Souto de Moura Speaks at GSD on Design Prize

When the Graduate School of Design announced the 2013 winners of the 11th annual Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design, Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura added yet another triumph to his list. This year’s prize has been awarded to two winners: Souto de Moura, for his design of the metro in Porto, Portugal, and to the city of Medellín, Colombia for the Northeastern Urban Integration Project, a cost-effective transportation system that uses cable cars.

In celebration of the prize, Souto de Moura visited the Harvard Graduate School of Design to participate in a panel discussion with jury member Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the department of Urban Planning and Design at the GSD. Despite speaking through an interpreter, Souto de Moura maintained a rapt audience as he talked about the challenges and details of his projects.

In addition to sharing technical information, Souto de Moura casually joked about his fellow architects. When asked about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the 20th-century German-American architect whose work Souto de Moura’s is most often compared to, he said, “It is a mystery to me how this man builds glass houses, but always lives in the dark. If I could write a thesis, it would try to answer that.” More seriously, he spoke of the influence of his mentor and collaborator Álvaro Siza Vieira. “We work together like two players of chess... [Siza] understands the site, its energy... his buildings are comfortable, like cats sleeping in the sun,” Souto de Moura said.

Souto de Moura’s work has recieved the 2013 Wolf Prize in Arts the prestigious architectural Pritzker Prize. Dan Borelli, Director of Exhibitions at the GSD, praises the scope of his work and the and the clean modern lines of the metro design. “It’s extremely challenging to sustain a design vision across so many scales, across such a vast network of design opportunities, materials, and collaborators, and I think he has done a fantastic job.” Borelli says.  He also notes the rapid and successful implementation of the project in a difficult hilly terrain.

Although this is an oft-echoed compliment, Souto de Moura brushes it off, insisting that work on infrastructure projects is not that far removed from work on single buildings. “The only difference is scale. It’s like being a pediatrician or being a doctor for adults—each patient has its own identity, but the attitude is the same,” he says.

According to James Whitten, Mehrotra’s assistant and last year a graduate of GSD’s Urban Design Masters Program, the prize was a win for students as well. Whitten says that the prize has a pedagogical function; both GSD students and members of the professional community can learn from the winning projects. “To me, what stood out was that they’re both thoroughly interdisciplinary works where designers have played a crucial role not only as the leader, but as the glue between a whole cadre of actors...from highly technical civil engineering right down to social workers and social planners,” Whitten says. He emphasizes that Souto de Moura’s work engages with the city’s rich historical background to produce a project that is well-designed but not flamboyant, allowing the focus to shift away from the project and back to the city and its existing architecture.

Whitten and Borelli both worked on “Transformative Mobilities,” the ongoing exhibition at the GSD documenting this year’s prize-winning projects. They say that there were some challenges in presenting two works from such vastly different settings in a cohesive exhibit. “We wanted each side to appear as different as possible; not severely, antagonistically different, but each side should speak with its own voice,” Borelli says.

Yet, Whitten also speaks of the need to place the two projects in a central framework and break down some of the binaries—developed vs. developing countries, Europe vs. South America—commonly emphasized when two cities such as Porto and Medellín are compared. A focus on mobility and the specific culture of each city provided this unifying frame.

As Whitten says, “Both share this relationship between planning and culture, leveraging new mobility infrastructures to repair and regenerate the urban fabric,” Whitten says. According to to Whitten, these projects are more than isolated constructions; rather, they will continue to give back to their urban areas over time. “It points to an intense investment in the space of the city,” he says.