Do you know who designed the buildings you use every day? The children of Estación Atlántida, Uruguay do. In their town of 2,500 people, the Church of Cristo Obrero, built in the 1960s by architect Eladio Dieste, is an engineering marvel. The building has become a tourist destination and inspired kids to want to become brick builders, just like the architect.
“To the kids, Dieste is a hero,” said Ciro Caraballo, an architectural historian working to preserve the site as part of Getty’s Keeping It Modern initiative. “Every single one of them knows Dieste’s name and is proud to have his church in the community.”
Constructed primarily with brick, yet possessing undulating walls with astonishing weight-bearing capabilities, the Church of Cristo Obrero seems to defy gravity.
Inside, light enters the space only through skylights, onyx on the doors, and the colored fixtures placed along the lateral walls. “It’s quite dark inside, but once you’re in for a few moments, you start to change the way you see,” said Caraballo. “During the hours of the mass, the light transforms the simple brick into colored patterns and the church begins to glow. It is spectacular.”
In the 1940s, the town of Estación Atlántida, Uruguay was home to little more than a train station and some 1,500 people, most of whom worked at the nearby hotels, spas, and casinos lining the popular Costa del Oro (the Gold Coast). The town served primarily as a way station for beach visitors, whose sole mission was to go from train to taxi.
At the time, Dieste was an engineer and architect who was constructing inexpensive warehouses across the country. But his revolutionary building techniques were getting noticed. When the Catholic Church approached him about the church, he said yes enthusiastically yet refused to take a salary. A relatively new convert to Catholicism, he saw the project as a personal challenge to create something functional and beautiful for the community of hospitality workers.
In his buildings, Dieste sought to achieve what he called a Cosmic Economy, a respect for the alignment between material and structural form that was in accordance “with the profound order of the world,” as he wrote in 1992. He took the humble brick—ancient in origin and simple in structure—and manipulated it into breathtakingly complex shapes whose precision and slenderness of form evoke feelings of otherworldly transcendence.
For the first few years after it was built, Cristo Obrero (which translates to Christ the Worker, a title selected because of the town’s working population) operated as a local church, receiving little national attention despite being featured in several international architecture magazines. Gradually, the building became a hub for Estación Atlántida activity, hosting everything from civic meetings to weddings, and fundraisers to sporting events. It housed a Catholic school, with generations of schoolchildren enjoying Dieste’s rippling bricks as a backdrop for their classes. In many ways, the school—and the nuns who came to work there—kept the church alive.
Over the decades following the church’s construction, Dieste built a reputation for himself as a prolific architect across Uruguay and Latin America, designing more than 200 buildings that used reinforced masonry shell structures. By the late 20th century, architectural schools were studying his technical innovations, and groups of students began pilgriming to his sites, Cristo Obrero foremost among them.
“The building is a quintessential example of Dieste’s technical mastery,” said Caraballo. “It’s an honor to be able to help preserve this inventive site for future generations.”
Today, Estación Atlántida is one of the top tourist destinations in Uruguay. The country’s Ministry of Tourism has even stepped in to help manage the influx of visitors.
The church’s popularity has instilled a deep sense of community pride and also brought a much-needed economic boost through tourism. The symbiotic relationship between architecture and neighborhood life—and the transformative effect that a beautiful and thoughtful modern building can have on its environment—is on full display in the small town.