Crimson Palace

architect Eduardo Souto de Moura
project Paula Rego House of STories, Cascais, Portugal
written by Nuno Grande

PDF Download: Click here.

And so... the concept of the sacral in architecture: the tower is not only a symbol of faith or power. I think of a lighthouse or of the large conical constructions of the palace in Sintra in Portugal, of silos and of chimneys. These latter represent the most beautiful examples of present-day architecture, although they actually reproduce old models: not admitting this is yet another absurd of modernism or modernist criticism.


Aldo Rossi, Scientific Autobiography, 1981[1]



A couple of day ago, when I was leafing through some of the most beautiful drawings and rereading some metaphorical texts by Aldo Rossi, I recalled the House of History, the new museum in Cascais designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura, dedicated to the work of Paula Rego. This connection appeared to me as completely meaningful, bearing in mind that exactly through ‘analogy’, this Italian author consolidated his unavoidable discourse on the building of a city. Later on, I recalled a recent conversation with Souto de Moura during which he described his fascination with Rossi since he had met him in 1975 at a seminar on architecture, held in Galicia.


In fact, Rossian imaginary has always been latent in the work of Souto de Moura during the last decades, implicit in his interest for typological elementariness and spatial repetition, although clearly absent from a symbolic point of view. Whatever the case, what was implicit before has become explicit now, providing body to what is without doubt the most iconic work of Souto de Moura since his City Stadium in Braga.


With this museum, Souto de Moura develops ‘architecture of our time’ although he actually reproduces ‘old models’ – as Rossi advocated in his Scientific Autobiography – by evoking timeless archetypes of urban iconography: towers, lighthouses, silos and chimneys, like the ones that determined the profile of the palace in Sintra. It should not be surprising, to continue the ‘analogy,’ that while describing this museum Souto de Moura even mentions the emphasized roofs of Raul Lino’s palaces or the idea of an ‘inhabited chimney’, recalling the chimney of Alcobaça Monastery’s kitchen[2]. In fact, even in the best sense of interpretation, the House of History is presenting itself as historicist work and this will certainly surprise the most devoted followers and confuse the most diligent critics of Souto de Moura.


We cannot forget that his way has connotations of another architectural era – the time of the heroic avant-gardes of the 1920s and 1930s – with fundamental references to Mies van der Rohe and architectural neoplasticism which used to be taken over cyclically in projects which were mostly of housing scale. This experimenting secured Souto de Moura critical epithets like ‘neo-Modernist’ or ‘Minimalist’ which aspire to crystallize formal models and details drawn out of his work and which are copied by numerous other architects today in a non-critical manner.


Nevertheless, in his attempt to face this unintentional ‘academism’, Souto de Moura confirms that what interests him in Mies is not his typified tendency to criticism, but his interest in classical architecture and his admiration, among others, for an architect from the 1800s, Karl Friedrich Schinkel; or, again, that what interests him in Modernism is not its abstract discourse about ‘tabula rasa’, but its much more precise reinterpretation of historical ‘archetypes’ which were produced by many modern architects – finally, was not Le Corbusier himself fascinated by the plasticity of towers and minarets, silos and house chimneys, cyclically presented on his drawings from his voyages?[3] As Aldo Rossi said: ‘Not admitting this is yet another absurd of Modernism or Modernist criticism.’[4]


It is considered that Souto de Moura in this way influences History and not its avant-garde negation. He is particularly interested in relations, or to use the new term, ‘analogies’, which can be established between different persons in terms of time, like the already mentioned Mies van der Rohe and K. F. Schinkel, but also Adolf Loos and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux or even between Aldo Rossi and Giorgio De Chirico, to mention only one of his favourite painters. In the work of the first two authors, Souto de Moura seeks classical rationality and proportion; in the second two, pure archetypes which he takes as objets trouvés; and in the last two, integration of these lessons into everything metaphysical and timeless.


The House of History project is an eloquent example of all these: it evokes Schinkel’s centralized project for the Altes Museum in Berlin with its arrangement of four wings around a large central volume (a hall for occasional exhibitions); he follows Ledoux’s revolutionary rules from the end of the 1700s by expressing, in his own characteristic monumentality, the bourgeois dimension of public facilities; finally, he plays with different objets trouvés – trapezoid chimneys, cube-shaped volumes, large portals – thus assembling a surrealistic landscape like the ones painted by De Chirico.


It is even possible to establish yet another time related ‘dialogue’ in this House of History, by linking Raul Lino with Álvaro Siza, two unavoidable Portuguese architects of the last century, who are also dear to Souto de Moura. The author recognizes in both the unique ability to unite and tame cultural memories drawn out of the geography and history of a place, by bringing them to his own time. This happened with searching for the definition of the ‘Portuguese House’ which was invented and described by Lino, who also tested it on his palaces in Estorilo, Cascais and Sintra. The same occurred with Siza whose works look as if they radiate from the region in which they are placed, as if they have been there forever, barely discernible in the landscape. For both of them, a ‘house’ has never been a totalitarian body, but a cosmos of parts that are joined together and with their envelopes.


This is exactly what Souto de Moura tests in this new ‘house’ for Paula Rego, by disassembling its shape, cutting its interior, forming its volume in relation to the surrounding lines of trees. And more than that: Souto de Moura will search in Raul Lino even for a decorative dimension, taken from oxidized pigments of raw concrete, but also the streaked effect of its shuttering which reminds one of the paintings made of ceramic tiles which are to be found in these palaces; from Siza, the author takes over typological skill, repeated in his work, by giving a special main role to the corners of the museum as spaces of interior transitions, but also as ‘facets’ opened to the outside landscape.


Finally, we are left with the last relation in order to understand the House of History: the relation of the architect with the artist herself, who ‘resides’ in this house. Souto de Moura encountered her work a long time ago, but they did not meet personally until this occasion. To his surprise, it was precisely Paula Rego who mentioned his name for the realization of this project and invited him to visit her in her London atelier in November 2004 and to see a temporary exhibition of her work which was organized by Tate Britain at that time. Souto de Moura[5] talks about how they walked through the exhibition spaces for quite some time until, finally, Paula Rego exclaimed, after opening the doors of another room where Francis Bacon’s paintings in orange nuances were exhibited on bluish walls: ‘Look, this is what fascinates me!’


This scene had an impact on Souto de Moura and he became aware that, like him, Paula Rego had built her own way by visiting other artistic imaginaries, other narrative archetypes – in a certain way, her objets trouvés – in which she would find influences of history of art or at least her own ‘history’. Different authors who are inclined to her picturesque work connect these separated imaginaries[6] not only with Bacon, but also with Velázquez, Goya, Dubuffet, Ernst, Balthus, Picabio and, of course – and with this we reach the point of this text – with De Chirico. Indeed, there is ‘De Chiricoian’ spatial depth in the work of Paula Rego which is not unnoticeable by architects.


Eduardo was also susceptible to this depth when Paula asked him to create a place ‘of history and drawing, entertaining, unpretentious, vivid, full of joy and much malevolency’.[7] And thus he designed this crimson palace, full of ‘malevolencies’ drawn out of the ‘history’ of architecture, but also full of ‘joy’, sometimes melancholic, which he personally learned with Álvaro and Aldo: a palace, as we have already said, made of ‘analogies’, in other words, made of imaginary stories.


[1] Free translation by the author: Rossi, Aldo, Autobiografia Científica (Scientific Autobiography), Barcelona, Editorial Gustavo Gilli, SA, 1984, p 90 (1st Edition, 1981)

[2] Idem.

[3] Cf. Le Corbusier, Voyage d’Orient (Voyage to the East), Paris, Electa/Fondation Le Corbusier, 2002

[4] Rossi, Aldo, Autobiografia Científica (Scientific Autobiography), Barcelona, Editorial Gustavo Gilli, SA, 1984, p 90 (1st Edition, 1981)

[5] Grande, Nuno

[6] Cf. Rosengarten, Ruth (ed.), Compreender Paula Rego (To Understand Paula Rego), 25 Perspectivas, Porto, Fundação de Serralves / Público, 2004

[7] Grande, Nuno