Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beinahe Nichts With a Twist

Eduardo Souto de Moura
Burgo Tower, Porto

architektur.aktuell (Vienna), November 2008, pages 58 - 69
© 1998 David Cohn & architektur.aktuell
All rights reserved

While it might seem that little new could be wrung from the well-worn theme of the minimalist Miesian skyscraper, in his Burgo office tower in Portugal's northern city of Porto, Eduardo Souto de Moura gives the formula a surprising twist. Souto's design, intended as a prototype applicable to other sites, is so formally precise and perverse in its rhetorical expression of the structural cage that we could call it Mannerist. He uses the Miesian formal apparatus of applied facade columns and beams to create a precise though misleading visual reading of the construction, transforming the tower into a masked, reticent prism.

The building is sited in a prime area of new development on the Avenida da Boavista, which stretches from the center of the city to the ocean. The project was designed in 1998, but construction did not begin until 2004, and the building opened early this year. Souto de Moura was thus confronted with a context still in the making, in an area where the continuous street wall of the city around Rem Koolhaas' Casa da Música Concert hall, located a few blocks to the east, breaks down into isolated towers amid the verdant hills above the Douro River.

The uncertain site conditions may help explain the powerful way in which Souto's project marks its territory and defines its autonomy from its surroundings – although these traits are common to most of his buildings, as exemplified by his court houses, which address the street like well-finished shipping containers (see The Court House Revisited). The 17-story tower, 70 meters high, is set on a platform over two levels of parking. Souto deploys a low building containing offices and ground-floor retail space to screen the eastern, developed side of the plaza. The tower stands back from the avenue to establish a distant, Miesian formality of address between them, with the side-effect, surely intentional, of hiding the building behind existing and future constructions. It is further protected at street level by a colorful, monumental plaza sculpture by artist Angelo de Sousa.

The design task was complicated by the fact that the tower faces Boavista from the south, meaning that its main facade is in shadow most of the day. This helps justify the radical differentiation of the tower's facades –another characteristic of Souto's work– which gives rise to its perverse transformation of Miesian form. The north and south facades are of glass, deeply set for shading within a structural cage of granite-finished columns and false aluminum beams (composed with thick plates of projecting flanges), while the east and west facades are largely finished in granite panels to block low eastern and western sunlight, with slots of horizontal glass that are positioned at the same level as the horizontal "beams" of the glass facades. These aluminum elements are deployed three to a floor, masking the scale of the tower.

The granite-faced columns on the glass facades can be misleadingly read in visual terms as the ends of continuous granite walls, like the east and west facades, traversing the volume from north to south, while the thin glazed voids of the east and west facades are interrupted by short aluminum beams covering the columns, as if these too traversed the building from east to west. The effect in three dimensions is as if the building were built like a house of cards, a stack of north-south granite walls separated by east-west aluminum beams. Taking this vision a step further, the building can be read as a variation on Souto's "shipping container" rowhouses with their glazed garden ends and solid side walls, but here stacked vertically like true containers.

Entry to the tower is oblique and secretive rather than frontal: on the western elevation, a section of the granite wall hinges open to reveal the entry door within (most visitors enter in any case from the garage). The hierarchy of the facades also reflects the interior distribution, with the office spaces oriented to the north and south, in two sections of approximately 300 m2 each – the building has a total of 12.000 m2 of rentable space.  The model floor features office furniture that Souto designed for the project, and that will be produced by the Portuguese firm Julcar Mobiliário Integrado. Desks, tables and storage units defining work areas are made of fiberboard panels with veneers of matte-finished aluminum. Together with the discrete seating and suspended ceiling uplights for indirect lighting, fabricated by Osvaldo Matos, the furniture is straightforward and contemporary, like the desks and boxes of Donald Judd.

Geometric precision is another of Souto's obsessions, as in the affinity he establishes between the square structural bay of the facades (3.5 x 3.5 m), divided horizontally into thirds, with the plan of the tower's typical floors, another square divided into thirds by the two areas of offices and the technical core. Other squares are found in the plans of the plaza, the two elevator cores, the area rugs of the lobby seating, etc.

In the low horizontal building Souto plays another curious formal game, using closely-set vertical mullions to transform it into a "continuous horizontal band" in his words, and detailing the end walls like section cuts, with protruding elements of unframed glass, granite "floor slabs" and aluminum carpentry, as if he had cut the structure from an infinite ribbon  – a transposition of the conceptual, vertical infinity of the tower in the horizontal dimension.

While Álvaro Siza's local buildings portray him as the gentlemanly master of effects of reflected light and playful spatial distortion, Souto de Moura reaffirms himself with this tower as a reclusive perfectionist, establishing an island of absolute, calming order amid the unplanned chaos, the disordered, overgrown garden of Porto's urbanized suburbs.

Photoa by DC