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Casa das Histórias Paula Rego by Eduardo Souto de Moura, Cascais, Portugal

The earthen red conical forms of this museum dedicated to the artist Paula Rego, sit in pungent contrast to the green surroundings. Photography by Paul Raftery

Facing the Atlantic Ocean on the western edge of Portugal, Cascais is at the end of a commuter railway line from Lisbon. Part fishing port, part holiday resort, it became fashionable in the late 19th century when Portuguese royalty settled there each summer and the rich and titled followed suit.

Today, McDonald’s and MaxMara greet you on exiting the station, so the sense of exclusivity has gone, but one former haunt of those well-heeled visitors has just found a striking new function. On the site of the town’s old Sporting Club, a park where lazy games of tennis were played, stands Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Casa das Histórias Paula Rego - a museum devoted to the artist Paula Rego, the House of Stories.

It’s an apt name for the building because Rego is certainly a storyteller, though the tales she tells are often troubled or ambiguous.

Now in her mid-seventies and a longtime resident of London, Rego comes from Portugal and spent much of her childhood near Cascais. During this time, the country was profoundly Catholic and ruled by repressive dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, but it still had a strong oral tradition - and all this made a mark on Rego. Later, her artist husband Victor Willing’s slow death from multiple sclerosis can only have accentuated her darker thoughts. In her paintings, pastels and etchings, she can find disquieting new aspects to a novel like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or just an everyday nursery rhyme.

Promised the long-term loan of a large number of Rego’s works, the municipal council of Cascais welcomed the idea of a museum as a way to give the town more cultural gravitas. Doubtless, it makes economic sense too, for instead of only stopping off for a stroll by the sea or to tuck into a nice fish lunch, tourists might now stay longer. It was Rego herself who chose Souto de Moura as the architect, with a wish for the building to be ‘fun, lively and also a bit mischievous’.

While those may not be the adjectives that first spring to mind, the building makes an immediate impact through both its form and colour as you approach it off the Avenida da República near the centre of Cascais. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the two 17m-high concrete pyramids at the south-west corner of the building, just beside the entrance. Set in Souto de Moura’s mind were the tall twin-kitchen chimneys of the National Palace in the nearby town of Sintra, which grace countless postcards, and a comparable chimney in the great monastery of Alcobaça.

To British eyes, however, another reference comes to mind, because these Cascais pyramids are almost identical in form (if not material) to an old industrial building type - a maltings in a brewery - recorded by J M Richards and photographer Eric de Maré in their classic book The Functional Tradition. Given that Souto de Moura has expressed his interest in ‘anonymous’ or industrial architecture, that comparison probably wouldn’t trouble him. While clearly wanting to give the Casa a strong identity and silhouette, he avoids inventing fancy shapes in the manner of a Frank Gehry doodle, but taps into a reservoir of long-existing forms.

The pyramids are cryptic - causing you to you wonder what’s in them - and the rest of the building gives little away, with a large blank box rising in the centre above walls that are only glazed substantially on the east.

But the colour of the concrete is extraordinary: a deep earthen red (vermelho in Portuguese) that’s both sultry and exotic.

Many buildings in this part of Portugal have coloured rendering, with Souto de Moura citing, in particular, the red-ochre facade of Raul Lino’s Casa dos Penedos in Sintra - but the red of the Casa das Histórias has a different intensity, being that of a solid mass rather than just skin.

It’s all the more vivid because the surroundings are so vivaciously green. Souto de Moura has always paid great attention to the landscape of his projects - with his house at Moledo do Minho, for instance, more focus was spent on adjusting the site than on the building itself, and at Braga he excavated tonnes of granite in order to fuse his stadium to its hillside (AR July 2004).

Souto de Moura’s approach at Cascais has been much less interventionist, retaining the tall mature trees of the old park (whose trunks now frame the pyramids for the perfect photograph) and planting many new ones. While the chimneys of the National Palace at Sintra make it a landmark at a distance, the Casa das Histórias is more discreet; from every angle it is semi-screened by trees.

A path of marmore azulino de Cascais - ‘blue’ Cascais marble that mostly looks grey - runs diagonally through these trees from the Avenida da República and makes a sharp 45° turn into the building. As soon as you’re in the foyer, all your options become clear, because it gives immediate access to the permanent and temporary galleries as well as the auditorium, the café patio and the shop; and the function of the pyramids can be finally understood.

What they turn out to contain are simply the shop and café, and perhaps it’s a little ironic that, in a building devoted to art, these ancillary but money-spinning features have such prominence. To be fair, the use as a café sustains a culinary allusion to those kitchen chimneys at Sintra and Alcobaça, while the shop has cultural credibility, selling mostly books. But in both of them, the spatial sensation is exhilarating, as the walls finally taper and converge at a small square skylight - an effect reminiscent of the artist James Turrell’s Skyspaces in isolating a patch of the beyond.

While everything is immediately accessible from the foyer, it leads most directly into the first of the permanent collection galleries; a link reinforced by the light strips in the ceiling and the long reception desk, clad in the same Cascais marble that paves all the floors. After an introductory corridor, the galleries are arranged in clockwise order around an interior court, starting with a room for the larger paintings and becoming progressively more compact for the smaller-scale graphic work.

The most telling architectural move comes with the volume that protrudes at 45° at the north-west corner of the building, recalling Souto de Moura’s Casa do Cinema in Porto, but also Lino’s Casa das Penedos, which has projecting bays at each end of its main facade. With a lower ceiling than the adjacent room, this already intimate space becomes still more so, in an alcove-like feature, where the marble sweeps off the floor onto a bench and up the wall, beside a small square window that frames a tree trunk outside.

Given the psychological intensity of Rego’s work, these glimpses of the outside world are valuable, making the internal court a vital component of the scheme - so hopefully it won’t always be veiled to reduce the light.

Like the patio beside the café, its strong colour and ambience cannot but recall the courtyards of Luis Barragán, whose work Souto de Moura admires greatly, while saying: ‘Barragán’s architecture is not found in the walls and their colours but the space they define.’

There is no connection with the outside however, in the large room for temporary exhibitions at the very centre of the Casa. Beneath the 8.5m-high ceiling even Rego’s largest paintings look dwarfed, and perhaps sculpture or installations would fare better in future. Souto de Moura opts for artificial lighting throughout the galleries, but the absence of natural light here is perhaps a problem - its vagaries would surely make the space seem more alive. The Casa’s curators will need to experiment to make the most of this room.

On loan at the gallery at present is two of Rego’s most unsettling works, The Family and The Maids: their stories prompt visitors to tell their own. One gallery attendant told me of a visitor who suddenly started talking about her son’s suicide: the staff may spend more time discussing trauma than artistic technique. Yet families are already making return visits to a building that only opened in mid-September this year, whether drawn by the art, the architecture, or indeed both. For if many visitors are engaged by Rego’s stories, Souto de Moura has still made a destination for those who aren’t.

Architect Souto Moura Arquitectos, Porto, Portugal
Project team Sérgio Koch, Ricardo Prata, Bernardo Monteiro, Diogo Guimarães, Junko Imamura, Kirstin Schätzel, Manuel Vasconcelos, Maria Luís Barros, Pedro G. Oliveira, Rita Alves, Sofia Torres Pereira, Susana Monteiro
Structural and mechanical engineers AFAconsult

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