Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Manuel de las Casas 1940-2014

The architect Manuel de las Casas (Talavera de la Reina, 1940) died last Saturday, February 8 in Madrid, after a relatively short illness. A charismatic teacher at the Madrid School of Architecture for over four decades, and founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Toledo, he designed works that were pioneering in the fields of social housing, the revitalization of the traditional city, and the integration of contemporary architecture in historic contexts. He received Spain's National Architecture Prize in 1999 for his University Health Sciences Center in La Coruña, and the Gold Medal in the Fine Arts from the Ministry of Culture in 1995.

I first met Manuel in the 1980s, soon after my arrival in Spain, as the author, together with his brother Ignacio, of the social housing developments of Palomeras, Orcasur and Albufera Avenue, projects launched by the central government to mitigate the inhuman conditions of the numerous shantytowns that still surrounded Madrid in those years. With his abundant beard, deep voice and steady gaze, Manuel was for me the personification of a new generation of Spaniards dedicated to the task of building a modern, democratic and socially-equitable country during the exciting years of transition following the end of the Franco regime. The idealism and high aims of the moment are reflected in the sobriety and dignity of these projects: the buildings of Palomeras, with their grand interior halls lined with galleries, like traditional Madrid corralas, creating community; Orcasur, a miniature city of regular blocks; or the square volumes of Albufera, spread out across the hilltop of the Altos de Vallecas, not without a certain monumentality – all today in excellent condition. Later, Manuel's daughter Iciar, also an architect, took me to see the housing block of Cabeza del Moro in Talavera, organized like a traditional Plaza Mayor surrounded by galleries, an early –and truly urban– formulation of the "patio-block" housing type that has come to dominate the dense new planned developments of Madrid.

Another memorable encounter with Manuel was our trip together to Zamora to see his King Alfonso Enriques Institute of Spanish-Portuguese Studies (1997), where he had introduced, among the ruins of a medieval convent, a series of new elements, clad in oxidized steel, of a startling contemporaneity. This work, together with his Agriculture Department Building in Toledo of 1992, still constitute a model of how to integrate new and old without resorting to a superficial mimetism.

On this same trip, I was witness to Manuel's pride and generosity as a teacher, as he took me to see works by up-and-coming young architects that he followed with great interest. He showed me Luis Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón's Museum of Fine Arts in Zamora, their first built work, then still under construction, and the Fair Pavilion by Javier Revillo and María Fraile. We also stopped at the Labor University, a 1950s work in an eclectic historicist style by Luis Moya, for whom his father had worked as technical architect before working for Manuel on his first built work, the Pedro Mora House en Talavera (1964-71).

Last December, the Toledo School of Architecture inaugurated the Manuel de las Casas Chair in Architecture, a ceremony in which Manuel, in his last public appearance, presented this first project to the audience, returning to his roots as a student in the organicist architecture of the early 1960s – and offering us a master class in the human values of architecture, in contrast to the frivolities we find in so much supposedly ambitious architecture today.

David Cohn
Manuel de las Casas, una arquitectura con rostro humano
El País, February 10, 2014, page 41.
 Translated by DC

See also:
Antón Capitel
Manuel de las Casas, arquitecto de referencia
El País, February 8, 2014

Articles on Manuel de las Casas by DC 

King Alfonso Henriques Institute in Zamora
Architectural Record, July 2000, pages 106 - 113 

El anexo como abordaje 
Centro Universitario de Ciencias de la Salud, A Coruña 
Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica 14, Feburary 2000, pages 20 - 28 

Building as Landscape 
Lérez Cultural Center, Pontevedra, Spain 
World Architecture 73, February 1999, pages 80 - 83 

Acero Rojo, Pizarra Verde, Vidrio Luminoso 
"Red Steel, Green Slate, Luminous Glass" 
Congress hall an Auditorium, Pontevedra 
Pazo de Congresos e Exposicións de Pontevedra 
Exhibition catalog 
Xunta de Galicia, September 20, 1997 

Block en Form einer gespreizten Hand 
Public Housing, Alcobendas 
Bauwelt 17/18, May 9, 1997, pages 926 - 931 

Public Housing, Alcobendas, Spain 
World Architecture, October 1996, pages 134 - 135 

Entwerfen für die Peripherie: Der Realismus des Manuel de las Casas 
Designing for the Periphery: The Realism of Manuel de las Casas 
Bauwelt 28/29, July 29, 1994, pages 1596 - 1599 

Büros in der Akropolis 
Consejeria of Agriculture, Toledo, Spain 
db - deutsche bauzeitung, October 1993, pages 25 - 29 

The Poetics of Place: Three Projects by Manuel de las Casas 
Geometría 14, December 1992, pages 101 - 112

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