Gallery 400 Blog

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Juan Ignacio del Cueto "The Shells of Félix Candela"

Juan Ignacio del Cueto is an Architect, Professor, Senior Researcher at Facultad de Arquitectura, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FA-UNAM), and the lead researcher and originator behind Félix Candela's Concrete Shells: An Engineered Architecture for México and Chicago. In an effort to promote Candela’s legacy, del Cueto created an exhibition at UNAM which has evolved and been exhibited internationally including at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City (2011) and Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York (2012). 

Félix Candela's Concrete Shells: An Engineered Architecture for México and Chicago furthers these ideas by rooting Candela as a key figure in architectural history and spotlighting his time as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago beginning in 1971. Juan Ignacio del Cueto joins curator Alexander Eisenschmidt in conversation about Candela’s work and influence on architectural design on January 20 from 2-3pm at Gallery 400. 

To preface this conversation, Ignacio del Cueto's essay The Shells of Félix Candela gives insight into Candela’s time in Mexico and those he collaborated with while establishing himself as a world-renowned architect.

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Félix Candela, Los Manantiales Restaurant, Xochimilco, Mexico City, 1958.

The Shells of Félix Candela
Juan Ignacio del Cueto

The intellectual loss that Spain suffered after its civil war was sharply felt in the field of architecture. Under the Falangists, the postulates of rationalist architecture that the Republican government had begun to officially accept were banned. About 50 Spanish architects, among them those who subscribed to the most advanced, progressive ideas, went into exile. Twenty-five ended up in Mexico, many with long professional and political careers behind them, like Bernardo Giner de los Ríos, Francisco Azorín, Tomás Bilbao, Roberto Fernández Balbuena, José Luis M. Benlliure and Jesús Martí. The younger exiles, like Juan de Madariaga, Arturo Sáenz de la Calzada, Enrique Segarra, José Caridad, Juan Rivaud, Francisco Detrell, Esteban Marco, Oscar Coll, Ovidio Botella and Eduardo Robles Piquer, would develop most of their work in their new homeland.

Félix Candela, among the youngest of these, arrived in Veracruz June 13, 1939, aboard the Sinaia in one of the first of many expeditions prepared by aid organizations for the Spanish Republic that facilitated the transport of thousands of refugees to Mexico. When these architects arrived in the early 1940s, Mexico was experiencing an economic boom, which propelled the construction industry, thus favoring their integration into the milieu.

The first steps in Candela’s professional career in Mexico were difficult. A month after he arrived he was appointed head of construction for the Colonia Agrícola Santa Clara, in the northern state of Chihuahua, an attempt by Republican officials to found a model colony of agricultural production to be populated by Spanish exiles. The experiment failed a year later and Candela went to Acapulco, where he built part of the Papagayo Hotel, owned by Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta. In 1941, Candela became a Mexican citizen and was given his first stable job in the Vías y Obras construction company, headed up by his countryman Jesús Martí.

In late 1946, he left Vías y Obras and went into partnership with his brother Antonio, a technical architect, to put up some buildings in Mexico City, among them the Cathedral Hotel on Donceles Street. Fortune smiled on them in those years, and they also won the first prize in the lottery, but they lost the money venturing into the movie business with the Películas Paricutín production company, where they made two movies (Candela himself called them “two real bombs”): La venenosa (Poisonous Woman) and La virgen desnuda (The Naked Virgin).

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Félix Candela, La Jacaranda Cabaret, Presidente Acapulco Hotel, Acapulco, Guerrero, 1957.

Candela never lost interest in shells, and he devoured all the information he could get about them. In 1949 was able to put his dreams into practice when he built his first experimental shell. Encouraged by its success and convinced that a myriad of possibilities were opening up in this field, together with his brother Antonio, his sister Julia and Mexican architects Fernando and Raúl Fernández, he opened up the first Cubiertas Ala construction company to introduce concrete shells into industrial architecture. Acting as architect, engineer, consultant, calculator, contractor and builder, Félix Candela put up the first shells that would make him world renowned: ruled surfaces (built using straight segments) with double curvature which, given their hyperbolic paraboloid geometric —or hypar—form, exclusively transmit compression stress, making it possible to create continuous surfaces of minimal thickness, in the form of a shell. 

The covering most often requested from Cubiertas Ala by businessmen and architects was the “umbrella,” which consisted of four hypar segments held up by a central support that looked like an open umbrella. Quick to make —the same center framework was used to make several pieces— and effective, several “umbrellas” could be used to very economically put up buildings that required large covered surfaces, like factories, warehouses and markets. Many gasoline stations throughout Mexico have this kind of roof. But the shells that made Candela’s international reputation were those whose twisted forms were very complex, with spectacular, soft, sinuous forms. 


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Félix Candela, University City’s Cosmic Rays Pavilion, Mexico City, 1951
Image courtesy Arch Daily.

Most of his coverings were 4 cm thick, although on special occasions he made them as thin as 1.5 cm. This is the case of the University City’s Cosmic Rays Pavilion (built in 1951 in collaboration with Jorge González Reyna), the first to bring him prestige nationwide. After that, many architects approached Cubiertas Ala to include different kinds of shells in their projects. Thus, most of Candela’s work was done in conjunction with his Mexican colleagues as an advisor on their projects and proposals for coverings; they usually presented a general sketch that Candela then defined geometrically, systematized and turned into blueprints ready for building. All this won him the name of “the magician of the shells.” His collaboration was fundamental for the execution of these projects. His firm’s client list reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary Mexican architecture, including names like Mario Pani, Juan Sordo Madaleno, Enrique Yáñez, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Enrique de la Mora, Federico Mariscal, Alejandro Prieto, Max Cetto and Vladimir Kaspé. His reputation spread abroad and he carried out projects and construction in the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, Spain, Great Britain, Norway, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Félix Candela's Concrete Shells: An Engineered Architecture for México and Chicago is on view January 19-March 3, 2018 at Gallery 400. See more at » 

Alexander Eisenschmidt and Juan Ignacio del Cueto present a public conversation on January 20 from 2-3pm in the Gallery 400 lecture room. See more at »

Juan Ignacio del Cueto, Juan "The Shells of Félix Candela.” Voices of Mexico, no. 50 (2000): 36-39. Accessed January 8, 2018. https://issuu.com/cisan.unam/docs/vom50