Related Article: Vera Sacchetti’s Comment on Eduardo Souto de Moura, the 2011 Pritzker laureate.
The Architect’s Newspaper: I’d like to start with Porto. How does this historical city, filled with regional, vernacular architecture influence you?
Eduardo Souto de Moura: There’s a book by George Kubler, A Arquitectura Chã (“Plain Architecture”) that describes Portuguese architecture as connected to the earth, the ground, creating empathies in the ground. The Portuguese are a few people and have discovered too many things in this world [notably in the 14th and 15th century discoveries], so to control and occupy them they had to come up with very pragmatic systems. So Portuguese architecture is very pragmatic and effective in the way that it doesn’t alter landscape. It takes shapes that empathize with topography, and that influences Portuguese architecture a lot. Everybody knows that the Romans changed topographies in order to build their cities. The Portuguese, along the coast of Africa [in the 14th century] would occupy small territories, placing some families there. And those families would contact the natives and occupy the territory as it was. And there arises this effective pragmatism that allowed for Portugal to become the colonial empire it once was. Evidently this creates an architectural identity—and I don’t know if architecture has one identity—but it has variants, and one of them is this plain architecture. Portuguese architecture is low, small, embedded in the terrain. I will give you an example. In the 18th century, the world’s richest king—because Portugal was the US of that time—built a ridiculous palace. Ridiculous. The Queluz Palace is a small pavilion for European royal family standards, and it was built by the richest king in the world. This means we are down to earth—small. And we build according to that. Whenever we wanted to build big, opulent things like the Mafra Convent, we’d call in Italian architects who built differently.
How does the city of Porto specifically influence you?
Porto has maintained this tradition. It’s a totally granite city, built upon a granitic scarp face. To build here the scarp has to become a series of platforms, and the stone removed is then used to make walls and buildings. And the buildings that emerge from these stone platforms are symbiotically connected to the land. There is a fusion between the buildings and this granitic, mineral topography, which you can see along the banks of the Douro river, in Porto’s historical city center.
Your youth and education in this context allowed all of these things to permeate to your work?
When I was in architecture school I worked along this line of the banks of the river, and became more and more aware of this connection. The terrain, which should be natural, is actually artificial; and the architecture that exists is artificial but becomes natural in this terrain. There’s this dialogue that interests me, and has influenced me, for example in the Braga Stadium and other buildings.
What were the influences in your education at the Porto School of Architecture?
Fernando Távora and Álvaro Siza were very influential for me, first as people and then as architects. Not as professors or as my boss —although Siza was my boss at one point—but in the way they connected to people. Távora was my professor and then we had offices in the same place, and what struck me was not only his work, but himself, and his universal, yet Portuguese, culture. He never stopped being Portuguese, but he was always connected to the universal architectural scene. He met Corbusier, Gropius, and so on, and maintained this connection between local and universal. And then I worked with Siza, and suddenly there was this Siza international boom, and everyone in Portugal felt the results of that exposure. I remember Siza coming back from Barcelona and saying “I just met this American, Venturi.” Venturi! And then there was this seminar in Santiago de Compostela with Aldo Rossi, and I spent a month with him. Siza opened the doors to this international avant-garde, which was extremely important. Portugal is a marginal country, it has nothing to do with Europe, it isn’t part of the avant-garde. Both Siza and Tavora are responsible for opening the Portuguese architectural discourse, in Porto.
How did Donald Judd influence your work?
I knew his books, I was offered his Architecture, and then by accident I met him in Zurich, in a hotel. We had an extremely interesting conversation, I invited him to come to Porto; meanwhile he died and didn’t come. Then I went to Marfa, visited his work, and became even more passionate about it. There are two things that strike me about Judd: first, the reasons why he decides to quit painting and sculpture and become an architect; second, his determination, his specific way of doing things, and his intense subjectivity when architecture is a more social art, that struck me. Minimalism doesn’t interest me at all, what interests me is how the minimal work becomes available to us, and how it can be built upon and occupied when lived in by people. I don’t care about the minimalist currents; they annoy me a bit. Instead I am interested in this purity of forms and spaces in the way they become available to be inhabited and lived, and therefore transformed. Architecture lives to be transformed, and there lies its true calling: to be occupied by people.
Do you have your own declaration of method?
No, I don’t. I make a project and I panic (laughs). Which is good, it can be a method. First, panic. Second, conquer panic by working. Third, find ways to solve your doubts, that and drawing, drawing, find the place of things, make a model, all to try and conquer panic. The project is the management of doubts. And then you suppress them one by one until you are certain, and even then that goes away. Hopefully, you’re left with only a few [doubts.]
You started by building private houses and then transitioned to public works. Is this still a way and architect starts?
There are no rules. I started like that because I didn’t know anybody. I was the only architect in the family, I wasn’t connected to any economic force or political party, and so I started making houses for family and friends. I made one, they liked it, I made another, and so on. And then I won a couple of competitions—the first one was Casa das Artes—and I started to have public works. But the beginning was completely domestic.
And do you like public or private best?
I like public work better, because it is broader and connects with a different society, a different geography, a more complex terrain. But I love to do houses. Because I love experimenting, and a house is the best possible laboratory for rehearsing things you’ve never done—materials, languages—because of their small scale, because if there is a problem it’s never too serious, and because they serve as a lesson or to establish languages for other kinds of projects.
Your work is full of quotations of work you admire: the Corbusier-type window in your House in Maia, the Xenakis-imposed rhythm in the House in Barrocal, and Mies in the Burgo Office tower, this last one an homage…
The Burgo Tower is not an homage. I quote, because those who cannot write quote. What I don’t want is to start from scratch, which is a waste of time and a sign of little intelligence. If there is a set of circumstances to which architects have answered in a way I admire, I would like to use it, because this is part of the continuity that architecture needs. Architecture is a continuous story. I’m not going to invent a brick angle if Mies already did it in the Dominion Center, but what I can do is to re-think or re-draw it. But I always start from a concrete thing. To start from scratch leads to two things: either it’s stupid, or it leads to an excessive creativity that architecture doesn’t need.
At the Pritzker prize press conference you defended your architecture as “anonymous—well done, but almost anonymous.” And yet, your work is multi-layered and full of references. Do you enjoy it when people start discovering all the details?
Yes, I enjoy it very much. Because simple architecture is complex, and complex architecture is made in a very simplistic manner. It is complex because the problems are not solved. It’s complex in colors, textures, materials, systems and forms. And simple architecture lives in a purity that you try to make inhabit a different system. And for me the great secret is to make architecture become unnoticeably accepted. Like your sense of smell, which you use and don’t notice you have. Good architecture is like a second skin, it doesn’t send out a message or a narrative. It’s there and seems to have been there for a long time, naturally, and it couldn’t be any other way. This is the great goal of architecture. This search for anonymity, a bit like vernacular architecture, made and perfected for centuries, until it seems perfectly natural, and people like it. If you see all the avant-garde painters in the 20th century, they all lived in old houses, not modern ones.
What is your work’s most distinctive aspect?
Me? I don’t know, never thought too much about it.
Some people describe you as a regionalist…
I don’t like that word.
But also, as early as 1994, Hans van Dijk complemented the extraordinary quality of the construction in your work, which was unusual.
Well, Portugal is a very delayed, slow country, where inertia is largely felt. And sometimes, because the cutting edge is cyclical and sometimes antagonistic, sometimes Portugal meets the cutting edge out of chance. For example, when I started practicing as an architect the vanguard was post-modernism, as resistance to modernism. And Portugal had just left its fascist period, and we built in neoclassical style. So in 1975 we were coinciding with the avant-garde, with our columns and tympanums, which post-modernism also had. When we finally decided to do modernism in the late 1980s—which was new for us because it had been forbidden for 50 years—there was a revival of modernism in the avant-garde, and so we coincided again. So there is a type of inertia that leads us to cross paths with the avant-garde.
You’ve mentioned before that your education as an architect is fundamentally different of today’s. Today architecture is a different practice. But what can we bring from the way you were educated into this new, contemporary discipline?
I don’t want to be romantic or nostalgic, I had an education according to the way we practiced at the time, what we called the métier. In the offices, we used to prepare, draw, dialogue, with immense time to reflect upon things, if we agreed or disagreed—which we always did—and then we started to build the model. Time was the manager of the project. And what has changed, is that today we don’t have time. Today we have to respond quickly to a series of demands that are more and more difficult. And there I cannot bring anything from my education, because today architects have to work against time, which is architecture’s great fault today. Architecture is not a discipline that manages space, but rather a discipline that manages time. And that’s what schools should teach. What is being done today is very interesting, but it has nothing to do with the architecture I was taught. It’s different and there are other risks, other advantages, we have exceptional new means, 3-D models, 3-D drawings, new materials, new structures. But the problem lies in the lack of time, and we need to manage things differently. Which is also exciting, it doesn’t mean that the old ways were the best.
So if there is no time…
Only time matters. Herberto Helder [Portuguese writer and poet] said that only time exists and space is but a metaphor. Time runs everything, and space is but an abstract and metaphysical invective. Nobody knows what space is.
If there is no time, is it possible to make good architecture today?
Yes, if you find the right means. One thing I’ve been noticing is that today I’ve almost stopped drawing sketches according to different point-of-views, and today I work more and more with models because I can get all the point-of-views simultaneously. We must find new means to control this discipline, and today almost everyone works with models. And if you see my sketchbooks I’ve almost stopped sketching, I have texts, or timetables. I can’t do this research through drawing; it has to be instantly three-dimensional.
So how did it feel like to get the Pritzker? Compared, for example, to winning the 2008 Pessoa Prize [yearly distinction to a Portuguese personality] or being a finalist in the Mies van der Rohe award?
About the Mies, I have to be honest. They told me I was going to win, and I lost by one vote, and one vote to a work that I don’t appreciate; or that I think is not as good as mine. But that’s life. I thought it would be possible to win the European architecture award, but never the Pritzker. The Pessoa Prize was special, because it was a culture award, not an architecture award. It was about architecture being recognized, for the first time, as part of the culture of the country. It was very special.
What do you expect the Pritzker to bring you?
Stability, which is something I need.
Do you think it’ll bring opportunities to build internationally?
I hope so, because I practically only work in Portugal, and I hope to get more work abroad so that I can have the ability to choose. And so the office can have a more stable life. Because there is practically no work in Portugal now. There is actually no work.
Especially now with the International Monetary Fund bailout.
Yes, but when I say that there is no architecture work now, that means the next five years—architecture isn’t immediate, buildings are not like mushrooms. So in the next five years there will be no work. And if the international markets say that we’ll take ten years, if this country is finally economically stable, I’ll be 68 years old, and I want to have a calm life. So I hope to get some international projects, so that I can keep the office as it is now.
But when you won the Pritzker, you mentioned you liked building in Portugal, because you feel at home.
Ah, yes. The communication is easier. Architecture isn’t mute. People draw, then they discuss the project with friends and enemies, with clients, and then you start building. There are many problems, and communication is fundamental. And it is an intensive activity, a way of life and not a profession. And all is easier in Portugal because the communication is easier. If I build in Switzerland, and if something goes wrong I can’t do anything. Here [in Portugal] I feel at home, because I can control the process better; and I want to draw what I can control, because if I can’t control it it’s not worth it.
Are there any American architects you like particularly?
Number one is Robert Venturi, I am passionate about him. He is so different from me that I admire him immensely. I also like Frank Gehry when he is serene; I don’t like to see Gehry as a prisoner of himself, forced to create these strange shapes. I deeply admire the normative Gehry, when he makes a window and repeats it… it almost seems like Aldo Rossi. And there’s also John Hejduk, of the Five Architects, he was a visionary connecting architecture to poetry, art, painting. He was like a Renaissance man, but instead in being born in Florence in the 15th century he appeared in New York. I don’t know many of this new generation, but I know some architects that work in the US; one of them worked with me, David Adjaye. He’s my friend, has worked with me, and I like what he does.
One of your most interesting projects is the Portuguese Pavilion at the 2008 Venice Biennale…
Yes, that was an homage to Venturi. I wanted to write “I am a monument” in the mirror but then we didn’t get to it.
But it does raise the question of this ephemeral, transient architecture, that has recently been appearing more and more.
It has to do with two things. First is the lack of time, the world is too fast today and there’s no point in doing definitive things. And it also has to do with the occupation of land, the land in always the same but more and more expensive over time. The more permanent the intervention, the less the land is worth. And the value is only maintained whenever you occupy the terrain with an ephemeral intervention.
Would you like to do these ephemeral interventions?
Yes, because most projects take a lot of time, and architects are always anxious to see the result. Another thing I like to do are exhibits, you make a drawing and two weeks later there it is. But both can co-exist. If I make a church, I can’t make an ephemeral church.
From within you entire work, amongst requalification, urbanism, public, and private works, can you choose one project?
Ah, it’s the Braga Stadium. That’s what I always say; it was he project I’ve enjoyed the most, despite the setbacks. It’s a project I still like to look at today, I feel good about it. I don’t even know how I did it (laughs). No honestly, even today I ask, how was it possible… I think it was the right moment, with the right people at the right time. It’s the project that fascinates me the most. It’s very complete, you can call it landscaping, even land art. We blasted so many tons of stone, then I built the object, then I unraveled the hills then remade them, then cut the trees and planted them back again. I was available for it. And it is a project I identify with, I get there and I practically know every stone, and why it is the way it is.
Is it possible that there will be another Braga Stadium in your career?
I might make similar things, but those circumstances won’t repeat themselves. There’s that saying about how you shouldn’t return to the places you were happy in. I have new projects now. I finish a project and think about what’s next, I don’t stay and think about things past. Architecture is like an obsession; we have to be dedicated, obsessed about the new projects, and that’s what I’m doing. I only think about the future. Which in reality is the present and what we have in hand.