Torroja in Histories

That Stranger, the Engineer

Luis Fernández-Galiano 

Eduardo Torroja has yet to receive all the recognition he deserves. Unanimously admired by engineers, author of works that form part of the history of architecture and of a mythical book that stubbornly continues to be re-edited, his towering professional persona is still unknown or underrated by many experts and no few media. This is due in part to architects’ generally greater visibility, whereby Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum can be evoked without mentioning Augustus Komendant, Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House can be cited with no reference to the role played by Ove Arup and Peter Rice, or the Millau Viaduct can even be attributed exclusively to Norman Foster, neglecting the authorship of Michel Virlogeux and Jacques Mathivat. Such disregard for engineers reached convulsive limits in the competition for the footbridge over the River Thames between St Paul and Tate Modern, which specified that the entries were to be signed by an architect and a sculptor. Won by Foster and Anthony Caro over Frank Gehry and Richard Serra and other similarly eminent twosomes, it was called on the assumption that structural engineering is a mere ancillary. In Torroja’s case, however, his priority devotion to research and teaching after 1939, the fact that the latter years of his career concurred with the Franco period, and his premature death contributed to blurring the enormity of his profile.

Three of his great works built between 1933 and 1935, each with a different architect or architectural team (the Algeciras Market Hall with Manuel Sánchez Arcas, the Recoletos Jai-alai Court with Secundino Zuazo Ugaldez, and La Zarzuela Racecourse with Carlos Arniches Moltó and Martín Domínguez Esteban) consistently exhibit a degree of structural audacity that relegated architecture to a secondary role. Sánchez Arcas’s dispensable art deco details or Zuazo’s leaden facade detract from the weightless beauty of Torroja’s thin shells. Only the scenic, vernacular wisdom deployed by Arniches and Domínguez harmonizes with the precision of the cantilevers that roof the stands in Madrid’s racecourse, justly regarded as the engineer’s masterwork. How can such a highly reputed newspaper as El País publish a five-column photograph of La Zarzuela Racecourse ‘with its lauded and lightweight roof,’ attributing its authorship exclusively to Arniches and Domínguez? In keeping with today’s habit of reeling off the names of Maillart, Freyssinet, Nervi, and Torroja as the four masters and pioneers of reinforced concrete, a new term might be coined for the media: Torroja’s ‘triple aces’ to refer to Algeciras, Recoletos and La Zarzuela. They might even be called his Republican trio as a reminder of the era when they were spawned, as a mnemonic resource for amnesic or lotus-eating periodicals.  

Thanks to the good offices of José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez, who participated in the extraordinary exhibition and catalogue produced by the Centre Pompidou in 1997 (L’art de l’ingénieur, under the leadership of Antoine Picon), Torroja has three entries in that splendid work. One is his biography and the other two are devoted to the Recoletos Jai-alai Court and La Zarzuela Racecourse, two Madrilenian works that were damaged in the Civil War, albeit with different outcomes. The two intersecting ‘seagull wing’ cylindrical vaults that roofed the jai-alai court, which for Fernández Ordóñez evoked Spanish Baroque architecture, collapsed before Torroja was able to strengthen them with a series of transverse ribs, prompting criticism from engineers such as Carlos Fernández Casado. The racecourse roofs, in contrast, although riddled by shellfire that bored over 25 gaping holes, were readily repaired. They are still standing and remain in excellent condition thanks to Jerónimo Junquera’s recent impeccable restoration. Such historic events have lent Torroja’s legacy a bittersweet flavor: a legacy undervalued by far too many architects, not least of whom Oriol Bohigas, pioneer in recovering Republican architecture, who, with the jumbling of technique and ideology, have prevented the importance of works such as the one mentioned above from enriching strictly architectural narratives.

Torroja’s relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright might have enhanced his portrayal in the English-speaking world, although that has yet to happen. Torroja visited Wright at Taliesin in 1950, introduced by another engineer unfairly excluded from conventional historiography, Czech Jaroslav Joseph Polivka, author of the structural engineering for Wright’s designs and works such as the Guggenheim Museum and the Mile-High Illinois building. He, together with his son Milos, translated Torroja’s Razón y ser de los tipos estructurales, published as Philosophy of Structures in 1958, just one year after it appeared in Spanish. In October 1956, when on the occasion of the opening in Chicago of the travelling exhibition ‘Sixty Years of Living Architecture’ Wright introduced ‘The Illinois’ at the Hotel Sherman with a panel nearly 7 meters high drawn by his apprentices at Taliesin, the American maestro enumerated the construction world professionals to whom he felt indebted. That list of engineers and inventors, in which he named a single architect, his lieber Meister Louis Sullivan, included Eduardo Torroja. Such an endorsement should have piqued the curiosity of architectural historians. Whilst many of the engineer’s biographical sketches include the mention, the most influential critics have remained impermeable to the Spaniard’s technical and aesthetic merits. 

Vittorio M. Lampugnani’s widely used encylopaedic dictionary includes Torroja in entries drafted in different editions by Gerd Hatje, Alexandre Cirici- Pellicer, and Antonio Pizza. He is also mentioned in other reference works. Architectural histories per se, however, ignore or distort his legacy. Sigfried Giedion’s mythical Space, Time and Architecture makes only a passing reference, whereas Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History, which has entries for Maillart, Freyssinet, and Nervi, omits Torroja, unexpectedly in an author so attentive to the technical universe; and although the Spanish engineer is included in his Studies in Tectonic Culture, his is merely one more name on a list. William Curtis, for his part, ignored Torroja completely in the first edition of his Modern Architecture since 1900 and associated him in the third with ‘Mediterranean artisanal tradition,’ asserting that he “emigrated to Mexico in the mid-1930s.” It’s hard to say which is worse, for the engineer to be absent from such texts or to be so fallaciously present. As contended earlier, Eduardo Torroja has yet to receive the recognition he merits, but initiatives such as his museum should contribute to vesting him with the historic stature he so deserves. 

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