Félix Candela


Félix Candela working at his desk.
When it was time for Candela to choose a vocation, he was undecided. After his father’s friend, an architect, discussed the profession with Candela, he decided to try out architecture “despite that I had not shown great ability for drawing, which was considered essential to be an architect.” He was admitted to La Escuela de Arquitectura de Madrid in 1929. In his sixth year there he begun to study thin shells thanks to their appearance in architectural and engineering magazines, and to Eduardo Torroja‘s building of a thin-shell concrete vault, Frontón Recoletos, in Madrid. Although he never took a formal course on thin shells, Candela on his own started to seriously read articles by French and German engineers.

A year after completing his course of study at the School of Architecture in 1935, the Civil War broke out and Candela fought for the Republican cause. In 1939 he was exiled to Mexico where he developed experience working as an architect, an engineer, and a builder of traditional beam and column construction. During the first two years in Mexico, Candela subscribed to engineering and architectural magazines and journals, through which readings he tried to complete his education as a structural engineer, but, he later admitted, “I still did not seriously dedicate myself to study shells.”

Thanks to self-education in shell design and construction during 1950 and 1951, by the end of 1951 Candela began to gain international recognition. Most of his early thin-shell forms during this period were copies, with minor modifications, of those he had read about. They served primarily as full-scale experiments so he was self-taught not only in the analysis of thin shells, but also in their construction. These experimental shells provided him with crucial insight on the practice of building these structures. His earliest thin-shell forms were not of the hyperbolic paraboloid (hypar) form, but of more traditional forms––funicular, conoidal, and cylindrical. It was only when he became confident, based on experience in the design, analysis, and construction of thin shells, that he started to create his art.

Experimental conoid shell built by Candela in San Bartolo, Mexico City, 1950.

Candela’s company, Cubiertas Ala S.A., was born in 1950. Their first major work, and Candela’s first hypar shell was the Cosmic Rays Laboratory. The laboratory was well received by the general public as well as by the architectural and engineering professions, and it was widely published. Candela described the project as his “first international success and it gave me much encouragement.” Like the structural artists who preceded him, Candela went from imitation (of sketches and structures he had read about) to innovation (using the hyperbolic paraboloid in ways that had not been attempted before) to inspiration. In the last category are the buildings he once named as his favorite structures: Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Chapel Lomas de Cuernavaca, Restaurant Los Manantiales, and Bacardí Rum Factory.

Candela's first hypar: Cosmic Rays Laboratory, 1951

The early 1950s were marked not only by the development of Candela’s knowledge, but also by an increase in his confidence as a shell builder all of which gave him the courage to be opinionated, in papers and in public lectures, and to argue against the traditional means of structural analysis. He viewed the 1950s as a time when as he later put it “I consolidated my reputation as one of the indisputable leaders in the specialty that I had chosen and as a good builder”––a reputation that arose not only from the aesthetic quality of his structures, but also from his ability to build them economically. During this period, he also began to break away from traditional thin-shell forms, such as the cylinder, and move toward the hyperbolic paraboloid (hypar), with which he created his greatest art.