The Modern Villa in Caracas

June 4, 2015

As a preface to our discussion of the Modern Villa in Caracas, it is important to consider the following ideas:

  • Topophilia: the love for place, as conceptualized within the field of human geography by Yi-Fu Tuan (Topophilia:  A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974), adapted in this context to refer to the particular emotional connections that the inhabitants of Caracas have to its landscape. With urban expansion toward the east of the valley as the hills to the southeast were developed, the relationship to the monumental mass of the Ávila range was no longer foreshortened, but instead became perpendicular, thereby producing enormous diversity in the lines of sight from the lots of recent developments. These views had been praised by the landscape painters of the Fine Arts Circle, and the most forward-thinking architects considered them part of their designs, so that it was necessary to make a break from the "perforated boxes" of colonial architecture and early modernity, given their severe limitations for dialogue with a landscape of marked directional orientation.  
  • Translation: as professor Esra Akcan defined it when she referred to "the global circulation of culture that extends the notion of translation beyond language to visual fields" (Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House,  Duke University Press Books, 2012), beginning with what happened in Kemalist Turkey when German-speaking architects (both emigrants and immigrants) applied the tenets of modernity to vernacular Turkish architecture.  In the case of Venezuela, a diverse array of foreign languages made the translation of modernity possible through such cultural transference. In addition to German, they include English from the United States, Portuguese from Brazil, and above all, Italian. ​

Translations from Italian

Among the many Italian architects who would end up contributing to the development of the modern villa in Caracas, the representative figure of Gio Ponti clearly stands out for his understanding of the Caracas Valley, with its mountain ranges and lush vegetation, as the ideal terrain for a modern iteration of the classical Italian villa. Let us contemplate the grandeur of his "translation":

Gio Ponti: Quinta El Cerrito or Villa Planchart and Quinta Diamantina or Villa Arreaza

Quinta El Cerrito or Villa Planchart (1953-1957)

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Quinta El Cerrito. Photos by Paolo Gasparini, taken from Domus

In number 379 of the magazine Domus, dedicated to Villa Planchart (Quinta El Cerrito), one of his masterpieces, Ponti describes the building as "a Florentine Villa in Caracas." This description explains the morphology of Villa Planchart: a volume on the top of a hill facing a valley with a mountain range in the background; but this case requires, in addition, a glass opening that runs the entire height of the volume and an upward sloped roof that acknowledges the presence of the imposing Pico Oriental; as do the open views, framed by carefully proportioned fenestration, that allow for the enjoyment of the landscape.

Later in the same text Ponti makes reference to the fact that the Villa "is perched on the hill like a butterfly, with that sense of lightness that Niemeyer has taught us," which led the architect to envelop the volume using independent planes that, with vertical folds at their edges, seem to float, particularly when lit up at night. 

Quinta Diamantina or Villa Arreaza (1956)

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Quinta Diamantina. Photos by Paolo Gasparini, taken from Domus
Quinta Diamantina. Photos by Paolo Gasparini, taken from Domus

This quinta––since demolished––was located on the other side of the valley from El Cerrito, which meant that Ponti had to address a site at the foot of El Ávila.  Opening up to the mountain that rose up behind the house, Ponti overcame the limitations of the vernacular exterior corridor with its downward sloping roof––which would have interrupted the view of the mountainous mass––by choosing to tilt the roof upward, and by inserting a glass opening along its width, at the base of the corridor's roof segment.  In this way, the mountainous mass made its presence known in the house through the cinematographic effect of "depth of field."  Ponti described this approach to the roof as "a wing that climbs toward El Ávila."

As with Villa Planchart, Ponti had the opportunity to demonstrate his skill in industrial design, assuming responsibility for Diamantina's furniture and other appointments, including the toilets and sinks, lighting, door handles, floor coverings, dishes, and silverware. 


Translations from German:

Two German architects, both educated at the university of Braunschweig, are significant for their contribution to the spread of the International Style in Venezuela:

Guillermo Federico Beckhoff:  Quinta Yolanda (1940)

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Quinta Yolanda. Top: Exterior view. Photo by Franco Micucci. Bottom: Interior view. Photo by Federico Beckoff
Quinta Yolanda. Top: Exterior view. Photo by Franco Micucci. Bottom: Interior view. Photo by Federico Beckoff

Because of the location of this parcel––a triangular "keel" pointing south––at the north of the city, Beckhoff takes advantage of this positioning of the terrain as a balcony overlooking the urban landscape.  He therefore orients the social spaces toward the city and the private ones toward El Ávila.  To do so, he employs the volume formed by the V-shaped sloping roof, which became typical of the International Style beginning with Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea (1938).  

This quinta exhibits Beckhoff's singular use of concrete for the building's structure and fine materials for the surfaces of its elements.  Also characteristic of this architect's residences is the ingenious spatial sequencing achieved through angular articulations that endow the projected spaces with dynamism and impressive perceptual expansiveness.

Klaus Heufer: Quinta Loma Baja (1960)

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Quinta Loma Baja. Exterior and interior views. Photos by Heinrich Thede
Quinta Loma Baja. Exterior and interior views. Photos by Heinrich Thede

Heufer compensates for the descending effect of this quinta's terrain, located on a slope, by formulating the volume according to an elegant system of sliding individual planes in ascending suspension reminiscent of neo-plasticism, one of the seminal movements concurrent with the International Style, whose spread in Venezuela was pioneered, it bears repeating, by this singular architect.

With this work, Heufer once again manages to apply the tenets of modern design to vernacular typologies, making use of the patio, which is conceived not as an empty space, but as a virtual volume to be furnished.  Indeed, a third of Loma Baja's patio is occupied by an ample covered passageway that connects the atrium with the main room, and which skirts the interior uncovered garden  that occupies the remaining two-thirds.  The theme of the vernacular patio in modern quintas was truly an ongoing area of research for Heufer, as he explored its many thematic possibilities as a connector of interior spaces and as an interspatial "horizontal window," with the aim of bringing El Ávila into the quinta at its base. 

Heufer, like his countryman Beckhoff, is a master of the diagonal spatial articulations typical of those who trained at the school in Braunschweig, and Loma Baja is another consummate example of this design concept.


Translations from the English of the United States

Although many architects associated with North America—whether by birth or by professional practice—built exceptional quintas in Caracas during the period in question (among them Don Hatcha, Quinta Macoroma; Richard Neutra, Quinta Alto Claro; Lathorp Douglass, Rodner House), we will consider only two notable cases of Venezuelans who trained at universities in the United States, and from there look at the origin of their "translations." 

Dirk Bornhorst: Quinta Colibrí

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Quinta Colibrí. Exterior views. Photos by Heinrich Thede
Quinta Colibrí. Exterior views. Photos by Heinrich Thede

The architect Dirk Bornhorst studied at UC Berkeley, where he became acquainted with the virtues of the International Style on display in the architectural image of Quinta Colibrí, built for an English family that selected an extensive parcel of land in the scarcely populated hills in the southern part of the city.  Made up of two volumes—a larger one with two floors that housed the private rooms, and another smaller one with a single floor that contained the social area—in the form of an "L" ingeniously woven together at the apex. 

This house takes advantage of the slope and irregularities of the terrain.  One perceives it as a product of the planar system of composition when one approaches it from the entrance at the upper part of the site, where the planes of the roof intersect with those of the walls, creating a neoplasticist effect, but it reads as having been composed according to the volumetric system when observing it from the garden, where the smaller volume stands out elegantly, suspended in front of the larger one. 

Martín Vegas Pacheco: Quinta Ladrillal (1956)

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Quinta Ladrillal. Exterior views. Photos by Paolo Gasparini
Quinta Ladrillal. Exterior views. Photos by Paolo Gasparini

The architect Martín Vegas Pacheco was educated at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago during the deanship of Mies van der Rohe.  It must have been from the maestro that he absorbed the tenets of pure modernism: the rigor of modular coordination, volumetric purity, the rhythm of the surface set to the structure with enclosures and fenestrations subordinated to the latter, and an elementarist aesthetic maintained over the components—the elements—of the architectural object, in renunciation of ornamental superimpositions.

Ladrillal was built as the architect's personal residence, with a concrete structure that frames the brick envelope.  It is located on a parcel oriented on an exact east-west axis, which created the need to design an element that would protect against the sun: a three-part metal grille is superimposed over the principal facade, thereby creating a precise volumetric resonance.  

Fruto Vivas: Quinta Café (1960) (and its predecessor: House at Playa Grande)

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Quinta Café. Top: Exterior view. Photo from catalog “Los signos habitables, tendencias de la arquitectura venezolana contemporánea” (Caracas: Ed. Galería de Arte Nacional. 1984–1985). Middle/Bottom: Views of façade and interior. Photo by Rafael Santana

The architecture of Fruto Vivas energized the Venezuelan architectural scene in singular fashion with his "translations" of the universal profoundly rooted in the vernacular.  His international sources were derived through clever assimilation of the "anthropophagic" Brazilian manner, in which the architectural forms of the International Style were swallowed and populated with local typologies and elements—though he incorporated that structural invention with the aim of investing his volumes with the lightness considered by Ponti to be Niemeyer's great contribution—as well as from a radical ability to take advantage of an architectural work's topographic configuration in order to capture the landscape, which was so emblematic of the architects active in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s. Affonso Eduardo Reidy, particularly with his house for Carmen Portinho in Jacarepagua, was a prime example of this tendency.  Vivas' version of an attitude of critical regionalism is known as Populism, and it had an ongoing influence on the Venezuelan architects of his generation.

The model for the antonomasia of Populism is the house at Playa Grande, built in 1957.  This house would end up establishing a formal code, by avoiding the term "type", that would summarize the intense building of houses and hotels during this period.  A prime example, painstakingly conserved, is Quinta Café from 1960.  Here the patio, corridor, and eaves are incorporated into a bold grouping of terraces and free-standing, suspended or hanging volumes with split-level articulations. Those groupings play up interior-exterior interspatiality in their visual and luminous qualities through a highly effective means of adaptation to the sloping terrain, thereby benefitting from a singular spatial dynamism.  Another fundamental aspect of Vivas' Populism is a virtuosic handling of the "tectonic" through the skillful use of a wide variety of materials according to their suitability for aesthetics or hardiness.  It is important to point out his sound knowledge of Venezuelan hardwoods—used in the screens that appear throughout vernacular architecture, such as muntins and latticework—which in Quinta Café are not confined to the enclosures, but also end up being used for many of the structural elements.  One admires the quality of woodworking achieved by the highly skilled Portuguese artisans.

Jorge Castillo: Gamero House (1974)

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Casa Gamero. Exterior views of façade by Carlos Cruz Diez. Photo courtesy of Atelier Cruz-Diez
Casa Gamero. Exterior views of façade by Carlos Cruz Diez. Photo courtesy of Atelier Cruz-Diez

With the Gamero House, architect Jorge Castillo becomes a key exponent of the second generation of architects that took on a "synthesis of the arts" as championed by the great Carlos Raúl Villanueva at the City University of Caracas, a cultural value in Venezuela without parallel throughout the entirety of the American continent. 

In this highly singular work of architecture, the Fisicromía of the kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez constitutes the house's principal facade.  It is not just a decoration.  Castillo separates this facade from the open spaces of the house with a front patio, which benefits phenomenologically from the luminosity provided by the separations between the laminates, preventing a feeling of confinement from the room that opens onto it. 

Díquez, González and Rivas: Quinta La Cañada

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Quinta La Cañada. Exterior views. Photos by Rafael Santana
Quinta La Cañada. Exterior views. Photos by Rafael Santana

The architectural firm of Díquez, González and Rivas considers each project an opportunity to demonstrate the function of architecture based on the diverse and fertile knowledge of its members.  This office is responsible for notable variations on the theme of the Caracas quinta as villa, based on an understanding of the potential of the terrain for spatial sequencing as well as for its tectonic values. 

The lot occupied by La Cañada is irregular.  It required access at an angle at its narrowest part.  The side that opposes this laterally, the widest, is lovely, with a riparian forest fed by a ravine that comes down from Cerro El Ávila. For this reason, the sequence of spaces is organized along the sides of a passageway that proceeds from the entrance to the formal and informal social spaces, so that these benefit from ample views toward the garden, dominated by the forest.  The material expression of this work is made up of masonry walls that form intersecting volumes, but inside the spaces they read as intersecting planes––surely suitable for a pictorial museology.

Jimmy Alcock: Quinta La Ribereña (1976)

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Quinta La Ribereña. Top: Exterior view of the back of the house. Photo by Rafael Santana. Middle: View of entrance. Photo by Paolo Gasparini. Bottom: Corridor with floors by graphic designer Nedo Mion Ferraio. Photo by Rafael Santana

The residences of Jimmy Alcock represent a thorough investigation of the theme of the Italian villa in the Caracas quinta.  An expert with first-hand knowledge of the works most representative of this historical tendency, he was able to identify the organizational modalities of each of his favorites and apply them, one by one, in his successive ranches.  Alcock is also a virtuoso analyst of the relationship between the quintas and Cerro El Ávila, expressed in the two positions masterfully identified and resolved by Ponti: on "a balcony"—facing it—or at its foot. Alcock also stands out for his insistence on collaborating with well-known artists, whose work creates a dialogue with the architecture in which it is placed.

La Ribereña is without a doubt the best solution to the foot of El Ávila since Ponti's Diamantina.  With its extensive passageways between singular volumes flanked by brick walls—reminiscent of the imperial Villa Adriana—it forms a series of patios: one in the social area, another in the private zone, and another by the servants' quarters; echoes of the three vernacular patios in the architect's childhood home, these essentially function as horizontal windows that integrate the presence of El Ávila.  In addition, the walls and floors of the passageways provide an opportunity to collaborate with the artist Nedo Mion Ferrario, who takes part in the rhythm of protuberances and fissures in the rows of bricks—once again emphasizing the evocation of Villa Adriana—and through his installation of the floors of the passageways and principal rooms, in which he uses his graphic rhythms to provide us with a dissonant choreotopia, like a work choreographed by Merce Cunningham. 

With La Ribereña, Alcock achieves a global syncretism of the villa in the Caracas quinta.