Among the vanguard of modern Portuguese architects, Eduardo Souto de Moura emerges from a recently revitalized architectural tradition that was singularly rich in the Renaissance and baroque periods. In the transition from the 15th to the 16th centuries, with astounding wealth accruing from a growing number of colonies, Portugal experienced a flourish of late Gothic building. This was the Manueline period, named for Manuel I (reigned 1495–1521) under whom colonies in southern Africa, the Indies, the Far East, and Brazil were discovered and settled. In the 18th century, with gold and diamonds flowing into the country from Brazil, the Portuguese baroque reached one of its most intense periods.
During most of the 20th century though, economically stagnant and politically authoritarian, the only “modern” construction of buildings in Portugal were scattered examples of a neoclassical block-like fascist structures. The impetus for modernist architecture in the Portuguese-speaking world came not from Portugal but from Brazil, primarily with the inauguration in 1960 of Brasilia. That futuristic capital’s signature structures, the presidential residence, the cathedral, the Congress, and the Foreign Office reflected the influence of Le Corbusier as interpreted with lyrical, tropical exuberance by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. Aesthetically Portugal itself only became free to follow this style after the democratic revolution of 1974. Financially it only became capable of supporting a significant increase in building after admission into the European Union and the consequent growth of its economy.
Souto de Moura was born in the north of Portugal on 25 July 1952 in the country’s second-largest city, Porto (also referred to as Oporto). It was there from the Escola de Belas Artes that in 1980 he received his degree in architecture. He forms the third generation in the Portuguese architectural “School of Oporto.” This movement originated among young architects at the fine arts school in Porto during the decade of the 1960s, the waning years of the Salazar dictatorship and its debilitating colonial wars in Portuguese Africa. The Atlantic harbor of Porto, lying on the Douro River, is generally known to the outside world for the port wine named after it, which originates from the vineyards in the valley of the Douro. To those who live in Porto, however, the city is known for the industriousness of its small businessmen, merchants, and manufacturers. With the post-World War II growth of European and coastal Atlantic trade, its metropolitan area expanded to half a million people. This growth required much new construction together with significant remodeling of older buildings. Responding to these building and design needs were Portuguese architects trained in the School of Oporto.
The school began with the ideas of Fernando Távora (1923–), seeking in the late 1950s for a modernist building style that was socially responsible and allowed economy in the use of basic forms and materials. This led him to minimalism and Alvar Aalto’s concepts regarding discrete yet organically integrated construction elements. The great disciple of Távora was Alvaro Siza Vieira (1933–), whose purist poetic style won him the 1992 Pritzker architecture award. One of the leading students and longtime colleagues of Siza Vieira has been Souto de Moura.
Like his predecessors, much of Souto de Moura’s work has been in Porto and cities in the north of Portugal, particularly Braga and Évora. Throughout most of his career he has designed houses, among his most famous works, and commercial spaces. He has also done extensive restoration of historic and domestic structures. He has taught in Zurich and Lausanne, and beginning in the late 1980s his work assumed a more international projection, especially in Italy.
In Porto he has built or restored numerous houses and apartments, medical buildings, a library, a museum, and a customs building. Possessing his own minimalist style, the effectiveness of his work is borne by a subtle juxtaposition of elementary building materials: stone, wood, glass, and metal. He incorporates these elements in structures whose dramatic weight is often conveyed in basic geometric shapes of rectangles, squares, cubes, cylinders, and circles.
Two important early works were the plan for the city market in Braga (1980–84) and the “Casa das Artes” cultural center in Porto (1981–91). The city of Braga has now outgrown the former, and he is redesigning the area as a complex of shops and cafes. The cultural center projected a striking model that concentrated the accumulated design tradition of international modernism.
Most significant, though, was a small weekend home built in the Algarve (1984–89), in the south of Portugal. Its all-white elements presented a subdued profile of long rectangular walls over which hovered the low silhouette of a dome and, varying with the angle of view, a triangle and cylinder. Occupying only one-fifth of the lot on which it lies, the structure establishes a balance of subdued tensions between itself and its setting.
Of further significance has been a series of residences he has built since the early 1980s in Nevogilde, a developing seaside neighborhood of Porto. On more restricted terrains, these houses also have demonstrated a style achieved through balancing subdued forces of contrast in structure and environment. However, they furthermore demonstrate his command of interiors, a spare equilibrium of the elements of space and light, and a progressive integration of a spectrum of structural elements, stone, wood, and glass, respecting principles of Mies van der Rohe. In Braga he built (1989–94) a two-story house that strikingly balances a stone environment on the lower floor with a glass one on the upper.
Among his more recent and significant challenges have been designing a civic center in Sicily, converting a monastery into a country inn, and redesigning the customs center of Porto. He has received numerous awards and honors in Portugal and abroad, including an Italian one for his use of stone. In 1998 he was the first architect to receive the coveted Portuguese cultural distinction, the Premio Pessoa. In the same year the Swiss-Italian city of Mendrisio mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work, emphasizing his skill for balancing structures in terms of their component parts and their placement within an environment.