Paraguay’s Response to Modernist Architecture? Clay, Mud and Timberon February 14, 2020 at 4:00 pm
UNTIL LESS THAN a century ago, the Ayoreo peoples of Paraguay lived nomadically in the Chaco, a hot, dry region of savannas and thorn forests covering nearly 200 million acres spread across western Paraguay, southeastern Bolivia, northern Argentina and a small fringe of southern Brazil, a region once known by the Spanish as the infierno verde, or “green hell.” The Ayoreo were resourceful in building their modest shelters: Depending on the materials available to them, they might construct a low dome of leaves over branches cut from quebracho (ax breaker) trees, dig the hot earth out from underneath until they reached the cooler subsoil, then mix that excavated dirt with cactus sap, spreading the resultant thick paste between the leaves of the roof above to waterproof it. Settled into the hollowed ground beneath the dome, the interiors were cool and dim, a reprieve from the forest’s hostility. “These shelters don’t get recognition for being ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly,’” says the 50-year-old architect José Cubilla, who’s based in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, a slow-paced riverside city built at the point where the Chaco in the west meets the iridescent meadows and forests that unfurl across the country’s east. “But this is what interests me: obvious things, obvious solutions, simple materials.”
In 2016, Cubilla received a commission to create a rural house on a small budget from a Frenchman who, shortly after meeting his Paraguayan wife’s family on their 12-acre farm two hours east of Asunción, decided to build a more spacious home than the two-bedroom cottage where his wife’s parents raised her and her three siblings. “Here, they lived surrounded by earth, so they wanted a house like you would find in Asunción, all shiny concrete,” Cubilla told me one morning last March. Transporting that material into the countryside proved prohibitively expensive, so he proposed an alternative: What if they could eliminate the cost of materials altogether by digging a watering hole for the family’s dairy cows and building with the leftover dirt? Using a technique called rammed earth — in which soil is mixed with trace amounts of cement and water and then pounded into wooden molds and left to bake in the sun — he erected a five-bedroom, 2,600-square-foot home, 86 percent of which was made from natural materials.
The house emerges out of a palm grove as a literal extension of Paraguay’s iron-rich red earth; with its high content of binding clay, it’s ideal for such construction. Barrel vaults paved with mud brick ripple over the house’s three volumes. At the back, the master bedroom and the kitchen — grand and austere as a monastic refectory — sit on opposite sides of a glassed-in courtyard shaded by a soaring yvyrá-pytá tree. Arrowslit and clerestory windows etch the concrete floor with arcs of sunshine, filling the spare interior with soft ecclesiastical light.
But that meditative space is, above all, functional, its graceful form shaped by the realities of budget and available materials (or lack thereof). The 12-foot-high ceilings cool the interior by forcing hot air up and out, like the hollow tubes in the termite mounds, ubiquitous in Paraguay, that give the house its name: Vivienda Takuru, or “Termite Mound Dwelling,” which combines the country’s two official languages of Spanish and indigenous Guaraní. Like many of the daring, low-cost buildings that over the last two decades have made Paraguay an unexpected locus for architectural innovation — and like the humble but responsive Ayoreo dwellings, adapted perfectly to the harsh conditions that bore them — the house is as much an exercise in excavation as it is in building. “Construction,” Cubilla says, “is destruction.”
DESTRUCTION, IN FACT, has long been a part of Paraguay’s history. Beginning in the late 16th century, following the founding of Asunción by Spanish invaders, Jesuit missionaries set up a series of self-sufficient proto-socialist communes populated entirely by indigenous Guaraní peoples. By the mid-1700s, when the Spanish and Portuguese formalized their colonial borders, the Guaraní refused to leave, entering into a two-year war for their territory with the aid of some Jesuits. By 1767, the Spanish crown had banished the Jesuits from the New World colonies, though their later missions remain intact — ghostly red ruins among fields of emerald grass. From 1814 to 1840, Paraguay became an experiment in autarky, led by a visionary but repressive dictator, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, better known as Dr. Francia or El Supremo, who confiscated private property, closed the borders (except for limited commerce) and actively persecuted intellectuals. By the mid-19th century, the country had inspired the imaginations of Romantic English writers like Thomas Carlyle and Robert Southey, enticed by tales of the Jesuit missions and Dr. Francia’s mysterious, self-sufficient republic. “Paraguay has always been a magical territory, the periphery of the periphery,” says the Asunción-based architect Solano Benítez, 56, the leading figure in the country’s contemporary architectural scene.
A little more than two decades after Dr. Francia’s death in 1840, Paraguay’s third dictator, Francisco Solano López, destroyed his country’s Edenic vestiges when he launched a quixotic war against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay called the War of the Triple Alliance, which remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of Latin America. In just six years, the war claimed nearly 80 percent of Paraguay’s men and ended with a pair of treaties that ceded about a quarter of the nation’s landmass to its opponents. Between 1890 and 1910, when Latin America saw the biggest influx of European migration in the region’s history, Paraguay drew comparatively few migrants, largely because of its isolation and devastated economy. Sixty-two years after the War of the Triple Alliance ended, just as the population started to rebound, Paraguay entered into a three-year conflict with Bolivia over the Chaco. This time, Paraguay managed to preserve its territorial integrity, but not before sending thousands of men to their deaths. While the Chaco War ended in a qualified victory for Paraguay in 1935, the country never saw the demographic boom that would spur the creative efflorescence of neighboring nations through the course of the 20th century. Home today to just seven million people spread over an area the size of California — which has more than five times as many residents — the country, which is bordered by Bolivia to the northwest, Brazil to the north and Argentina to the south, has largely recovered from the depredations of those decades, yet many Paraguayans continue to see theirs as a nation defined by its struggles and losses.
From 1954 to 1989, as countries like Brazil and Mexico redefined themselves through Modernism, Paraguay languished under the stultifying rule of a dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner, who built a contraband-based economy on cigarettes, whiskey and fake Rolexes. (The country’s largest industrial project from that time, the Brazilian-led construction of the massive Itaipú hydroelectric dam, completed in 1991, destroyed a series of monumental waterfalls while producing wealth that went straight to friends of the regime.) “The dictatorship did everything it could to hold back modernity, so a more rural culture lasted here for a long time,” says the architect Javier Corvalán, 57, whose firm, Laboratorio de Arquitectura, has been a training ground for young architects since the early 2000s. Until recently, it was difficult to access materials that were manufactured outside the country, and much of the hard stone that existed near Asunción had been over exploited. That restricted readily available materials to a soft, red sandstone, insufficiently stable for construction; bricks, handmade for generations in the foundry towns scattered around Asunción’s perimeter; cedar, lapacho and petereby woods sourced from the dense eastern forests or reclaimed from old houses; and cement, by far the most costly. “What do people do within these systems? They invent,” Benítez says.
Thirty years after the end of the dictatorship, Paraguay remains South America’s third poorest country, after Bolivia and Guyana, despite more than a decade of economic growth (driven largely by the environmentally disastrous soy and cattle industries). Yet the old realities of scarcity and isolation have also allowed a rising generation of architects — all under the age of 60, all friends and colleagues at the newly vibrant National University in Asunción, all part of what the 37-year-old architect Lukas Fúster describes as “a family connected by an ethic” — to produce a national vernacular. Instead of the early 21st-century worldwide trend toward high-tech materials and wild contortions made possible through computer imaging, Paraguay has established an awe-inspiring architecture of poverty, made from affordable materials and archaic technologies cobbled into structures of acrobatic grace and defiant imagination. It’s as though the industrial world, where so much of the discourse around (and funding for) architecture exists, has woken from a long, pleasant dream only to find that the “periphery of the periphery,” as Benítez described it, had been the reality all along. Resources have always been finite. Waste has always been morally indefensible. Land is, by definition, limited. An architecture formed around those truths, not as an aesthetic but as the basis for design, may well be the only viable modernity left. Paraguay now finds itself at the international vanguard not in spite of its late arrival to modernity but because of it.
“IT WOULD BE ridiculous to say the dictatorship killed modernity,” Fúster told me on the day we met at his home in Asunción, partly built from scavenged timber, “but it did kill education, which is worse, because we couldn’t participate in building that modernity.” A handful of high-quality Modernist buildings appeared in Paraguay under Stroessner — like the iconic Hotel Guaraní in central Asunción, designed by a group of Brazilian architects — but most were the work of foreigners. Ironically, Paraguay’s first architecture program, founded at the National University of Asunción in 1957, emerged shortly after the ascension of the country’s longest-ruling dictator. According to Fredi Casco, the curator and artistic director of the newly opened Texo Foundation, home to a small Asunción gallery built in 2017 by Benítez and his partner, Gloria Cabral, 37, the architecture school soon became the program of choice for young artists looking to evade the stultifying classicism of the Higher Institute of Fine Arts, founded in the same year as the architecture program. And while the Stroessner regime persecuted writers and intellectuals — as a child, Corvalán remembers regular visits from the police to check the family’s bookshelves — “government functionaries were too ignorant to notice political commentary in visual art,” says Casco. “Art wasn’t seen as dangerous. The written word was.”
By providing a visual outlet outside the traditional strictures of classical art, the National University’s architecture school — which produced leaders of contemporary Paraguayan art such as the sculptor-architect Jenaro Pindú and the polymathic painter-sculptor Carlos Colombino — became a space where aspiring practitioners could experiment freely, though for some erecting both private and public commissions proved challenging. Construction, after all, was expensive, and wealth was concentrated in the hands of those aligned with the dictator. Despite a healthy beginning and some talented staff, the school never became “a place of architectural debate,” says the 60-year-old Javier Rodríguez Alcalá, a former professor at the National University of Asunción’s School of Architecture. Yet the intellectual weakness of Asunción’s educational system had its benefits: “It allowed us to be more hybrid, to contaminate things with more of a spirit of experimentation,” Corvalán adds. In places like Brazil and Mexico, countries that developed rich Modernist histories thanks to phases of economic growth and nominally progressive governments, contemporary architects “continue preserving, feeding, evolving a tradition,” Corvalán says. “Here, we didn’t have that tradition, so we’re more free.”
Corvalán, who graduated in 1987 from the engineering-focused architecture program at Asunción’s Catholic University, spent the early years of his career working as a carpenter while entering architectural competitions on the side. In the late 1990s, he won his first major competition to design a cultural center in downtown Asunción, and in 2000, he moved his studio out to Luque, a town on the city’s outskirts then defined by its unpaved roads and wandering cows. Like many architects, he spent much of his early career designing private homes for members of the capital’s intellectual class: forward-thinking and aesthetically ambitious but rarely rich. In 2008, his father-in-law, a writer, commissioned a simple home on a plot of 3,875 square feet a few blocks from Corvalán’s studio in Luque. To keep costs low, the architect analyzed previous projects and, finding roofs to be the most expensive element, decided to shelter the 753-square-foot house and its 376-square-foot terrace — an open social space built around a wood grill known in Paraguayan households as a quincho — with panels of corrugated metal and pressed particleboard, most of it left over from other projects. He suspended the roof from a pair of angled brick walls that emerged from the ground like pieces of the earth’s crust thrust up by sudden tectonic forces. To keep it from flying off on windy days, he weighted the roof with hanging stones collected from the site. The rocks pulled the lightweight material into a deep bend, recalling the hammocks knitted in villages across rural Paraguay, for which the project, Casa Hamaca (“Hammock House”), is named.
Like Vivienda Takuru and other emblematic Paraguayan residences, the house’s exterior is plain, its materials naked, the range of colors limited to those found in the surrounding environment: brown wood, red clay, gray concrete the color of a dust-filled sky. The only ornament at all is the structure itself, both fragile and kinetic, its rudimentary mechanics laid bare. Few of the new Paraguayan buildings make direct reference to the Ayoreos’ domed structures, but they do share their logic, favoring efficiency and adaptability over polish or ornament. Like much of Corvalán’s work, Casa Hamaca’s design began not with a model defining its appearance but rather with the materials available. By following their inherent logic, Corvalán found his way to a form straight out of traditional craft, as though modern design, unconstrained by the doctrine of Modernism, gravitated inevitably toward the ancient.
IF CORVALÁN TAKES a pragmatic, iterative approach to building — treating each project as a new set of challenges to explore through different solutions — then Benítez and Cabral, who joined Benítez’s firm, Gabinete de Arquitectura, in 2002, treat each building as one part of a larger inquiry: How can a limited set of architectural responses address an expansive range of issues? “Each time we finish a project, we know how to use that skill in the next one,” Cabral told me on the evening we met in the firm’s dim, subterranean studio, where sculptural columns of ecru brick seem to drip from the low ceiling like stalactites. “Whatever we create, it has to be available for everyone — it has to represent a step forward.”
Since the early 2000s, Benítez and Cabral have used the same materials and technologies common even in Asunción’s poorer districts (hand-mixed concrete, cheaply made brick, simple wooden molds) to develop structures that range from modest urban homes to an elegant country house to office complexes. For one home built in 2002 in Las Mercedes, a recently gentrified neighborhood adjacent to Asunción’s historic center, Benítez shielded the three-story structure with pleated brick screens, a rough-hewn reinvention of the mirage-like brick waves used by the Uruguayan master Eladio Dieste in his 1960 Church of Christ the Worker. The facade serves a practical purpose — Benítez turned the bricks broad-side out to maximize surface area and minimize costs, and the pleating made the otherwise flimsy structure rigid — but it’s also visually poetic, an imaginative flourish that solves a structural problem.
Eight years later, those pleats reappeared, their proportions exaggerated, stretched higher and bent deeper, in the walls at the Teletón Children’s Rehabilitation Center in the city’s outskirts. Over the entry path connecting the complex to the street, Cabral and Benítez erected a parabolic arch of fine brick lattice, a rainbow of baked earth painting the grass with a web of shadows and triangles of equatorial light. In 2014, at Benítez’s sister’s mission-style ranch home in Isla de Francia, a wealthy suburb of Asunción, the architects brought broken bricks from Benítez’s nephew’s foundry and embedded them in concrete, like a poor man’s terrazzo, to form a pergola of interlocking equilateral triangles that resembles the lattice arch at the Teletón center flattened out and lifted seven feet off the ground. When approached from the back of the house, the lattice ceiling hides behind another brick screen, this one standing vertically on a single circumflex of steel: a 79-foot-long matrix of heavy, graceless materials, cobbled roughly together, that seems to levitate over the lawn as if by sorcery.
That vertical screen serves to stabilize and lift the edges of the pergola, but it’s also a flamboyant display of architectural bravado. It has none of the technological polish of, say, Frank Gehry’s steel hurricanes or Zaha Hadid’s kinetic clouds of white fiberglass; standing across the lawn, you can see precisely how the building works — there is no sleight of hand here — and yet still be amazed. As his career was taking off in the 1990s, Benítez told me, buildings like Gehry’s and Hadid’s represented “what the future was going to look like” — a dreamscape designed with neither structural nor economic nor material constraints — because, he says, “no one wanted to believe the future might look like the past.”
That attitude might sound defeatist, but Benítez insists that his buildings are optimistic in their own way, suggesting that the world, for all its troubles, might still be salvageable if we can explore the possibilities latent in existing knowledge: “As architects, we have the responsibility to invent and build the rationalizations for our optimism,” he says. “That’s the difference between fantasy and imagination: Imagination has to support itself.”
ON THE EVENING we met, Benítez and Cabral took me to see their latest project, a building for the National University’s architecture faculty, where the floating screen of the quincho is extended to its limits: a 446-foot-long, four-story facade made from an infinite regress of triangles cobbled together from brick and cement. The building, as Benítez pointed out, is emphatically flawed. “It’s full of errors. It looks like it’s been hand-embroidered — there’s not a single completely straight line,” he told me, listing off the building’s deficiencies as we walked through its incomplete hull: Some of the concrete bands were thicker than others, while some of the triangles had been filled with his now signature matrix of broken brick and cement in order to fortify potentially weak points in the structure. Benítez, like most of his peers, is comfortable with such imperfection; to him, it underscores a structure’s utility. “The whole idea is that the building can tell you what each component piece does,” he says. “The building houses a school, but the building is itself a school.”
This is the site of Benítez’s most important contribution yet to Asunción’s nascent architectural community: Taller E, the workshop that he and Cabral helped found in 2010. In the last decade, Taller E, staffed by Benítez and Corvalán and many of the architects who have collaborated with them in the past 20 years, has begun to formalize the inventions of the Paraguayan masters into something like a movement based on principles of affordability, self-sufficiency and the creative exploration of a limited palette of materials.
These tenets are embedded in the work of Paraguay’s rising architects: Corvalán’s clever recycling, for instance, reveals itself in Fúster’s renovation of his home and studio in Las Mercedes. To create a loft space and an outdoor terrace on the 57-foot-wide plot, Fúster tore out the termite-infested roof beams of the 1940s railroad house and replaced them with salvaged lapacho wood. By torquing the timber like the beginning of a helix, he added five feet of height to the house; by reusing the bricks from demolished interior walls, he added a studio to the back, which became a nursery after the birth of his first child in 2018. (He’s currently building another structure, also from scavenged wood, to accommodate a future studio.) While building the new walls, he turned the broken sides of bricks damaged during construction outward to face the garden; at night, the craggy surface catches the moonlight like water. It’s reminiscent of the undulant wall of the 926-square-foot vacation home that the 33-year-old architect Ramiro Meyer designed for his brother-in-law in the lakeside town of San Bernardino, which adapts Benítez’s brick pleats to a gentle ripple, as if the nearby lake itself had been translated into clay.
When the three-year-old firm Equipo de Arquitectura started planning a studio for themselves, the young partners, Viviana Pozzoli and Horacio Cherniavsky, both 30, looked to rammed earth, used in homes by architects like José Cubilla, Francisco Tomboly and Sonia Carisimo, as a material that could not only combine rural and urban sensibilities but in fact be rural and urban itself, much like Asunción. Completed in 2018, their 485-square-foot studio space looks like a square gift box wrapped in butcher’s paper, its walls the shade of terra cotta against a lush backdrop of tropical foliage. Sunlight pours in through a broad pane of glass that bends up over the facade and onto the roof; inside, a miniature courtyard encases the gnarled trunk of a guavirá tree in glass, like a botany exhibition. When storms roll in, as they do throughout the damp, humid summers, the walls absorb moisture and cool the interior, filling it with the sweet scent of wet clay, a sensory experience from the past restored to the present.
FOR BETTER OR worse, Paraguay’s economy is no longer stagnant, though the culture remains largely conservative. Investors from Argentina and Brazil are bulldozing acres of virgin forest to plant soy. Clumsy new towers have risen on Asunción’s otherwise horizon-hugging skyline. Benítez, whose professed optimism is tempered by a streak of melancholy, fears that the government, late to the game of industrialized resource extraction, might have forgotten — or perhaps never learned — the lessons of sustainability that Paraguay’s history forced on its citizens for so long.
At the same time, Taller E’s growing renown has brought attention from a broader base of wealthier clients, particularly for younger architects working in the style of their teachers. Even in those more luxurious projects, these architects remain committed to old technologies, to the idea that the humblest materials and techniques can suffice for any kind of project. “What I do is what we’ve done forever,” Cubilla says. “For me, building is a process of relearning what we already know how to do.”
On the afternoon that we met, we visited his own vacation retreat in the gated community of Surubí outside Asunción, originally commissioned as a weekend home for a couple from the city who sold the house back to its architect halfway through construction when their marriage dissolved. With its refined finishes and clean lines, the house at first seems diametrically opposed to the cloistral modesty of a building like Vivienda Takuru. A rooftop of thin concrete slab rests on walls of brick and glass that organize the house into a maze of indoor, outdoor and intermediate spaces. Rocks recycled from nearby quarries laid in a subtle jigsaw pattern cover the floors, which descend gradually from one space to the next, following the slight contour of the plot. Slender steel stairs leading up to the terrace roof are fixed to narrow wooden beams, cantilevered off slats of hard curupay wood that separate an interior hallway from the forest outside. The house’s austerity reads as minimal rather than spartan, a submission to the surrounding native trees that grow through and around the structure. “When you start to destroy a place, it’s interesting to see how nature reasserts itself, how it becomes an architectural fact,” Cubilla told me as we climbed the stairs to the roof garden, thick with wild grasses and shaded by a canopy of trees.
Surrounded by greenery, the architect mentioned another innovation developed by the indigenous Ayoreo: a simple loop woven from the Caraguata plant, called a pamoy. At rest, the Ayoreo would slip the loop behind their backs above the hip and under their knees, using their own body weight to transform it into a makeshift chair. When they were on the move, they could use it to scale the spiny trunks of drunkwood trees to harvest wild honey. “If architects could understand our job like the pamoy, to do so much with so little,” he told me, “our world could be saved.” Relearning something so simple would represent a decisive step forward — and serve as a reminder that the best lessons are often born directly from the wisdom of the past.