For the past ten years a Lisbon-born architect, Amancio d’Alpoim Guedes, has been practising in Lourenço Marques, the capital of Mozambique, producing work both original and idiosyncratic to which no attention has been given by the outside world.
1961 April: Amancio Guedes "Architect Of Lourenço Marques"
‘… the truth is, that Art Nouveau aborted because it demanded too much, because there was no-one with the imagination needed to take it through.’ Amancio d’Alpoim Guedes, 1960
The architectural young men of the nineteen-fifties have indeed had much said at and about them. They have been catalogued, labeled, warned not to retreat from modern architecture, told that the revolution finished twenty years ago – or been allowed to ‘wander around aimlessly… in a foggy chaos’ by Mr. Philip Johnson. Their work is often seen as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the state of modem architecture and they are grouped according to the ways in which they revolt.
Although he does not identify himself with any particular group, his age and complete disillusionment with most of contemporary architecture would undoubtedly earn Amancio Guedes membership of this rather diverse congregation. Born 35 years ago in Lisbon, he grew up in Africa where his father was posted as a government doctor. Immediately after studying in South Africa, he began architectural practice in 1950 in Lourenco Marques, a city of about 140,000 people and capital of the Portuguese territory of Mozambique.
Flats on Rue de Nevala, Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, 1955
For ten years Guedes has worked intensely at the development of a highly personal architectural expression which, in its variety and significant contribution to its environment, is probably unsurpassed in Africa. Lourenco Marques, like many of the cities on the same continent, has increased rapidly in size but remains Surrounded by vast areas of undeveloped wilderness which creep up to its edge.
It is a city of lush vegetation (the city tree is aptly named the flamboyant) and much colour. Its inhabitants lead a typically Latin life, enlivening the pavements and streets by their enjoyment of gathering in groups and strolling about outside, relaxing in the numerous open-air cafes and family restaurants and sunning themselveson the beach. This open-air life makes the most of the subtropical holiday-like climate of Lourenco Marques, where conditions are ideal for most of the year although a fireplace is welcome for a very short time in winter. Torrential rains are quickly followed by the scorching sun, whose heat in the hottest months is made even more formidable by the high humidity.
Terrace Housing on Rue Belgrade de Silva, Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, 1956
Building technology is primitive, and most building is done by small builders who use cheap labour and have little equipment. The standard building medium is concrete, either in block form or cast, and the labourers who work with the concrete are craftsmen who have a natural understanding of the material. Formwork is generally of such a low quality however that plaster covering is essential, and this has produced an almost universal surface solution. Roofs are of two kinds; the locally made, rough, red clay tile roof, and the reinforced concrete roof which requires little waterproofing. Coloured stone and pebbles are easily available and Guedes has used these to great advantage.
Under these frontier conditions, where the normal chances for money investment are limited, building remains as one of the only means of speculation. The major building types are flats and houses which are built rapidly and haphazardly, with quick return on money virtually the only concern.
House for an Indian Doctor, Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, 1956
Guedes has understood the limitations of such an environment, and has made fullest use of what technological facilities are available, developing traditional techniques and materials in new ways. He has capitalized on the great vitality which is released when an established culture finds fertile new ground–for in this state of coalition between the withering old and the crude unformed new, the opportunities for innovation and change are tremendous. In Brazil, another corner of the Portuguese world, conditions are similar, and Guedes’s work has the same impetus which is characteristic of the new architecture there.
Above all, it is his belief in the madness and irrationality which is much of all art, that has contributed most to his architectural idiom. Guedes came to architecture through painting and has continued painting ever since. He is obsessed with the desire to integrate into his architecture the fluid forms which he discovers in his painting and sculpture. For him, a large part of the architectural problem is the creation of a series of powerful, symbolic images, spontaneously produced, which transmit emotional and spatial messages with an immediate and active meaning. He wants building ‘to have a presence, to be like some vast apocalyptic monster or a gently floating albatross… to be so invented as to be remembered forever, like the temples of India and the pyramids of Egypt,’ and to achieve this he claims for architects ‘the rights and liberties that painters and poets have held for so long.’ Consequently Guedes treats architecture not as a profession–selling satisfaction to clients-but rather as a total artistic immersion, in which clients, builders and staff are manipulated and overwhelmed.
Saipal Bakery, Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, 1954
Guedes believes firmly that the only way to do architecture is to do it yourself. He works with a group of African draughtsmen he has trained himself–one of them has been with him since he started practice. He delegates no responsibility for design or detailing, and he supervises the progress of the work very closely both in the office and later on the site, often visiting a building several times a day. He has taught an African bricklayer to do the cement work of his own murals, which he provides at cost or even free if the client can be persuaded to accept one. He does his sculptures in the same way, having a skilled African carver working on his premises to carry out the designs under constant guidance and control. In Guedes’s backyard works an African painter and poet who, while working on his own, is part of an environment centred around Guedes–an environment which constantly produces buildings, paintings, sculpture and poetry.
In much of his work Guedes has been concerned with round and spiked vertical forms and their jerky relationships. These forms arise not out of the needs of the material, but out of the ideas which he wishes to express. Concrete is moulded in wet dune sand, in the projected hotel at Bilene, to create a sequence of inflated and deflated spaces which lead from the entrance through the building down to the beach. The roof follows this dune-pattern and contains a stream which flows into and through the lounge. In the Mountain house, log rafters fan from stone bases, to make spaces in which huge fires glow and cast ominous shadows. The Luz Sousa house uses variations of tall chimneys and gable forms to create a wonderland; the service station for Otto Barbosa alternates irregular angular forms to entangle the passing motorist; the assertive revolving form of the Cimentos pylon marks the entrance to a cement factory in Matola. High above the Santos Marques e Silva offices, three spherical water tanks hover while an elevator moves up and down a glazed shaft.
Twin Houses, Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, 1955
When he works in a cosmopolitan environment, an architect may feel he has to protect himself from the constant bombardment of cultural stimuli. When he works in isolation, however, he acts centrifugally, using what he has locally and finding every possible outside stimulus to enrich and ferment it. Amancio Guedes embraces all outside influence with alacrity. On the one hand he may use primitive marks on corrugated iron shacks outside Lourenco Marques as a departure for his paintings; yet he can still remain obsessed with the sophisticated European Surrealist painters. He is as much involved with the curvilinear stone walls of Zimbabwe as he is with the metalwork of Victor Horta.
His concern for Art Nouveau and the fantastic architects is nevertheless obvious, and for him some of the fundamental buildings of this century are Horta’s Maison du People, Cheval’s Palais Ideal, Simon Rodilla’s Towers, Gaudi’s Parque Guell and the houses of Bruce Goff and Juan O’Gorman. Guedes, in his concern for architectural vigour, spontaneity and excitement, follows a long tradition, one to which the master Iberian architect, Antoni Gaudi, belongs. He shows the same preoccupation with a single powerful theme, alienation from the rectangular form and ability to juggle complex shapes.
Prometheus Apartment Block, Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, 1953
Even when Guedes uses simple rectangular forms, he alternates and displaces these in rhythms which have the same function as his curved and irregular forms, namely that of creating a strong and involving image. In his latest work be has experimented with a system of controlled modular spaces, much as in the work of Louis Kahn, which are then vigorously manipulated both inside and outside. In the innocence and simplicity of Kahn’s work, Guedes finds similarities with the child-like themes of Paul Klee and Henri Rousseau. He thrives on the charged quality of seemingly naive forms; his plaster fingers, cigar shapes, metal eyebrows, and some of his murals (based on the insistent geometrical patterns of the Ndebele tribe) are of this order.
Amancio Guedes and some of the young architects of the fifties see the social commitment of architecture not in terms of providing minimum facilities, nor in making these intrinsically poverty-stricken statements pretty. Their concern is not with minima. Their fear is that contemporary architecture has made use of too little too self-consciously. To visualize architecture as a more expansive art, social commitment includes for them also a commitment to those aspirations, irrationalities and phantasies which are a large part of life and an even larger part of art.