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Structural magic

review - Eladio Dieste: Innovation in Structural Art Edited by Stanford Anderson. Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. 264pp. £42

Eladio Dieste's name may not be familiar but the undulating walls and vaults of the Church of Christ the Worker, which he completed in Atlßntida, Uruguay, in 1960, probably are. For the most part, Dieste built utilitarian structures - sheds, canopies and slender, perforated water towers - using almost exclusively reinforced and post-tensioned brickwork. And he was, as this splendidly presented account of his major works makes clear, a builder of genius in whom an intuitive understanding of structure combined with a feeling for form.

The Atlßntida church is a structural tour de force in which every curve and inclination is attuned to the flow of forces within its wafer-thin envelope. Even the staircase and perforated balustrades are made of brick, yet there is nothing strained in this material devotion. Brick, as Dieste pointed out, was not only local but offered manifold advantages over concrete, including a better strength-to-weight ratio, superior weathering, and enhanced thermal and acoustic performance. It was also widely available and understood by craftsmen, and the resulting structures were consequently 'ridiculously cheap' as well as beautiful.

Dieste, as Edward Allen explains in one of several short, illuminating essays, was heir to the tradition of Catalan brick-vaulting based on overlapping laminations of thin, fired-clay tiles. Its potential was radically enlarged in the late 19th century by Rafael Guastavino's application of the graphical means of statical analysis, to which Dieste was later introduced as a student in Montevideo.

Sensing the economy and beauty that can result from aligning the elements of a structure along the lines of force, Dieste refined four basic structural types: pure compression vaults, spanning up to 54m; cylindrical barrel shells which act in compression across their curves, and as beams longitudinally, resisting bending through shape (the gravity-defying 'Sea Gull', originally designed for a petrol station and supported by a single column, is an almost outrageous development of this type); ruled surfaces, of which the sinuous walls of the Atlßntida church are a prime example; and folded plate structures, which Dieste employed in the design of his other great religious building, the replacement nave for the Church of Saint Peter in Durazno, completed in 1971.

The basilican plan of the Durazno church appears dull to the point of banality, and the section hardly seems more promising. And then you note in both the almost complete absence of apparent structure and the miraculous thinness of the envelope. The fabric consists, in fact, of three folded plates: two unequal Zs for the walls, and a pitched roof for the nave - a mere 80mm thick, it combines brick tiles and reinforced concrete and spans over 30m. Roof and walls are joined by small, recessed posts, allowing a band of light to slide in between them and reveal the structural magic.

Diaste's passion for brick contributed, as Stanford Anderson notes, to his neglect by those histories of modern architecture that hailed the achievements of such engineers as Eiffel and Maillart, Torroja and Candela, who devoted themselves to overtly 'modern' materials. Equally, it now makes his works timely: not only does their 'materiality' rival Lewerentz's late churches, but they are also eminently 'sustainable'. But above all, as the art of building inexorably gives way to the more contingent business of assembling, they offer an exhilarating reminder of what can be achieved when things are made, as this philosopher-engineer liked to put it, 'in accord with the profound order of the world'.

Richard Weston is Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University

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