Eduardo Souto de Moura (Porto, Portugal, 1952), Pritzker Prize laureate of 2011, talks with his fellow architect and former dean of the Helsinki University of Technology, Juhani Pallasmaa (Hämeenlinna, Finland, 1936) about the influence of their countries in today’s architectural panorama.
The architect and the critic conversed at the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Madrid.
Juhani Pallasmaa: We both come from countries considered the periphery of Europe. I have always felt that the peripheral condition is a very positive one, since one can observe from a critical distance and also with certain delay. Which events would you say are changing this center-versus-periphery concept in Europe and the world?
Eduardo Souto de Moura: I was educated in this concept of periphery. I used to talk a lot with Siza about the culture of the local, and think that back then it was logical, but it is no longer so. Today it is easier to get to Paris than to travel to some regions in my own country, like Évora, basically because I have to go by car and it takes five hours instead of the two-hour plane to Paris. The concept of distance has changed. In architecture it is very similar. I remember one of my first projects, the Braga Market, where I designed a 100-meter-long concrete wall. The mayor told me then: “Eduardo, this is very expensive. Can you do it cheaper? In stone, for example?”
This anecdote is interesting because Jacques Herzog, who once heard me explain the project, was surprised about how rich Portugal was, building, as we were, in stone in 1984, something impossible to imagine in Switzerland. In this model, local stone is cheaper but local wood, for example, costs twice what it would cost in the north of Spain – I go to Vilagarcía de Arousa to buy American pinewood.
Siza, like most architects from Porto, was much influenced by the work of Alvar Aalto because he defended the use of local materials. This idea created an anti-avant-garde culture in the city, so the movement arrived later in Portugal, being, as it is, a peripheral country. Even so, I am still quite skeptical about this concept of periphery.
JP: I think this question of identity is very interesting and important. I have been traveling the world since I was veryyoung – I am currently on my 86th trip around the globe – and the more I see, the more I feel my roots, the more I enjoy coming back home. Alvar Aalto made the point in a couple of interviews and essays, stating that local and universal are not opposites.
ESM: A Portuguese poet, Miguel Torga, said: “Universal is a house without walls.” I like this phrase. The distance between local and universal is small. What I like about Le Corbusier is that he found a universal language, the universal house. But it was also always local, all his architecture comes from the vernacular.
JP: I agree. At the same time, however, it is important to see the way we are mixing cultures, rather violently, not only in Europe but around the world. And I think this question of identity and background history has become very important and complex.
In Praise of the Window
ESM: We have to rebuild geography. You can move ideas around, but the physical landscape does not change. I cannot make the same building in Chicago and in Lisbon.
JP: Exactly. You cannot change the climate, for example. When I was young I did not pay any attention to these things, but with age I have come to understand more and more that I am a product of a local situation. I personally have had the fortune of traveling around the world and knowing the world, but I realize that I see it from a very distinct point in southern Finland.
ESM: When I started working as an architect, I was afraid of windows. When I had to design a window, I panicked. It is the most difficult thing to do in architecture. Opening a negative in a wall is very complicated.
JP: Also, the window is the most powerful way of connecting buildings with landscapes, which brings us back to the idea of place. Merleau-Ponty makes an interesting point when he says we don’t come to see the work of art, but the world according to the work of art. I think that’s the essence of architecture: what a window reveals.
ESM: Perhaps that’s why, like a Matisse painting, they are so difficult to design. Last week we won a competition for a theater where we reused a facade of a disciple of Perret, with vertical windows and an elegant proportion. I liked the idea of a conflict between Perret and Le Corbusier, with horizontal and vertical windows, so I proposed both in the same part of the building. Finally they advised me not to use horizontal windows, which surprised me because it seemed such an authoritarian ban in the 21st century.
JP: That makes me think that as a real architect, you have to reinvent the window every time.
ESM: That’s right. And it is dramatic for me… I think that Siza or Moneo, in the morning, after brushing their teeth, design a window. Just like that. They are naturals. When Siza and I designed the Portuguese pavilion in Hannover, the pavilion was built with a cork facade, a very abstract curved roof, a big wall, and a kitchen behind. Once, visiting it with Siza, I told him: “Alvaro, there is a problem because the firemen say we have to open a security door in the wall.” It was a big wall, very abstract, like a sculpture, and the door would make it very domestic. Siza then designed a door in five minutes, and that is how it was done later. I kept looking at the door using my hand to blind it, and I realized it was actually better with the door. It became a real window, which had to do with life, not the gesture of an artist’s installation.
JP: For me a window is the eye of the building, and the door is the mouth. They are essential to the physiognomy of the body, of the building. In my own designs I have never been able to understand the door as a given. I always start with the question of what the door is. There is always a distinct context and a purpose for the door, and every door is fundamentally different.
ESM: That is the real problem of architecture. When I was in Paris, I had lots of discussions with Aldo Rossi about windows. He would say: “Eduardo, you always have to think of the practical issues: from the inside to the outside, from the outside to the inside.” It is like designing a portrait.
Creativity and Crisis
JP: You began in Porto and now you work in many parts of the world. Do you feel comfortable working abroad?
ESM: I am grateful to be working in many countries, and it would not be right to say that I do not like it, but I do prefer to work in Porto. For me, the most important thing for an architect today is to have time. Time to think, to change, to make models, do sketches, go to the construction site on a Saturday morning when nobody is there, take pictures… It’s like gastronomy: you can’t go there in a rush. You have to enjoy it quietly. If the quality of architecture today is poor, it’s because time is money, and clients impose tight deadlines – which is normal, the problem is that architects accept it.
JP: Sigfried Giedion, in Space, Time and Architecture, talks about how Finland is with Alvar Aalto, the same way that Spain is with Picasso or Ireland with James Joyce. How strongly do you do your work from a Portuguese perspective?
ESM: What I like most about Portugal is the atmosphere, the mood. Architecture is not only physical. If you design a chair, you can do it alone in a week, but designing something in a place, in a country, involves thinking about many other things. That is why architecture is a social matter. To obtain high quality in architecture you have to think about time, material, craftsmen, a good relationship with the client… There is no good building with a bad client.
JP: When I was in Doha teaching, I couldn’t think of designing anything, I wouldn’t have known where to start. In my experience it is a city with no place at all, just a limitless placelessness.
ESM: The car and the hotel. But this matter of the regional and local is interesting. I talked about it with Kenneth Frampton, who always defends regionalism. It’s a bit ridiculous now to talk about regionalism as it was understood before. There is now a new regionalism. Pachi Mangado frequents Portugal because he’s interested in Portuguese crafts, and he comes to discuss one thing or another with the craftsmen. It is a team. I feel more identified with this kind of work than with how they do it in Lisbon. It is not a question of rivalry, but of empathy.
JP: I feel the same way, since Finland has the tradition of not talking. In Finland the quality of architecture is better when there is a crisis (economic, political, social) and goes down during times of wealth, when things are taken for granted. Architecture can’t exist without the belief that there is a future. Architecture is grounded on hope.
ESM: When people ask “Eduardo, what would you say to young architects in this time of crisis?” I say I have always worked in crisis. It is good to represent an opposition to crisis. In Chinese, crisis means change and project, always positive. You must also be careful because there’s a lot of opportunism. Clients, for instance, always try to reduce budgets and so on…