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One of the greats

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review - Eduardo Souto de Moura: Works and Projects By Giovanni Leoni and Antonio Esposito. Electa Architecture, 2004. £45.00

There’s a lovely text in this book in which Souto de Moura extols the virtues of Bic biros. Transparent, universal, cheap, lacking any hint of self-consciousness, and a way of avoiding the temptation that a pencil might give for complex and subtle shading, the Portuguese architect regards it as the perfect tool for designing on napkins, matchboxes, notebooks, or whatever comes to hand.


There is a delightful lack of pretentiousness in it, and the pure, beautiful buildings in this book are deceptively simple and unpretentious, yet the authors insist on using the kind of spurious architectural phraseology that reeks of Pseuds’ Corner.


When Souto de Moura himself speaks, however, clarity reappears, and the texts include a very useful three-way discussion between him and his teachers Fernando Tßvora and Álvaro Siza - a kind of Holy Trinity of Portuguese Modernism, possibly unequalled elsewhere. But it is the wonderful photographs and drawings which make this the must-have book on the architect’s architect.


There is an extraordinary range of projects, many of which have been poorly covered (if at all) in English language publications. The really big scheme, the extraordinary stadium at Braga, only just made it in to the book as a series of fine construction photos. It is a remarkable achievement: European Championships or not, can you imagine an architect like Souto being commissioned to build a football stadium in a tiny British provincial town? The result is one of the most spectacular sporting structures of recent years.


The other big project, a series of subway stations in Oporto, is similarly incomplete here, although it is already possible to compare these Miesian structures to Siza’s cool, conservative, tiled tunnels for Chiado station in Lisbon.


But it is for his houses that Souto de Moura remains best known and they are well represented here. His use of local materials and his delicate interventions into historic fabric (particularly with his Pousadas - state-run hotels in historic buildings) have led to him being bracketed with Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalists, but his pared-down Miesian structures seem too close to Modernism to really justify that description. In fact, Souto de Moura is interesting in being one of the few architects who bravely uses the now rather passÚ tag ‘minimalism’ to describe some of his works and gestures.


Yet Souto de Moura also acknowledges his debt to Aldo Rossi, and a self-conscious affinity appears in some of his sketches, which are highly reminiscent of Rossi’s scratchy historical montages. The archetypal urban and platonic forms that preoccupied Rossi reappear in some of Souto de Moura’s roofscapes and fantasies - although in much stripped-down form.


In a roundabout way, this book really does cover all bases. The photographs and sketches alone make it an indispensable record of one of the subtlest and most undersung architects on the contemporary scene, but there is enough text, much of it by the man himself, to illuminate these often enigmatic structures and give a glimpse into the workings of one of the greats.


By the way, the Bic sketches on napkins and place mats also make it into the book, alongside an admirable lack of conventional blue-sky photography. The book is part of a planned trilogy: Siza, already published; and Tavora, yet to come.


It will be a surprise not to see all three on every bright young practice’s shelf.


Edwin Heathcote is architecture correspondent for the Financial Times

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