To his friends, colleagues and pupils Pancho Guedes is a unique source of creative inspiration and wisdom
In 1961, David Greene and I were putting together the first Archigram broadsheet. We regularly saw the AR, which delighted in introducing new people from outside the usual European/North American orbit − not merely with an indecipherable picture on an end-paper, and a paragraph, but with good, lusty exposure: the cover and several pages. If some of the earliest Archigram enthusiasms were for gadgets, techno-achievement, Bucky Fuller and the space race, there was parallel delight in exotic form and the moulding of buildings.
‘He outwitted the trendy with his fluency and knowledge, but always with immense charm’
So a giant hoot of admiration rang out when we saw Pancho Guedes’ work: fulsome, fearless, a bit Gaudí but more raw, less mannered. It celebrated, of all things, chimneys in ways that we in London could only dream of. It was immensely gutsy and came from a weirdly named city, Lourenço Marques, that we had never heard of before (now Maputo).
Fortunately his architect son and film-maker daughter appeared in London around the end of the 1970s, and the mythical father finally arrived in the city: as a lecturer, critic, charismatic talker and enthusiast, stylish and sophisticated. To meet such a person was (as perhaps the old AR piece had intended) a reminder that the power of architectural invention did not just bounce around from London to New York to Tokyo.
It was also a reminder of the possibility of an unadulterated flow of creativity that can exist outside the world of intense scrutiny and reputational patronage that can stultify certain talents. Not that Pancho was uninformed or disconnected. He had been taught at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg by a group of people much influenced by Rex Martienssen, the key link between European Modernism and South Africa.
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg(1945-49)
Escola Superior de Belas Artes, Porto, Portugal (1953)
Professor of Architecture, Lusofóna University, Lisbon (1995-present)
Smiling Lion apartment building, Lourenço Marques (1956-58)
Salm House, Lourenço Marques (1963-65)
Casal dos Olhos (The Eye House), Eugaria, Sintra, Portugal (1972-90)
City centre square project, Johannesburg (1981)
‘I claim for architects the rights and liberties that painters and poets have held for so long’
He had assiduously toured Europe and devoured books on painting, sculpting and architecture. He attended the first Team 10 meeting and continued to be a regular member of this highly talented but sometimes viciously critical group that revolved around Bakema, Van Eyck and the Smithsons, who were manneristically far more severe than Pancho, but admiring of his talent and his clarity of thought.
I would later enjoy watching him on an AA jury alongside the more trendy and self-conscious − able to outwit them with his fluency and knowledge, but always with immense charm. In his own words the ‘Stiloguedes’, ‘is my most idiosyncratic style − my royal family, as it were. It is a bizarre and fantastic family of buildings with spikes and fangs, with beams tearing into spaces around them … full of exaggerations … they stretch the mysterious relationship between plan, section and facade …’. He is making this distinction because of his 500 projects there are hundreds actually built. Some are clever shacks, resourceful sheds, some commodious villas, useful city blocks and then there are the icons.
Pancho likes to give them names, just as he names his sculpted objects and the fruit of his voracious output of drawings: everything from ‘Ship of Fools’ to ‘Decadent Temple’ or ‘Round Faces’. Thus his apartment block ‘Prometheus’ (1951) can be seen as his statement of ‘thinking forward’ from the constraints of the conventional five-storey/narrow frontage unit.
A give-away drawing suggests a very curvy version: but the built version is inventive enough, with thrusting balconies and big, strong screen walls, articulated − almost fretted components with wild combs jutting out at each end. The ‘Smiling Lion’ (1958) is a block of six flats, straightforwardly planned but uninhibitedly sculpted.
The privacy fins are there, the cars neatly parked bay-by-bay between the columns, but in this case, the interpreted parts go wild. Those cars might be neatly parked − but between voluptuous, erotic, cavernous columns. There are combs again at the ends of the building, but now part of a virtual smiling face. The built object triggers in my imagination the nearest thing to a built evocation of Carmen Miranda.
The ‘Santos Marques e Silva’ building (1953) could have, if built, become another show-stopper where the primary structure would climb and wriggle, detached from the body as vertical flying buttresses. Without such exotica, Guedes would have multiple credentials as a significant architect: the ‘Pyramidal Kindergarten’ (1957) is an essay in componenting and logical planning. His ‘Arched Manners’ hotel on Mozambique Island is similarly tight and logical.
His ‘Clandestine School’ in Caniço (1968) employs straight thinking and good disposition for a language of simple timber and thatch. He acknowledges his debt to Wright or Corb and surely one can see some Kahn in there. Yet it is always overlaid by his creative wit. Pancho Guedes can be treated as an eccentric outsider by the mainstream.
For some years after he returned to his birthplace, Portugal, a milieu dominated by Siza, Souto de Moura and more recently bewitched by Swiss architecture, clearly regarded him as an anachronism. Whereas some years before, politically forced to flee Mozambique with his family to Johannesburg, his reception was rather different. He was quickly given the Deanship of Architecture at the Witwatersrand and a trickle of commissions.
The recent revival of interest in him and his work exploded, quite surprisingly, out of the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel. Serious spadework then started to be done by a growing fan base in Lisbon. His tiny ‘Eye House’ (1972-90), in front of his farmhouse at Eugaria, near Lisbon, continued the ‘Stiloguedes’ quite unabashed. In 1990 the Museo Colecção Berardo staged a magnificent 2000-item Guedes show, with a comprehensive and revealing catalogue, with most text his own. Both show and book reinforce the integrity of his drawings, paintings, objects, projects and buildings. There is a thread that runs through the paintings where a particular genre of quizzical roundedness, dominated by a naughty eye, reminds you of the man and his ambition to surround you with its progeny. The orange painting based on a section through the ‘Smiling Lion’ brings together the quasi-human spirit of the building and its inhabitants (including the crocodile as metaphorical parked vehicle).
I have deliberately left until last a key to his significance: his plans. In an architectural moment when three-dimensional (digital) composition has taken the high ground, there will eventually come a reassessment of the generic significance of plans, of which Pancho Guedes is a master. At the exotic end: that for the projected hotel in San Martinho do Bilene is figurative, inventive, but the fact that it is haunting as an image is a bonus that sometimes oversails the realisation of its fundamental quality. Yet there is the train of compacted squares that characterise the Vale Vazio, Salm and Almiro do Vale houses that ‘knit’ so well.
There are symmetrical groupings: Schipper House, Agricultural Expert’s House and Khovolar Building; or shifted strips: Maternity Extension Hospital or Young Workers’ School; as well as innumerable ‘twisted logic’ plans, mostly for hotels and clubs. They are always closely related to the logic of concrete construction, with sensible spans and no-nonsense columns. The bodies of his figures, and their built cousins, are real stuff.
He is the most creative person I have ever met. Dreamer Yes … No, also Maker.