Villanueva and the Central University Campus in Caracas

by Silvia Hernández de Lasala

Throughout his career Carlos Raúl Villanueva pursued a dream of integration and synthesis. He wanted to fuse the two different worlds to which he belonged: the enlightened world of European culture and the American world, exotic and provincial but full of that hybrid and tropical attraction which the sensibility of the foreigner in his own country catches better than anyone else. Both worlds were of equal value to him.

The son of a Venezuelan diplomat, Villanueva was born in London but his culture was French. At the age of 28, with a degree in architecture from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and without much Spanish, he came to Venezuela, the country he was to love and admire. Torn between two cultures and two different physical surroundings, the architect had the vision of integration and synthesis which he would seek for the rest of his life and which reveals his attempt to reconcile, to recover the lost unity. It was a vital search that, through the creation of architecture, allowed him to give a productive twist to the conflict of belonging to two such contrasting cultures and physical environments. It was the search of a man who lived in Venezuela and who traveled religiously every year to Paris and New York and poured over the publications which his two booksellers in these cities received and sent him without prior consultation.

The desire for integration and synthesis which drove Villanueva on, implied a complex process because European architectonic culture in the first half of the twentieth century by no means constituted a monolithic block, while that of the Americas was largely composed of a mixture of contrasting traditions. What to choose? How to create that particular alchemy which would yield aesthetically significant results, authentic architectonic jewels?

From the first stages onwards of the Central University campus in Caracas, the masterpiece on which he worked from 1943 until his death in 1975, one can trace the outline of his attempts at integration, which reveal the pursuit of an ideal much presaged but like perfection itself never completely realized. This persistent search for an ideal of synthesis led him, after many explorations, to an approximation to the sublime, an encounter with a foretold American space which paid its respects both to the art and architectonic ideas of the European vanguard and to the creations of artists from Venezuela and other Latin American countries. This new setting, atmospheric and inspiring, full of memories and avant-gardism, bringing together all that was irreconcilable at the time, was constructed by local labor working alongside the experienced artisans which the European wars had us blessed with, and our young engineers who were absorbing new techniques with acute creativity. Villanueva dreamed up his own mestizo discourse, ambiguous and complex, individual and collective, mingling with the tropical vegetation and heading towards sublimity.

The current revival of the concept of the sublime constitutes recognition of the qualities and values of spaces and objects which have the capacity to move the onlookers deeply, thanks to the ability of the creator to strike a chord with them through certain formal effects. The magic of such singular aesthetically meaningful places generates a special pleasure in spectators and transports them to a higher level which only art is able to provide. This fulfills the human need to share in the highest achievements of creativity and reinforces the potential of utilitarian objects to give aesthetic satisfaction, thereby vindicating the everydayness of existence.

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