From the Field: Carlos Raul Villanueva
Exploring a radical vision for the fusion of architecture and art.
It is a simple story of friendship that has become the catalyst for our virtual field visit this month. It has brought us mentally to Venezuela, where we have been reacquainting ourselves with the profound work of Carlos Raul Villanueva. His radical vision has given us pause.
The story is preceded by understanding a 1950s project Villanueva called “Synthesis of the Arts”. This was a program he envisioned while undertaking the design for the campus of the Universidad Central de Caracas, a project commissioned just after his return from a lengthy stay in Paris. Villanueva had been appointed as supervisor of the Venezuelan Pavilion for the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques Appliques a la Vie Moderne, and through this work had established strong relationships with an international group of architects and artists (think big: Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, Victor Vasarely). Shortly upon returning to Venezuela, he began to dream up the logistics of this innovative “Synthesis of the Arts”. It would become a project indicative of his larger mission to honor architecture and art symbiotically. In due course, he asked Calder to create a series of massive, sweeping mobiles for the largest auditorium he was designing at the University, the Aula Magna. Understanding that at the time, it was highly unusual for architects to commission artwork. Furnishings and art were an after-thought at best. So the decisions Villanueva made to see architecture as an equal partner to the art it housed set him apart immediately in his field and continues to do so in his legacy.
As it goes, the story of Calder’s mobiles in Villanueva’s Aula Magna concludes perfectly: “It was Calder, during his first visit to Venezuela — in 1955, two years after the completion of Aula Magna — who gave Villanueva his nickname: The Devil. As far as Calder was concerned, only a demon could have carried out such mischievous work as Aula Magna. As a testament of his profound and sincere admiration and as a token of his deep friendship for the architect, Calder executed a sculpture he titled The Devil’s Chair (1955), which remains standing in the garden of the Villanueva house in Caoma.”1
This is all to say that though we love an anecdote about friendship between two of our heroes, it feels much more profound considering what we’re discovering about Villanueva. He stood out amongst the rest, approached things differently — boldly. To be endearingly called devilish translates to us as being a rule-breaker, a trend-setter. Of course, further research into Villanueva’s work has revealed this only to be truer. Not only was the “Synthesis of the Arts” a groundbreaking project, but it underscores a career’s worth of similar endeavors. Villanueva’s portfolio reveals an architect deeply sensitive to the objects and art filling his spaces. It’s not often the case that such care is taken in this regard. It is perhaps because Villanueva’s formal training took place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was exposed to the historical residential canon, that his residential work is particularly interesting for its marriage of classic form, modernist ideals, and eclectic artwork. For this reason, we’re focusing our sights on two residences, both of which were personal homes of Villaneva’s: Casa Sotavento in Caraballeda (his beach house completed in 1958) and Casa Caoma in Caracas (his main residence completed in 1953).
The details in each of these homes speaks to Villanueva’s philosophy entirely. Modernist shells offer a backdrop for an eclectic group of artwork and furnishings arranged particularly and yet with ease. These groupings feel collected over a lifetime because they were. In fact, much of what lived in his homes was gifted from the very same artist friends mentioned above (The Devil's Chair from Calder, for one). We love the way modern abstract drawings exist in the same vignette as traditional religious iconography. They’re anchored by common colors like rust and navy, and the lush Venezuelan foliage peaks through like purposefully specified curtains of green. Sconces are placed above walls of artwork as if they’re dimples in the wall, more than sources of light. They become little nods to the beauty of imperfection, taking the house away from its potential as a modernist museum. It’s these sorts of details that feel most like Villanueva to us. They’re incredibly meticulous and considered and yet somehow at the same time, they give the appearance of having just landed there.
Villanueva's manipulation of materials is another thing we're admiring. For example, there’s a cement staircase in the Casa Sotavento that warps and widens at the end where the stairs meet the plaster wall. It’s such a slight detail but stops you in thought. Why did Villanueva choose this? His hand was never heavy, but always creating a moment of interest. Another that sticks out to us is the addition of a humble hammock in his beach house and how it contrasts with the flooring. Aren’t architects' homes supposed to be “Serious”, we think? No, it’s the combination. It's key. Villanueva understood that these unexpected accents added to the appreciation of the building itself. The hammocks strewn across a clean, glossed floor act like punctuation marks to remind us of playfulness — it’s a beach house after all. It's meant to be enjoyed and lived in. The decision to install a highly glossed terra cotta floor renders the material more modern than its humble roots. As light is cast over the floor at a certain angle, the handcrafted nature of the terra cotta is revealed. But from the second floor the intense sheen makes it look almost artificial. It’s clever — but of course it is, it’s Villanueva.
1 Paulina Villanueva and Macia Pinto, Carlos Raul Villanueva from the Masters of Latin American Architecture Series, 2000.