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A Tribute to Eladio Dieste, Structural Artist

Some days ago, the same day Oscar Niemeyer died, was, by coincidence, the 95th anniversary of the birth of another brilliant mind: Eladio Dieste, the great Uruguayan engineer-architect. I want to dedicate this blog article to his memory and his projects. To relate this article to the usual topic of this blog, Revit, I will create some schemes about some of the projects, to illustrate their geometry.

Eladio Dieste was born on December 10, 1917, in Artigas, a town in northern Uruguay, near to the Brazilian border. He studied at the University of the Republic, in the capital city, Montevideo, graduating in 1943. His first years of work were for the Ministry of Public Works. In 1956, along with Eugenio Montañez, he founded the firm “Dieste & Montañez, S.A.”, a successful design-build firm, that several times won commissions through competitions, offering economic solutions and alternative building techniques. The firm still exists today, (website), managed by one of Dieste´s sons, Eduardo Dieste.

The young Dieste builds his first vaults

The Berlinghieri House In 1946, a young architect, Antonio Bonet, hired a young engineer, Eladio Dieste, to provide advice and calculations for the roof of a house that Bonet was designing.1 Bonet was from Spain, more exactly from the region of Catalunya, where the construction of brick vaults is a local tradition. This house was Eladio Dieste’s first experience in designing, calculating and building vaults; his solution for the vaults was a catenary form in compression, made of brick and steel reinforcement, as thin as 2 inches, which he named as “reinforced ceramics”. That thinness cannot be appreciated in the photograph below because the architect wanted to have a thicker appearance for the elevations, and therefore, what we see from the outside is a non-bearing wall that follows the curve of the thin vault behind. This interesting but modest commission ignited a spark in the mind of the young engineer, and surely led him to pursue a long exploration on the possibilities of curved surfaces as architectural and structural form and the potential of brick as a material; an exploration that was going to mark his career as an engineer during the next four decades. The house is located in Punta Ballena, Uruguay, and today it is a nice small hotel with an ocean view.

Eladio Dieste’s structural forms

According to an article by Edward Allen 2, Eladio Dieste’s structures can be classified in four categories, as follows:

  • Self supporting shells
  • Ruled structures
  • Folded structures
  • Gaussian vaults (double curvature)

Let’s see some some examples of these structures in Eladio Dieste’s projects:

An example of Dieste’s self supporting shells

This project is the Municipal Bus Terminal, for the city of Salto, Uruguay. A series of 7 thin vaults of simple curvature cover more than 1,000 square meters (approx. 10,764 square feet). For a distant observer, the roof seems to be floating in the air. All the roof is supported by a single row of columns, 8 in total, located at the center of the vaults. The roof cantilevers some 12 meters (approx. 40 feet) in each direction, as shown in these images:

Two examples of Dieste’s Ruled structures

We can name two examples: the walls of the church of Christ the Worker, shown on the left in the following image, and the walls of the Montevideo Shopping Center, shown on the right side. At the center of the image, the photograph shows one of these walls during construction.

This image below shows the top and 3d view of the walls of the church of Christ the Worker, modeled as surfaces in Revit. The surface is created by creating a form with two splines, one for the bottom, one for the top. The splines are similar, but are not aligned vertically. The spline from the top is shifted half a wave to the right, producing the inclination.

This image below shows the top and 3d view of the walls of the Montevideo Shopping Center, modeled as surfaces in Revit. The geometry is made of 2 lines, one of for the bottom, one for the top, and an undulating spline at the mid height. The surface of the wall is made in two halves, merging the lower line with the spline, and then the spline with the upper line.

An example of Dieste’s Folded structures

The church of Saint Peter, in Durazno, Uruguay, is one of Dieste’s masterpieces. The space follows the tradition of having a higher central space and two lower aisles on the sides. However, as opposed to the tradition, there are no columns separating the lower aisles from the higher central nave. The wall “folds” up to cover the lower spaces and folds up again to enclose the high nave with a slanted “beam-wall” of “reinforced ceramics”.

At the top of this “beam-wall”, some short steel columns separate the beam-wall from the folded roof, creating a gap that lets the light pass through (see photo on the left). One of special features is the “rose window” made of very thin “planes” of brick with reinforcement, in concentric polygons, hung with tie rods (see photo on the right).

An example of Dieste’s Gaussian vaults

Eladio Dieste coined the term “Gaussian vaults” to refer to a vault that is created by a series of catenary arches, with their mid points following the shape of an undulated generatrix. Dieste used this form for the projects that required long spans, such as warehouses and silos. The example shown in the following images, a warehouse at the port of Montevideo, uses a generatrix with the shape of an “s”. The vault starts as a flat surface, on the tie beam on top of the wall. Then the vault starts to curve, gradually taking the shape of the “s” at the maximum height, and then gradually and gracefully turns flat again to rest on the other beam on the other side, covering the span of some 50 meters (164 feet), all with the “reinforced ceramics” technique: 3″ of hollow brick plus reinforcement, plus a pre-stressed loop of rebars, plus 1.1″ of mortar.

Notice in the image above, in the cutaway section, the tie rods anchored from the tie beams. Also, notice the space generated by the shape of the “s” between one vault and the next, which is used for clerestory windows.

“The Sea Gull” : A tribute to Eladio Dieste from the city of Salto, Uruguay

In 1976, the firm designed and built a gas station in the city of Salto, Uruguay. The gas station was covered with some “self carrying shells” as in other projects. A special feature of this design, though, was the roof that covered the gasoline dispensers. Here, Dieste used a counterbalanced beam with two “wings”, supported by a single column.

Some 20 years later, in 1996, probably because the site of the gas station had to be used for something else, the gas station had to be demolished. However, the mayor of the city of Salto, stepped in to save at least this roof of the gas dispensers, and had it relocated to the South entrance of the city, and created a plaza, the “Door of Wisdom”, as a tribute to the great engineer. The roof was nicknamed “the Sea Gull” 3.

Eladio Dieste died in Montevideo on July 29, 2000.

See a summary of this article, in motion:

Notes and credits:

See you in our next blog…

2012 Planta1.com, inc. , Alfredo Medina | permission to reproduce this article is granted if the name of the author and the URL of this article receive proper credit.


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