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Felix Candela 1910-1998

Felix Candela, who died last month, trained as an architect, but was one of the great inspirational engineers of the 20th century. A man who was impressed by Maillart's faith in the intrinsic nature of structural beauty, he created hundreds of breathtaking shell structures - many of which are works of art.

'Not that I am an artist, or a saint or a religious man, I am not even an architect,' he is quoted as saying. 'I do not make architecture. I do not work as an architect. I am a contractor.' Which is not how he began.

Candela studied architecture in Madrid in the 1930s, discovering a natural talent for geometry and a fascination in the theory of structures. He noted that 'most students considered the subject useless for their professional practice and as it required some knowledge of mathematics, it was very difficult for them to pass the examination. This gave me the opportunity to do some private tutoring to my classmates which was a very useful way to pay for my studies. As a result, I became more familiar with the theoretical basis of the current methods of calculation of indeterminate structures.'

Consequently he became fascinated by the shell structures that were becoming fashionable at the time. Torroja was building the roof of the Fronton Recoletos in Madrid at the time, and Freyssinet and Finsterwalder were pioneering shell structures in France and Germany.

On graduating in 1935, Candela won a scholarship to study the use of concrete in Germany. But on the eve of his departure the civil war broke out and he enlisted enthusiastically in the government forces. Defeated, they escaped to France, where they were interned. After four months he was allowed, with several hundred fellow Republicans, to emigrate to Mexico. He arrived on 13 June 1939, with his uniform of a Captain of Engineers, his only possession.

In Mexico after several years as a draughtsman, designer and contractor he was to recall his: 'old fancy with shells'. Candela again began to collect papers on the subject. Through Gideon's Space

time and architecture published in 1941 he was to discover Maillart, who had in 1939 completed the barrel vault of the Cement Hall at the Swiss National Exhibition. From Gideon, Max Bill's book and collection of Maillart's essays he noted: 'My own attitude to calculations of reinforced concrete structures was becoming unorthodox. I was tired perhaps of performing long and tedious routines whose results were not always meaningful. Therefore I found Maillart's thoughts delightfully sympathetic and encouraging. If a rebel was able to produce such beautiful and sound structures, there could be nothing wrong with becoming a rebel myself. Besides, this was my only way to break the mystery surrounding shell analysis.' It was a mystery that was, at the time, clouded in the mathematical theories developed by the German Engineers Finsterwalder and Dischinger.

Working with his brother, Antonio, and sister Julia, who had joined him from Europe, Candela founded the contracting company Cublertas ALA (ALA Roofs) which was to build nearly a thousand shell structures, mostly in Mexico, but also in South America and the western United States.

While the majority of these were industrial buildings, the Church of the Immaculate Virgin, Mexico City, stands out, as a prime example of his skill. Here taking a standard folded plate umbrella form he used for many of the factory buildings, inclining it and picking up the centre of the lower edge, Candela created a repetitive form of exquisite grace and simplicity and transformed a functional form into a spiritual one.

In England he worked using his umbrella system with Clarke Nichols Marcel and YRM on a warehouse for John Lewis in Stevenage which, unfortunately, has been demolished.

Typically, he believed in what he described as a 'balanced development', combining sports having an element of risk with intense mental activity. In the former he was skiing champion for Spain in 1932, a mountain climber and rugby player.

Candela said at one of his lectures in London that: 'in solving a problem you must ignore what you consider is unnecessary so that you are left with the essential. When you see the essential, everything becomes simple.' He was awarded The Institution of Structural Engineers Gold Medal in 1961.

Like Maillart before him Candela was a great inspiration to many of today's engineers and architects, most notably Calatrava for whom he was a consultant. However, his greatest satisfaction 'was not in having achieved certain spectacular structures, even though I enjoyed doing them, but in having helped in a small way to solve the problem of covering habitable spaces economically'.

Clearly he remained a republican.

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