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Eladio Dieste
El Cristo Obrero
Atlántida, 1952-59

Eladio Dieste’s mastery of the structural aspects of the building produced a unique, innovative modern architecture

The Uruguayan engineer Eladio Dieste (1917-2000) based his work on the innovative use of thin-shell structures for walls and roofs made of steel-reinforced fired brick masonry. The Church of El Cristo Obrero, constructed in Atlántida (Uruguay) in 1960, and recently declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is a prime example of how his mastery of the structural aspects of the building produced a unique, innovative modern architecture: a combination of 30 cm thick, 7 m high undulating double walls and 11 cm thick double-curvature Gaussian vaults with a span of between 16 and 18.8 metres. The deflection of the vaults is 147 cm at the highest and 7 cm at the lowest point, meaning that the valley of the wave is almost flat, where tensors are concealed and anchored to the crown of the walls to support the side pressures of the vault.

The build consists solely of fired bricks, cement-based mortars and very fine steel rebars with a density of 1 kg per square metre of wall and 2 kg per square metre of vault. This is interesting to compare with today’s practices in concrete reinforcements, ranging from an average of 24 kg of steel per square metre of wall to 32 kg of steel per square metre of slab. Eladio Dieste’s structures, built 60 years ago, used 20 times less steel than an equivalent contemporary concrete construction, not to mention the savings in cement.

At that time, Dieste proved that this combination of materials could perform as a single unit to meet all his structural requirements at less cost than concrete. The engineer had access to good quality, locally available bricks (24.7/12.2/5.3cm) used for the walls and floors, and tiles (23.1/11.7/2.2 cm) for the inner shell of the vaults. These products are still known as ladrillo de campo, meaning country brick, referring to the simple, handcrafted production technique. The outer shell of the vaults was built using industrially extruded, fired hollow brick (25x25x8 cm) to gain in strength and lessen the weight of the structure.

The complexity of the shapes given to the side walls and vaults, imposing a rather rational stacking of the elements, freed the front and back wall of the church from any structural requirements. This led to an exploration in the bonding of the bricks to reveal new textures, and intelligent ways of introducing light and making it vibrate. This combination of various bricks formats and stacking, and the shape of the resulting walls clearly enhanced the materiality of the building.

Dieste’s choice of fired brick throughout his career has many technical explanations (1) but there was also a spiritual meaning that somehow culminated in his religious buildings. Eladio Dieste was a devout Christian and recognized in the material, its texture and colour, the work of the humble masons who built the church: a simple, local material that represented the humility of his people and their faith in God. In contrast, “the immense care with which the material was treated at the conception and execution level represented for the engineer the tribute that these humble believers deserved”. (2) With this in mind, the materiality of these walls and shells is enhanced by the emotional dimension that lives in it. Each brick, laid by hand one after the other, contributes structurally and aesthetically to the whole.

There are lessons to be learned from this architectural endeavour that could help us address the challenges that our society and, more specifically, the construction industry, faces today.

Structural intelligence at the service of economy of means
There are low-tech solutions to complex structural problems. In the Church of El Cristo Obrero, nothing is more noble and elegant than the strength that its shape gives. It is in the simplicity of the materials and the judiciousness of their use that the materiality is revealed to create a masterpiece.

Artisan know-how and its transfer to new generations
The evidence of climate change and the social crisis we are seeing worldwide demonstrate the unsustainability of our economic system. New models are emerging in all fields of human activity, with success indicators that, rather than being profit-based, are now human- or environmentally-focused (collective intelligence, permaculture). In construction, artisan know-how is being lost because in the last century it has been overtaken by technologies that speed up construction times and reduce human labour, thereby increasing profit. (“In Switzerland, the number of young people starting an apprenticeship in masonry has fallen by 50% in the last ten years. Construction sites drastically lack qualified human labour”). (3) The masonry techniques used in Dieste’s structures certainly took more time, but they have the merit of employing more masons, transferring knowledge, and giving the workers a sense of personal and collective achievement. These techniques inspire new attempts at collective building, encouraging participative, socially rewarding approaches.

This economy of resources, at the very centre of the engineer’s thinking during the design process, is particularly relevant at the present time, when models of a society based on consumption and productivity are facing a shortage of raw materials, and financial and social collapse. Let us hope that Dieste’s heritage contributes to a transition towards a more local-based, resource-oriented architecture.

(1)

Dieste, Eladio, “El ladrillo, un material de ilimitadas posibilidades”, Edificar n. 24, Montevideo, 2000

(2)

Dieste, Eladio, “Iglesia en Montevideo, templo parroquial de Atlantida”, Informes de la construccion n. 127, 1961

(3)

Société Suisse des Entrepreneurs (SSE), Facts concerning the evolution of skilled labour, http://www.baumeister.ch/fr/formation-carriere/masterplan-sse-2030/masterplan-consultation

(4)

Source plans: Iglesia de la Parroquia de Cristo Obrero y Nuestra Señora de Lourdes : Plan de Conservación y Manejo, Ministerio de Educación y Cultura de Uruguay, Comisión del Patrimonio Cultural de la Nación, 2018

Posted
07.Sep.2021 421 views
Author
Rodrigo Fernandez Rodrigo Fernandez

Rodrigo Fernandez (Montevideo, 1979) graduated from EPF Lausanne as a Material scientist in 2003. For his diploma project, he collaborated with the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa) on the optimisation of fibre-reinforced and stabilized compressed earth blocks for low-cost housing. As a PhD student between 2005 and 2009 he explored the potential of calcined clays as a potential replacement for cement in developing countries. After a short period in the Energy Office of Geneva, between 2011 and 2015 he work as a quality manager in the fired bricks and tiles industry. He has always been interested in alternative construction materials and learned from all the sustainable solutions that he explored during his career to develop the ecological concept of Terrabloc with his partner and architect Laurent de Wurstemberger. Terrabloc manufactures earth construction products from the recycling of excavated soils in construction sites.

Photo: Yann Mingard

www.terrabloc.ch

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