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Clorindo Testa (1923-2013)

Architect to the National Library of the Argentine Republic and the Bank of London in Buenos Aires, the fanciful Clorindo Testa is a mainstay of modern Argentine architecture

Clorindo testa v4

Clorindo testa v4

Illustration by Shay Colley

With a career spanning over five decades, Clorindo Testa has left an indelible mark on Argentinian architecture. One of the most important figures of Modernism in Latin America and a pioneer of Brutalism, Testa displayed an innate artistic virtuosity from childhood and his parallel output as a painter shaped his singular approach to architectural practice. From the outset, his expressive style and urban sensibility set him apart, as a free-spirited counterpart to the more academic and meticulous style of Mario Roberto Álvarez, the other titan of modern Argentinian architecture. 

‘He was like a cheeky child, he’d often say perché mi piace. He did as he pleased’

Born in Benevento near Naples in 1923, to Italian parents who moved to Buenos Aires that same year, he briefly studied electromechanical engineering, before being accepted to read architecture at the public University of Buenos Aires. Completing his studies in 1948, he formed part of the first wave of graduates from the recently inaugurated School of Architecture and Urban Planning, at the tail end of the Rationalist movement in Argentina. Initally, he joined Grupo Austral, an association of young architects founded by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, Juan Kurchan and Antonio Bonet. The trio had met while working in Le Corbusier’s office and, through practice and publications, aimed to apply the tenets of European avant-garde architectural discourse to a rapidly modernising Argentina. 

In 1949 Testa received a university scholarship to study in Europe, winning a competition to build the Argentine Chamber of Construction on his return three years later when he joined the studio of Francisco Rossi, David Gaido and Boris Dabinovic. During this time he was involved in the design of the municipal cemetery in Chacarita, a vast, labyrinthine complex of muscular concrete pagodas hovering over subterranean galleries and courtyards. Yet, despite its characteristic hallmarks of brooding monumentality and spatial complexity, it is not widely known that this modern necropolis is one of Testa’s earliest works. 

Img 1324 tc

Img 1324 tc

The solemn, sunken courtyards of Chacarita Cemetery. Photograph by Ella Jessel

His first large-scale project also languishes in relative obscurity, given its remote location in Santa Rosa in rural La Pampa province, over 600km from the capital. In 1955 he won a competition to build an ambitious campus spanning nine hectares, including a bus terminal and the Civic Centre containing government offices. This was followed by Sessions Chamber in 1976 and a municipal library in 2004, affectionately dubbed ‘the Armadillo’. The 180m-long Civic Centre was designed as an autonomous entity set back from the road, yet geometrically aligned with Santa Rosa’s gridded street plan. Constructed in exposed reinforced concrete, with four slab-like pillars distributed longitudinally and a facade wrapped in brise-soleil, it has an obvious affinity with Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh complex and the Unité d’habitation. 

At a time when Santa Rosa was little more than sand dunes and a handful of low-rise houses, the locale afforded endless horizons. And though the city developed in the ensuing half century, Testa’s Civic Centre continues to dwarf its low-rise setting, like a colossal concrete naval vessel run aground on the Pampean dunes. Subsequent modifications include it being painted an unflattering shade of mustard, yet the building has lost none of its Modernist allure or gravitas. Had it been in a more accessible location, it would undoubtedly have become a place of enthusiastic pilgrimage for today’s design tourists.

Naval hospital[1]

Naval hospital[1]

The ship-like volume of the Naval Hospital, perforated by porthole windows. Photograph by Federico Kulekdjian

The Santa Rosa competition was organised by Argentina’s Central Society of Architects as a way of unifying the nascent province, which until 1952 had been national parkland. Luis Tierno, an architect who moved to Santa Rosa in the late ’50s, worked on the project with Testa and talks of his reluctance to adapt his designs to the austere and windy Pampean climate. ‘Everybody in the town cursed him to death when he’d left’, he recalls. ‘They had to modify the buildings to make them more serviceable and less openly exposed to the elements. When it rained, you were likely to get wetter being inside due to the fierce wind.’ 

According to his close friend Horacio Tortello, who collaborated with Testa on projects from 1970 until Testa’s death, this was classic Clorindo, displaying an enduring rebellious streak and refusal to conform. ‘He was like a cheeky child, he’d often say perché mi piace. He did as he pleased,’ says Tortello. 

Between 1959 and 1962 Testa worked on his two best-known and most monumental projects, winning the private competition for the Bank of London in 1959 and the state-funded National Library three years later. Both would catapult him into the international milieu and cement his reputation locally. Both were also collaborations, initially with the prestigious SEPRA studio (Sanchez Elia, Peralta Ramos and Agostini) and latterly with Francisco Bullrich and Alicia Cazzaniga. Partnering with more experienced architects proved a productive and necessary counterbalance, helping to harness Testa’s creativity and ground his more fanciful ideas in practice. 

Bank of london[1]

Bank of london[1]

Constructing the concrete exoskeleton of the Bank of London. Photograph by Sameer Makarius

Biography

Key works:

Chacarita Cemetery, Buenos Aires, 1956
Civic Centre, Santa Rosa, 1963
Bank of London, Buenos Aires, 1966
Naval Hospital, Buenos Aires, 1970
Casa Di Tella, Buenos Aires, 1970
Sessions Chamber, Santa Rosa, 1976
Mariano Moreno National Library of the Argentine Republic, Buenos Aires, 1992
Library, Santa Rosa, 2004

Quote:

‘Architecture seems slow, but it actually isn’t. When you start a project you know what you want to achieve and what it is going to be like, no matter how long it will take’

These pivotal works coincided with a unique period in Argentinian history, when the de facto military government was looking to effect industrial reforms and accept foreign investment, thus integrating Argentina into the global economy after a decade of Peronist governance. Such projects were vital in evolving a new national architectural language and challenging the paradigms of the construction process during the first half of the 20th century.  

For both the bank and the library, Testa abandoned formal and functional precedents to experiment with volume and space in a dashingly unorthodox way, breaking from the established typological norms of planning and organisation. For the Bank of London, he dismissed the conventional box structure with its uniform distribution of beams and columns, creating instead a capacious entrance hall, with two exposed concrete pillars incorporating stairs and services, which fanned out to support the upper levels. The building was dramatically girded in an articulated concrete exoskeleton from which were suspended a series of mezzanine floors. These appear to float, generating a sense of vertigo and disorientating spatial perspectives. 

Bank of london 1 cemal emden new

Bank of london 1 cemal emden new

Suggesting a new formal and experiential model for corporate headquarters, the Bank of London combines an expressively hefty external carapace with light, vertiginous interiors. Photograph by Cemal Emden

For the National Library, whose director at the time was Jorge Luis Borges, reflecting its importance in Argentinian cultural and intellectual life, Testa proposed an inversion of conventional library organisation. The reading room was elevated on four concrete columns to create an urban vantage point, with the books ‘buried’ below ground. The freed-up space beneath the reading room could then be appropriated and colonised as a generous public plaza. 

Although the project was approved in 1962, it was beset with political and financial setbacks, which saw construction stall for 11 years and then again during Argentina’s notorious military junta from 1976 to 1983. It finally opened to the public in 1992, minus the metal parasols outlined in the original design due to lack of resources, which Horacio Torcello likened to ‘Batman without his cloak’. Various appeals for government funding have since been made to rectify this omission. 

National library sketch copy

National library sketch copy

National library exterior cemal emden

National library exterior cemal emden

The heroic muscularity of Argentina’s National Library, beset by political and financial turbulence, finally opened in 1992. Photograph by Cemal Emden

As Argentinian architectural critic Marina Waisman notes, Testa’s approach to problem solving was to rethink and reframe, ‘as if there hadn’t been hundreds of precedents for the case in question’. In doing so, he was able to capitalise on his capacity for visual experimentation, rooted in the energetic informality of his painting style, and transform it into architecture at a time in Argentina when anything seemed possible. 

Torcello describes Testa weaving and embroidering his projects on paper, a colourful, fluid and distinctly unconventional approach, in a bid to win competitions. He was also fascinated by nautical references, drawing and painting boats from childhood. The Naval Hospital competition, which he won in 1970, prevailed on the premise of a building presented as an anchored ship, with porthole-style windows and blue glass tiles.

Testa was seldom forthcoming about citing influences other than a passing reference to Le Corbusier, wrapped up in his own imagination and absorbed in his daily painting ritual. He was far more inspired by the idiosyncrasies of local vernacular than by what was going on abroad. He likened Argentina to India and was fascinated by the chaotic character of Buenos Aires. His studio was located on the sixth floor of a French Neoclassical style block, designed by the same architects who designed the city’s Teatro Colón, yet his daily view was the antithesis of set-piece grandeur, encompassing a haphazard spectacle of retail spaces, ’60s apartments and decaying rooftops strewn with detritus.

Centro cívico de santa rosa (años 1960)

Centro cívico de santa rosa (años 1960)

Santa Rosa Civic Centre, one of Testa’s early projects, shows clear Corbusian inflections

Directly opposite his balcony was a medianera, an ordinary party wall punctuated by crudely installed and randomly distributed windows of different shapes and sizes, as well as other ad hoc improvements made over time by residents. Testa delighted in this imperfect and quintessentially Buenos Aires tableau, which he often sketched and described in lectures to college classes he gave in the latter stages of his career. 

Testa’s former associate, artist and architect Juan Fontana, who worked with him until his death in 2013, compares turning up at the studio to being like a kid going to play with his friends. ‘It was serious play, as we had deadlines to meet, but it didn’t feel like work in the conventional sense,’ he remembers. According to Fontana, Testa was extraordinarily flexible and imaginative, even in his later years, adapting to varied briefs and budgets, and incorporating colour and other elements of Postmodernism. Notable examples include Buenos Aires Design (1990-93), a shopping mall in the city’s upmarket Recoleta district, and the Notary Public School (1999). Testa’s stylistic versatility and youthful playfulness were at odds with his late career persona of a suited and bespectacled octogenarian. He enjoyed sitting alone for hours in quiet contemplation in the restaurant of the Central Society of Architects or at his desk in his studio, yet he was always approachable, by his students or anyone who sought his advice.

Casa di tella (estar)

Clorindo Testa Casa di tella (estar)

Interior of the Casa Di Tella, reframing the traditional patio house. Photograph by Carlos Vallejos and Esteban Pierri

One of his most celebrated private commissions was a design for a private residence for the art collector Guido Di Tella and his wife. Testa was given carte blanche to experiment freely, incorporating ramps, slopes and polished concrete as he had done with both the Bank of London and the National Library. The outcome is a reworking of the traditional Argentinian casa chorizo, a single-storey dwelling arranged around a courtyard, with a sober, bunker-like facade that gave little away from the street. Despite efforts to apply for patrimonial status, the house was demolished in 2011. 

In an interview, Testa was philosophical about the transient nature of architecture. ‘I don’t believe that buildings are made to last forever’, he remarked. ‘One can say that no one is going to demolish Notre-Dame or the Duomo. But people and society change, what was relevant 20 years ago no longer is. The Casa Di Tella was designed for a particular client, and then he died. In a way it’s no longer his home, as it became part of an institute that acquired it.’ Ultimately, Testa knew that the seismic change his work provoked would transcend the physical legacy of bricks and mortar to endure well beyond his lifetime.

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today