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Essay

Modern Project and Ancient Architecture
By Carlos Machado
Professor of Contemporary Architecture, Oporto University.

“The Modern Movement is a project and not a language. As yet, nothing has appeared to replace it. It is only the means that have changed. I think that Aldo Rossi was one of those who recovered components that had apparently been forgotten: History, which was implied, but never evoked.” Eduardo Souto de Moura

In considering the Modern Movement as a project, Eduardo Souto de Moura sets out to evaluate the coherence and applicability of its principles, seeking to identify those elements that are enduring. He then compares these principles with the history of architecture. In no way is he attempting a nostalgic return to the early 20th century, nor is he defending any supposedly heroic avant-garde theory based on the idea of permanent ruptures with the past. Rather, he is looking for correlation between building forms and techniques (their appropriateness or their necessity) and between responding to a program brief and demonstrating functional versatility. In each case, Souto de Moura is seeking to understand how formal structures endure over time, discovering their role in the transformation of territory and the reasons for their continued persistence throughout the history of cities.

Eduardo Souto de Moura and six other architects from Porto refused to participate in the exhibition After Modernism (Lisbon, 1983). Nevertheless, they wrote a joint text for the catalogue. Following a brief description of the characteristics of 20th-century Portuguese architecture, they reached the conclusion that there was nothing to be gained by discussing the future of Portuguese architecture from the perspective of contrasting the modern and post-modern, as the promoters of this later movement proposed. And yet, if there was a fundamental problem underlying all projects that Souto de Moura had undertaken until then, it was precisely the relationship of modern architecture with the past, or the “presence of the past”—the theme of the 1980 Venice Biennale that probably lay at the foundation for the After Modernism exhibition undertaken in Portugal. 

“I have always understood the Modern Movement as a continuation of Classicism.” Souto de Moura said in 1994. “Basically, it is a discourse of continuity with different techniques and intentions, but with common underpinnings: proportions, the relationship between structure and form, a refined language.”

New means include industrialized construction systems, concrete and iron, the skeleton structure, etc., as well as abstraction, which is considered necessary for a non-figurative formalization of architecture, as a way of overcoming historic eclecticism. Hence, the acceptance of the hypothesis of a (modern) Architecture for Museums—the title of a text by Aldo Rossi that returns to Cézanne’s announcement of the need for an art whose meaning is derived from the confrontation with its past that only the organized temporal succession of museums enables us to understand.

Souto de Moura is only interested in a modern architecture that, just like the painting that Cézanne set out to produce, is “something solid and lasting, like the art of museums”. Consequently, he immediately understood from the very beginning, when working with Álvaro Siza, that for architecture, cities are in fact like museums, since they are places where different periods are all present at the same time. They accompany one another, overlap with one another, establishing crossovers and giving rise to the city as we know it. Our fascination with cities lies in the infinite variety of its possible correspondences, in both near and distant allusions, in the limitless possibilities for imports and intertwinings. They confront us with the different and even with the exotic. But it is a fascination that also lies in those similarities that seem fatal and necessary, arising from the universal human condition that, in a surprising demonstration of empathy, absorbs everything that is apparently strange or alien. It returns us to ourselves as the heirs of a way of living and giving shape to the things of life that is born with us, recognized as such through different times and places.

For Souto de Moura, this city/museum must be upturned and examined in all of its stratifications—produced by permanent confrontation and overlapping layers—to reveal a past that is also a presence. These successive accumulations carry, if not the material presence of forms and spaces, at least evidence or memories that are also an important part of the city as we know it today. 

It is a clinging to the past that necessarily involves abstraction as a way of thinking, both as a way of seeing and as a formal result. “We must treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone”, said Cézanne to his disciple Emile Bernard—an aim that Le Corbusier returned to some years later in the first issue of L’Esprit Nouveau (1920) “All is but spheres and cylinders. There are simple forms that provoke constant sensations.” The same simple or elementary forms are found in Aldo Rossi’s first architectural designs, simultaneously abstract and evocative of the architecture of the past. 

“Abstraction” and “the city as a museum” are therefore the two complementary terms that enable us to understand Eduardo Souto de Moura’s first works, in which he outlines some of the premises that will later remain with him as firm convictions and will be successively revisited and questioned throughout his career.

For him, abstraction is understood, just as it is by Cézanne, as something that is deduced through observation of the real. That, in turn, leads to a simplification of forms, enabling us to see, for example, cylinders beneath columns, just as Le Corbusier did when visiting Roman houses at Pompeii. Figuration in architecture of the past is replaced by proportion and geometry. It is an attempt to get at the essence of historic forms reducing architecture to its most elementary components, to its volumetric and basic construction principles: “The spirit manifests itself in geometry, proportions are the language of architecture” Le Corbusier also said (leaving in abeyance—as if it has been momentarily ignored—the problem of decoration that will find a variety of solutions in Souto de Moura’s work.) Proportion can be seen as a language, and geometry as a means of organizing space, a tool for rationalizing formal and spatial relations, encapsulating, as Álvaro Siza states in Imaginar a Evidência (Imagining Evidence), the project’s essential core—“Architecture is geometry.” 

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