His early—and, to date, strongest—body of work is comprised mostly of single-family dwellings in the northern region of Portugal, monumental in their simplicity. In combinations of oversized concrete and granite walls, glass facades and hardwood floors, Souto de Moura’s houses offer horizontal spaces that unfold dramatically, inside long perpendicular volumes surgically inserted into the landscape. “Artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Sol Le Witt transformed the environment by placing assertive new objects into it,” wrote Hans van Dijk in 1994 for Archis, the Dutch experimental architecture magazine, “And that is exactly what Souto de Moura does.”
Donald Judd was a definite influence in Souto de Moura’s trajectory. The architect first studied sculpture in college, and attributes his transition to architecture to a meeting with Judd in Zurich. But other influences are felt in Souto de Moura’s work: Portuguese architects Siza and Fernando Távora, as well as Le Corbusier, and especially Mies. Sometimes described as “a Miesian architect,” Souto de Moura has admitted being “passionate about Mies van der Rohe,” and much of his work evokes the German architect’s.
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In Souto de Moura’s Burgos office tower, a project that took almost twenty years to build, the homage to the Seagram building is evident, its Miesian roots more than apparent in two dark, rhythmical volumes. The seventeen-story tower rises alone in the huge lot that was cleared for construction, unusually tall for the city, and the lower volume—a shopping mall—replicates and anchors the tower beside it. The Burgos office tower is, today, the most visible building within a mile of its site in Porto, and it represents a more recent side of Souto de Moura’s work: public buildings and more ambitious architectural gestures.
Of these, his Braga Municipal Stadium, sitting atop a hill that was once a quarry, is the most striking and dramatic example. Part of a commission by the Portuguese state, the stadium, one of ten built for the 2004 European Soccer championship, is the only one to break free of the traditional typology. Two parallel concrete stands, brutalist at times, with gravity-defying sloping roofs, are thrust into a wall of the former quarry on one side, revealing and framing the pitch dramatically, opening it to the light of the sun and stars. For Souto de Moura, who was given free rein, this was a true gesamtkunstwerk, from “intervening in the landscape to drawing the doorknobs,” the architect has said. “It’s a project…in which the faults are mine.”
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Many of Souto de Moura’s public projects are smaller interventions. The architect has taken up requalification projects, like the Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro, in Amares, or the Portuguese Center for Photography, in Porto. Both are historical buildings flawlessly renovated, the architect’s attention to detail apparent in every inch. Similarly, Souto de Moura’s project for the Porto light rail system has a light touch, seamlessly embedded in the fabric of the city.
One of the architect’s most poetic interventions is the Portuguese Pavilion at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, in collaboration with the artist Angelo de Sousa. Souto de Moura covered an old warehouse facing the Grand Canal with glass inside and out, multiplying the space and making it disappear at the same time. “It’s obvious that architecture has an unseen part, that sustains it,” Souto Moura has said about the project. “Because architecture isn’t a door and a window,” and it must start from within. “Architecture is an almost unconscious process that then acquires an added value than cannot be foreseen or directed. It’s discerned. And we shouldn’t think too much about that process.”
Although it boosted the morale of his economically-depressed country, the Pritzker seems to have left Souto de Moura unfazed. He recently defined himself as part of “Europe’s most marginal country,” and “the less flamboyant… among Portuguese architects…defending architecture that is almost anonymous—well done, but almost anonymous.” The award might offer him opportunities to build abroad, but the architect is pragmatic. “I like to build in Portugal. I feel at home,” he said with a smile.