"I built a castle in the sky to be with you. It was built. And I dwelled in it". Gego, 1935.
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.