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Eduardo Souto de Moura, minimalist architecture

by Alessandra Coppa

“His oeuvre is convincing proof of the modern idiom’s expressive potential and adaptability to distinct local situations. Always mindful of context, understood in the broadest sense, and grounded in place, time, and function, Souto de Moura’s architecture reinforces a sense of history while expanding the range of contemporary expression.”

It was with this statement that the jury explained their decision to award Eduardo Souto de Moura the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2011. He thus became the second Portuguese architect to receive the award after Alvaro Siza in 1992 (this year’s recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale), with whom Souto de Moura worked from 1974 to 1979.

Souto de Moura shares the same overall architectural vision as Siza and Fernando Távora: the negation of theory as the core of the architectural discourse; attention to the context from a subjective, environmental perspective; rediscovery of the values of concreteness and realism inherent to the profession; and the elementary nature of these architects’ idiom, linking them on the one hand to the conceptual avant-garde of contemporary sculpture and on the other to the Portuguese building tradition founded on rationality and pragmatism.

In the 1980s, his single-family homes were courageous for their normality, refusing to conform to the prevailing postmodernist ideals. Over the years, the profound consistency of his architecture, based on simple geometries made of solids and voids, has extended from a domestic to an urban scale and is capable of communicating at a deep level with the features of the region, landscape and site.

In his projects, ranging from the S.E.C. Culture Centre in Porto to the Santa Maria do Bouro monastery, from the famous patio houses to the imposing stadium in Braga, from the Porto metro stations to the Paula Rêgo Museum in Cascais that was completed in 2008, a group of red concrete pyramidal volumes hidden amongst the trees, he uses natural and traditional materials, complex assembly technologies or artisanal techniques, not through nostalgia but simply for their effectiveness.

These works revisit traditional building typologies without distorting them, transcending the idea of Portuguese architecture as a purely regional phenomenon.
Souto de Moura brings a rare expressive power to the building process and is ever attentive to the truth and authenticity of the materials he uses, whether stone or copper, concrete or wood as in the case of the Porto cultural centre, or the ceramic tiles used in the Porto subway, which helped to give new meaning to the public space by altering pavements, textures and routes.

We met Eduardo Souto de Moura at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, where this year he is teaching on a design course as visiting professor.

You belong to a group of Portuguese architects who trained under Távora and Siza; and yet your design process seems autonomous while following a common path. Does a Porto School exist? Is it still possible to talk of an autonomy or continuity of an architectural project?
There’s a lot of talk of this Porto School, of Távora, Siza and Souto de Moura. Something like that exists but it’s not really a school as such. There’s a milieu, a culture that links these different generations, as well as a bond of friendship: we often work together and have the same tastes. By school I mean an educational institution that teaches rules, that disseminates knowledge. We practise architecture, we make theoretical but not formal discourses… ours is a complicity based on an unwritten, almost Socratic doctrine. And yet it’s easy to identify Siza’s students.

In what way is the influence of your teachers still present in your working methods?
I believe that the things Távora taught me are still present in my work. Our methodology and starting point are almost the same: understanding a building, making drawings, establishing a programme. We have a similar attitude to history. But then we reach a point where all our initial generic actions are insufficient and we have to make our own individual choices. Siza’s working method, the approach I’ve seen him use, involves giving a large number of instructions according to the situation. Practising architecture means an ability to solve problems, knowing what to do and what tools we have at our disposal; if necessary making a sketch, and if that doesn’t work making a model, and if that’s not successful then making a larger one.
My work involves identifying problems and seeking to solve them with the tools I have available. But from a formal perspective, in terms of the mental catalogue of forms that I use, I believe I have more in common with Távora than Siza. Távora is a great teacher, you can use the things you learn from him. Siza is more of an artist.

To what extent is your architecture determined by the context, by the principle of settlement, by the need to design within a specific landscape?
We are living in a period in which architecture is thought of as a self-sufficient entity. I like to define “beauty” as a correspondence between two different things. I believe it’s important that a work of architecture should relate effectively to the context; it’s a mistake to create a negative relationship with the built environment. A place becomes one of beauty if you are able to establish a new equilibrium where there was previously a problem. When I begin a project, I go to the site, I look around with half-closed eyes, and I wait… it’s like making a pact with the devil!

You draw a lot. Is drawing important to succeed in capturing the spirit of a location?
I have worked a lot with Siza and I was a student of Távora; our school required us to “make a drawing of the site”. If you draw a place, you understand it; if you draw it badly, you understand nothing. Drawing is an excellent tool, but it’s also dangerous.
When I worked with Siza, I couldn’t use words to ask questions: I had to make a drawing. To understand my work, I have to use the rules of my profession. If I require information, I can make another drawing that will allow me to find out a little more. Speaking is conceptual. Words only create a dialectic whereas drawing suggests new concepts.
Drawing is the most important exercise. Students in Porto must learn to draw a cathedral but likewise an animal. If they don’t pass the drawing course examination, they aren’t admitted to the second year.

What’s your approach to the existing heritage, to restoration, to projects that change the intended use of a building?
I don’t believe in the sacredness of the existing heritage, in conservation at all costs. History moves in entirely the opposite direction. The history of architecture is the history of the reuse of buildings. A city is the collage of all these stratifications. As Aldo Rossi said, the beauty of a city lies in the superimposition of fabric and image. Over the years I have come to understand that a building is a living creature that has changed over the course of time, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. If today we have a technology, then we must use it – and use it well – because it is the tool at our disposal. The problem then lies in choosing the desired form, whether it should contrast with the existing building or should be of the same type.

You have always been labelled “the architect of masonry and stone”, but this seems to me a very narrow definition. Your research is far more complex than that…
When I began working as an architect in the late seventies and started on my first project, the Market in Braga, it was cheaper to build a stone wall than one made of concrete. That’s the truth, it was purely a question of pragmatism. I also liked the colour and texture. My professor said to me: “You all have a great responsibility because you’re the last generation that will work with stone.”

A wall imposes a limit. What meaning do you attach to the permeability between interior and exterior?
It is precisely for this reason that I consider walls to be important. During my training I chose a neoplastic idiom due to its fragmentary, abstract nature; it seemed to me very effective. Conversely, when adopting a classical idiom with windows and doors, I felt that the building became weak, lacking in depth. I can give the wall the thickness I like and then use the most suitable material to obtain a pictorial effect. Doors and windows are non-walls.

For this reason, due to this juxtaposition between plasticism and classicism, you have been defined as a Neo-Miesian architect…
Well that’s an honour. I like neoplasticism. I’m not interested in Mondrian’s colours but in his compositional technique. Because with two elements, glass and a wall, I can give form – a highly pragmatic form – to space. In fact I use a very pragmatic vocabulary. Designing a space with dividing walls has always allowed me to avoid the errors of scale that immediately occur if a door or window is introduced into the project. I initially received a lot of criticism for my essential design approach. People said: “Eduardo builds garages for the rich.”

By starting out from materials, you are able to go straight to the physical nature of things. It seems to me that your design method doesn’t contemplate a theoretical construction a priori.
I don’t seek an a priori justification for my project. It’s like the story of the chicken and the egg: I’m certain that the egg comes before the chicken, the egg is the project in its concrete form. I create projects arbitrarily, then verify their validity. What is a project? It’s the experience of finding a link between two elements. A project is the development of a form, and finding the reasons for those choices. I can allow a project to be arbitrary or I can argue that it is logical, but I can also proceed in another direction. I start out from a surreal drawing. Usually before viewing the site, I create the project, then I go to the site to gain an understanding and see whether my idea is feasible. A curious thing is that I have designed buildings in spite of not knowing how they worked: I designed the stadium in Braga but I had never set foot in a stadium. So to carry out the project, I visited stadiums in Portugal, in Seville, in Bari and in France. Now I’ve won competitions for two hospitals. In this case I sought the collaboration of a practice in Barcelona that is the leader in the field. That’s the way I work.

Do you have any preconceptions regarding the choice of materials for your projects?
Unfortunately the rules are set by the market. Nowadays I can’t use stone the way we used to. The problem is how you use the material: you must reveal its falsity. If I use stone as a facing I show its thickness. I’m not interested in evoking a material or ensuring that a material is authentic at all costs. If I have a tight budget, I’ll use whatever material is available.

But your work has always shown a special expressive sensitivity towards the choice of materials. You used ceramic tiles a great deal in the Porto subway, especially at the Bolhão station where the traditional hyper-decorated blue ceramic tiles of the façade of the neighbouring old church dialogue with the stereometric purity of the building’s white volume, for which tiles of the same size were chosen.
Portugal has a strong tradition in the use of ceramics, an ancient material that allows for continuous reinterpretation.
When in the past people wanted to change the architectural idiom, they used the forms of the preceding period. For example, ceramic tiles were used in Baroque architecture. Portugal has a lot of pictorial architecture.

What does practising architecture mean to you?
Távora used to say that architecture is a way of life. If he went to a restaurant and had a nice meal he would say: “This is architecture”. If he went to a bookstore and they gave him a free book, he would say: “This is architecture”. Life is architecture. Architecture isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life.