miércoles, 9 de noviembre de 2011

Secret Lines: Interweaving a New Territory

Ancient sound, Paul Klee, 1925.

"I am an abstract with memories."
Paul Klee.[1]

A (Modern) City within a (Modern) City

If we want to study Caracas modernity, we will always have to begin with Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva and his monumental work, the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas (1944-70). From within and around this masterwork and its great project of the Integration of the Arts, grow since the mid-century most of the architectural and artistic searches in Venezuela.

A Modern city within a modern city, the Ciudad Universitaria made a strong impact in the Caracas' artistic scene that produced multiple reverberations: other epics, other architectures and other art. Artists began to react to the brilliant modernist campus from their own searches, while orbiting their own paths. Like parallel wefts, they went from architecture to art and vice versa, interweaving in their projects the artistic territories of the university city with those of the real city, sharing their personal experiences of the vanguards.

Besides the pantheon of heroes that built the Ciudad Universitaria, where stand together Villanueva, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, Antoine Pevsner, Francisco Narváez, Pascual Navarro, Jean Arp, Oswaldo Vigas, André Bloc, Armando Barrios, Héctor Poleo, Henri Laurens, Carlos González-Bogen, Baltasar Lobo, Víctor Vasarely, and, particularly, Mateo Manaure and Alejandro Otero, stand other fundamental cases that multiplied the interchanges between art and architecture to sensibly transform the city's artistic and architectural realm.

Paul Klee said significantly once: "I am an abstract with memories." Klee, who was a professor at the Bauhaus, without being an architect, conceived landscapes that are capable of "speaking for any city," from the indelible traces of his secular Munich and his native Bern. [2] And we could ask, Who were the abstracts with memories that spoke for modern Caracas, conceiving landscapes from the indelible traces of the city of Villanueva? How did their "secret lines" nourished the spatial experimentation of the Venezuelan modern cities?

Fuori le mura: "The Role of the New Art Must Be Met in the Street"

The first artists who "wanted to reinvent the city from within" in the 1950s, outside of the Caracas university campus, were Alejandro Otero and Mateo Manaure.[3] Between 1944-46, when the plan of the Ciudad Universitaria was being conceived, a group of Venezuelan artists called The Dissidents -led by Otero and including Manaure-, was formed in Paris. They were called by Villanueva to constitute with a prominent set of international artists the team that was to work in the creation of the Ciudad Universitaria's spaces.[4]

Alejandro Otero, while still in Paris, at the end of 1950, was interested in the work of Piet Mondrian. Some years before, he had seen in New York Mondrian's Boogie-Woogies. With this inspiration, he began a series of "free chromatic harmonies," of straight bands on a horizontal-vertical position. The result were his collage Orthogonals, from 1951.

After a short time, Otero began to feel that his compositions were not longer mainly optical: they already contained another dimension that was claiming for more than a two-dimensional medium.[5] News were coming from Caracas that "an architectural movement of great importance and novelty was going on in the city." This led him to return to Venezuela in 1952.

Once there, Otero would work in two key sites. For the José Angel Lamas Amphitheatre (1954). he made "five mosaic and aluminum panels," the Murales, from 1953, and a monumental mosaic Coloritmo, displayed on the stands. (This image is shown here for the first time, as it comes from a recently recovered archive). However, for him, the polychromies were yet his best accomplishments.

Therefore in his next project, the eighteen-story high "Unidad de Habitación" (as for Unité d'Habitation) at El Paraíso (1956), whose architect was also ViIllanueva, he decided to apply a mosaic-colorful polychromy on the facades interwoven with the structural concrete grid.[6]

Yet, another major polychromy experiment was performed in Caracas, closer to the historic center: the 2 de Diciembre popular housing complex (better known as the 23 de Enero). This time Villanueva decides to work with Mateo Manaure, who lined up with Abstract Constructivism. Here is a detail of his Bimural at the Ciudad Universitaria, from 1954/

The huge 2 de Diciembre is "a complete city, planned over large terraces with thirty-eight fifteen-story high superbloques and forty-two four-story high buildings."[7] Here, Manaure applies his search within Abstract Constructivism to the housing units facades, turning them into big abstract murals based in color-plane compositions. With his work, he emphasized the image of the complex as a paradigm of modernity."[8] With the works of Alejandro Otero and Mateo Manaure, the new art began to play a role in the streets of Caracas in accordance with modern architecture.[9]

City With (out) Soto

Villanueva knew and admired Jesús Soto. He once said about him: "Half magician, half geometer, Soto has managed to make surfaces vibrate, and continues conquering countless unknown dimensions with great pleasure."[10] However, "within the great project of the Ciudad Universitaria, Villanueva did not include Soto. Visiting today the university, one can only find a single work of his: Estructura Cinética (Kinetic Structure, from 1957). It is meaningful, though, that it is placed within the School of Architecture."[11]

Soto's absence from the university project in part to political reasons. By 1944-46, when the plan of the Ciudad Universitaria was brewing, Soto was also in Paris, but he did not belong to the group of The Dissidents. He remained as individuality within the same universe, watching from afar the gestation of Caracas' modern process.

In the mean time, he continued his personal quest, wishing "to understand the fourth dimension that Cubism incorporated." He realized "that he had to bring the fourth dimension of time, movement, to painting." It was in 1955 when he "found a way of moving the image." That same year he anticipated his architectural constructions and his Penetrables in the work La Cajita de Villanueva (Villanueva's Box), a homage to the Venezuelan architect.

Soto was dazzled by architectural space: "Architecture is a positive plastic result, where walls disappear in order to give way to light, where space does not end in a wall but continues as a stream of air that passes through it. This idea of an open architecture required a similar art at the same level." These words are almost a description of what was being built simultaneously at the Ciudad Universitaria.

Although Soto might be physically absent from the Ciudad Universitaria's deed, his spirit is there haunting it, and well as it haunts that of Villanueva. For its part, the architect will not delay to pay greatly for this absence in his grand collaboration with Soto of the 1960s: the Venezuelan Pavilion in Montreal's 1967 World Exposition. There Soto hangs from the top of Villanueva's cube a great waterfall of vibrations, a column of light that cascades at the center of the pavilion space.[12]

Soto did many artistic interventions in Caracas. At one end stands the most successful, the Volumen suspendido (Suspended Volume, from 1979), installed inside a Jonhson & Burgee building, the Cubo Negro (Black Cube, from 1975). But there are public works of all kinds, and specially, many projects of a virtual architectural nature. They remain a source of ideas and, above all, a teaching on "how to 'de-materialize' a city to turn it into a field for visual exploration."[13]

Gego, Architect

Since the 1950s, a fourth artist begins to mark with her work the modern art and architecture of Venezuela. This is Gertrud Goldschmidt, better known as Gego. Gego differs from the other artists in that she was an architect. Since her arrival in the country in 1939 from Hamburg, she worked as an architect. But from 1947, Gego turned to in art to seek new ways of building spaces, which nevertheless, never ceased to be architectural.

Gego too was not part of the Ciudad Universitaria's original team of artists. However, like Soto, a beautiful work of hers, El Chorro (The Jet, from 1974), shines within the School of Architecture.[14] This tribute to her work is also very significant.

Thanks to the experience of the Ciudad Universitaria, thre was a growing demand for works of art for public spaces and buildings in Caracas. Gego had many commissions. But her integration projects were different. Her sculptures are installed in other architectures, turning them into their urban context. They are parallel "buildings."

In 1961, for the courtyard of a New York art gallery, she imagines a first structure of parallel lines (Reticulárea Between Buildings I) that climbs up the walls and twists, transforming the space. It's the beginning.

Between 1961-1962 inside a 1950s bank designed by architect Martín Vegas, she builds her first actual installation. In a large and very vertical courtyard flanked by railings and stairs, she proposes a large sculpture, a second "stair" of aluminum, which competes with the architecture itself. [15]

Those were years of fantastic architectures. Gego admires the expressionisms of Félix Candela, Bruce Goff, Erich Mendelsohn and Frei Otto.[16] These architectures will soon begin to resonate in her own production. Thus, in front of a neutral brick building by architects Bornhorst & Neuberger (1965), she builds a great tower, the Torre Cedíaz (from 1967), with parallel lines stretched between two circular rings. Similarly, following a visit to Caracas by Buckminster Fuller in 1960, Gego creates in a shopping center an aerial structure Flechas (Arrows, from 1968), using the Tensigrity System developed by Fuller in that same decade, inspired by spider webs that "float in the hurricanes."[17]

Further on, in 1969, at the base of an office tower by architect Tomás Sanabria, she elaborates a mural playing with the rhythm of the facade brise-soleils.[18] Then, in 1972, she builds the work Cuerdas (Strings) the Parque Central complex by the firm Siso & Shaw. Here even the commission was already architectural. The structure, tense over a reflecting pond, refers to Frei Otto's wire membrane landscapes of double curvature.

From 1969, Gego creates the great Reticulárea project. This fluctuating environmental sculpture is a splendid metaphor of the city: featuring flying Prouns reminiscent of El Lissitzky, neoplastic crosses, Antoni Gaudí's inverse vaults, Naum Gabo's surfaces and twists, canals, ports, inland seas, ships, and all of her previous projects. A fantastic urban utopia, suspended in the air like Frederick Kiesler's City in Space.

Besides her works of integration with architecture, Gego will also develop an important educational work that will leave an indelible mark on all the architects that came out from of the school of architecture in those years. In the academic exercises taught at her workshop, the Taller Gego, the memory of her formal education in pre-war Germany was always present.

The two architecture schools that stood out in the German scene of the time, were the Bauhaus from Dessau and the Stuttgart Technical School. Although the Bauhaus was closed down in 1932,[19] its experience will linger in the imagination of many of its witnesses, as was the case of Gego.[20] Gego, although in 1932 began her studies under the tutelage of Paul Bonatz in the Stuttgart school, she will always evoke it.[21] It was impossible to be immune to the radiance of these avant garde architectures. The Bauhaus influence entered through the eyes of the young woman as soon as she arrived in Stuttgart and could wander by the modern scenery of the Weissenhof.

Therefore, the Gego Workshop of Basic Composition (1959-1966) had as major concern the space generated by forms and their structures. Its main interest was for space as a determinant of form, for three-dimensional structures, for the relationship of modern architecture with structural form and for the dialogue between the living and technical structures. Her activity in the architecture school is intense. The "Taller Gego" renewed through the influence of figures like Serge Chermayeff, Sybil Moholy-Nagy, Siegfried Giedion and Charles Moore.

The workshop results were plastic objects which bring "mental abstractions into real space."[22] Students worked as at the Bauhaus, with constructivist methods of teaching. Once completed, even the most abstract student projects, even stripped of all their data and built in space with only what is strictly necessary, were too similar to buildings. Gego herself photographed the works of her students all together on many occasions, building-up countless fantastic cities within the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas.

New York, October 29, 2011.

"Fantásticas ciudades." Taller Gego, 1961-62 (f. Fundación Gego)

Paper for the conference "Beyond the Supersquare," The Bronx Museum, New York City, October 29, 2011.


[1] The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918, edited with an introduction by Felix Klee, University of California Press, (1968).
[2] Klee Cities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (1999), in: "Sin título," Arquitectura, EL NACIONAL, Caracas, September 13, (1999).
[3] Balza, José, Alejandro Otero, Olivetti, Milano, (1977): 54.
[4] Gómez, Hannia, "Soto, Ciudad y Arquitectura," in: Soto a gran escala, catalogue of the exhibition Soto a gran escala, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber (MACCSI), Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume / MACCSI, Caracas, (2003).
[5] Balza, J., Ibid, (1977): 46.
[6] "Unidad Residencial el Paraíso," Fundación de la Memoria Urbana/Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, in: Preinventario Arquitectónico, Urbanístico y Ambiental de Caracas 2005-2006, Caracas, (2007).
[7] "Urbanización 23 de Enero," Fundación de la Memoria Urbana/Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, in: Preinventario Arquitectónico, Urbanístico y Ambiental de Caracas 2005-2006, Caracas, (2007).
[8] Gómez, H. "Imposing, Transposing, Erasing: the Making of a "Revolutionary" Caracas (1998-2010)," conference Transnational Latin Americanisms, Liminal Places, Cultures and Power (T)here, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia Univsersity, New York, (2010).
[9] Balza, J., Idem, (1977): 54.
[10] Quoted in: Imber, Sofia, "Jesús Soto," catalogue of the exhibition Nueve Artistas Venezolanos.
[11] Gómez, H., "Soto, Ciudad y Arquitectura," in: catalogue of the exhibition Soto a gran escala, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume / Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber MACCSI, Caracas, (2003).
[12] Villanueva, Paulina and De Sola, Ricardo, Crónica Tres Cubos en Montreal, Caracas.
[13] Guevara, Roberto, Arte para una nueva escala, Maraven S.A., Litografia Tecnocolor, Caracas, (1978): 30.
[14] El Chorro, (1974), http://www.fau.ucv.ve/obras_arte/arte.htm
[15] Hanni Osott, Sistemas estructurales: Líneas paralelas, Gego, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas Sofía Imber MACCSI, exhibition catalogue, Caracas, (1977) : 24.
[16] Ulrich Conrads and Hans G. Sperlich, The Architecture of Fantasy: Utopian Building and Planning in Modern Times, First English ed. Translated, edited and expanded by Christiane Crasemann Collins and George R. Collins, Praeger, New York, (1962).
[17] Buckminster Fuller & Robert Marks, The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, ‘Tensegrity’, Anchor Books, Nueva York, (1973) : 57-58.
[18] Galería de Arte Nacional, catalogue of the exhibition Tomás José Sanabria Arquitecto, GAN, Caracas, (1995) : 127.
[19] Frampton, Kenneth, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, "The Bauhaus: the evolution o fan idea 1919-32," Oxford University Press, New York, (1980), : 124.
[20] Iris Peruga, “Gego, el prodigioso juego de crear,” in: Gego 1955-1990, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, (2001): 24. [21] Manrique, Josefina, Sabiduras y otros textos de Gego, Op. Cit., : 191 and 229.
[22] In: Gego 1955-1990…, Op. Cit.,: 31.

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