For this month’s edition of Inside* we head to South America to take a look at a remarkable piece of modernist architecture design by the talented Uruguayan engineer Eladio Dieste. Located in the small village of Atlantida in Uruguay the Cristo Obrero Church was built in 1960 and marked the engineers‘s first architectural work.
Dieste’s architecture is a product of a life-long search for structural efficiency through pure form. He experimented with adobe construction, a local building technique, utilizing thin bricks to create a range of structural systems that allowed for large spans using minimum materials.
A particular achievement of his was the innovation of the Gaussian vault, which is a thin shell structure that derives its strength and stiffness from the use of a double curvature vaults.
“For architecture to be truly constructed, the materials must be used with profound respect for their essence and possibilities; only thus can ‘cosmic economy’ be achieved”
The Cristo Obrero Church is an ode to the brick. It combines two structural systems, vertical ruled surfaces and Gaussian vaults, which work in harmony to create enough open space to seat a congregation of 300 people. The curves all open out at the front of the building to create a clear welcoming gesture.
The plan of the building is a simple rectangle and from this base the undulating side walls rise up to the height of 7m. At the top of these walls small punctures are fitted with coloured glass to help light up the interior walls.
These clusters of windows are orientated towards the altar so that your view when entering and existing the church is different. The rolling form of the walls creates a rhythmical play of light and shadow.
The roof structure spans between 16-18m by employing Dieste’s Gaussian vaults, which elegantly ripple over the heads of the congregation. A skylight is positioned in the crest of the roof above the alter in order to illuminate the pulpit and highlight the profound quality of the space.
The detail of the connection between the side walls and the roof is a laudable feat. Here, Dieste had to navigate the complex collision of two curved surfaces, in different directions, within millimetre accuracy using rudimentary building techniques.
The end walls are independent from the rest of the structure and this is articulated by a gap at the soffit that frames the wall in light. A portion of the entrance wall in comprised of open reinforced brickwork in different planes that is infilled with marble to diffuse the light.
Adjacent to the building is a tall bell tower that is also made wholly of reinforced brick that and was built without using scaffolding. The cylindrical volume is perforated with punctures and contains an elicoidal stair of cantilevered steps that form a spiral stack.
Eladio Dieste managed to use a common building material in an extraordinary way to create a truly reverent structure. His intimate understanding of the relationship between structure, geometry and material culminated in a piece of architecture that is both sophisticated and innovative but most of all it’s timeless.