 50 daring projects that remained on his boards. As with Rudolph Schindler, his genius was appreciated by a discerning few, gaining wider currency after his death. Neither was invited to build a Case Study house, for John Entenza was unable to see beyond the flat roof and the right angle, and his program embraced only the mainstream of postwar modernism.
“What if?” is a question that hovers over this exhibition as one encounters Lautner’s proposal for the Midtown School, a cluster of tent-like structures, or the stacked hillside apartments of the Alto Capistrano project. Suppose Bob Hope had approved the first version of his house, which Lautner designed with Felix Candela as an undulating concrete shell. But for all the regrets, we should be thankful that 50 extraordinary houses were realized, mostly in LA. Nearly all are cherished by their owners.