lunes, 19 de noviembre de 2012

An Endless Architecture

Sin título, 1979.

"I built a castle in the sky to be with you.
It was built. And I dwelled in it".
Gego, 1

It is particularly pleasant for me to be here today and celebrate the work done by Gabriela Rangel and Josefina Manrique in the America's Society's exhibition "Gego, Origin and Encounter: Mastering the Space", but, especially, to enjoy all the additional collection of works, plans and drawings brought to us by this exhibition, in particular those regarding the reticuláreas, as they are significantly displayed in one of the original Reticulárea construction sites.

Gego was an architect. Those who want to understand the complete dimension of her work will need to start, necessarily, from here. This was the main purpose of an exhibition called "Gego, Architect", I was asked to curate by Rita Salvestrini for the Fundación Gego and the Sala TAC in Caracas in 2006.

Back in 2006 I emphasized how acquiring architectural knowledge implies a total change in life, how it changes entirely the organization of the mind. It happened to me, when I ended my architecture studies here in Columbia University, at the GSAPP. You cannot fight it, and Gego's oeuvre is a proof of it. Guided by geometry, structure and construction, the architect’s eye, once born, is bound to penetrate everything. Past, present and future landscapes start weaving a new territory where an endless design process will be unleashed, to never stop in its quest for Mastering the Space.

I want to recall here briefly some of the significant points we found that helped in configuring the endless architecture of Gego. And nothing better to begin with than looking at her city: Hamburg. Gego was born here in 1912. A extraordinary city to begin the biography of an architect, with over 2,300 bridges –more than Venice and Amsterdam together–. Paul Klee said significantly once: “I am abstract with memories”. And so was Gego: an abstract with memories. Klee's lyrical Cityscapes and the Reticulárea compete in the poetic evocation of unending cities and territories.

Gego's hometown is a built estuary, made of islands, channels and banks. Not far from the sea, it always had the biggest ships arriving straight to its heart. In the surroundings stands the solid, vertical, mansard-roofed urban centre, with its flavour of brick-arched gables, and dotted with expressionist works of art,

like the angular Chilehaus by Friz Höger (1923). An urban centre also compounded by simple commercial units, “heavy scale relatives of Peter Behrens’ work”, produced by the local tradition of Hamburg architects,

like The Museum of Hamburg History by Fritz Schumacher. Therefore, a city with a beautiful urban architecture, impossible to forget.

But also, a city populated with naval architecture. Vessels and knots, wind side loads, sea forces, masses and hull lines. Nothing more essential to understand structural behaviour. The ships with their masts, ropes, steel cables, turrets and sails, wander about the channels of the city and its port, with its forest of monumental cranes.

Needless to say, they all fascinated Gego. This is the architectural landscape of the first layer of memories of her practice as an architect, and the undeniable origin of her architectural vocation.
Gego earned her degree of Architect-Engineer from the University of Stuttgart under the tutelage of professor Paul Bonatz in August, 1938.

Her final work for a Boarding School in Kent, had the brickwork drawn with attention and care. Whoever observes it can understand how much truth there is in saying that “the line of Gego comes from drawing”.

From architectural drawing, of course.

A year later, when she was 27, Gego had to leave abruptly Germany and begin a new life in Venezuela. It wasn't too long till she started an architectural practice in Caracas (this is a National Geographic magazine image of the city in 1939).

Her Caraquenian architecture consisted of a series of architectural and urban collaborations, like the plan for Los Caobos (1940), some interior designs and a trio of houses.
Of these, the quinta El Urape, (1947) a suburban villa of well-balanced spaces and elegant volumes, reflects the classical and monumental spirit of the German Neo-academic architecture of
the sculptural Art Museum of Basel (1936) by Bonatz.

And we ventured that the villa's wrought iron railings, with their beehive pattern, pioneered Gego's later Drawings Without Paper.

It is difficult to imagine Gego, after building all these projects, abandoning architecture. She asserted: “my work and my worry for the visual arts have been gradually developing in me, due to a combination of facts, and mainly to my education as an architect”. From 1947 on, what she actually did was to continue the search for new forms of building spaces, which never stopped from being architectural. As in an abstract city that was only in Gego’s mind, her architectures, places in space, built -literally-, the way.

Therefore, all of her artworks, from her Tarma drawings to the academic exercises of her teaching periods, from her installations in architectural spaces to her Troncos, spheres, nets, and reticuláreas... are all architectures that follow one another organized in a rational way. Her 1951-53 Tarma drawings, for instance, belong to the same lineage as her site analytical perspectives of her student years of the 1930s.

These are sketches studying the composition of masses, “secret lines that went across the bodies of the geography". Much later, in 1980, she would re-elaborated the same color planes separated by white lines, and so defining of places

in watercolor drawings that explored with curiosity the elusive interior spaces generated within the reticuláreas. As according to a vital plan, Gego's architectures progressively constructed a mathematically and topologically conceived spatial matrix. Point, line, plane, volumes were combined systematically together to address one by one infinite spatial possibilities

That’s why the nomenclature is so important: Starting from the diamond shape, Three-folded triangles, Eight squares, Globe in a cube or Sphere in a hexahedron. The project titles mark the non fortuitous, crystal-clear rational advance in the infinite matrix of combinations

Additionally, this research is rationalized in her academic exercises at the Facultad de Arquitectura of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (between 1959-1966), and at the Instituto de Diseño of the Fundación Neumann (from 1966 to 1971).

The “Taller Gego” was updated with her visits to the Architectural Association, Berkeley University, Pratt Institute, and with the influence of personalities like Charles Moore, Serge Chermayeff, Sybil Moholy-Nagy and Siegfried Giedion. As once in the Bauhaus, the students practiced with constructivist methods of teaching Once they were done, even the most abstract works looked too much like buildings. Gego herself often pictured the works of her students all together, putting up fantastic cities.

Between 1961 and 1986, Caracas lived the era of urban art and of the increasing demand of works of art in public buildings and spaces. Every new architecture project, every urban renewal, every new urbanism “claimed the presence of one or several artists”. And we clearly understood that Gego, because of her architectural education, had of course to be apart from the other plastic artists. Because she needed no one to understand architectural space. But she did not miss the moment: she took advantage of it, alone, working at a different level. Furthermore, her works of integration are like parallel architectures that interact with the buildings in a compositional dialogue through space, as if they were, again, cities, although they were inserted in interior spaces. The “buildings” of Gego used the hosted architectures as urban spaces. As the architectural theatre of her own art.

For her multiple installations Gego planned, weighed, defined dimensions, details on the drafting table. Each work turned the base-building into a field where new rules would be established. Her architectures emerged among others with their own ideas and own laws.

In 1961, at the patio between party-walls of an art gallery in New York, she first imagined a structure of parallel lines that were perhaps made out of iron. This was the beginning. Afterwards, she will dream of taking this idea much further to eventually build big nets between skyscrapers,

starting with the towers of the Centro Simón Bolívar. “I had always had dreams about reticuláreas between skyscrapers”.

A bit later, a sketch of one of these fantastic nets (Reticulárea Between Buildings II, from 1969), drawn in a narrow street of New York, allows us to take a look at how these structures would had look if they had actually been built.

The 1960s were years of fantastic architecture. Working for our exhibition, we made a discovery in her home library's list. It was a book: The Architecture of Fantasy: Utopian Building and Planning in Modern Times, written by Ulrich Conrads and Hans G. Sperlich, in 1962, which celebrates the legacy left by the Expressionist movement of the works of Félix Candela, Bruce Goff, Frederick Kiesler, Erich Mendelsohn and Frei Otto. Utopian architectures, cutting-edge futurist designs that soon began to resonate in Gego's own creations.

We already see the influence in 1976's Torre Cedíaz. The tall concrete ad-tower vertically tightened its parallel nylon lines between two circular rings to produce a double curvature. We thought this might have alluded to the hyperboloid in revolution of the Port Tower in Kobe, built by architect Hideyuki Tada in 1963. The tower, sewn with neon threads, became a powerful sign in the urban landscape at night.

Furhermore, Buckminster Fuller visited Caracas Facultad de Arquitectura in 1960, and her architecture -as everyone else's in the faculty-, received the impact of the Dymaxion dream. The best example is 1968's Gego's aerial structure at the Centro Comercial Chacaíto, Flechas. Using Fuller's Tensegrity System, Gego “lowered the weight and increased the strength” of her structure, achieving a graceful equilibrium, as Fuller’s tensegrity masts did in the fifties, inspired by the cobwebs that “float in the hurricanes”

Next year, in 1969, Gego installed the Reticulárea in the Museo de Bellas Artes. The results of this extraordinary invention affected almost every one of her following works.

Let me review them very quickly. In Cuerdas (1972), at Parque Central, the commission itself was already architectural. Making Cuerdas, she said, “was like fulfilling that dream”. The resulting interplay of curved surfaces built with parallel ropes, realized her desire of hanging a large net between buildings.

A somewhat naval work, it referred to the landscapes of membranes, formed by double-curved cables and straight edges, being made by many architects at the time, like Baucher, Blondel and Filippone in the Marie Thumas Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair and Frei Otto.

Nets and meshes started to multiply in her work. In 1973, she made a proposal for the mall Paseo Las Mercedes, imagining a vast and fluctuating environmental reticulárea hanging from the triple height ceiling and from all levels that looked into the space.

Later on, she also brought the idea to the Pasaje Concordia, with Nubes, an environmental sculpture. hanging above a public stair, that introduced the use of fixed bronze joints in Gego’s tectonic repertoire. As in Fuller, it was the fascination for joints and articulations.

Later in the eighties, she designed a modular aerial net, for the meeting room ceiling of the Banco Mercantil,

and the great environment Cuadriláteros for La Hoyada Subway Station, also with fixed nodes. Her clouds, like floating architectural utopias, were in fact ephemeral architectures growing between the precision of existing landscapes,

just like the City in Space by Frederick Kiesler from 1925.

With her first Reticulárea, Gego made a monumental passage. She went from the systematic search of singular space in the exploration of geometric form, to the spatial continuum of territorial design, This is why it has been fairly said that all her work “summarizes in the Reticulárea”. Her wire architectures could then link with a contextual discourse where space was still the most important issue, only that it had turned into a dialectic space... like that of a city.

The illusory construction of this broader fabric was to generate an infinite and fluid “Urban Sprawl”; where urban and natural places melt and follow each another, and where memory and dreams go hand in hand.

Lagoon, 1969. Paul Klee Cityscape.

Led by Paul Klee's lyrical line,

by Le Corbusier's tremulous line and

by the force lines of the hanging cathedrals of Antonio Gaudí, Gego made visible in the air “new, autonomous visual constructions”: her new buildings. These buildings, built like those before them with

iron wire, were no longer “objects solved solely by their edges and angles” and isolated in space. They now formed networks ruled by a triangular or quadrangular structural system, creating, in the architect's own words, “air, space, void, light, connected traces, continuative, triangular links, cells, reticules, series, triangulations, inexhaustible, consecutive, habitable (...) constelae", that were interminable.

Like an endless architecture. That could be endless, yes, like the entire Universe. But architects, you know, have had historically no problem with infinity. They have produced ideas and systems for mastering the space that can reinvent themselves every day Ad infinitum.
Like, for instance, the ideal cities of the Renaissance, commanded by perspective, or

like Latin America colonial cities, ruled by the Laws of the Indies. Gego, also, “during the extensive process of invention of the great Reticulárea, confessed her hope of some day being able to develop a system that would allow her design to keep regenerating without the presence of the artist”.

And we know that in the real world, only the city, that collective artwork, regenerates, recreates and reinvents itself autonomously. That is why we said that the great Reticulárea is a splendid metaphor of the city: a fantastic urban utopia, where geometry and order have their place, but imprecision, and random, too.

Because thanks to Gego's choice of abandoning her former fixed nodes in favour of flexible joints, her reticuláreas could become landscapes in perpetual motion, that are not just one specific place, but countless specific places from the past, the present and the future,

that in the best Neo Baroque manner flow from one into the other. Landscapes designed by the rational and educated mind of an Architect-Engineer that wanted to express the stages of her soul -and also of our souls, their dwellers- with the variations of her artificial three-dimensional country_cum_cityscape. Her “personal-poetic idea of landscape”.

Each complicated installation of the reticuláreas introduced several variants every time. Every project generated a different version. This is was partly because situations were clearly different each time in ground plan, section and façade. But, -more importantly-, because Gego wanted them to be different.

The reticuláreas were geometrically perfectly-conceived, but voluntarily tectonically imperfect: they were built employing loose and moveable nodes, changing space closures, differently placed Troncos and Chorros, plus Gego's unrepeatable craftsmanship. This procedure allowed the reticuláreas' territories to fluctuate, and remain poetically elusive.

Now I also think that perhaps this was Gego's response to her lifelong parallelism with the exact art of Gerd Leufert (serie Ganchos).

We, as the pedestrians of Gego's nets, move along her reticuláreas driven by the tensions and contrasts between virtual forms and by the perception of virtual spaces. Along our journey, we follow the geometric net lines, and we also create random and unpredictable wefts with our own steps.

When crossing a "street", we might foresee what looks like a square; when we arrive into that "square", we are can be attracted by the vision of a "patio" placed in the centre of a "building", where we shall enter -or not-; because maybe then we feel the urging need to climb up some "stairs" that lead us to the heights of a distant "skyscraper" emerging on the horizon. We, the citizens of the reticuláreas, do not necessarily need to orientate in the labyrinth of wire streets. Because here, as in the best of cities, we would rather get lost.

So, to conclude, Gego as an architect anticipated the course of things to come with her city in space: also for the architecture world. In the same way that the manual distortions of her nets reflected the fatigue of the grid that modernity experienced at the end of the last century, the linked architectures and spaces of her nets were prophetical in their shapes, contortions, mutations, turns, folds, deformations, movements, and especially in their transparencies, of the architectures that followed them.

Just recall some of the latest “clouds that take shape on the horizon”: the weaving landscapes, the transparent roofings based on various geometrical grids, the alveolar steel structures or the “eventual architectures” of distorted sculptural bodies and expressionist spirit that pop up everywhere. Contemporary architecture is today at times topographical, and also at times geographical. As what happened in 1969 with the Reticulárea, much of today’s architecture seems aspiring to be an environmental installation, located at the confines of contemporary art.

And here we have Gego, comtemplating the city.

Gego at One Hundred Years.

Presentado en: Symposium "Gego at One Hundred Years", The Americas Society, New York City, Noviembre 2012.

lunes, 5 de noviembre de 2012

Un nuevo parque

 (f. "Caracas". Ana Teresa Fábregas, 2012).

"Este parque es un desarrollo democrático de la más alta significación,
de cuyo éxito, en mi opinión,
depende mucho el progreso del arte y de la cultura estética en esta ciudad."
Frederick Law Olmsted, 1 de Agosto, 1858.1

Cuando en 1850 se inició la épica historia urbana de la creación de Central Park en Nueva York, no existían precedentes en esa ciudad ni en toda América de lo que debía ser un parque urbano americano. Se era consciente, sí, en comparación con las ciudades de Europa, que ninguna metrópolis podía brindarle calidad de vida a sus habitantes si no contaba con una cantidad suficiente de hectáreas dedicadas a la recreación y al saneamiento ambiental.

Tras casi dos décadas de esfuerzo, el "Greensward Plan" de Frederick Law Olmsted y Calvert Vaux se concluyó. Su nombre, Greensward, fue clave: hacia el verde. Hoy, con siglo y medio de exitosa vida, la experiencia de Central Park es un paradigma que regresa una y otra vez cada que es necesario crear nuevos espacios abiertos que quieran a ir hacia el verde en alguna parte del mundo.2 Y he aquí que la última epifanía de ese espíritu ocurre actualmente en Caracas.

Aunque la capital de Venezuela cuenta con el monumental Parque Nacional el Avila (la boscosa cordillera que le sirve de telón de fondo), la ciudad carece de suficientes espacios abiertos verdes en el valle que sean de fácil acceso y uso para toda su población. Por ello los caraqueños llevan ya medio siglo dándole vueltas a su vieja aspiración: la reconversión de lo que aún sigue siendo un militarizado aeropuerto, la base aérea La Carlota (1946), al este del valle de Caracas, en un nuevo y verde parque urbano de diseño contemporáneo.

La misión más importante de este nuevo parque es la de saldar la grave deuda de espacios públicos que arrastra la ciudad y convertirse en el principal instrumento de reconversión urbana y relanzamiento de la capital, degradada a niveles intolerables tras años de mal gobierno y falta de planificación. Con tanto tiempo de dura lucha social y sobre todo de política para crear el necesario sentimiento público, en el último año gracias a la suma de un centenar de instituciones civiles y a la asistencia de la Alcaldía Metropolitana de Caracas, el proceso ahora va camino de concluir el concurso internacional de ideas convocado en julio pasado para finalmente avocarse a impulsar la ejecución de un proyecto definitivo y la construcción del parque. 

(f. Caracas Country Club. Raquel Schaffernorth, 2009).

No es Caracas, sin embargo, una tierra virgen en materia de paisajismo urbano, como lo era la Nueva York de mediados del siglo diecinueve. Desde 1928 cuenta con el único proyecto de la firma Olmsted Brothers en Latinoamérica, el Caracas Country Club, una urbanización paisajística con campos de golf, cuyo diseño urbano, de orgánicas líneas, expresa formal y conceptualmente el ideario olmstediano de respeto a la memoria del paisaje. Una suerte de Central Park caraqueño, muy poco conocido fuera de Venezuela.3 

Adicionalmente, desde 1958, cuando surge el Plan General de Parques del Area Metropolitana de Caracas, nace también el proyecto del Parque del Este de Roberto Burle Marx, inaugurado en 1961.4 Este parque público, el de mayor uso de Caracas, con tres millones y medio de visitantes por año, es considerado como "la obra pública más importante de Burle Marx."5 Su obra maestra.

(f. Parque del Este. Mauronline, 2008)

Ambos espacios verdes fueron, a diferencia del Parque La Carlota, adquiridos, diseñados y construidos en tiempo récord. La voluntad del Sindicato Blandín, promotor del Caracas Country Club, logró en la primera mitad del siglo pasado en menos de dos décadas terminar todo el conjunto de las obras. En el Parque del Este, en mucho menos tiempo aún: se logró construir entre 1958 y 1961. De hecho, la idea de hacer un parque verde en La Carlota nació ese mismo año de 1961 dentro de la misma epopeya del Parque del Este, como "Exposición Internacional de Caracas" (aunque nunca se llevó a cabo).

Plano de la Exposición Internacional de Caracas, 1961 (f. Archivo Fundación de la Memoria Urbana).

El bello esquema de Burle Marx y del arquitecto Alejandro Pietri extendía su diseño de curvas y colores y jardines tropicales más allá del parque, hasta llenar el área del aeropuerto adyacente por el lado sur. La imagen, poderosísima, quedó indeleblemente grabada en la retina de todos cuanto la hemos conocido. El greensward del Parque del Este se convirtió, desde 1961, en southward: el parque debería crecer hacia el sur algún día, saltar la Autopista del Este, que divide ambos espacios abiertos, y hacer un solo y gran parque verde. La idea, como todas las grandes ideas, sobrevivió.

Y ese día se acerca. El nuevo Parque verde La Carlota (con la palabra verde subrayada para erradicar todo intento de urbanizar este espacio o de llenarlo de edificios) cuenta con las ideas de sesenta y nueve equipos, fruto de la convocatoria de un concurso público de ideas convocado en julio de 2012. Un concurso de diseño que ha cosechado prolíficamente el prolongado estado de espera en que se encuentra la ciudad, represada en sus sueños y en sus urgentes mejoras. La entrada ganadora, anunciada este noviembre, se beneficia de varias discusiones públicas y del acceso libre a lo mejor de las demás propuestas que compitieron en la primera vuelta del concurso.

Les parecerá a ustedes normal hablar aquí de estas cosas. Pero en los difíciles tiempos que ha vivido Venezuela estos últimos catorce años, esto es en dicha ciudad por lo menos heroico. Hace que la historia de este nuevo parque se convierta en una épica urbana tan repleta -salvando las distancias- de política, de animosidades personales, deseos reprimidos, idealismo, auto sacrificio y genio artístico, como lo fuera la historia de Central Park en la segunda mitad del siglo diecinueve. En Caracas, igual que entonces, las entradas de este concurso versaron sobre "el rol del espacio abierto, sobre la tensión entre pavimento y grama, entre el ruido de la ciudad y la tranquilidad rural, entre aire fresco y contaminado; entre la tierra pública y privada, entre la ciudad y el gobierno; entre la plaza citadina y el parque urbano".6

(f. Kunckel Arquitectos Asociados C. A)

En una de las propuestas no ganadoras (Kunckel Arquitectos Asociados C. A), por ejemplo, una multitud de caraqueños se asoma vitoreando sobre la vista del viejo aeropuerto luego de derribar la cerca que lo rodea, tal y como si fuera un nuevo muro de Berlín.

(f. Kunckel Arquitectos Asociados C. A.)

En otra imagen, cientos de personas liberan globos y vuelan papagayos en la superficie reconquistada de la antigua pista de aterrizaje convertida en gran promenade... 

Así, podríamos seguir por todas las propuestas, donde cada una tiene al menos una buena idea para contribuir en la verde empresa.

(f. Aeropuerto La Carlota, Caracas, 2008. Archivo Fundación de la Memoria Urbana)

Cuando en 1844 el poeta romántico William Cullen Bryant, editor del New York Evening Post, escribió en su periódico el histórico editorial titulado "A New Park" (Un Nuevo Parque), no sabía cuán lejos iba a ir en su llamado por "una extensa tierra de placer para la sombra y la recreación" y "un gran jardín en una gran ciudad".7 La historia demostró que sus escritos lograron el efecto deseado. 

Hoy, aunque no sabemos cuándo este nuevo y esencial parque urbano abrirá efectivamente sus puertas, sabemos que Caracas ya ha decidido que exista. Insistamos en ello. Porque, cuando se trata de la ciudad, como la historia nos enseña... es solo cuestión de tiempo.

1. Morrison H. Heckscher. Creating Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City 2008, p. 7.
2. M.H. Heckscher, "Vaux, Olmsted and the Greesnward Plan", en: Creating Central Park, Op.Cit., 2008, p. 24.
3. Hannia Gómez, "Olmsted en Blandín", The Urban Times, Londres, Mayo 2011:
4. H. Gómez, "Primera fila", en: Mitchele Vidal y Marco Petricelli, Arquitectura Musical, Caracas, 2010.
5. Anita Berrizbeitia. Roberto Burle Marx in Caracas: Parque del Este, 1956-1961, Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture Series, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2004.
6. M.H. Heckscher, "The Commissioner's Plan and New York's early Parks and Squares", en: Idem, 2008, p. 7.
7. M.H. Heckscher, "The Decision to Build a New Park and the Selection of its Site", en; Id., 2008, p. 11.

Publicado en: Archivos de Arquitectura Antillana AAA044,
Santo Domingo, República Dominicana, Noviembre, 2012.

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