In Portugal, the Lisbon-Porto train comes to a gentle but unexpected stop. The reason, announced by the driver, is that the copper signal cables have been stolen. A few years ago the same thing happened to one of Álvaro Siza's earlier masterpieces, when the copper roof paneling over the Leça da Palmeira swimming pool disappeared. How could this have happened to the roof of an architectural masterpiece? It was recently replaced.
Insolent, reckless thieves climb high ladders to get hold of their booty. Even capable of dismantling high voltage cables, they cause greater losses to the activities of their victims than the actual value of the stolen goods. Such episodes are, of course, linked to the rising price of copper and to the ease with which traces of the loot can be erased as soon as the copper is melted down. This paradoxical situation raises two important architectural questions. The first concerns the use of valuable materials for the cladding of buildings: was it really necessary to have a copper roof over the pool, or might we conclude that a zinc roof would have been just as suitable? As a regular user of the pool, I can testify to the unique qualities of copper, the green tones of which create a striking effect, matched only by the intense smell of the oil used to protect the wood of the changing booths against the pungent sea winds.
But I am more interested in the second question: how does a thief distinguish the value of an architectural masterpiece from that of a rail gantry support? Two other examples of Porto's architectural misfortunes are the buildings designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura (but would it make any difference if they were anonymous?).
The first is the Casa das Artes, a commission won by Souto de Moura when he was 29 years old. It took ten years to reach completion, but it ultimately established the architect's name. As the Porto headquarters of the Ministry of Culture, the building worked well for a decade. In 1999, I remember attending the memorable presentation given there by Rem Koolhaas of his Casa da Música: the most important investment made by Porto 2001, when the city was European Capital of Culture. Also in 2001, Souto de Moura completed another, smaller building. Situated a few minutes away from the Casa das Artes, it was intended to house the archives of the oldest living filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira. Derelict and looted, today both the Casa das Artes and the Casa do Cinema Manoel de Oliveira are closed.
Like John Soane, Souto de Moura loves ruins. When it became necessary to modernise his Mercado do Carandá, built in Braga in 1984, the architect left traces of its original columns as if they were relics. A few year later, the same building was again converted (this time to accommodate a music school) and hints of its ruins left their traces in the redesign. His aesthetic approach, however, has nothing to do with the neglect that reduces contemporary buildings to ruins constructed with public money.
The drastic political change that has taken place in Porto might seem to explain the abandonment of smaller buildings in favour of gigantic new ones. But we could also expect the uniqueness and public value of the architects to serve as a protection of their works, especially in Porto, where a hefty chunk of recent investments has been ploughed into architectural tourism. But this does not appear to be the case.
It seems clear that thefts of valuable material are linked to the economic crisis that has hit Europe, particularly southern countries like Portugal. We know, too, that the crisis is partly due to the exaggerated faith that had been put in the economic growth of the building sector. During the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, Portugal witnessed an incredible proliferation of public constructions, partially financed by the European Community. Some of these were of good quality, such as the Casa das Artes, but most of them were nondescript. However, the multiplication of institutional buildings does not imply an increased budget from the institutions housed in them. Moreover, some of the new institutions used up money needed by the older ones. Indirectly, for example, the Casa da Mlisica by OMA, completed in 2005, and the large-scale Serralves Foundation by Álvaro Siza, likewise built in 2005, led to the closure of the Casa das Artes. As a result, a void has been created in the panorama of medium-size cultural institutions in Porto.
A further example can be identified in the ruins of the Unicoope Domus supermarket, located halfway between the Casa das Artes and Casa Manoel de Oliveira, erected by Álvaro Siza in 1972. Furthermore, a consideration of the conditions surrounding the São Victor project (designed by Siza and his young collaborator Souto de Moura together with my father Domingos Tavares, who also headed the design team) may help to illustrate the imbalances caused by this situation. The story can be summed up as follows:
Immediately after the Carnation Revolution, in 1974 Siza built two major housing developments in Porto, both of which were part of the SAAL (Serviço de Apoio Ambulatório Local) social housing scheme. The counter-revolution ended up blocking the process, which also depended on the organisational capacities of the inhabitants, who were directly involved in the project. For many years these SAAL buildings unashamedly represented political battles, while their occupants had to endure the inconveniences caused by non-completion of the programme. One of the two complexes is hidden in the urban fabric; the other, built along a main thoroughfare, is more exposed. In 2000 the local council managed to restore and complete the latter, and was proud to have salvaged another of Siza's masterpieces. But no one bothered about the other, less visible block, which is still in a sorry state.
The future looks bleak. While copper thieves and incompetent politicians seem likely to stay with us, we should increasingly consider the possibility of architectural design resisting not only the thieves but also the politicians' programmatic approach to new developments. Looking at the staggering number of buildings (public and private, social or institutional housing) erected in Portugal in the past 20 years, and faced with the present economic crisis, what else can architects do? What will be the use of our skills in the coming years, when there is no further need to build? Who will pay us to demolish what has fallen into disuse? Will we be able to withstand the harsh reality of the copper thieves? André Tavares