Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz by Carlos Brillembourg


Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz and I “spoke” via email from fall 2001 to late summer 2002. I have known Jesús most of my life; we became close in 1979 when we and 15 other architects founded the Instituto de Architectura Urbana (IAU) in Caracas. We worked on urban design projects for the city of Caracas and participated in many exhibitions and seminars. The Instituto’s discourse was expanded by visits of architects and theorists such as Kenneth Frampton, Aldo Rossi, Tony Vidler, Mario Gandelsonas and Ignasi Sola-Morales. Jesús, the architect-philosopher, always redirected the conversation towards the universal when it got entangled in the messy realities of the everyday.

During my most recent visit to Caracas, last November, Jesús and his wife, Anna, invited me and my colleague Maria Isabel for dinner at their home, which lies at the end of a walled street behind a small iron gate framed by two acacia flamboyant trees. When we arrived, as the sun set over the valley of Caracas, we found Dionysian Jesús listening to the forest music in Wagner’s Siegfried. As usual, the discussion centered on Greek mythology and architecture. Thinking about this magical evening, I am reminded of a story of Jesús as a teacher and jurist for a thesis project. A student presented a set of detailed plans for a new beer factory. After a lengthy explanation of regarding the complex functions of trucks and bottles, Jesús asked the student if he knew who invented beer. The student answered, “Well, professor, I suppose it was a German invention.” Jesús proceeded to explain that beer was invented by the Egyptians around 3000 BC, and in the midst of his describing the mythology of the different deities’ involvement with beer, the student impatiently asked, “Professor, what does this have to do with my project?” Jesús replied, “Precisely nothing!”

Carlos Brillembourg You have often discussed the importance of archetypes with regard to architecture. I know that this comes from a deep understanding of the writings of Jung and from your own involvement in therapy and the work of James Hillman. Can we begin by discussing the headquarters of the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) in Puerto Ordaz? A huge dam was begun in 1956 in this region of Venezuela, along the banks of the Caroní and Orinoco rivers in the Territoria Amazonas, to provide electricity for the country’s projected energy needs. This area was also the site for state-financed integrated heavy industries producing iron ore, rebars and I-beams. The CVG headquarters heralded a new city that would rise out of what former Oil Minister and OPEC cofounder Juan Pablo Perez-Alfonso called “planting the petroleum” toward a modern industrialized Venezuela. How did the CVG design evolve in relation to your idea of archetype?

Jesús Tenreiro-Degwitz You don’t choose archetypes, they choose you. They select you at a given time and circumstance, and then you behave accordingly or not. So it is not a matter of the ego choosing but of the ego accepting a superior force—a god—that displays him- or herself in a loving manner: suggesting, showing, indicating which way to move. Call it inspiration. Enthusiasm comes from there: you become taken by the beauty and appropriateness of an image. At the beginning there is the image, then the ideas, then the desire to translate them into buildable works. And then comes the work itself, whether it be a piece of music, a painting, a sculpture or a building.

The CVG headquarters had a strange beginning: first it was to be the site of the town hall of the newly created Distrito Caroní; then internal struggles and rivalries inside CVG turned it into the headquarters of Edelca, the state electric company, which urgently needed to provide for the transmission of electric energy from Gun Dam to the rest of Venezuela. Something had to be done very quickly. We began thinking of erecting a prefabricated building on site with steel from the newly created SIDOR (Siderúrgica del Orinoco), but no contractor would take the risk of building it, because SIDOR light profiles were thought to be too troublesome. Then a contractor of concrete structures proposed changing the material to concrete. I was overwhelmed. In the seat of the steel industry, a steel structure was the only logical thing to build. Finally the controversy was settled by the president of CVG, General Alfonso Ravard, who backed my proposal of a steel structure. But it had to be made with US Steel profiles.

The image of a stepped pyramid came to me at the very beginning. The site is the highest point in the Ciudad Guayana, and it was barren, with nothing built around it. There was no city plan establishing limitations on height or bulk. The CVG architects requested something like a landmark, and the pyramid came forth as a natural form for human beings living in a difficult tropical climate and for a site overlooking the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers. The stepped pyramid allows for the interaction of inner and outer space through a facade of continuous balconies with shaded, gardens, a beautiful sight that is visible from almost all the working areas inside. It was to be the first building in the future center of Alta Vista, the heart of the new city, so it had the character of a foundation stone for an imagined beautiful metropolis-one that ultimately never came to be. The building stood lonely for many years. However, the archetypal image was strong enough to overcome the shameful city that eventually grew up around it.