The University City of Caracas: The Forms that Sustain UsFriday, January 3, 2020
To design a university is to imagine a universe. Carlos Raúl Villanueva, the Architect, created a constellation of forms that gravitate toward the power of the scholarly spirit. Forms that have transcended the hardships of time, that have survived political transformations, and that have produced the structures that sustain us today. But writing about the University City of Caracas implies a diatribe between the constructed work and the institution it houses: the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). In reality they are inseparable: the architecture of the University City of Caracas was made to the scale that most sensibly corresponded to the content of its mission.
Villanueva orchestrated a project that brought together great avant-garde artists with a booming global modernity which quickly became local. National and international artists worked hand-in-hand with architecture, creating spaces that catalyze the performative experience of the tropical landscape. On the other side of the Ávila, but always holding the sea within, the University City is located on the site of the former lands of the Ibarra Hacienda, which would come to represent a new geographical center for Caracas. These properties were donated by Simón Bolívar to the former Royal and Pontifical University of Caracas, after its republican-era renovation, which transformed it into the modern-day Central University of Venezuela. The University City of Caracas was a project undertaken in 1942 during the presidency of Isaías Medina Angarita and partially inaugurated in 1954 during the regime of Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
From the standpoint of art, architecture and urban design, the University City of Caracas is something objectifiable, tangible even in its complexity. It has been used as an object of reflection in the quest to understand its modern ideals, the contradictory legacy of the classic system, and the ways all of those values are adapted for a tropical nation. But as an institution, the UCV is simply human. It is out of the articulation of this social condition—designed to the exact measure of its very contours—that one of the most important university campuses of the 20th century came to be. For us, it is a point of pride—ultimately, the Central University of Venezuela is the Alma Mater of the nation.
The University City of Caracas is a school made up of concrete forms, but it also consists of the culture that has been generated around this campus among the university community. As inhabitants of this city, there is one type of learning that is manifested in books, and another one in the phenomenology of the space. One takes place in classrooms and the other occurs in the passageways between them. I will begin with the latter.
I once overheard a conversation in which Jesús Soto was mentioned as one of the artists who worked with Villanueva on the synthesis of the arts project. Having heard this, any one of us would head out to search for some perfectly instituted mural or sculpture. But alas, the only remains of this alliance are its plans, nostalgia and imagination.
The mockup for this project contains a grid of cubes that Soto created as part of his investigation prior to the creation of his penetrables. It is interesting to examine this object in order to imagine how his own proposal would have been situated in the context of the University City. The shadows of the cubes would have multiplied the kinetic movement; their concrete materiality would have constituted the negative of the permeable block. Yet another form in which art and architecture would have come into contact.
But this would never come to pass. Ariel Jiménez, in conversation with Soto, asked: And why couldn’t you make it?
Well, for political reasons, to oppose the military dictatorship. My artist friends told me that we shouldn’t cooperate with a military regime and I decided not to make it… but in the end, you see, they made theirs and the only one that wasn’t made was mine.
In the University City of Caracas, the absence of Jesús Soto will always be felt. But the question is, did he feel its absence as well?
The University City of Caracas is perhaps one of the most significant permanent collections of modern public art, due to both the impressive list of artists who took part in this project, as well as the very experience of inhabiting its spaces. It is there, in the temporal quality of space, that its greater value emerges.
In the relationship between art and architecture that characterizes the campus, there has always been a great emphasis on the synthesis of the arts. But the first thing I would discover as an architecture student is that there is another synthesis of the arts that goes beyond the integration of these two disciplines. The “true” synthesis is in the integration of the architecture with the features of the landscape, producing an aesthetic experience in which the limits between art and architecture become blurred. The architecture interacts with the features of the landscape to produce the sensorial experience of a work of art. It is a relationship analogous to the integration of disciplines, in this case through the integration of architecture into the landscape.
During the daytime, the Alejandro Otero mural situated on the eastern and western facades of the School of Architecture sometimes disappears amidst the clear blues of the Caribbean sky. At night, the same building becomes a block of light for the city. Its latticework walls are illuminated with the night life of a School of Architecture that works while the rest of the university sleeps. The contrary effect of this permeable block is even greater when the light of day fills the space, producing an almost kinetic effect, generating a geometric abstraction that connects to the body in a manner similar to a mural by Victor Vasarely or a sculpture by Jean Arp.
In cases such as the mural by Fernand Léger in the Central Library, the work of art enters into dialogue with the features of the landscape through the architecture to produce a sublime experience. And even more elevated still is the case of Alexander Calder’s Clouds in the Aula Magna, where the relationship between art and architecture dissolves amidst the poetics of form and the technical value of the work’s acoustic properties. With a foundation of extreme structural purity, unlike other works by Calder, here platforms are suspended in space in order to create a symbolic sky. The work’s mystique transcends form and technique, becoming an affective icon.
They say Villanueva had planned for these well-known mobiles to be outside, in the Plaza Cubierta [Covered Plaza], and that it was Calder who proposed putting them inside the Aula Magna after he saw it for the first time. Out of this came a work that is completely distinct within his oeuvre, and at the same time, one of the most significant works for the relationship between art and architecture.
In 2013, the University Gallery of Art commissioned us to do a work to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Aula Magna. Traslaciones was a collective performance designed to inhabit Calder’s Clouds and bring them to life throughout the University City. The Clouds were drawn to scale in different spaces throughout the campus, where they could be assembled through participation.
An open call brought more than 100 people together to bring vitality to the ideals of a downtrodden city. Sixty years later, conditions at the Central University of Venezuela are different. In the midst of an Institution without resources, Passages sought to erect immaterial volumes, making use of the shifts and movements characteristic of Calder’s work as a characteristic of its construction. In this work we understood synthesis as a performative act of building, choreographic architectures generated through the performance of an artistic act. Traversing these Clouds was a catharsis for our crisis, and at the same time a declaration of how our presence there is the only resource that we have, today, from which to “construct.” Here, I am not referring to the disciplinary sense of the term, but rather to its formative quality, through which its scholarly space embraces the nation.
The synthesis of the arts is one of Villanueva’s proposals that perfectly describes many present-day artistic practices. Its transversal nature and synthetic complexity is similarly revelatory. As a “school,” we have proposed to approach these ideas through a series of formative projects with architecture students and participatory projects with the university community. They are works that seek to construct complex notions of authorship; to dissolve the limits between disciplines; and to empower the relationships between body, space and territory. But above all, they are works that seek to intervene in their spaces in order to be enjoyed while we learn from them. Similarly, by erasing the limits between the work of art and the educational mission, we turned the Central University of Venezuela into a laboratory for experimentation with its own forms.
"Architecture is a social act par excellence, a utilitarian art, like a projection of life itself, one that is tied to social and economic concerns, not just aesthetic norms. For architecture, form is not the most important thing: its primary mission is to fulfill human needs. Its expressive and conditional medium is interior space, usable and fluid space, utilized and enjoyed by people. 'It is a womb that envelopes life.'"–Carlos Raúl Villanueva
Just as the synthesis of the arts present in the University City of Caracas is one of Villanueva’s ideas that could be used to describe the interwoven nature of contemporary life, his definition of architecture as a social act also anticipates community interest in contemporary art. Villanueva referred to architecture as a usable art, and more recently artists such as Tania Bruguera have advocated for useful art. Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s ideas represent an ethical commitment to social and economic problems that goes beyond aesthetic aspirations. Examining the relationship between art and life beyond representation is a proposal that has led to multiple articulations in artistic practices engaged with the forms of the political and the public, which aim for collective construction and which share a common goal: they are forms that aspire to integration.
In a way, the “school” that formed us and also prepared us to think of its spaces from the standpoint of adversity is now experiencing its greatest crisis ever, in which its ideas and ideals offer a pathway to survival. In 2013, Venezuela’s universities joined together in a national strike, demanding better conditions and defending universities’ autonomy. Conceiving of the university and the University City on their own terms—through its forms—students, professors and workers from the University City joined in a variety of protest actions. Biblioteca abierta emerged as one distinct form of protest. On the grounds of the Plaza Cubierta, we spread out more than a thousand books, which were free for the taking. These books were donations from the School of Architecture and Urban Design, the College of Humanities and Education, and from the broader university community, as a gift to society. More than a protest, it was a manifestation that sought to use each of these books to highlight the value contained in the university. It was a way to speak of autonomy in silence, from within that space, out of the diversity and plurality of the scholarly spirit.
Today, the Central University of Venezuela continues to struggle through one of its most severe periods of crisis. Public education has been abandoned by those who disdain knowledge and fear progress. Nevertheless, the university continues to survive through the will of the university community, as well as through the ethical commitment on which its architecture was based. The fight for survival is a reality for all public universities in Venezuela. But it is also a reality that the Central University of Venezuela, which inhabits the University City of Caracas, remains a standard bearer for ideals, as a university made vital through the transcendence of its forms.
The University City of Caracas has allowed us to approach modern utopia from the standpoint of our own circumstances. Those of us who belong to younger generations never got to see those mosaics in all their glory, but we have discovered beauty in the empty spaces traced by their absence. Much has been said of the failure of modernity in architecture, but the truth is that its structures still remain standing, and perhaps it was us who failed. In the University City of Caracas, natural light continues to illuminate the spaces, wind continues to blow through the latticework, and the awnings still produce shade. In a natural way, this urban complex is a contemporary utopia of sustainability. In a utilitarian sense, the University city functions like an hourglass. From a sensorial standpoint, this campus is a sundial operating in synthesis with the universe, conquering the shadows by projecting them onto the well-trodden ground. The University City of Caracas has given us a constellation of forms that allow us to continue to inhabit its spaces in resilience. These forms—which have contributed to our own formation—are the very same forms that sustain us now.
My thanks to María Fernanda Jaua, Félix Suazo and Gerardo Zavarce for their assistance in the development of this text; as well as to all of the spaces that have been part of these projects, including the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the University Gallery of Art and the COPRED; special thanks to the students and the university community, to the generation that is keeping the Central University of Venezuela alive today, and to the new generations yet to come.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen
 Carlos Raúl Villanueva produced some of Venezuelan modernity’s most prolific and valuable works. In 1988 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas organized an exhibition titled Villanueva, the Architect, a title that highlights his role as the leading figure in modern architecture in Venezuela. Source: Villanueva Foundation.
 Villanueva defines synthesis as the process prior to the integration of the arts. In synthesis, the spatial hierarchy prevails in connection to the rest of the arts. In integration, the arts are articulated through technical development and in response to the socio-economic contexts that generate the form. This line of investigation found its greatest expression in the Central Campus of the University City of Caracas. Source: María Fernanda Jaua http://www.ensayosurbanos.com/2019/06/18/carlos-raul-villanueva-y-la-sin....
 Jesús Rafael Soto, “Inventing Abstraction” in Jesús Soto in conversation with / en conversación con Ariel Jiménez, ed. Ariel Jiménez, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (New York, NY/Caracas, Venezuela: Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, 2011) 158.
 Hernández de Lasala considers as sublime “those architectural spaces or volumes in which the excellence achieved by their design and materialization is capable of profoundly moving the spectator, due to the creator’s capacity to find resonance with them through the formal achievements accomplished.” Silvia Hernández de Lasala, “The Sublime” in En busca de lo sublime: Villanueva y la Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas (In Search of the Sublime: Villanueva and the University City of Caracas; Caracas : Rector of the Central University of Venezuela : Council on Preservation and Development, 2006), 35.
Maciá Pintó, “Calder” in Villanueva: la síntesis, Volumen II. Síntesis de las artes y abstracción constructiva. (Caracas: Fundación Villanueva: Universidad Central de Venezuela: Fundación Telefónica, 2013) 188.
 Excerpts from three lectures delivered in a series given in 1963 in the Museum of Fine Arts of Caracas and published in Carlos Raúl Villanueva, Textos escogidos (Selected Texts; Center of Information and Documentation for the School of Architecture and Urban Design, Central University of Venezuela, 1972), pp. 37-63.
 Useful Art is a term coined by Tania Bruguera between 2002 and 2003, advocating for art’s social commitment and meaning. It is a term that preceded her Behavior Art School educational project and which came about in the context of the development of her work for art projects with and for audiences that do not specialize in art. She introduced this term in 2011, in “Introduction on Useful ArtPolitical: A Conversation on Useful Art,” Immigrant Movement International, April 23, 2011. New York, Corona, Queens, United States. http://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/528-1-Introduccin+acerca+del+Arte+til.htm