The architectural approach of 2011 Pritzker Prize-winner Eduardo Souto de Moura can be difficult to summarize. His convictions on matters of aesthetics and design are strongly held, but also highly individual and at times even unusual. In his work, this translates to buildings that are enigmatic, yet not flashy—in the words of the 2011 Pritzker Prize jury, “His buildings have a unique ability to convey seemingly conflicting characteristics—power and modesty, bravado and subtlety, bold public authority and sense of intimacy—at the same time.” In the latest interview from his “City of Ideas” series, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks to Souto de Moura to probe his architectural mind and understand the thinking behind these powerful yet modest works.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I had a chance to visit your Paula Rego Museum in Cascais outside of Lisbon, which is a very sculptural composition of iconic forms...
Eduardo Souto de Moura: Why are you saying it is sculptural? I don’t agree.
VB: [Laughs.] Well, I am just expressing my impression and you can tell me why you think it is not sculptural.
SM: I like sculpture. I like art. But architecture is not art, and it is not sculpture. The Paula Rego Museum is not a sculpture because a sculpture has no function inside. If I cut a sculpture—inside there will be nothing. Paula Rego Museum is architecture. The museum is a complex of several buildings. They contain drawings, paintings, and installations for the permanent collection, a bookshop, a cafeteria, and one space in the middle for temporary exhibitions. The museum is very small, just on the ground floor, so from a distance you can’t see it. Where is the museum? So I proposed to identify these different spaces of the museum with red towering forms in contrast to the greenery and tall trees all around. The scale of these forms is similar to a palace nearby and the materials I used are similar to other memorable buildings in the area. So the museum is constructed out of my memory of the place.
VB: The reason I wanted to start this conversation by talking about your interest in sculpture has to do with sculptor Donald Judd. You knew him in person, right?
SM: In 1993, I was teaching in Zurich and my students introduced me to the work of Judd. I didn’t know it before. They gave me his book Architecture and I went to see his furniture exhibition in a gallery in Zurich. I bought the catalog and read his texts, and became fascinated with his writings. He said he was tired with the very abstract solitary work of a sculptor and he expressed a desire to do architectural projects with social purpose. When I read it, I identified it with my own desires because I felt tired with architecture and I was still dreaming about becoming a photographer. In the book, he said that he didn’t want to work alone like an artist. The artist lives alone, while the life of an architect is the opposite. We are surrounded by too many people who want to influence our decisions—our collaborators, engineers, politicians, the public, and so on. Anyway, I liked his ideas and one day I was in a bookstore and heard someone talking about Portugal and Álvaro Siza. So I came up, introduced myself, and the person was Donald Judd. We started talking and I promised to him to organize his lecture in Porto. A few months later, we received all the necessary support for his trip and then we found out that he passed away from cancer. After that, I visited his foundation in Marfa, Texas and saw many of his installations in open landscapes and small buildings that he remodeled and built. I like how he crosses abstract art with vernacular art and architecture. He is a hero to me, and one of the key references for my architecture. Mies van der Rohe is another important influence.
VB: So after what you told me about being influenced by Judd, would it be accurate to say that your work is a cross between sculpture and architecture?
SM: No! Forget sculpture. I am not a sculptor. My point was that Judd shifted from sculpture to architecture because he was tired of working alone as a sculptor, gravitating toward the much more collaborative work of an architect to produce work that has a social dimension and social significance.
VB: What would you identify as the main intention of your work?
SM: There is no intention! I hate when architects try to explain their intentions by saying that they want to make poetic architecture, for example.
VB: You said that “narrative architecture is a disaster.”
SM: Exactly. I don’t like explanations and particular emotions that are intentionally provoked. For me, an object is enough. I am not interested in knowing what the author wanted to say. I want to read and interpret architecture for myself.
VB: You want to make architecture itself, not represent anything.
SM: I want to make objects where people can live and be happy. I hate Intentions in Architecture, the book by Christian Norberg-Schulz. And I like the phrase, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” You can’t rationalize the process. A project is not a meaningful conclusion. If you try to explain your intentions, you are lying.
VB: Then what is your goal? What do you want to achieve with your architecture?
SM: First, to express my personal way, my personal opinion. I am my own client, meaning that first, I do architecture for myself. If I am happy, if my work is useful, and it makes my client happy then the goal is achieved. Architects who say they are working for others are lying. I have to satisfy myself first. If that happens, there is a chance for others to be satisfied as well.
VB: How do you typically start a project? I read that you never like to start something entirely from scratch.
SM: It is not wise to start from scratch. There is so much knowledge... I often recycle my previous projects to see how they can adapt to the new situation. This is just to start and then they transform. Every time I start a project in the hope that it will change into something. If nothing changes, the project is over. The quest is fulfilled. When I work, I need as much information as possible. I always challenge my forms and plans to see how they conform to the problem at stake. And, of course, you always need a client. Even if a client is stupid, I need his stupidity. I can’t work in a vacuum. There is no one process. The beauty of life is in its contradictions. I need tension. Le Corbusier said, “Architecture is not this or that; it is in between.”
VB: Your book, Floating Images: Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Wall Atlas features your sketches, photos of various projects, ruins, clippings from newspapers and magazines of houses, medieval towers, aircraft carriers, offshore oil platforms, ads of elegant dresses and cigarette packs. All these images are pinned or archived at your studio here. What role do they play in your work and how do they influence you?
SM: Directly. It is like a flash. I see something intriguing that sparks my interest. I don’t think about it. If I like an image, I keep it and I might use it or I may never use it. Look at this picture on the wall. [Points to a picture pinned on the wall right behind me.] This was a fire in China. If you frame it in a particular way, you may recognize some projects by Frank Gehry in there. There is a connection between such images and projects. But I don’t like explaining how the process works.
VB: So you collect these images and they may spark this flash one day or they may not...
SM: Architecture is all about copying. We copy the things that we see. But when this copying process happens consciously it is a disaster. It should be subconscious, almost unintentional.
VB: So nothing is invented. This process of coming to a solution is transformational.
SM: Let’s say I have a library of images in my head. When I am working, these images come up. This is unconscious. I look beyond solution; I look for an expression. I also collect phrases. For example, I like Freud’s, “From error to error one discovers the entire truth.” Another one is by Beckett, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." So the intention is always the same—to try to find something special and personal.
VB: You mentioned that Mies is one of your main influences. But only a few of your projects, such as your Torre do Burgo here in Porto, hint at that. What is it that draws you to his work?
SM: He is perhaps the most contradictory architect. He said one thing but did something entirely different. He designed glass buildings but lived in a 19th-century stone neoclassical building. Mies said, “Beauty is the mirror of truth.” But look at his detail drawings. I have a whole collection of them here. All of those drawings are lies!
VB: [Laughs.] But they are so beautiful to look at.
SM: Oh, they are divine! [Laughs.]
VB: So you are saying that these complicated layered details are not necessary.
SM: Of course, they are necessary! That’s what makes architecture. These beautiful details may not be functional, they are not truthful, but they are so beautiful and therefore, essential. They are a sort of skin-deep make-up... As Nietzsche said, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” All façades are fake. I tried to show that in my Torre do Burgo project. Every façade is a story, a point of view...
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.