The Latest Anderson Tapes – Eduardo Souto de Moura
Reconversao, translated as Reconversion, is narrated by Thom Andersen, who narrates Eduardo Souto de Moura’s approach to architecture. Souto de Moura won the Pritzker Prize in 2011, and Reconversao is part of the First Look series of New York premieres, curated by Dennis Lim, David Schwartz and Rachael Rakes, which plays through the weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image.
The film begins as a discussion of the wall as the essential element of architecture, with a stop-time tour of what Andersen and Souto de Moura seem to mean – not a roof, as conventional wisdom would have it; not a decorated shack, as Robert Venturi liked to say, but a demarcation. (Stop-time crosses a demarcation into live action when Souto de Moura himself speaks, an in-person crescendo to Andersen’s dead-pan voice-over.)
After building a conceptual foundation to his notion of the wall, Souto de Moura (by way of Andersen quoting him) takes us through his contributions to the landscape of his native Portugal, guided by the dictum that the best architecture makes the best ruins, which many an architect, like Auguste Perret, has said before. (All the more reason to see Perret in France and Algeria, the latest from Heinz Emigholtz, TIFF 2012.)
Souto de Moura speaks from his experience, and from his education. He is a student of the Italian Aldo Rossi, who built buildings of such mass that future designers who think that they can do better than Rossi will have a tough job displacing his work. That’s a good thing. Don’t forget that Rossi and Souto de Moura were both building on, or through, foundations laid by fascism.
In Recoversao, we visit the ruins and ruins upon which Souto de Moura builds.
Don’t expect nostalgia. Much of what Souto de Moura builds has the straight modernist lines and straight glass facades of the international style, situated gracefully in the landscape where terraces for agriculture were before, or where a monastery was. Andersen isn’t locking his subject into modernism on the remains of the old — we also hear from an architect who says that Souto de Moura’s key formal motif is the circle, which brings him back to Aldo Rossi.
What is architecture without contradictions? We see Braga Stadium that consists of a absolutely straight array of seats, several levels high, and then we hear Souto de Moura admiring Roman amphitheaters, calling them places that are open and closed at the same time. Don’t expect literalism. Souto de Moura says that the essential form is the wall, yet his walls (what covers them, really) can be infinitely complex arrangements of stone fragments. Souto de Moura’s monument to the repression of Portuguese fascism is a back slab through which water runs.
In Reconversao we also hear a hymn to the engineering of architecture. The fact that Andersen made this understated film for ten thousand euros (commissioned by a Portuguese film festival) is itself a remarkable feat of engineering. Aldo Rossi is quoted: “there is no ideological justification for bad architecture, just as there is none for a building that collapses.” Tell that to developers in New York. Andersen tells us that Souto de Moura pus it differently: “In the name of an abstract community, we are destroying the city we live in to make it functional.”
On the side walls of his rectilinear stadium, Souto de Moura placed outdoor forms that look like staircases – as an homage to circulation? We also see plans for a bridge that he designed, with a sloping staircase as a weight-bearing buttress. Everyone should learn to design a bridge, Anderson quotes Souto e Moura saying. Back to simple truths.
Reconversao, which could also be called repurposing or reconstruction, is many things, among them a jargon-free lesson to the non-architect about place, context and history. One of the quotes that Andersen doesn’t report here is Philip Johnson’s pronouncement that “architecture begins at 60.” Eduardo Souto de Moura turned 60 last year.