· Architecture · · T. Maria Cruz · P. Daniel Camacho

Eduardo Souto de Moura

«Nowadays, space is the luxury of architecture»

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Eduardo Souto de Moura enters his studio a few minutes after the scheduled time. We were waiting for him. We sat down together around a table. And the conversation began to flow. In such a way that, after 60 minutes, there was still so much to say. And ask! Between high spirits, smiles, irony, laughing and complicity... there was time to draw, in just a few strokes, the Villas&Golfe ‘house’ – a challenge thrown down by the journalist –, that we will reveal later in this interview. Souto de Moura has already won the ‘Nobel prize of architecture’, the Pritzker prize, in 2011, and so many other awards that he has lost count, the most recent being the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize which he will receive in May. One of his references is his friend and partner on several projects Siza Vieira – and about him he is more interested in «the character, the man, Siza, the values ​​in which he believes, the way he deals with reality in order to solve problems, than in the actual result itself (architecture)». This is just an excerpt of what resulted from this meeting with the architect, because the greatness of our conversation could never fit in so few pages.

«There are no values, neither religious nor ideological»
How did the year 2019 begin for you? At full pelt or calmly?
At full pelt. There’s a lot going on. Architecture is like a heavy train that, in the event of an accident, takes a long time to come to a standstill, and when everything else is shutting down the building sector is still holding up; and, afterwards it works the other way around, when everything else is already full of optimism, the economy is better and banks provide easier access to credit. Our developer clients are still full of doubts, full of fears. In 2019 many people have decided to move forward, indeed since the end of 2018. That is not to say that, at the moment, people won’t go back to thinking and that they are not afraid.

Why do you think that?
Because there is much talk out there that we will have a crisis in 2021. It is a recurring theme. There was the boost of getting out of the crisis, and construction and architecture took a long time, dragged along, and as they dragged along, this phenomenon appeared that in 2021 there will be a crisis. I myself feel it too. The two largest projects I had have been rejected.

What’s in store for the Souto de Moura firm in 2019?
I have plenty of work, I only wish I could rest, but that’s not what worries me. To top it off, when we were going through the crisis, I was fortunate enough to work abroad. I submitted tenders, above all in France – which is not especially a place where I like to work –; I’m still working on the metro in Italy, in Naples, which has been going on for 15 years, soon it’ll be 16 and this is a project developed together with the architect Siza. I really like it. I have these jobs abroad that are on-going. I’m a professor at the Mantova campus of the Milan Polytechnic. It helps me pay for my groceries (he laughs).
«Portuguese architecture, next to football, must be the best-rewarded profession»
You have already worked on several rehabilitation/reconstruction projects, from the north to the south of the country. As Portuguese culture is so diverse, which regions do you identify with most? Architecturally speaking, of course.
I’m a man from the North, but for Benfica (he laughs). My family is from Braga and I spent my holidays and childhood in the Minho. I have an affinity with the culture of the North, and especially with granite architecture. It’s familiar to me. I know the people who work in granite, the masons, the builders, so I feel at home. However, there is the ‘problem’ of intelligence, you aren’t born intelligent, it’s like gymnastics, you have to train, and when I have to work in the South, I really like Arab culture, plaster, lime, it is another world. And you have to adapt to. I have done works in the South that I enjoyed as much or more than in the North. I did Bouro, a monastery, in granite; then I did the Bernardas in the Algarve, in plaster and lime; in the Alentejo, the Barrocal. When I was a studying at school, the psychology books said: «Intelligence is the ability to adapt to a new situation». So, when I am used to the North and the South appears, I adapt, I create, and train this intelligence.

And what was your most challenging project?
That was the stadium in Braga. That was the most challenging project. Firstly because I did not have time, I was invited at the last possible moment. The project was done during the building works. There was no time to do the project, after the tender and the building work. It was concluded that this was not the way to go. The engineering and excavation projects were done; I did the architecture, with a kind of positive and a negative burden, that being the land. The ground work had already been done – like cake tins (he laughs) –, for the building work to start, and I had neither completed the project, nor the details. The project was unveiled, I think, on December 29 or 30 (2003), which was the last day of the year that was allowed for the unveiling. I remember Visão magazine (and I was very annoyed) saying something like «Braga out of the European, it cannot finish the stadium. Souto Moura to blame». But we managed it.
It is much criticised, and with many controversies. I did not understand anything about football. I invested my time in every week going to watch football. I monitored football, did tests, understood how people left and entered the stadia. The biggest test for stadia is safety; being beautiful or ugly isn’t the issue. Problem no.1 is safety. I had to find out, with a stopwatch, if it was possible to evacuate and how many people. And then there are rules. People think architecture is about inspiration, but it’s nothing of the sort. Architecture is about rules: so many people; quality of passage, if it is one it’s 60, if two it’s 90; there have to be x number of exits. This implies that in case of big trouble, a stadium has to be evacuated in nine or ten minutes. I visited many stadia, abroad, in Italy, in France… I went to the Stade de France three times (at the time it was state of the art), to understand the functionality, the technology, and it left a big impression on me, in a good sense, in realising that it’s a profit-making stadium. There is this idea that the football clubs are all bankrupt, all operating at a loss, all dependent on banks, all across Europe, and the Stade de France is a company that has no club, there’s no wheeling and dealing, and it makes a profit because it is rented every week for commercial events, such as: lorry exhibition, the launch of new Renault tractors, motocross races, festivals... As it has a number of mechanical pitch solutions, that slide in and out of place, it is a scenery machine for events.
Here they say the Braga stadium is a disgrace, but the stadium in Leiria is a disgrace, because besides being badly located, below a castle – I am not speaking badly about the architect, it is he who speaks badly about me (he laughs), and I’m not taking any revenge, on the contrary, I have some regard for him. Leiria is a disgrace, Loulé another disgrace, nothing is happening there, and Beira-Mar another disgrace. And the others, the rich clubs, have coped. Boavista was in trouble, and Braga does not pay anyone at the moment, and ‘not paying’ pays dearly. And now it’s all coming out in the wash, all the way to court action. So they had it coming (he laughs).
«Maybe it’s the country (Switzerland) with the best architects at the moment»
You make your bed, you lie in it...
I went to court because the council (from Braga) asked me to go. I wasn’t upset and bent on justice. Of course I thought I should get what was rightly mine. The mayor said: «I don’t have the money to pay you, we’re broke, and you should file a lawsuit» because there’s a law that works that way. When a local authority owes money to any entity, the court of auditors is required to withhold that amount, put it aside, in the event the suit is lost. They told me: «It’s your only chance!»

What’s the most complex thing in architecture?
It all is (he laughs). To be honest, I don’t think I have ever thought about it. We are more complex, ourselves. It is easy to say that it is others, and to find excuses and alibis. When you are invited to do a project, councils are, in principle, friendly, and say: «Oh Mr architect, if you need anything...»; the clients say, «Ah, I would like it to look beautiful» and they usually pay (not all of them do), they make an effort, they explain, they bring their children, they bring their mother-in-law, their wife... and, after you’ve prepared everything – the eggs and the flour – you have to make the cake, and at this point there are many ways to do things. And the big question is what if it goes wrong. Afterwards, it is also very easy to look for excuses. This did not go well because of who knows what, but things usually go well. And, as architects, we are obliged to get to the heart of what matters and understand. Now there’s a kind of brutal solitude, on a Saturday or Sunday, here in the office...«let’s do this!» And we have no excuse. We know how much it costs, there are three rooms, a garage... the big problem is us, in my case.

Today’s clients, increasingly want the building work to be cheap and quick...
Clients want it all. I find it highly amusing. It’s like ready-to-wear. They want ready-to-wear, but they want the quality of tailor made suits. Then they want to go to pousada hotels, to pretend they are in the past, but they want the comfort of the Sheraton, where the temperature is 24 degrees and in the pousada it isn’t. There’s no harm in asking. Then there’s this spirit of the «nouveau riche». There are no values, neither religious nor ideological. They are starting to appear, but they are not substantiated. Like the young generation. Students are on strike, they are worried about the climate; there is no water. There are problems and new values; it’s just that they’re still hidden.

Dozens of architects graduate every year. Is there room for them all?
No. There is one thing that is fair to say: Portuguese architecture schools are very good. For me especially the Oporto school [not because I was a professor there, because I’ve already left], but there are very good Portuguese architects. Portuguese architecture, next to football, must be the best-rewarded profession. There is Deco, from Urbanism, there is Ronaldo from who knows what (he laughs)... so, the architects are good. There are Erasmus students coming here; there is a very interesting phenomenon here that nobody has ever studied, because they marry one another and stay here. A large number of Italian architects live in Oporto, bridging the gap between architecture, in this case from Italy, and Portuguese architects. During the crisis I got tired of writing to my friends living abroad and not once was I turned down. Especially in Switzerland. Maybe it’s the country (Switzerland) with the best architects at the moment. And the best schools. And there is a certain affinity between Switzerland and Oporto – this is due to Siza, a credibility that Siza introduced -, this is going well. Now they are coming back because the Portuguese are a sentimental bunch and they miss their dried cod (he laughs). Since the situation has improved, many of them are coming home. I also find it funny that there are a lot of foreigners staying. They like this. They already speak like Oporto locals. I know Italians who sound more like locals than my daughters.

You won the ‘Nobel prize of architecture’, the Pritzker. To date only two Portuguese architects have achieved this: Souto de Moura and Siza Vieira. How do you achieve such recognition?
There is a rule in the awards [there is an award that I would like to win that I will tell you about later]: in order to win an award you cannot want it, it just happens. All the awards I have won have been surprises. There is a great background that I have inherited that comes from Távora – who was my teacher – who did something that did not exist. Távora made it so that Portuguese architecture was not provincial. It was regionalist. It had to do with its own, local culture. It was not imported, but it was universal. It was not something in the Minho style, in the Douro style... The more universal the more local and vice versa. Távora understood this mechanism and passed it on, established it and made a school. Then there was someone who understood this, rolled up his sleeves, and did it – that was Siza. I had the good fortune, during the period when the school was practically closed, to work with Siza, and I worked with him for five years and, to this day, I have never stopped working with him [we were recently talking about the Naples metro... 15 years’ talking and still two more to come].
«To win an award prize you cannot want it, it happens»
Besides being architects, you are friends. What is your view of the architectural life of the architect Siza Vieira?
I don’t know how he can handle it all, because I’m 20 years younger and I don’t think I can handle it. He’s a phenomenon, I really have no idea. For me, he serves as an example. What interests me more [I have already said this about twenty times] is the person, the man, the Siza, the values ​​in which he believes, the way he deals with reality to solve problems, rather than the actual result (architecture), because, then, I cannot steal the result from him… that sounds bad (he laughs). I’m on a sort of quest, as to his stance, and how he sees the world and himself. I have enormous admiration for him. He is a reference for me. But it is not about aesthetics. Above all else, it’s about ethics. It is ethical in Siza’s case, aesthetics comes later. There is a manner to him, an obligation that he has, with the world of reality, in that he knows that he has to change it because it is not good and he has to change it to make it better. I think that this is what I’m pursuing and trying to imitate [I don’t want to do a church in some neighbourhood, nor the swimming pool in Leça, I’m not that daft (he laughs)], but I would like to understand how he establishes the rules of the game.

You were just talking about the award that you found out you won yesterday (21-03-2019). Was this another award you were surprised to win?
Every award is a surprise, otherwise you don’t win them. Whoever is expected to win one does not win them. There is an award that I would really love to win, given its name, which is that of my favourite architect, Mies van der Rohe, and there is a Mies van der Rohe Award. I’m sure I will never win it, because I would like to win it, because of the thing with the name (he laughs).

You could still win it...
No, no. The fact of liking it was a bad idea. Trying to take ownership of this project of winning it. But also I already have so many!

You have also already won some, in particular the one yesterday... the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize. 
I hardly knew the one from yesterday existed. Then when I saw the letter [there really are many great architects], I realised that Siza had already won it, many Americans, etc.

Are you going to go and accept it in person (United States)?
No. It’s in late May and as I teach [I do a three-week course every year because I’m a teacher in Milan, in Mantova] I cannot go. It’s a week in Oporto, when I work in Oporto, or in Lisbon, and then I’m in Mantova for two weeks, and I cannot miss it. They pay me well, and I’m not ashamed to say so, and I cannot say to them: «Look, I’m sorry, I’m going off to accept an award now». I have two architect daughters and an architect wife and they will go.

Villas&Golfe office in the eyes of the Architect Souto de Moura

To what areas can you compare architecture?
I read a lot. I think writers help me a lot. Therefore, to literature.

Is architecture luxury?
Architecture is luxury. Because if it’s not luxury it’s construction.

And space is luxury?
It is. Nowadays, space is the luxury of architecture.

If you were not an architect, what would you like to be?
A photographer. I used to be a photographer, but I know I cannot be one. Nowadays I would like to write.

If you were not an architect in Portugal, which country would you choose to practice architecture?
Spain. Because it has the best European schools, to be an architect the courses in Spain take nine years, here in Portugal they take six years. That means, even if they are not great architects, their production is well above average and it is a respected profession.

Do you consider yourself to be classic or irreverent in architecture?
Classic. Utopias are not of much interest. I care about the current movements, not about the future idyllic of utopia. I am interested in the rules that have already worked, that history shows me, and I use them.

What is the most unusual thing you have been asked to include in a space?
I won’t say by whom, but the most unusual thing was a swimming pool up against the bed. You get out of bed and fall into the pool.

Are you a man from the North or from Oporto?
I am from both, but more from the North, because I spent much of my childhood in the Minho, but I always lived in Oporto.

What memories do you recall of your childhood?
The rural buildings in stone and granite, because my family is from Braga. I would spend my holidays in a village near Braga and I have this image of the houses with loose stone walls. My father began to organise visits to castles and monasteries. Later I even got to renovate one of them – the monastery of Santa Maria do Bouro. We had that thing of The Famous Five, adventure books by English writer Enid Blyton. We would go to the ruins and imagine those scenarios. After The Famous Five it was The Secret Seven. Therefore, literature is linked to architecture, even in childhood.

Who would you invite for the perfect dinner?
The pope. I would like to meet him. I admire him. And I’m not catholic. I’m a Christian. But the pope is a ‘guy’ who has taken a spin on this with great courage.

What would you never allow in a space you have designed?
Let me think. That’s complicated. I was going to say Trump, but I don’t want to say it because that’s lame, poor man (he laughs). I would not allow them to change it without telling me. Spaces exist to be changed, I change them myself, and people change them with use, because people do not always get it right. You have to correct things. Now I would not want them to be violated without me knowing.

And does it have to have?
It has to be functional. If it is functional it is also beautiful. Beauty does not exist without utility.

What makes you laugh the most?
I laugh a lot. Humour is the expression of failure in a clever way. Don’t you agree?!

You are very philosophical...
No I’m not, maybe I am (he laughs).

Where is the best place to eat fish in Oporto?
Fish... I like Gaveto. I often order a dish that we used to eat at my parents’ house, which is oven roasted red sea bream. They do it to order and it’s good.

What kind of music do you like?
Jazz and classical.

How do you deal with stress?
By working. Because if I’m stressed it’s because I have a serious problem and as long this problem remains unsolved, I stay stressed. So, it’s by working.

Do you have any holiday time?
I do. There are no ‘holidays’, where you contemplate the sea. I go on many holidays during the year, lasting a few days, two to three days. I travel a lot and often, during the works, instead of going back on the same day, I spend a day in the city.

Does life change every day?
The projects change every day. The projects are life, so ... (he laughs).

And now, we would like to set you a challenge. Imagine that the team from Villas&Golfe, a 17-year-old magazine, asked you to draw/imagine the Villas&Golfe ‘house’/‘office’. In just a few strokes, on a piece of paper, what would you see it as?
I’m looking for the ideal house. I think it exists, but I’m yet to find it. This ideal house is the ideal house for me. In fact, I have already said this to clients and they get angry. They pay me to do the house for them and I’m doing it for me (he laughs). The better it is for me, the better it is for them. Now that we’re being philosophical, Espinoza (the philosopher) said: «I have to be fine with myself to be able to help others and to be fine with others if not ...», I also work like this. Writers are also looking to write the ideal book because they always write the same book. They change the subject, the lady changes, then they put on the red dress..., but the story is always the same. And in architecture we all want to make the ideal house. 

In just a few strokes, what would the architect show us?
I do not believe that architecture is an act of inspiration in which muses appear. You close your eyes... or as with painters... it’s not like that. I need conflict, I need the client, to explain what he wants, and I need the discord, to make me question something and have a flash. Then there is a solution.

And now the blank piece of paper... in just a few strokes, you will imagine what would be our Villas & Golfe world...
I did the tender for the house of a German architect, his name is Shinken, and I did a refinery house. It was all open, he could choose whatever he wanted. I did a Galp refinery house. Iron and such. And I did a Greek temple. I find refineries beautiful. And, maybe, he did a construction there.

Description of the drawing made in 3.55 minutes:
The people themselves are the worst at explaining what they create (he laughs). We have the sea, the water, the beach huts, the seafront road, the bicycle, the refinery, which is closed, and you bought some irons, some beams, and there’s a lift, and you work here. It is dedicated to Villas& Golfe. And it’s signed. Are you going to publish the picture in the magazine?!

Yes.
They’ll say «This guy is full of air» (he laughs).

Not at all. You accepted the challenge, this is different.
And I accepted!

Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
P. Daniel Camacho