Villanueva, Carlos Raúl
Carlos Raúl Villanueva
Venezuelan Carlos Raúl Villaneuva (1900–1975) was the most influential Latin American architect and community designer of the twentieth century. He worked in Venezuela for over four decades, and his concepts, designs, and plans combined European modernism and the traditions of his native Venezu ela to create a unique style that has had wide influence across Latin America and elsewhere. More than any other architect, he was instrumental in shaping the development of modern architecture in Venezuela.
Villanueva was born on May 30, 1900, in Croydon, Surrey, England. His father was a member of the Venezuelan diplomatic corps there and also wrote books on South American history. Villanueva's mother was French. Although Villanueva was born in England, his nationality was Venezuelan, and he lived most of his life in that country. His maternal connection to France did, however, have a great influence on his life and work.
Incorporated Traditional and Modern
Villanueva studied at the Lycee Condorcet in Paris, France and then received a degree in architecture from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Thus, he received a strong grounding in European architectural traditions, particularly eclecticism. He moved to Caracas, Venezuela in 1928, where he opened his own office. Although he appreciated the traditional Venezuelan architecture, which was derived from colonial Spanish styles, he wanted to renew this tradition and imbue it with a modern flavor. Villanueva served as architect to the Venezuelan Ministry of Public Works from 1929 to 1939; during this period, he incorporated traditional Spanish/Andalusian designs into his own work, adapting it to more modern forms and materials, and producing his own unique style.
His earliest work, the Bullring at Maracay, built in 1931, showed that Villanueva was influenced by the work of other architects, such as Auguste Perret. The bullring was the first ever built to a contemporary design, and although it paid homage to historical continuity, it used new materials and new design elements. One of these new elements was Villanueva's use of thin, recessed panels between heavy, load-bearing piers; it was the first time this technique was used in Latin America. As a writer for the Encyclopedia of Modern Architecture noted, Villanueva "came to a deep understanding of the new ways of thought in architecture and devoted himself with a missionary ardor to the spread of modern architecture in his own land."
In 1933, Villanueva married Margot Arismendi, and they later had four children: Francisco Raúl, Jose Carlos, Pavlona, and Carlos Raúl.
In 1935 Villanueva designed the Museo de Los Caobos in Caracas, Venezuela. The building is notable for its Doric peristyle, which is very precisely detailed, as well as its symmetrical arrangement around an open garden courtyard. His use in this building of sculptural elements that are enhanced by the strong light and deep shadows of the tropical sun would later become a recurring feature of his designs. In 1927, he designed the Venezuelan Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris, and this building won first prize for the exposition. Villanueva also won many other awards and honors during the first ten years of his career, including a knighthood in the French Legion of Honor.
Broke from Tradition and Moved to a Modern Style
Instead of relying on forms that won him these awards, Villanueva continued to experiment, and introduced new designs, materials, and ways to use them to Venezuelan and South American architecture. In 1939, he abandoned tradition entirely when he designed an elementary school, the Escuela Gran Colombia in Caracas, Venezuela. This was the first of his buildings without any historical influences; it also used reinforced concrete, which was the time was considered a new and experimental material by Venezuelan builders and contractors. The building's style was influenced by Cubism, but was still symmetrical; Villanueva's innovative design and materials opened the door for other creative architects who followed him and who also broke from traditional forms.
After studying at the Institute d'Urbanism of the University of Paris, Villanueva returned to Venezuela in 1940 and turned his talents to helping with two problems in his country that had been caused by its rapid development and population growth: an acute housing shortage and extremely poor living conditions for many of its people. Caracas, for example, grew from 163,000 inhabitants in 1936 to 359,000 in 1941, 718,000 in 1951, and by 1964, had 1,300,000 inhabitants; in addition, it was located in a tight valley, making physical expansion difficult and crowding worse. Villanueva soon took a position as chief architect and advisor at the Worker's Bank of Venezuela. The Worker's Bank, or Banco Obero, was created with the goal of solving the difficult housing and living conditions that laborers experienced; it was responsible for launching the careers of many promising Venezuelan architects, including Villanueva. For his project, Villanueva worked to redevelop the worst slum of Caracas, known as El Silencio; it was the first time any Latin American government had undertaken such a program. Villanueva's designs provided some of the best housing in Latin America, as he incorporated cross-ventilation and glare protection against the strong tropical sun, as well as noise insulation in each apartment. Every apartment also had a balcony, which allowed residents to see the sky.
After completing his work in El Silencio, Villanueva worked on a housing project in Maracaibo, Venezuela. For this project, he dropped a previous idea of creating a miniature villa, and emphasized gathering places such as churches, schools, and other gathering places. He also added walkways and gardens to improve the quality of the neighborhood. In another development in Caracas, he sited houses on a hillside so that they formed visually pleasing arrangements; at the same time, they could be naturally ventilated by the cool breezes blowing down the hills. In his "Dos de Diciembre" housing project, Villanueva, in collaboration with José Manuel Mijares, José Hoffman, and Carlos Branco, designed 2,366 houses for 12,744 people. In the "El Paraiso" project, he designed a smaller project, with duplex units in a four-story and a 16-story building. Typically, he made sure to provide social areas and gathering spaces to humanize the communities.
Designed University Buildings
In the 1940s, Villanueva designed the first buildings for the Central University of Venezuela, where he began serving as a founding professor of architecture in 1944. Throughout his career, he continued to design buildings for the university, and characteristically emphasized community design. His walkways and buildings contained murals and sculptures that Villanueva incorporated into the design; the most notable of these is a sculpture by Alexander Calder in the university's auditorium. In 1957, he designed the university's School of Architecture; for his work, he received an honorary doctorate from the university in 1961. The building was nine stories high and quite imposing, and according to Sibyl Moholy-Nagy in Carlos Raúl Villanueva and the Architecture of Venezuela, it "imposes on the student the fearful decision to come to terms with the future he/she has chosen."
At this stage in his career, Villanueva's style had these notable characteristics: a dynamism and spontaneity in structural design; a broad assimilation of the work and ideas of many painters and sculptors; a daring use of color; and an ability to work with very large spaces and structures.
Villanueva designed other well-known buildings for the university, including the Olympic Stadium (1950–51), which is notable for its daring use of cantilevered marquees, concrete shell, and exposed ribs. A Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architecture contributor wrote, "With breathtaking bravura, the cast concrete form… sweeps upward to establish the seating area for 30,000 people and then doubles back dramatically upon itself to soar anew in a daring cantilevered span." Villanueva also designed the Medical Center, Auditorium, and Covered Plaza Cubierta (Covered Plaza and Aula Magna). According to a writer in the Encyclopedia of Modern Architecture, the Aula Magna is "one of the most beautiful assembly rooms in the world." It is noted for its white, curved ceiling, which serves as a backdrop for several floating panels designed by artist Alexander Calder; R. Newman, an acoustics specialist, also collaborated on the project. According to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architecture contributor, the artistic and acoustic properties of the building are unified: "Alexander Calder's polychromed "clouds," suspended at varying levels from the ceiling, simultaneously distribute sound evenly throughout the acoustically meticulous auditorium and visually humanize the space."
The building's plain exterior contrasts with and emphasizes the airy openness of the Plaza Cubierto, which is a large, partially enclosed foyer. The Plaza Cubiert features work by such modern artists as Arp, Léger, Vasarely, and others. In all of Villanueva's university buildings, he was careful to identify a theme specific to that building's use, and the theme is carried throughout the building's concrete panels and colored mosaics.
He also designed the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas. For this last building he was awarded the Venezuelan National Architecture Prize in 1963. His main interest remained in designing buildings for community development and urban planning. He served as president of the Venezuelan National Board of Historic and Artistic Protection and Conservation and was founder and director of the Venezuelan National Planning Commission. He continued to work until his death in Caracas, Venezuela on August 16, 1975.
In Carlos Raúl Villanueva and the Architecture of Venezuela, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy wrote that when Villanueva was asked, "How do you define the architect?" Villanueva replied, "The architect is a highly complex and contradictory personality. The artistic value of his work must be beyond doubt." However, he added, architecture is subject to constraints that don't exist in other forms of art: "The dependence on external, uncontrollable circumstances (client, budget, society, structure, materials) is immeasurably stronger and more coercive than in any other art. Evidently, the architect has a more difficult problem to preserve his freedom of creativity."
Villanueva also spoke of his view of the future of architecture: "The move toward industrialization in building construction will ultimately eliminate hand labor. We shall build with machines.… This total industrialization of the building process … will raise the level of creative architectural imagination to a global and urban level." He concluded, "Some day, along this path, the entire planet will be free of environmental alienation because the unique talent of the artist-intellectual will make environment again identical with architecture."
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Villanueva, Carlos Raúl
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