Beauty is the Tension Between Two Different Things

architect Eduardo Souto de Moura
interviewed by Luciano Basauri, Vera Grimmer, Ana Dana Beroš

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Interviewed in Zagreb 8 May 2009


With the Municipal Stadium in Braga, one of the most fascinating recent sports buildings, Eduardo Souto de Moura achieved worldwide fame, while professional circles have long been approvingly following his consistent, yet ambivalent path in architecture. As a student and associate of authorities like Fernando Távora and Álvaro Siza, he started his work in the age of Postmodernism with a clear decision to go along the path of radical Modernism, championing Aldo Rossi and Mies at the same time.


In his architecture, Souto develops a strategy of fabricated naturalness, because he prefers the marble of the Pantheon to marble still in the mountain. Souto’s architecture, although seemingly harmonious and simple, is not a linear process, but allows arbitrariness and contradiction.



ORIS: At the time when you finished your studies, the language of architecture in Europe and the US was postmodern, but your work began as resistance to this postmodern system. Was it partly because at that time in Portugal after the Carnation Revolution, society was more democratic and hierarchical use of postmodern architecture would not be appropriate.


Eduardo Souto De Moura: There are two reasons. The first, during fifty years of fascism, modern architecture was forbidden, it was considered communist. If a young architect wanted to experiment in modern architecture, he would have had to do something in the African colonies. Second, when the revolution finished, I was a young architect working with Siza, and I also studied and worked with Aldo Rossi. I understood some criticism about modernism, but one thing is Rossi and the erudite architects, and another thing was the unjust criticism towards modernism. For all the problems of the city and housing, modernism was guilty. I started my profession in a country without housing, hospitals, schools and so on. There were some programmes after the revolution, to rebuild the country. After the revolution, there were a lot of problems with housing, schools and so on, and for me it was something similar to Europe after the war. Modernism was not a choice of language but a possibility to rebuild the country. I said I don’t have to work with this postmodern language because I have no money, and I think it is stupid for a country like Portugal to have columns and so on. I don’t know whether this answers your questions about two reasons: one is personal and the other is pragmatic.


ORIS: How important is the issue of continuity for you? You said once that house typology has not really changed since Roman times. This second skin, which a house is for a man or a family, doesn’t change so much in typology because man doesn’t change.


Eduardo Souto De Moura: Man changes, but the house doesn’t change so much, I think. It’s not a conservative view about this theory. What I think is that the first thing when I criticize postmodernism saying that postmodernism criticism is unjust, towards modernism. Modernism is not against history, it isn’t against classicism. It’s a new classicism with other materials, other technologies, but the types are the same. It’s another way to see, like Picasso. He repainted the classic pictures about the history of Spain in another way.


ORIS: Let's speak about the early modern movement in Portugal and your teacher Fernando Táávora. He was the first to make constructive criticism of the modernist movement and the inclusion of the modern tradition and local knowledge in Portuguese architecture. How has his teaching affected your work?


Eduardo Souto De Moura: I think that he had a reason when he proposed some books about architecture and when he talked about Team X criticizing Le Corbusier. I think he had a reason. But I think it’s a problem of time. Its very approach was very radical. You can prove that Le Corbusier was a classical architect. He invented architecture with modern possibilities, with local materials and local typologies. And they work very well with a great architect. But I think that Távora reduced the problem because he cannot use the traditional and the vernacular lessons of discourse in the city, because the city is modern. After the war, when a new culture was started, like Parisian philosophy, it’s an urban culture, like jazz music. He was trying to go to the mountains to study the houses in the villages. It’s a bit nostalgic and romantic. It was also very dangerous because Salazar wanted a national Portuguese architecture. The lessons of traditional history and vernacular architecture cannot be used in the city. I remember one time while I was working with Siza, they asked me to do a lecture about Alvar Aalto in Lisbon because he couldn’t go, he had to be in Berlin. He asked whether I could do this lecture. But of course, he was afraid, so he asked what I was going to say about Alvar Aalto. And he was not my hero. He was very radical, and I didn’t agree with him very much. His designs are made very well, but if he wants to be an expressionist and to provoke emotions, architecture is not a discipline for this. If you want to provoke emotions, you make music, paintings, write poetry and so on. I’m not interested in the cubes in lakes in Finland. And Siza was completely furious. ‘You don’t understand him, and you work in my office!’ he yelled. He then asked me who my hero was. ‘Mies van der Rohe,’ I said.


ORIS: Are you interested in Mies’s artefacts or in his search for an ideal Platonic form?


Eduardo Souto De Moura: I love Mies, but he’s the most contradictory architect I know. And when someone is contradictory, it means that he’s a rich man. Mies was fresh air after Michael Graves and so on. I was invited to make a market in Braga. I said I would make something clear with structure, I need something clear. I needed a structure, without material. I started studying Mies. He started postmodernism saying that the shapes are true and the materials are not true. All the structures of Mies are manipulated. The corners of Mies’ building are very elegant, but they aren’t real corners. The structure is not real structure, façades and so on. I like this contradiction.


Contradictive man as a rich man is also reflected in the work that needs contradiction. When he discovered Frank Lloyd Wright and Dutch neoplasticism, he had at all times this ideas about open, abstract, unfinished, perhaps it’s even classicism. He had a house in Lake Shore Drive but never went to live there. He proposed his furniture for all these apartments. If you see the photography of Mies’s House, sitting in an armchair with a lamp, with books, with Picasso and Kandinsky, it’s a contradictionI gave a lecture saying why Mies van der Rohe never goes to live in Lake Shore Drive.


ORIS: I think that this is more about you than Mies van der Rohe, but then again, Mies being a very important figure, it is important to know what are your thoughts about him. Nobody really dares criticize Mies van der Rohe. You’re not criticizing him, you’re making a dichotomy. Would you agree that the philosophy is quite consistent in the way that the main motto is to think with the maximum means of reasoning and thought, to make things appear easy, as if they are effortless, as if they are not a burden, as if they are not forced, as if they are sort of naturally composed and arranged, deployed. The same as any kind of discourse or rational reasoning when you want to convey a complex thought, you have to dominate a force so that it appears a simple thought that everybody can relate to.


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  I don’t have problems with any kind of effect you need to achieve, any kind of means you need to have in order to achieve a particular effect.


It is like Borges used to do; write with a lot of effort so as to appear effortless.


ORIS: We were speaking about Távora. You quoted his saying that in architecture the opposite is also true. You have these two projects, two houses in Ponte de Lima and two houses in El Duero. They have the same programme, but you demonstrate this idea literally, how the attitude can be completely opposite.


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  It’s true because these two houses are independent. During history, sometimes people made the houses here like castles or palaces. We can make this very artificial, saying ‘I’m here, I’ve arrived,’ or put something calmer, saying ‘I live here but I don’t want to disturb anybody.’ If you have different families, different places of life, it’s stupid to make them equal. I proposed one house horizontal and another one vertical. And the client said, ‘I never thought my holiday house was a tower. My dream is to have something horizontal, with a swimming pool and a roof.’ I think that Távora is a reason for this explaining. In architecture the contradiction can exist, like by Corbusier, the machine à habiter and then Ronchamp.


ORIS:Talking about contradiction in architecture, your work is actually intertwined with a number of contradictory concepts. We can start with the concept of authenticity and simulation, or even the complexity or simplification of design. Actually, we can follow most of these contradictions in your project for the Braga municipal stadium.


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  One thing is to show the contradictions, because architecture is rich and good. Beauty is the tension between two different things. We can show this tension sometimes as writers, or we can work in architecture. For instance, the most contradictory house, and nobody says that it is like that, is a house with a lot of platforms in stone, in Moledo do Minho. I changed the mountain, and I destroyed all the things, I made another platforms, the client paid. People said, ‘Oh, the house is very quiet, very well configured.’


ORIS: When we speak about this house, we can see this is what you call ‘la naturalitad’, which is also an important issue in your work.


Eduardo Souto De Moura: Yes, because I need this tension. Architecture is something artificial. I hate these natural shapes, but I like minimal rational shapes. When they say, ‘Oh, this is cool, it reminds me of a woman’s body,’ I like women, but I don’t see a reason why shapes in architecture have to look like that or like the silhouette of Copacabana. Naturalism is one thing, architecture is another. ‘Natural’ means it was made by God, ‘architecture’ is made by man. I think that God has not made this very well and you have to correct him. You correct the mountains, the water and so on. I’m not religious, but I had a religious education, I respect it, but I prefer things made by man to things made by God. I prefer the Parthenon to the marble stone in the mountain made by God.


These are the principles of landscape architecture of the 16th century, to put order in chaos.


I need nature to make the tension between the two. What is tension? If it’s too much, it’s ridiculous, and if it’s violent, it’s also ridiculous. But if it is calm, like Mies van der Rohe’s work, I like that tension.


ORIS: In two projects, in Estadio and in the project for Chiesa di Misericordia you are using nature, but nature which is already changed by man. You’re working in a quarry, and this adds more tension.


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  One thing is poetic tension, something you see or feel, and I think it’s physical tension. When we speak about the stadium, I needed to introduce the concrete and cables. I needed the stone of the mountain to fix the cables but the stone was not enough to sustain the cables. There is a detail where the concrete enters into the stone, and the negative in the concrete to put the cable, and you can see that they are both working. This is physical. And I use this physical tension.


ORIS: We were talking about the site, the place on which you are building. You said that this is a tool for you to make architecture, just like a pencil is, an instrument. You manipulate the site.


Eduardo Souto De Moura: You need to manipulate the site, if you don’t manipulate it, it’s natural.



ORIS: You said, ‘I am interested in ruins, that is what I like most about architecture, because they are the natural state of a work.’ It’s a bit pessimistic, but beautifully said. Indeed, when one approaches the Santa María del Bouro convent, one really gets the impression of a ruin, but if you come nearer, you see this whole perfect and wonderful architecture and details which are there. It seems that the whole project lives from this ambiguity.


Eduardo Souto De Moura: There are two questions: one is ruins and Santa María del Bouro is the other. I like ruins because they are the only thing in architecture that is true. It’s so true that it is natural. Another thing is Santa Maria. First I went to see the place where the project would be made, it doesn’t matter for architecture but it is important to me. It was a monument that I knew from childhood. My mother lives there, and I always visited this monument in ruins. What was really interesting here was this thing with the trees on the roof. It was the garden I liked, and I liked this room with the table in stone, and the trees on the roof, not in the earth: I proposed to make something near Tavora because he was a teacher of history and he made a lot of recuperation. I made the project completely different, very radical, with these ruins and history and this very radical model. I thought that modern was glass or steel and so on. No, stone is modern, so I made this very primary tension. I showed Tavora the project, and he strongly criticized me. At the end, I invited Tavora and Siza to lunch there, and Tavora wrote me a letter saying, ‘Dear Eduardo,’ since he was my teacher, as well as my friend, ‘I very much like the monastery. Since I am your teacher, I am giving you not 20 (the highest grade), but 19, because the building has no roof.’ It’s the reason why I like the ruins, because it’s like studying anatomy. The French architect August Perret said that a good building gives always a good ruin.


ORIS: How important for you is the social concern and the social effect of architecture? You said speaking about Braga Stadium: ‘One must give people something they can be proud of.’


Eduardo Souto De Moura: When we were invited to make the project, we went to see the site, to see whether it is interesting, and to decide whether we would accept or not. If you understand the first thing that I explained, if there is a problem like the quarry, why did I make something here? The only way to make a good decision is to visit the site after the work and say whether it is better now, or better without the stadium. I prefer the stadium there because I like this game. It’s people in the end, and the name of the work, it’s not my work, it’s not the Stadium of Eduardo, it’s the Stadium of Braga. It’s there because the community wants it there.


ORIS: We come now to the issue of levitation, of floating. The Faculty of Geodesy in Evora and also the Museum in Braganza, you made their volumes float above the ground. So this is a big issue today too, I think, this opposition to gravitation, freedom of materials. What would you say about the importance of this for your work?


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  I never talk about this, but perhaps there is lightness that I like very much. It’s the Six Memos for the Next Millennium of Italo Calvino. We are responsible for using the instruments that we have in our times. If the Chinese had Caterpillars to build the Great Wall of China, they wouldn’t have made it the way it is today. Therefore I think you are obliged to use the possibilities of science, architecture, art and so on. Sometimes the architect can make the white cube and also the tension, because there are two roads, two entrances.


ORIS: Sometimes you might start projects resolving all the requirements and also putting your creative and technical know-how, of course, in which sometimes you would subordinate the object, the final solution of the object to the fact you want to achieve, and then you choose the materials, construction systems, or do you sometimes start the opposite way, you start thinking about the materials you would like?


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  I do both. Sometimes I do two projects, two models and two teams in the studio. One team does one house with the doors and windows, and the other one does something more abstract.


ORIS: So in your creative process you use many variations?


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  I work a lot with a team. If I have a problem between stucco and concrete, I phone the engineer. And then if I have nothing, in the end I ask Siza.


ORIS: If we can speak about your design process, I would like to quote your words on Siza’s process: ‘When everything seems to develop untroubled, Alvaro Siza invents difficulties, he creates a degree of drama, if not, the dust covered models turn grey.’ Do you also feel this affinity for creating or inventing a problem as a design tool?


Eduardo Souto De Moura: I think quality matters. It’s an answer to a problem. If there are no answers for something, if there is no pressure or tension, if the clients say, ‘You can make whatever you want, you have all the money,’ or the programme has one or ten rooms placed like this or this, I’m sure that the project is dry.


ORIS: So the forces that are engaged in the production of a design into an object of architecture, all the different forces, potentials and limitations both, restrictions, possibilities allow you to create and introduce levels of complexity. Is there a case in which you introduce your own level of complexity, not just following a contextual one?


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  It’s in the interest of the project. If you are interested, you’re drawing a lot and deciding what is good and what is not. You make details to check a colour. You make a model, perhaps the height is not good and so on, because you are interested. If you are not interested, you don’t check.


ORIS: You’re controlling the design process, and  your way of thinking and design reasoning is very contradictory. In these limitations which are contextual, and the ones that you make, is there any place for arbitrary decisions?


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  Yes, a lot. I think that the first decisions, most decisions in architecture are arbitrary. Rafael Moneo spoke in a lecture about the arbitrary in architecture given at the Academia De Artes that architecture starts by being arbitrary. The qualities that are going to justify the decisions, that are or will be arbitrary, are the rules that you find or build in order to support the arbitrariness. The whole process of design is about finding out your own discourse, not only to justify, but to play upon and give back coherence. He started the lecture about how you can justify the Greek temples, because there are physical reasons for it. But you don’t have reasons to justify the Corinthian order. It’s a declaration, it’s something arbitrary. It’s tough with an element that can’t be arbitrary, and then we don’t know the answer to the question whether arbitrary is good or not. When I work with Siza and I continue working with him, when I ask some questions like ‘Why do you want this cube?’ he said, ‘Because I like it.’


ORIS: You quoted Nietzsche in one of your texts, saying that a face that is lying is telling the truth.


Eduardo Souto De Moura:  I used it for the text on the tower on Boavista Avenue. It is made of stone and metal in Boavista. I used a Dom-ino structure and I used metal and stone. And I used this steel structure two millimetres thick. And all the things are like a collage. When I need to open a door in this system, or put in a window, I destroy the system. Therefore, I made a rotation. You do not see the real structure, but the maquillage. But I said, the face that lies, tells the truth.