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Eduardo Souto de Moura: Cork is not meant to be hidden. It should be seen

Portugal 12/6/2020

Eduardo Souto de Moura’s architectural style reveals an evident fascination with materials, including their beauty and authenticity. From domestic residences to large-scale urban projects, his architecture always fosters an encounter between intelligence and sensitivity, highly attentive to the context, and bringing a historical sense to the present day. In an illuminating conversation, the Portuguese architect, winner of the Pritzker Prize, reveals…

What is your first memory of cork?

My first contact with cork was via cork stoppers. That tends to be our first interaction with cork - through cork stoppers. As a child, I saw cork stoppers used to seal bottles of bleach, olive oil, cooking oil

Even as a child, did you ever imagine that cork could be more than a cork stopper?

No. Not at all. I still have some doubts today. (Cork) is fundamentally linked to cork stoppers, where it’s an unbeatable material. Nothing comes close. It's impossible. In terms of insulation, we have some options. My first contact was with the cork stopper, and it’s 100% efficient. End of discussion. Anyone who wants to argue with this, is forced into silence, because this has been proven for centuries.

How do you use cork in your professional life?

I have a memory, linked a paramedic in the S. João Hospital in Porto. When I was sick or had a toothache and I went to the hospital, the hospital stairs were lined with cork. I said: how is it possible that cork, which in the case of cork stoppers is so soft to the touch, can withstand so many thousands of people walking on it? A few years later I went to Sweden, after I’d been contacted by a Norwegian architectural firm to help design Lisbon airport. They had designed the airport in Gothenburg, using cork from Amorim. An airport has intense traffic. There are millions of passengers a day and they used Portuguese cork.

What do you think are cork’s most important properties?

We have already talked about its insulation properties. There is one factor that I discovered in the USA, when I visited what is perhaps the world’s most famous house - Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater”. When we visited it I opened the door and saw that the bathrooms had cork panels glued to the walls. I touched the cork with my hand and said: this must be wonderful for taking a shower, because when we lean against tiles it is so cold. This is extremely pleasant to touch. When Amorim asked me to design an object in cork, I designed a door handle. Because I remembered “Fallingwater”: I put my hands on the walls and it was wonderful.

When was that? Do you remember how many years ago it was?

That was in 2011, when I won the Pritzker Prize. I went to see the house in the morning and at night I received the Pritzker Prize ...

Was that the time that you realised that such a genuinely Portuguese material, a Portuguese raw material, can have such a democratic use?

Perhaps it was back then. I’m not sure. Because today cork is used and abused. I don't think it's good to have cork-coated mobile phones. I think that cork has objective advantages, and everything that is good has a restricted field of use. When something can be used for anything, it ends up becoing useless and I don't like that. I defend my Portuguese cork. I see cork being used in so many things. Cork dresses, cork wallets, cork mobile phones, cork bags ... I find that excessive.

What memories do you have of the Hannover Pavilion?

The project for the Hannover Pavilion began abroad. It was a suggestion. I had been very impressed by several works that used stone sheets, as if they were schist. Based on the world exposition’s theme we thought, why don't we produce sheets of cork? The building was designed in conjunction with Siza Vieira. We designed it. It went very well. I received outstanding technical support from Amorim. We invented an agglomerate cork block, that could have been made of concrete. It was an extraordinary cork block.

What about the exhibition at the CCB, which used cork blocks?

At the CCB I wanted to make about seven cubicles in which we could project seven videos. We needed to create seven spaces demarcated with blocks, bricks. Obviously I thought that cork was the best choice, because it provides insulation, absorption and people could sit on it to watch the films. It is easy to transport and easy to assemble. So I produced the installation entirely in cork. Amorim was kind enough to offer me the cork for the exhibition (which was recovered afterwards, because it wasn’t damaged). That was great. I would like to make a special reference to Amorim, which is always amazing when it comes to sponsoring events. I never asked for anything. Whenever I use cork, Amorim views this as a form of sponsorship. That’s very rare in Portugal. There is almost no sponsorship in Portugal. The two things that I most highlight about Amorim is the company’s availability and professionalism. It has a level of professionalism that is unusual in Portugal.

What was it like to take part in Amorim's project, Metamorphosis?

I designed the door handle and the handrail. The project happened when I had just got back from the USA and I was very impressed. I was familiar with cork in terms of its use in scale models, and its tactile qualities, but I had never applied it directly in architectural projects, in which it is unconsciously touched and used (in the bathroom). I was impressed and directly applied the material in order to be touched – in the handrail and the door handle. I don't know if it's being commercialised or not. I really liked it. And I also find it to be very beautiful.

In relation to the door handle, architects always pay close attention to this kind of detail. You think that details are fundamental in the overall construction project. This is not just about cork. It’s about your way of being, drawing and designing ...

The detail is the icing on the cake. Good ideas – the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is never easy to implement ideas and practise them. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to practise them later consistently with the general and particular aspects. And therefore, the click, the difference, is definitely a question of details.

And what about cork’s inherent sustainability?

Of course, cork is sustainable, but these days it’s all about the bottom line. Price is always the determining factor. It’s horrible, but that’s how it is. There’s no point in being romantic and falling in love with things ... because the customer says no - I want this one, it’s the cheapest option. End of story. In terms of sustainability, I don’t need to know about the material’s chemical and physical qualities. I need to know whether it is cost-effective when we apply it.

Assuming that there is no budget ceiling, when the door is wide open, do you consider using cork, as a noble, organic, sustainable, recyclable material ...

I will be sincere and honest with you. I may be wrong, but cork is not meant to be hidden. It’s should be seen. It's a great shame to cover it up. When I cross the Alentejo and see the cork oak trees and those barks, I don't see the trees coated in cement. That’s a horrible image. I think cork is beautiful, because of its colour, texture and naturalness. It’s no coincidence that the Hannover Pavilion was a great success. First it is beautiful and then cork gave it an identity. Now we have to study its effectiveness. It's one thing to be in love with the material... Don't you think that it's a shame that a material which takes 45 years to be produced, is glued to a wall and then plastered over? It has to be carefully rationalised.

 

Eduardo Souto de Moura was born in Porto, in 1952. He graduated in architecture from the School of Fine Arts of Porto, and began his career working with Álvaro Siza, while still a student. In 1981, as a recent graduate, he won the competition to design the Cultural Centre of the Secretariat of State for Culture, in Porto, and began his independent activity. His best-known projects include the Burgo Tower, in Porto, Braga municipal stadium, and the Paula Rego House of Stories, in Cascais.
In addition to his work as an architect, Souto de Moura is a professor at the University of Porto, and is also a guest professor in the universities of Geneva, Paris-Belleville, Harvard, Dublin, ETH Zurich and Lausanne. In 2011 he became the second Portuguese architect to receive the Pritzker Prize, and in 2018 he received the Golden Lion for the best project at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

“For me, architecture is a global issue. There is no such thing as ecological architecture, intelligent architecture or sustainable architecture: there is simply good architecture. There are always problems that we cannot ignore: for example, energy, resources, costs, social aspects - we always have to pay attention to everyone ”