Eduardo Souto de Moura: “Architects are responsible not only for what they do, but also for what they could have done and didn’t”

19.09.2012, 08:54
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Eduardo Souto de Moura

Eduardo Souto de Moura is a Portuguese architect who was awarded a Pritzker prize in 2011. Recently he gave a talk at Strelka about how to consider the context while constructing a building. Strelka blog met Eduardo for a talk about his experience, views and attitude towards architecture.

How many projects are you working on right now?

None.

What are your plans?

I teach in Switzerland. This is enough to support my family. Sometimes I try to compete in tenders. I keep an office because my staff is very young and if I close it, they’ll have to go to Brazil and Africa; there aren’t any jobs in Europe.

Tell us about how and why you teach?

There’s a syllabus. I give an assignment: Students study a space and develop a design that meets a certain set of requirements. I critique their work and give them 10 minutes to defend and explain their ideas. It’s important not to give them too much time, or else they might go on and on. By the end of the class, we should have developed 15 ideas for the space.

It’s a very intense, critical exercise for the students and for me, but if we do it often, it helps keep us in shape. When the students bring up a social issue or don’t understand something, I try to turn the class into a discussion.

For example, when the Swedes start a project, they always begin by doing the orthogonal structure. But not every space is conducive to this approach. Some spaces are triangular or irregularly shaped. You need to give them information about projects with irregular forms to shatter their preconceptions.

I teach above-average students and with certaincy they’ll produce fewer monstrosities. I worry, because when architects die, their works live on.

It’s important to give architects technical skills, but you also need to instill in them the right culture, one that allows them to understand a space and intervene in it properly. An architect needs to understand that he’s not working on a book or a painting, he’s working on our collective space. It’s a very natural occupation — an architect can physically change a world which is to tell the truth is not well-made.

A thought about architecture’s longevity: Architectural objects aren’t very different from one another. Materials evolve, construction technology improves, ideologies come and go, but in general, things don’t change as much as it seems. It’s more fluid. There are several avant-garde things, but not that many — Soviet architecture, for example.

How do you tell whether architecture is good or bad?

Aesthetic questions are metaphysical questions. What’s beautiful to you might not be beautiful to me. Here’s how I think about architecture: First of all, it’s a question of ethics. Architecture is good when the form — the result of the design process — solves a problem and fits into its surroundings. If society decides that something this architectural object has something more to form than function, if the object is something special; it contains memory and history, it might also be considered beautiful.

It’s like calling the Kremlin “a fortress.” Today, nobody looks at the Kremlin and sees a fortress. Its original function is forgotten, but generations have imbued it with special significance, ignoring its intended purpose and simply admiring it. This means that the object is interesting and timeless. Now, if somebody says, “This should be torn down,” the city replies “No! We like it.” Ultimately, the object becomes an aesthetic, an ideal of beauty.

How did you make the Braga stadium look interesting and unusual from every angle?

I had to build a large model of the building. Three-dimensional modeling doesn’t always work; it doesn’t allow you evaluate every angle.

Braga Municipal Stadium

Another question is about monastery: How do you work with details? How do you get everything right?

It’s important to have one very strong idea that brings everything else together. The details are like punctuation marks in a text. You need them to give the idea rhythm; without periods and commas, some things won’t make sense. When an object consists entirely of details — there are architects who work like this — it’s a catastrophe, it’s too pretentious, it leads to misinterpretation.

That said, a building can’t be silent, or else the words will all pool in one place and there won’t be any rhythm or division of ideas. Plus, you need to arrange the details such that the landscape will be complete. A French philosopher once compared details in architecture to folds in an article of clothing. Finish a wall, fold, finish a wall, fold — it’s all about working with diverse landscapes.

There can’t be any impediments or difficulties. Some materials don’t go well together, and if you try to combine them, you’ll always get the same result. When materials do not fit each other, the laws of physics tell you that problems might arise.

How do you know which materials go together? Do you use reason or gut feeling?

Both. First, you need to look at the laws of physics and logic. Like everything in life, there’s always an alternative. Among the alternatives, you choose according to your taste and safety considerations. You might have the following alternatives for a window frame: plastic, wood, and aluminum. I do not like plastic. It’s like Tupperware for the kitchen. Aluminum is very study, and it’s conspicuous because it reflects light.

Yesterday, I visited a building by Le Corbusier that’s in very bad shape. The facade is more impressive than the rest of the building — it disorients you like a burst of light. The rest of the building is like a dark background. That’s why the appropriate material in this case is wood. It’s a very domestic material. You can paint it as you like. You can control it, it has elegant proportions, it doesn’t ruin the building.
It’s important to see the proportions of the entire building and its parts. For example, if I’m going to a holiday party, I’ll need to wear a tie. The tie should add to what I’m wearing. If I wear a bright, yellow tie that’s a meter long and has green stripes, you’ll only see my tie. What do these details do with a part of the building? They can destroy a building; it’s very dangerous. They shouldn’t draw attention to itself — this is important.

Which modern architects do you like?

Living or dead?

Let’s start with living.

I like the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, and not just because he’s my friend. He’s fashionable and relevant; he never forgets the identity and culture of the past. An architect’s landscape is the past, the present and the future. There’s evolution in his buildings; he very often uses traditional materials to change the landscape and shape the surrounding environment.

Imagine an old man who goes to a formal event wearing a young man’s jeans. Many people approach old buildings in the same way. Alvaro changes a little here, a little there; he changes the proportions and creates a new design supported by the old one. This is very difficult to do. It’s easier to just invent something from scratch.
I like Herzog (Herzog & de Meuron), again, not because he’s my friend. He’s the kind of architect who, when he builds, he brings to life modern forms using materials that have a historical foundation. In the 20-30 years that I’ve known him, he’s taught me one thing — to combine local traditions with modern drafting technology, modern materials and modern paint. His buildings have both a modern form and a local character.

I like Rafael Moneo. Not because of his forms or drawings, but because of how he applies logic to design. He does very intellectual things in order to put the finishing touches on a building, and he has a very conceptual approach.
Jean Nouvel. His buildings don’t stir in my emotions or excite me. I prefer his clever solutions to general problems — problems that I also encounter.
These are the architects that I like the most.

And as for those who are no longer living?

My favorite is Mies van der Rohe. The Mexican architect Luis Barragan. There are many, but these two are terrific.

Luis Barragan – Cuadra San Cristobal – 1966-68

You seem like a very traditional architect. Not judging by your work, but by the way you think. Why?

Things don’t change that much. A house consists of walls and a ceiling. Today, walls are made from all sorts of materials, not just stone or wood. There are different types of ceilings. Now you can make very large houses thanks to modern technology.

When I worked in Macau, I was 30 years old. I read books about Chinese architecture and realized that it’s very much like Roman imperial architecture: There’s a patio, an inner courtyard, daytime and nighttime areas, and a private room. Where the Romans used square forms, the Chinese used circular forms. But the principles are the same.

Once I asked Mies, who built very abstract houses: «Your houses lack tradition.» He replied, «That’s not true. My houses are Neosumerian.» Sumer was part of ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, where you can still find 5,000-year-old houses. I went online and looked at how the houses are divided, and I discovered that they’re a lot like the houses in southern Portugal. Houses don’t change that much, and the purpose of architecture also doesn’t change that much with time.

I’m not interested in the stuff that changes a lot. To invent for the sake of invention, to create strange forms — there’s no point. Why start from zero when we have 2,000 years of building experience? Why not use history to figure out what they did back then, why they did it, with what materials, and under which economic circumstances? To copy or do the same thing is to be reactionary or conservative, but to understand the problem and then apply this knowledge to today’s culture, social sphere and economy — it’s a well thought-out solution. Let them call it «traditional» if they like.

What advice would you give Russian architects?

I’d give the same advice to Russian architects that I give to non-Russian architects, because there isn’t any special difference between architecture across countries.

You need to work hard. Inspiration comes from work. Work harder on understanding than you do on learning to design.

To Russians, I’d say that you’re in a difficult moment of transformation. The greatest changes in architectural have happened as a response to political and social upheavals. Russians have a unique opportunity. They’ve gone through Soviet culture, they’ve gone through some form of democracy, and now they have to start all over again. This isn’t easy. There are no laws or norms. Nobody can give you sound advice.

You need to work hard to understand. The result of this situation might be real change, I think, given that Russians have the money, the work, and the work force. It’s up to people to use the opportunity they have. Architects are responsible not only for what they do, but also for what they could have done and didn’t. This is unforgivable. Russians need to rebuild an entire country. It’s important to understand something about the past — not everything in the Soviet Union was bad. There were some wonderful things. We shouldn’t look at the Soviet past in terms of black and white.

Indeed, we have to start from scratch, because there was a law passed in the Soviet Union in 1955 that made it a crime to create beautiful things.

That’s impossible! Couldn’t make beautiful things, why? That’s like marrying an ugly woman whom you don’t love: «You need to get married; choose this beauty.» «No, I can’t, I have to mary this ugly woman whom I don’t love.» It’s unnatural. I can’t believe it.