Eladio Dieste was an Uruguayan engineer who made his reputation by building a range of structures from grain silos, factory sheds, markets and churches, most of them in Uruguay and all of exceptional elegance. He worked mostly with brick, creating undulating and organic structures in gorgeous terra cotta.
Eladio Dieste is a particularly interesting figure because, despite his renown and prolific output, he predominantly designed and built exclusively in Uruguay. Eladio Dieste emerged as one of the most paradigmatic figures within the diverse landscape of mid-20th century architecture in Latin America. Born in 1917 in the northern town of Artigas, Uruguay, he studied at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, graduating from the Faculty of Engineering in 1943. Soon after that, he established his independent engineering and construction company, Dieste & Montañez S.A., and embarked on a professional career that spanned five decades and that focused on the design of buildings for everyday use: churches, bus terminals, warehouses, and gymnasiums, among others. For these commissions he developed a number of groundbreaking and elegant structural systems that addressed the requirements for flexibility of space and economy of means that these projects demanded. His structural solutions, which included free-standing vaults, gaussian or double-curved vaults, ruled surfaces, and folded planes, were all based on the rigorous understanding and masterful use of reinforced ceramics.
Eladio Dieste’s Approach
One of Dieste’s best-known projects is the Church of Cristo Obrero in Atlántida, a suburban town 40 kilometers outside of Montevideo in the province of Canelones. The building embodies Dieste’s fascination with the “expressiveness” of form, a constant preoccupation throughout his life that pervaded all of the work he did. The building itself is a magnificent example of the use of brick that combines two of Dieste’s greatest structural inventions: the gaussian vaults and the vertical ruled surfaces.
“The resistant virtues of the structure that we make depend on their form; it is through their form that they are stable and not because of an awkward accumulation of materials. There is nothing more noble and elegant from an intellectual viewpoint than this; resistance through form.”
Eladio Dieste’s Career
As a young engineer trying to push the limits of structure, Dieste worked with Antoni Bonet in 1947 (see 1945 box). At the Berlingieri House in Punta Ba-llena, Dieste is credited with convincing Bonet that cylindrical shells made of brick could be light and elegant.In 1955, Dieste joined forces with Eugenio Monta-ñez to create a construction firm specializing in brick vaults. Together, they successfully built over 15 million sq. ft. of large structures in Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The extent of their achievement can be seen, for example, in the produce exchange pavilions in Porto Uruguay. At the same time that he was calculating and building large structures, Dieste was also teaching at Uru-guay’s Universidad de la República and writing specifically about his work or construction in general. The intellectual side of his practice allowed him to refine his thoughts into a dense and elegant defense of form as the origin of architecture. In his words, “The resistant virtues of the structures that we make depend on their form; it is through their form that they are stable and not because of an awkward accumulation of materials.There is nothing more noble and elegant from an intellectual viewpoint than this, resistance through form.”
Dieste also wrote extensively on the relationship between technology and human needs. A devoted Catholic, Dieste professed a faith that was not at all dogmatic and orthodox but in fact critical and liberating. Living in South America in the 1950s and 1960s, he came in contact with liberation theology and the idea that the church has a duty to improve the living conditions of the poorest members of society. Aligned with his morals was his search for a technology that would meet the different spatial needs through an economical use of materials and that could be assembled by poorly educated construction workers.The chance to combine his faith and his expertise came in 1952 with the commission for a church in the community of Atlántida, 25 miles (40 km) from Mon-tevideo (see 1952 box). The church is a single volume built of brick with undulating side walls and roof. In this way, Dieste created a nonhierarchical space bring-ing the priest and the worshipers together and one whose plastic form and light treatment create a truly magical space.After Atlántida, Dieste would assume more and more the role of an architect. In 1962, he designed and built his own house in Montevideo. Organized around a courtyard, the social quarters are in the front and the private ones in the back.
What are 10 of Dieste’s Most Famous Buildings?
1. Church of Christ the Worker and Our Lady of Lourdes (Atlántida)
The first time I saw this building was in a photo book at an architecture museum. Even in this context it was strikingly beautiful: the curving shaped brickwork and the coloured punches of light through the ceiling. It constitutes a renowned architectural landmark, it was designed in 1958 by Dieste. It is architecturally striking, described as “a simple rectangle, with side walls rising up in undulating curves to the maximum amplitude of their arcs” these walls supporting a similarly undulating roof, composed of a sequence of reinforced brick Gaussian vaults developed by Dieste. The cylindrical bell-tower, built in openwork exposed brick masonry, rises from the ground to the right of the main church facade, while the underground baptistery is located on the left side of the parvis, accessible from a triangular prismatic entrance and illuminated via a central oculus.
The Church provides an eminent example of the remarkable formal and spatial achievements of modern architecture in Latin America during the second part of the 20th century, embodying the search for social equality with a spare use of resources, meeting structural imperatives to great aesthetic effect. The material is a very simple brickwork, which conforms a novel utilization of exposed bricks in a reinforced ceramics structure. In 2021 the Church was proclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name “The work of engineer Eladio Dieste: Church of Atlántida”.
2. Church of San Pedro
This church burned down in 1967, leaving only the façade and the entrance porch still standing. The existing façade, and the space of the nave, gave rise to the solution adopted: A basilica-type church with two low aisles and a central nave. The wall that bridges the difference in height between the side naves and the main nave was treated as a large precompressed beam, mixed with brick and concrete (due to the poor quality of the local bricks), supported by the existing masonry of the entrance, and in a porch in correspondence with the entrance to the presbytery. The lateral naves were roofed with brick slabs with a span of 6.20 meters, supported by the old walls, which were lined with a ½ brick wall, and on the wall beam with a span of 32 meters.
The roof of the central nave is a folded structure, also precompressed and with a span of 32 meters and a thickness of 8 cm, which rests on the masonry of the façade and on the porch at the entrance to the presbytery.
The horizontal slabs of this folded structure are supported on the wall beam by a series of small pillars, and on the first edge (where the precompression is carried out) of the folded structure. The set forms a series of 3 folded structures, (two lateral ones formed by the roof slabs of the side naves and the walls of the central nave, and the roof of the main nave), linked by the aforementioned small pillars. There are two windows throughout the nave, expressing the essential independence of the folded structures.
The chancel is a tower, in the plan form of a half octagon, two of whose fences coincide with the extended main nave walls. The construction of the tower was made with a platform supported by two slightly reinforced 11 cm thick walls. The cover of the presbytery is a polyhedral dome. The presbytery tower is pierced, to the north, with a large skylight, a very light brick structure, on which the glass was mounted directly, without ironwork. The basilica-type church does not seem to me, liturgically, a good solution, but I believe that its defects have been avoided, as far as possible. The lateral naves do not have columns, the faithful can follow the ceremonies from them without obstacles. There is a great spatial unity, which I think can be seen in the photos, between the nave and the presbytery.
The price of all the structural masonry of the warehouse did not reach US$ 20,000.- which for 5070 m3 is less than US$ 4/m3, which is a very low price (less than US$ 30/m2). ), despite the use of the old foundations that were reinforced at some points. In the environment Dieste was working in, the construction of reinforced concrete, “molded” in formwork, or prefabricated dominated. However, the construction with pieces has great possibilities, and Eladio highlighted this. It is difficult to manufacture more effective pieces than those of baked earth: effective due to their resistance, it is generally forgotten that bricks can reach up to 1000 k/cm2 of resistance, without increasing in price. Due to its lightness, it is not possible to make pieces as light as brick with any of the cheap materials.
In 1967, the roof of the central nave of this church, built in the last century and reworked in the 1940s, was burned. We were asked to re-roof the central nave, with a brick vault. For economic reasons, first of all, Dieste recommended demolishing the lateral naves and rebuilding the entire body of the church, using the foundations of the lateral walls and leaving the façade and the atrium as they were. The parish priest said, and I found it reasonable, that he didn’t think it was right to redo them, when many of those who had contributed, with great effort, to renovate the church thirty years ago were still alive. And so, they came to an agreement, and the stunning church you see below was the result.
3. Telecommunications Tower
The work is located in the city of Maldonado, on the edge of the seaside resort of Punta del Este. The tower is 66 m high and 3 m in diameter at the base, with a frustoconical and openwork shape, it is built in masonry brick (25x12x5) reinforced and joined with sand and portland mortar. The foundation is with driving piles (Franki) filled on site. The widening for access to the reinforced concrete mast, which supports the antennas, was built without formwork or special scaffolding, moving half a brick per course outwards. The construction technique is the same as that used in the towers of the water tanks. The tower, like a slender brick lighthouse, is a prominent feature, visible from far away.
4. Depósito Julio Herrera y Obes
In 1975 a public call was made for the reconstruction of an old shed in the Port of Montevideo that had caught fire. Dieste’s proposal was to recycle the walls, respecting the proportions of a 19th century building and roofing the space (4,200 m2) with double-curved armored ceramic vaults. The vaults save a light of 50 m, with a free height under the tensioners of 6.50 m. The roof is made up of 14 non-stressed vaults built with hollow bricks (25x25x10) joined with sand and portland mortar, covered on the outer surface with a layer of mortar 2 to 2.5 cm thick and painted white to reflect solar radiation. The support structure is made up of two reinforced concrete edge beams supported by concrete reinforcements made in the old brick walls. These reinforcements are linked to the edge beam and to the solid foundation, by means of precompressed steel cables.
The walls and openings were treated with great care seeking to respect and highlight the spatial value they expressed. Inside, the structural pilasters were regularized and the walls were repaired with bag plaster, sand and lime-painted Portland, seeking to standardize the dominant expression of the old masonry. Outside, the walls were quite deteriorated, so it was decided to clad them in exposed field brick, taking special care to highlight the openings. The lateral and front walls have a succession of doors and blind spaces, framed, that make up a series of reliefs that lighten the façade and adjust to the reading of the space in movement expressed by the vaults. The front walls have a series of upper windows that finish off the wall above the gates and also the pilasters of the wall that are interspersed in each gate or blind space. The glass windows are placed flush with the interior wall and the parapets, built with a succession of staggered courses of brick, in the same shape and inclination as the top of the pilasters where they meet the wall, generate a strong unity of expression. Natural light comes mainly through a cross section in each vault closed by glass supported on metal studs.
5. Eladio Dieste House
This house, the home of its author, is located on a 12 x 50 m plot of land direction, which faces the sea to the south and has a 10% slope towards it. To the south, and after the street that the land faces, there is a steep slope, so that from the house you have a magnificent view of the sea. The house had to house a family made up of the parents, eleven children and an employee. The solution sought for the plan took into account several main intentions: First and foremost, provide views of the sea, while maintaining intimacy in the home. Eladio wanted all the rooms oriented as well as possible: north or northeast. Third, He wanted to create distinct and separate rooms that flowed together, but also allowed people to have independence and alone time in shared rooms. It was vital to him to create spaces of communion for people to be together, while also enjoying and connecting with nature. In one of his stipulations for the house he says:
“Open the environments to the outside, but with measure. I think we tend to abuse glass. Taking into account our material needs, rationally resolved, I don’t think this is justified in any climate and not even in ours, which is very intemperate, despite the fact that extreme temperatures are not severe. Sometimes we forget how expensive interior fittings are when increasing glass surfaces. In addition, and this is even more important, in homes where the number and size of openings are exaggerated, the ancestral feeling of shelter that the house gives and should give is often lost. It’s not pleasant or even nearly comfortable to be behind the huge windows so much in use when one of our long winter storms rages outside, with icy gale-force winds of over 100 km/h. I think that behind this taste for glass walls is the mistake of confusing the indefinite with the infinite. The greatness and mystery of the world are felt much more (remember our childhood) next to a small window that allows us to focus our attention and perceive as in a flash of amazement the “beyond”, substance of that greatness and that mystery. As infinite is a drop of water as the firmament.”
He used small windows to achieve this end, as well as natural forms: eaves, deciduous vines and trees. To the north and in front of the main room, for example, a pergola was built with an openwork brick vault, covered with deciduous vines that provide shade in summer and let in the sun in winter.
6. Montevideo Shopping Centre
The Shopping Center is located in a residential neighborhood, close to the Rambla on the Río de la Plata. In the first stage, 9,800 m2 were built on two levels. The upper deck is made up of a set of cylindrical and double-curved vaults. The cylindrical vaults, with a continuous barrel of 16 m of transverse light, form the sides of the roof. The center of the roof is formed by a series of 30 double-curved vaults, with skylights and without tensors. The vaults are built in hollow bricks (25x25x10 vaults) joined with sand and portland mortar and a layer 2.5 cm thick. To improve thermal conditioning, expanded polyurethane painted white was applied on top of the sand to protect it from solar radiation. Under the central vaults there is pedestrian traffic that accesses the commercial premises housed in the lateral vaults.
Taking advantage of the unevenness of the terrain, the walls are single height on one side and double height on the other. The walls were projected undulating to absorb the thrust of the lateral vaults by acting as a precompressed corbel in correspondence with the generatrix of the undulating wall. The undulating walls not only fulfill a structural function, but also generate a movement of light and shadow that breaks the monotony that a straight wall of such dimensions would entail. The walls are double masonry brick seen, joined with sand and portland mortar and insulated with expanded polyurethane.
In the second stage, a two-level body was built that intersects the center of the previous building. The vaulted ceiling is similar to that of the first stage but with less footage (4000m2 on two floors). The walls are straight and resolved with a structure of reinforced concrete beams and pillars. This change in design was the beginning of a series of additions to buildings of various styles that were integrated into the commercial complex and that, inevitably, blurred the formal aesthetic intention of the initial project. The exterior view of the building is unique and beautiful, all the while remaining understated.
7. Malvin Church Our Lady of Lourdes
The project included the reform of the Parochial House and the construction of a new temple. The site of the work is located in a residential neighborhood, mostly single-family units, low and with garden fronts. Due to the layout of the streets, the Parochial House and the Temple, above all, face a more open space that gives it a greater perspective without overwhelming the surroundings. Throughout almost three years of work, with a small budget that made the execution of the Temple fail, first part of the presbytery tower was built and then the Parish House and then
Parish House. This building started from the reform of an old house that fulfilled these functions and had as its objective to house the parish priest and his assistant and also to solve the needs of the premises that implies carrying out the pastoral and educational tasks of the community. The body of this building was joined to the main body of the church through premises for liturgical use with the integrated baptistry. The austere and functional building is built with double, load-bearing walls made of masonry ceramic bricks on the outside and walls made of lime-painted country bricks on the inside. The mezzanines are resolved with field brick vaults, regularized on the surface with prefabricated flat slabs. The ceiling is a set of five equal barrel vaults, which reach the edge of the facade openwork, alleviating the visual impact on the neighboring buildings and supporting a vegetal shade. This rooftop garden looks like the perfect place to sit and read, and the large scale latticed brickwork is both modern and understated.
It was planned to build the new temple outside the current one so that the interruption of religious services would be for the shortest possible time. Due to lack of money, the only thing that was built was part of the presbytery tower with a height of 27 m. The ceramic material used was specially designed so that the curves are seen without visible breaks and generate a continuous and flat surface, where the form reaches its maximum expression. While it was incomplete, the tower is a simple and stunning feature.
8. Polideportivo Gymnasium
This gymnasium is so open and airy, with it’s spine like roofing that opens at every seam to horizontal windows, pouring in natural light from above. In the city of Durazno there was an open-air basketball court with bleachers and additional buildings next to the court, designed by the architect. Julio Villamajo. To make better use of the facilities already built, the Municipality of Durazno proposed closing and roofing the field. The walls that enclose the premises are made of reinforced brick and the ceiling is a set of 7 double-curved vaults. The construction process contemplated the existence of the stands and facilities, which forced a special design in the mold for the execution of the vaults.
The foundations are with piles drilled and filled on site, the pillars at a height of 7 m and the edge beams are made of reinforced concrete. The walls are made of reinforced brick seen on the outside and plastered and painted white on the inside. Natural lighting comes through windows in the walls and a cross section in each vault, closed with glass supported by metal studs.
9. Omnibus Municipal Terminal
The project solved in a simple way the structure that allows people to wait and board buses comfortably and allows buses to dock easily. This is a type of creating that Dieste was particularly talented at, creating based on creating solutions for public infrastructure. To this end, a series of seven self-supporting vaults were designed, with catenary guide lines, precompressed with a 6 m cross-sectional span and with the support centered in the valleys. The vaults, supported by a single line of reinforced concrete pillars, extend 13.50 m on each side of the pillar and generate two large canopies that cover a total area of 1,080 m2. On one side are the platforms and bus parking and on the other side are the offices and services. Due to its scale, shape and materials, the terminal integrates well with the surroundings of the square where it is located.
10. Young Silo (CADYL)
An interesting part of Dieste’s career is in his work designing industrial buildings like Silos, which you don’t see too many other world class architects doing. The work, a silo for storing grain, mainly wheat, is located in an agricultural area of extensive agricultural production. The work was left unfinished for economic reasons, but it was adapted to function partially, without full capacity, or the installation of the mechanized loading and unloading system. The roof is formed by a set of double-curved vaults supported by a reinforced concrete rim beam founded with vertical and inclined drilled piles filled on site. The vaults are made of hollow ceramic bricks (25x15x15 vaults) joined with sand and portland mortar, superficially finished with a 3 cm layer of mortar painted white to reflect solar radiation. The vaults save a transverse light of 28.50 m, 120 m long and a height of 15 m above ground level. The completed project would accommodate 30,000 tons of grain. The silo was loaded using a bucket elevator and a conveyor belt hanging from the keystone of the vault. The floor of the silo was designed as a triangular hopper buried at a level of -12.37m with enough inclination on its sides to unload the grain by gravity through the mouths of the lower tunnel, located at a level of -14.10m. The vault was planned to load, resisting the thrust of the grain, up to 9.50 m of its height.
Eladio Dieste, although not part of the mainstream culture, Eladio Dieste can be characterized as a remarkable individual with multi-disciplinary interests. His work is based on achieving structural efficiency by using ceramic tiles laminated together and combined as thin shell vaults, as wide-curved roof spans or as sinuous walls. These structures do not require the use of ribs and beams and are far less expensive than reinforced concrete. I hope you enjoyed learning about his unique approach, and his striking creations.