Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz

by Carlos Brillembourg


Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz, Abadía Benedictina San José (Benedictine Abbey), Güigüe, 1984–89. Photo by Orlando Martinez. Photo courtesy of the architect.

Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz and I “spoke” via email from fall 2001 to late summer 2002. I have known Jesús most of my life; we became close in 1979 when we and 15 other architects founded the Instituto de Architectura Urbana (IAU) in Caracas. We worked on urban design projects for the city of Caracas and participated in many exhibitions and seminars. The Instituto’s discourse was expanded by visits of architects and theorists such as Kenneth Frampton, Aldo Rossi, Tony Vidler, Mario Gandelsonas and Ignasi Sola-Morales. Jesús, the architect-philosopher, always redirected the conversation towards the universal when it got entangled in the messy realities of the everyday.

During my most recent visit to Caracas, last November, Jesús and his wife, Anna, invited me and my colleague Maria Isabel for dinner at their home, which lies at the end of a walled street behind a small iron gate framed by two acacia flamboyant trees. When we arrived, as the sun set over the valley of Caracas, we found Dionysian Jesús listening to the forest music in Wagner’s Siegfried. As usual, the discussion centered on Greek mythology and architecture. Thinking about this magical evening, I am reminded of a story of Jesús as a teacher and jurist for a thesis project. A student presented a set of detailed plans for a new beer factory. After a lengthy explanation of regarding the complex functions of trucks and bottles, Jesús asked the student if he knew who invented beer. The student answered, “Well, professor, I suppose it was a German invention.” Jesús proceeded to explain that beer was invented by the Egyptians around 3000 BC, and in the midst of his describing the mythology of the different deities’ involvement with beer, the student impatiently asked, “Professor, what does this have to do with my project?” Jesús replied, “Precisely nothing!”

November 12, 2001

Carlos Brillembourg You have often discussed the importance of archetypes with regard to architecture. I know that this comes from a deep understanding of the writings of Jung and from your own involvement in therapy and the work of James Hillman. Can we begin by discussing the headquarters of the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) in Puerto Ordaz? A huge dam was begun in 1956 in this region of Venezuela, along the banks of the Caroní and Orinoco rivers in the Territoria Amazonas, to provide electricity for the country’s projected energy needs. This area was also the site for state-financed integrated heavy industries producing iron ore, rebars and I-beams. The CVG headquarters heralded a new city that would rise out of what former Oil Minister and OPEC cofounder Juan Pablo Perez-Alfonso called “planting the petroleum” toward a modern industrialized Venezuela. How did the CVG design evolve in relation to your idea of archetype?

Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz You don’t choose archetypes, they choose you. They select you at a given time and circumstance, and then you behave accordingly or not. So it is not a matter of the ego choosing but of the ego accepting a superior force—a god—that displays him- or herself in a loving manner: suggesting, showing, indicating which way to move. Call it inspiration. Enthusiasm comes from there: you become taken by the beauty and appropriateness of an image. At the beginning there is the image, then the ideas, then the desire to translate them into buildable works. And then comes the work itself, whether it be a piece of music, a painting, a sculpture or a building.

The CVG headquarters had a strange beginning: first it was to be the site of the town hall of the newly created Distrito Caroní; then internal struggles and rivalries inside CVG turned it into the headquarters of Edelca, the state electric company, which urgently needed to provide for the transmission of electric energy from Gun Dam to the rest of Venezuela. Something had to be done very quickly. We began thinking of erecting a prefabricated building on site with steel from the newly created SIDOR (Siderúrgica del Orinoco), but no contractor would take the risk of building it, because SIDOR light profiles were thought to be too troublesome. Then a contractor of concrete structures proposed changing the material to concrete. I was overwhelmed. In the seat of the steel industry, a steel structure was the only logical thing to build. Finally the controversy was settled by the president of CVG, General Alfonso Ravard, who backed my proposal of a steel structure. But it had to be made with US Steel profiles.

The image of a stepped pyramid came to me at the very beginning. The site is the highest point in the Ciudad Guayana, and it was barren, with nothing built around it. There was no city plan establishing limitations on height or bulk. The CVG architects requested something like a landmark, and the pyramid came forth as a natural form for human beings living in a difficult tropical climate and for a site overlooking the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers. The stepped pyramid allows for the interaction of inner and outer space through a facade of continuous balconies with shaded, gardens, a beautiful sight that is visible from almost all the working areas inside. It was to be the first building in the future center of Alta Vista, the heart of the new city, so it had the character of a foundation stone for an imagined beautiful metropolis-one that ultimately never came to be. The building stood lonely for many years. However, the archetypal image was strong enough to overcome the shameful city that eventually grew up around it.

 

November 22, 2001

CB In spite of the chaotic growth of this new city, Ciudad Guayana, your building remains alive to this day, and somehow the power of your initial inspiration is present. Can you tell us how this works? How does the image overcome such disruptions and change in context?

JTD First, the revitalization of ego expectations. Second, the image’s nontemporal character. Third, the recognition of an image given, not searched for but expected. Fourth, a disposition to receive and work without interfering. Fifth, the image’s own emotional strength. Sixth, its flexibility and capacity to be elaborated in myriad ways. Seventh, its sense of beauty and truth, and therefore its capacity to establish soul links to all of us.


Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz. Photo by Pablo Rodriguez.

December 13, 2001

CB What is the relation between the archetype, in this case a stepped pyramid, and the tectonics of the architecture? Your stepped pyramid is not load-bearing; moreover, it is hung from a steel armature. Does this contradict the archetype?

JTD This is a difficult question. An archetypal image is itself structural. The stepped pyramid is only a shape; what matters is what it means or implies. In architecture we cannot reduce things to geometry; there is also the atmosphere, the halo, the emotions. A geometric form does not always have the same value or meaning, even if it has the same appearance. One has to introduce scale, human scale, as a necessity of the soul. This puts limits on the concept of proportion, which, unlike scale, is always geometrically the same. Many geometries are outside of or deride the human scale, which is determined not only by sensations but also by feelings, intuitions and thoughts—the four basic functions of conscience. Architecture has to play with them all while preserving the basic structural archetypes of the image. Thus, it can stand firmly in from of circumstantial limitations.

Now, how an image is built introduces the question of tectonics: you have certain available means and you have to handle them so as to honor your image, not detract from it. The stepped pyramid of the CVG building is not actually hung but held by a rather conventional steel structural frame, and the brick fills the spaces between in a rather unconventional sense: the brick “floats” in the air and the structure is always exposed. No tricks here; everything shows how it was built, giving the building a sense of being true to itself.

I could not follow the whole building process because I was fired from the project before it began, a result of professional jealousies and personal dislikes within CVG. But my drawings were very strong and precise, and they held modifications at bay. The contractor was inexperienced and greedy and tried to change the specifications, but he could do that only up to a certain point because of the force of the image and its archetypal foundation. The tectonics do not contradict the archetypal image but rather enhance it.

Mies Van der Rohe said, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” This is a great statement. What’s troubling about the state of international architecture is that the basic premise of the deepest sense of the archetype has been pushed to its most superficial manifestation and to the absence of its wholeness.

 

January 16, 2002

CB But can the archetype exist in the absence of its wholeness? In our daily experience of the city and in our sometimes distracted contact with architecture, how does the structure of the archetype become apparent?

JTD Yes, the archetype can exist in a partial manifestation, but as an incomplete gestalt that demands to be closed, and if it isn’t closed it can be troublesome. With this lack of wholeness we are also speaking of a lacunae in the psyche, empty places that can sometimes be filled and sometimes not and that produce psychic invalidism. This comes from a lack connected with personal circumstances in the life of the individual: influences, codes and rules, prohibitions and so on. Coming to terms with these processes and structures constitutes individuation, which is a natural thing for plants or animals (“A rose by any other name…”) but not so natural for men and women: it is an opus contra naturam.

Archetypal structures are everywhere, displaying themselves in myriad manifestations, sometimes incomplete when mirrored by human works and behavior, on account of our usually distracted contact with and perception of architecture and the city. Often those who work in urban architecture are unaware, like the people who perceive their buildings, except on a subliminal level, of the aggression to our sense and feelings caused by incompleteness and lack of wholeness. Thus we turn to anesthesia. We give up our real sensations and feelings when in the middle of the city and inside the buildings there, to avoid the suffering.


Caracas, Venezuela, 1983. Courtesy of Carlos Brillembourg. Photo by Ramon Paolini.

January 19, 2002

CB With regard to the formation of the city, what archetype can be appropriate for housing? I am thinking of a city like the one implied in Morandi’s still lifes. His paintings, drawings and prints depict a private world of compressed, ordinary household objects in his studio in Bologna. For Morandi the wine glass and coffeepot becomes a kind of archetype and one could interpret these compositions as urban landscapes. Can we have a city that is a collection of archetypes as typologies?

JTD There is no archetypal formula or recipe for either housing or the city. Archetypes are never solitary or in isolation but always manifest themselves in constellations. So if “a house is a small city and city is a large house,” as Alberti said, they are both complex structures where many forces interact and play. Sometimes there is a dominant archetypal structure, sometimes another becomes dominant in the course of time, but it always takes place within a complexity, as in polyphonic music, within a context: geographical, environmental, economic, ethnic. Call them fields of energy if you wish.

A city might be a collection of archetypes as typologies: typologies are always the frozen results of early archetypal explorations and elaborations, which in being codified lose their freshness and spontaneity. So the city resulting from the detached way of applying typologies, as in Neoclassicism, gives the sense of something dead, lacking vitality and strength: a natura morta, to use Morandi’s term. Now, the dead, the decaying, the rotting need to be given a place in the city as well, or else it comes out in the most unexpected places, like the Reichstag dome in Berlin or in Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum. Morandi’s natura morta offers a space for beauty, and so should our cities and architectures. Places of sosiego y quietud, attributes given by Dionysius.

 

March 5, 2002

CB Jesús, the work of the architect always involves some anticipation. How do you see this process of thinking/drawing/construction, and what role does the fortuitous play?

JTD You start thinking and feeling. The image presents itself, but not yet so clearly. Drawing helps in the search for precision, and there may be some fortuitous events there, and then comes the necessity to build, which adds to the precision, to the tectonic quality of the design.

The fortuitous, which really is not so, always comes from the unconscious, which acts as a guardian angel guiding your hand to what is correct and harmonious, like an inspiring force. It is always welcome, for it knows more than the ego knows.

So there is no anticipation, but imaging.

Or, if there is any anticipation, it points toward the desire to make a beautiful work with the help of the gods and the enthusiasm they bring. This moves you to acquire the necessary learning and dexterity to build the image. But this can be obtained by practice and learning from an experienced architect and less from a “school” of architecture. A diploma really means nothing. Talent is needed. “Quod natura non dat, Salamántica non prestat.”


Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz, Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana [CVG]), Ciudad Guayana, 1967–68. Photo by Paolo Gaspirini.

June 28, 2002

CB You speak of imaging architecture. Can you tell us about the process of imaging, or imagining, the architecture of your abbey in Güigüe at the very beginning, and then take us toward its realization and finally to the process of re-imagining that takes place as we experience the spaces?

JTD You begin by trying to get into a state of tranquility, of quietness, in order to allow the flow of images from the imagination. This is valid for any architectural imagining. The ego is quiet, resting, relaxed. Suddenly comes an image or several images that move your emotions, and then you start to put them into tectonic terms: this means using all your available knowledge and drawing as if your hands know what to do. In the middle of this process an Eros appears to make you fall in love with the spaces and design them as they want to be: they are truly erotic fantasies, which we all know are very powerful. I want them to be what they want to be. If I can achieve that, I am very happy, and, I feel, so are they.

In Güigüe, after so many years of expectation (I signed the contract December 13, 1983), an image came to me: I was embracing the landscape with my outstretched arms. That became the building. The arms turned into four, following the implicit cross or swastika, so that it became a man with four arms coming from a center—the cloister. It was a sudden image, already drawn in a sketch of December 17, which unfortunately I lost.

Then everything started to fit into the scheme in a very easy way and the following drawings were richer and richer in architectural images until it came time to begin to trim this and that and shrink the whole complex to meet the budget. This meant taking many losses in architectural subtleties and dimensions, until the monks agreed with the resulting drawings, but perhaps it was a good exercise in discipline.

I had to be subjected to the discipline of a monk!, which of course, I am not.

The rest was tectonics: how to build in such a beautiful but difficult landscape. Building the imagined was a tough problem. The contractors had no idea what they were building: no previous study of the drawings, inaccurate estimate of costs, and so on. But their young engineer on site applied himself with earnestness and devotion to the job and made the work go on, with our help as supervisors. The result was not far from the initial images, in which reminiscences of Lou Kahn, Le Corbusier and traditional Bavarian architecture were present. Perhaps what I most regret is the picturesque present in many aspects of the building. I would like it to be more minimal, but the monks would not allow it. By now, they seem to be happy there. I am not so happy about the result. I should have been more restrained. It will come, I hope.


Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz, Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana [CVG]), Ciudad Guayana, 1967–68. Photo by Paulo Gaspirini.

July 19, 2002

CB You have been a witness to the enormous and tragic transformations of the major cities of Venezuela during the last half century. When I look at the CVG building I can imagine the city that is implied in its architecture. How do you see the role of architects in their relation to a city that is beyond their control?

JTD Every city is beyond any control-or rather, it is subjected to too many controls, and so nobody controls anything. Beyond control is the field of dreams that generates proposals, images, architectures in different scales and appropriate to the available means. A building can suggest a way, a goal, a tendency and never subject itself to the canon of the accepted and vulgarly appreciated. A city is the product not of the mob (mobocracy) but of citizens, cultured people who could enlighten the process of continual design that the making of a city demands, usually a process relegated to bureaucrats who neither love nor care for the soul of the city.

The soul of the city: a complex notion, like that of any soul. Built from many sources, the city is an archetypal reality crafted through many influences and mediations: site, cultures, citizens, economics, values and, first and foremost, the will to be. The city is the city for all its inhabitants. But now, in our times, the imbalance of the urban population makes two or three or four kinds of city: the affluent, the well-to-do, the poor, the outcast.

It is against that imbalance that we must fight. Is it possible for Manhattan, the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey to coexist? I care about the poor and the outcast, but I was never allowed to propose my ideas about the subject. And concerning the city as a totality, as a whole, I have been thinking and proposing for years like a preacher in the desert of our governments. For 10 years, I have been proposing solutions to the jail problems. No answer. Those of the niños de la calle as well. Old people of low income as well. Nobody cares.

Our role as architects is also to have a political presence. In our third-world cities, this presence must be expressed in many ways: proposals convincing the bureaucracy and gathering support from the civic society; fighting for governmental approval and budget raising; designing, building and performing as champions of a cause with small or nonexistent profits. In a word, our role is that of the apostle looking for a better city and a better quality of life. It is a tremendous demand on our poor resources, but we must go on.

But alas! We are a minority, and if the chance is given to us to ascend into positions of power in the government or in private enterprise, all the above-mentioned becomes pure empty rhetoric. They say that many are called, but few are chosen. But I think many are called and many are chosen; it’s just that not everybody listens to the call, the vocation. Our ears are deaf on account of so much useless noise and a generalized state of anesthesia. But, after all, we are the guardians of a better city, and a better city is a better life for us all.

The city we build is a mirror of what we are as a society. Neither a heaven nor a hell, but a human environment. Not so difficult to obtain, if you set aside egocentrism, avarice and greed. But that is a Christian desideratum. We must turn to a religious approach, to the city as it was in ancient times and not the city as profit maker.

We need monuments, sacred places, memorials to our ancestors, centers of art, schools of love and beauty, universities devoted to science and humanities, streets, plazas, parks and public spaces full of feeling, thought, intuition and sensation. Then we will have cities. That is what we architects must fight for. That is our role.


Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz, Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana [CVG]), Ciudad Guayana, 1967–68. Photo by Paolo Gaspirini.

August 8, 2002

CB Does the typology of housing play a fundamental role in the architecture of the city? And how do you see this in terms of the evolution of Caracas from the colonial grid with its techos rojos to today’s city determined to a large extent by two models: the detached high-rise propiedad horizontal and the rancho, the hollow-tile and concrete frame slum house that is now home to half of Caracas’s residents?

JTD Housing typologies do play a fundamental role in the architecture of the city. A city is an urban tissue in which the basic grid is housing and the highlights, or the warp and weft that make a city an event full of meanings, are the institutional and representative buildings for communal necessities and requirements. The higher the level of housing, the more meaningful the communal events, whether they be high rise or low rise, high density or two-family houses. The ranchos imply the necessity of being integrated into the urban tissue and turned into real homes in an urban environment, without segregation and with accessibility to themselves and to communal values and services.

In polyphonic musical terms, housing is the basso continuo that supports the contrapuntal variations, the grid that allows the threads to be woven into highlights.

There is no value in having a “cultured building” against a background of slums and misery. No Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao will hide the cruelty of the ETA or the forgotten humble people. Neither can central Manhattan stand against parts of Harlem or the South Bronx, nor can many so-called cultured cities stand that live the dichotomy. Caracas is no exception: it has two sides, the city and the “non-city.” No politicians and no architects visualize an integration in a “whole city,” which must include good and beautiful housing and good and beautiful and significant communal buildings. No one is pursuing the archetypal image of the city as a totality.

“The city is the image of the soul,” writes the Prince of Wales, quoting St. Catherine of Siena. “Our towns and cities can be restored to places where people matter once more and where our spirits find tranquility and inspiration. We all need beauty. We can’t live without it—as we all discovered to our communal cost.”

I think this requires a pause in our interview, without closing future conversations.

Remember: Less is more, and perhaps that is enough for the moment.

Tags:
Geometry
Psychology
Archetype (Psychology)
Cities
Housing
Tectonics (architectural theory)
Urbanism
BOMB 86
Winter 2004
The cover of BOMB 86
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