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June 2, 2011 5:42 pm

Modest figure’s towering success

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Paulo Rego Museum
 Paula Rego museum in Caiscais designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura

At the end of a dusty alley on the outskirts of Porto stands an unassuming white office block. That small building has now become the unlikely home of the world’s largest concentration of winners of architecture’s biggest prize, the Pritzker.

Its architect was Alvaro Siza, one of the finest designers of the modern age, who was awarded the Pritzker in 1992. On another floor is the office of Siza’s former employee and close friend Eduardo Souto de Moura, who received the prize at a ceremony attended by Barack Obama on June 2.

Souto de Moura is one of the greats. His work is understated, pure and utterly seductive. He achieves a kind of minimal architecture that appears effortless yet somehow seems to embody the whole of history, from the subterranean ruins of archaeology to the cleanest, most precise modernism. I cannot imagine any architect I would rather see get the prize. Yet, eschewing the international blockbusters and self-conscious cultural icons that are the currency of contemporary architecture, and rarely venturing beyond Portugal, he has, until now, remained almost unknown outside architecture – and even inside he is only a cult figure.

Born in Porto, where he has lived and worked ever since, Souto de Moura is a big, bearded bear of a man, his black bushy eyebrows looming over his glasses like a warning not to ask stupid questions. Quiet and uncomfortable in the limelight, he is the antithesis of the globe-trotting superstar. Instead, he has built a portfolio of poetic buildings that nestle in the Portuguese landscape like structures hewn out of its very earth. Whether he is meticulously renovating the Santa Maria de Bouro monastery and attenuating the ruined walls into a sublime hotel, or dynamiting rock to carve a football stadium into the rocky hills of Braga, his particular architecture seems able to bond buildings to the landscape.

In Porto, his urbane Burgos tower is a fine a piece of modernism, easily the equal of Mies van der Rohe’s sleek downtown towers. His stations for the subway system are cool, elegant civic masterpieces, unassuming, clean and functional, as is his seafront promenade in Matosinhos.

There is a mature confidence in the work, in the use of simple materials, careful crafting, fine joints and delicate details. This is an architecture of craft and culture.

Most recently, Souto de Moura’s Paula Rego museum, the “House of Stories” in the resort of Caiscais, near Lisbon, brought him a little overseas attention. The building presents an odd profile, a pair of solid red truncated pyramids containing truly compelling spaces and galleries.

Why Porto should have bred these two superb architects is an interesting question. Both have deep connections to the place, slowly engaging with its traditions, its tropes, its stones and streets. Both have refined a craft that draws on international developments but blends them with an intimate feel for this part of central Portugal.

It is difficult to imagine that even a Pritzker prize could turn Souto de Moura into the kind of brand that has become de rigueur for contemporary global architects – he is too connected to place and culture and seemingly quite content to do what he does best.

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