João Luís Carrilho da Graça – In praise of the landscape

on Nov 1, 2010 in Now Boarding | No Comments

Lisbon’s river and light are the raw materials that make it the perfect city in which to build. Architect João Luís Carrilho da Graça is passionate about Lisbon, and has designed award-winning buildings which reveal their surroundings and much about their creator too. The city, for which he has recently designed a cruise ship terminal, is grateful to have such an architect.

What sort of behaviour is this? Is it shyness?  He doesn’t quite break into a smile, his hands seem to be folding some paper on top of the table, and his eyes become lost in the distance, possibly the river. He sees a river with no banks. He sees water reflecting the stone used in building the city that he has adopted as his own. It is the perfect place to build. Perfect in the challenges it provides for those who design buildings. He, the man folding imaginary paper on top of a real table, is João Luís Carrilho da Graça; one of the most celebrated and respected architects of his generation. He is the second architect after Eduardo Souto Moura to have been awarded the Prémio Pessoa. Souto Moura is of the same generation but belongs to a different school, the Escola do Porto. Does it really exist? Souto Moura says he doesn’t exactly know what it is, while in Lisbon, Carrilho da Graça shrugs his shoulders and says: “Everything is mixed a little and things are more and more universal.” He therefore prefers to speak of architecture that is contaminated and global, with some local identifying features. He chooses to use limestone for the walls of the buildings he designs in the city he adopted as his own after leaving his birthplace in the Alentejo. It is in this so-called white city that he prefers to work, perhaps because of the convenience, and because of his understanding of the landscape, which he became familiar with early on. And it was that understanding that won him one of Lisbon’s most recent and important architectural projects: the cruise ship terminal

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Lisbon and the Tagus

The architect behind projects such as the Pavilhão do Conhecimento (Pavilion of Knowledge), built for Expo 98, or the recently constructed Escola Superior de Música, was chosen to design this cruise ship terminal for a simple and crucial reason: little visual impact in an area where the river must be the protagonist. Simple. It has been observed how simple and straight the architectural lines of this man’s work are. Above all, he values the landscape in which he is called upon to intervene. Maybe because of that, (in spite of his initial hesitation), he says that, rather than a national architecture, which he can’t quite identify, there is architecture with a personal signature. Contaminated. It’s in his blood. And, whether he likes it or not, he brings it to his building projects. It’s not just the light and the materials, but mainly his way of looking at the city in terms of its landscape setting, and not the other way round, like most do.

After all, what would Lisbon be without its hills and river? Something other than a city that is “almost perfect” in the challenges it provides architects. How to build in order to enhance the landscape and not to alter it? This constitutes an immense challenge. How to design buildings that lack in self-importance or vanity as a result of their setting? It should be the landscape that reveals the architecture. Carrilho da Graça knows how to do that like few others. It is not by chance that Lisbon is full of his work without becoming synonymous with his name, or vice-versa.  Now he has had an opportunity to intervene in one of the areas that most identifies and defines the city, namely its role as a port. “It’s a city with an enormous area of water which surrounds it and reflects the bright light of the sky” says the architect, who never forgets the river, even if it isn’t in sight. It was perhaps because setting is always present in his mind, and the landscape in which he builds is of prime importance, that his plans for the cruise ship terminal were approved. The jury described it as “A relatively small building with delicate volumetrics”. He was chosen from among a group of candidates which included famous names of  Portuguese architecture, such as Aires Mateus and Gonçalo Byrne. Carrilho da Graça conceived a place that doesn’t ruin any views, which can be used by the people of Lisbon, is multi-use and which extends the city from Alfama to the river, thus creating a new topography. It won’t be a white elephant, because such a thing doesn’t exist in the mind of this architect, who uses straight lines and loves the interplay of shadow and light. If there are no cruise ships, there will be shows, exhibitions, leisure areas, a park, parking for 80 buses, and an amphitheatre with a view of the river and city.

Better places

The cruise ship terminal is an emblematic example of the strong relationship Carrilho da Graça’s work always has with its setting. He has received international recognition on account of that feature of his work. He doesn’t like to talk about what he does, or what the most striking aspects of his work are. “I see things from too close and that distorts your vision. I leave the classification and theorizing about my work to the critics”, he says with the same smile that insists on not quite appearing (although his smiling eyes betray him). He is reserved and would rather not be in the limelight, which these days, more than ever, shines on him and has conferred on him an almost star-like status. He has often been nominated for national and international awards, and has won several too. Some prominent examples are the Escola Superior de Jornalismo in Benfica; the Pavilhão do Conhecimento designed for Expo-98; Luzboa 2004, Lisbon’s first art biennial. He doesn’t mention them, but talks instead of less famous works such as houses and other residential buildings. Carrilho da Graça doesn’t only talk about Lisbon either, even though it is his territory. He doesn’t say this, but you sense it. Like for instance when he talks of the difficulty of getting limestone for his buildings, even when people tell him that the white coloured stone results in the whiteness of the city.”Whenever I build in Lisbon, I try to ensure that that stone is used” he confesses. He doesn’t separate architecture from town planning, and at the same time views architecture as an art. An art form whose obligation and purpose is to fit into a landscape, a place. An architect’s role is to never forget that. To remember that every project he or she conceives has to fit in a place and improve it.

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by Isabel Lucas

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