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Architecture Misfit #14: Eladio Dieste

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Eladio Dieste (1917 – 2000)

Eladio Dieste was a Uruguayan engineer and architect who made his reputation building a range of structures from grain silos, factory sheds, markets and churches, all in Uruguay and all of exceptional elegance.

I can’t say it better than that. Or this.

Dieste, was one of the few Modernist architects [working in South America] to bring architecture and structural engineering into close proximity, especially when undertaking humble commissions. His buildings were mostly roofed with thin shell vaults constructed of brick and ceramic tiles. These forms were cheaper than reinforced concrete, and didn’t require ribs and beams. In developing this approach, even in comparison with modernists the world over, he was an innovator.

A particular innovation was his Gaussian vault, a thin-shell structure for roofs in single-thickness brick, that derives its stiffness and strength from a double curvature catenary arch form that resists buckling failure.

His most well-known work is the 1960 Church of Christ the Worker (Church of Christ the Worker and Our Lady of Lourdes) in Estación Atlántida, Uruguay. Here’s a sequence of images I found on Mexican ArchDaily.

And here’s another excellent sequence showing Dieste’s 1972 Fruit and Vegetable Market at Port Alegre. Thanks very much to Ben Hueser. (Mr. Hueser advises persons seeking more material to contact

Here’s some details of the double curvature roof of the main building. It’s thin.


Notice that it is very economical in its use of material. It was calculated and built without the help of a computer. THE CURVATURE IS WHAT MAKES IT WORK.

“The resistant virtues of the structures that we seek depend on their form; it is through their form that they are stable, not because of an awkward accumulation of material. There is nothing more noble and elegant from an intellectual viewpoint than this: To resist through form.” 

Here’s a detail of the single curvature roof of the peripheral buildings.


Bus Station, Salto, Uruguay, 1974


“The building methods I am describing allow a building speed similar to that of prefabrication, requiring less equipment, and a similar workforce. The simplicity of the necessary equipment and the fact we are using the smallest and oldest of prefabricated elements often leads people to believe that we are employing arts and crafts methods, associated with a vague connotation of underdevelopment and a failure to apply what science has put within the reach of technology. This is not true!”

Mr. Dieste, misfits salute you for this. We never for a second thought your buildings were primitive because they use brick and simple equipment, relatively unskilled labour and no technology. We understand that your simplicity of means and methods is not intended to be cute or ever vernacular, and that is is simply the best use of resources. We are sure you would hate unnecessary simplification even more today when it’s mis-named ‘value engineering’.

“Unnecessary simplification is the work of the financial economy of money and its management. If we want our buildings to have the power of the great architectural inventions of the past, then we must strive for a greater economy than the financial, an economy long forgotten by the practical gentleman who manage us and squander things of real worth with careless financial speculation.” 

The phrase “A greater economy than the financial” intrigues me. I wonder what he could have meant. Effort? Humility? I like to think he meant the moral appropriateness of the solution – the lack of decadence, the absence of ostentatious theory.

What I find refreshing in the buildings of Eladio Dieste is the absence of technology and its flaunting as some ornamental representation of modernness.

Heard this one? “How many digital models and robots does it take Harvard and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) to build a brick wall?” They seem to have missed the point Dieste was making. (Thanks for that morphocode.) I wish there was a smiley for ‘despair’.

morphocode also gives us this quote from Farshid Moussavi, (Harvard, with all its negative connotations; appropriating all that is good in the world) in her book with its telling title The Function of Ornament.

One of the most notable projects of Eladio Dieste is the church Christ the Worker in Montevideo. The structure is remarkable: brick cavity wall with concealed high-strength mortar and steel reinforcement.  The curve of the edge beam approximates the shape of the moment diagram created by the vault, converting bending into axial forces – a more efficient structural system.

Yes, it does – as it fucking should. This is not insight. For Moussavi, Dieste’s projects are ornamental first of all, and that they work is fortuitous – at least for her thesis which, as I understand it, is very late 90’s: “Ornament is good so let’s get intensely relaxed about it, okay?”

morphocode also points us towards this book Eladio Dieste: Innovation in Structural Art. I’m not keen on the title – I’m sure Dieste didn’t set out to create ‘structural art’ in the sense that Santiago Calatrava or Cecil Balmond do.

innovation in structural art

Here’s Dieste’s 1967-1971 San Pedro Church in Duranzo, Uruguay. This is the closest he gets to structure as art, but no more or less so than your average rose window. Frankly, I’m in awe that brick can be made to do this and am interested to know how. I accept that to understand the mystery is to diminish the magic. It’s a price I’ll happily pay – one has to know.

Here’s Dieste’s take on his work. 

“There are deep moral/practical reasons for our search which give form to our work: with the form we create we can adjust to the laws of matter with all reverence, forming a dialogue with reality and its mysteries.”

Dieste conflates the moral and the practical as his form of reverence to the laws of matter. This is a long way from the function of ornament and engineering as structural art.

This little park ornament however, built as an homage to Dieste, is art. It is one of the structural units from his 1974 Salto Bus Station. Its only function is to use his principles as shown here


to create a tribute to the man who knew what forces he was up against and who accepted and resolved them with intelligence and humility. Let’s not forget that Dieste applied his skills to churches yes, but also to grain storage silos, bus stations, fruit and vegetable markets and other utilitarian structures of immediate benefit to the people of his country.


“Eladio Dieste – misfits salutes you!”

#14: Eladio Dieste



  • Hi Graham McKay. This is not a comment about any of your posts but I read pieces of them every morning before I start my pseudo-architect work (I´m finishing my final thesis to finally get my degree in architecture, here in Madrid). Anyway, I´m writing you because recently I saw a documentary about a courious man, the title of the film is Garbage Warrior and I wanted to share it with you as you share a lot of things with… us? through this blog. It is a story about a man aiming to do architecture for people and the planet and what he finds on his way. I suppose this are internet things: you don´t know who reads you but…we? (as readers) do know you, and suddenly can treat you like a friend. Thanks for you blog, it´s indispensable.

    • Hi Eskariata, Thanks so much for contacting – it’s good to know you’re out there and reading. You know, I’d never really thought of this blog as sharing, but you’re right – it is. I know I can rant a bit sometimes, but you reminded me to try harder to make more of it more worth sharing. Some thoughts are always going to be more relevant or more urgent than others though. Thanks also for alerting me to Garbage Warrior – it looks interesting and I’ll definitely watch it. I’m no Garbage Warrior but I do think we have something in common. Good luck with the thesis. Let me know what happens next. Graham.

  • Enjoyed very much article on Dieste and wondered about extent to which he interacted with architects working elsewhere in Latin America.

    In Cuba, there is a legacy (largely neglected):

    Of interest in Canada, the work of Douglas Cardinal. His St. Mary´s Church is embedded in texts of forty years ago and I wondered who his champions and students were or might be.

    • Hi Skies,

      Thanks for that. The link to the National Art Schools in Cuba is very interesting. I’ll poke around a bit and let you know what I find and think of it. I have to let you know though that I usually have a problem with reported interactions and influences. It’s even more difficult with historical stuff. I know these days, everyone’s quick to mention their first tutor, mentor or job as if it actually meant something or was some “formative influence”.

      When I lived in London, I met Polish architecture graduates who were legitimately employed by Foster+Partners even though the reality is living four-to-a-room in Battersea and fed their daily work like battery hens. Who’s to say they learned anything from the great man’s teaching, writings or doings? They probably think it’s a CV builder and maybe it is. But what it really says is that they’ve bought into the dream of architecture and are willing to be exploited for peanuts. It’s hard for me to take reported architectural lineages and influences at face value.

      I actually have a bona-fide architectural lineage myself. It means little. My musical lineage is much more interesting. My piano teacher was a child prodigy taught by a student of Liszt and then by Bartok himself. Did it make me a brilliant pianist? No. But if I were to have been, these facts would surely have been of media interest and some transmission of genius reported and TAKEN FOR GRANTED. More annoyingly, my architecture ancestor did say I would surely find my path if I continued questioning. Thirty years on, I still am. =(