“When I die, I hope they’ll say José António Barbosa was an artist.” It’s not a surprising sentiment coming from the architect behind the new Vodafone headquarters in Porto, north-west Portugal – arguably a large-scale sculpture itself. The glacial facade and Planet Krypton interiors take it as far away from your run-of-the-mill office block as is possible. In fact, it’s properly bonkers. Barbosa, one half of Portuguese architecture duo Barbosa & Guimarães, sees it in a league with the city’s other contemporary gems. Together with Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música and Mansilla + Tuñón’s Auditorio Ciudad de León, it would seem that the architectural “School of Porto” is well underway. Of course, as with most landmark buildings, people generally love the Vodafone HQ or loathe it. No shrinking violet, it was always going to cause a stir in the local community, where the majority of buildings are of the terracotta roof-tile variety. “For Vodafone’s image, it was important to have an iconic building,” says Barbosa. But despite its looming presence, he is quite sure it fits into the city of Porto. “This is not a UFO,” he says. “This is a building that respects the context and the city. We studied at the Faculty of Architecture of Porto and there was a lot of preoccupation with context, and we still have this preoccupation... This is not a UFO,” he repeats with a chuckle, as if Avenida da Boavista is the most natural location in Portugal, or the world, for this structure. And he may be right – oddly, it works. For one, the height of the building follows the guides of its neighbours – it attempts not to dwarf them. It bothers Barbosa that there is an objection to the building’s style. “Style is only in the eye. There are people who see the Vodafone HQ that only speak about style or the look, but they don’t know the complex idea – why we have these strange shapes. We have a phrase in Portuguese: at first you think it’s strange, but then it grows on you,” he says.
The idea was born in summer 2006, when Barbosa & Guimarães were invited with 50 other Portuguese practices to take part in a competition to design Vodafone’s ideal HQ. At the time, newspaper and radio ads were bandying about the phone giant’s tag line: “Vodafone life, life on the move.” It was the inspiration that B&G needed to win. “We thought that the new building should be faithful to this idea, adopting a dynamic image, transmitting the sensation of movement, challenging the static,” says Barbosa, standing in the lift lobby of the reception area where, indeed, there isn’t a single right angle, continuous flat surface or regular shape.
Throughout the interior and exterior of the building, thick pieces of granite and concrete slabs have been meticulously designed and cut to give off what can only be described as a feeling of unbalance – of wacky geometry – but in a good way. Structurally, the building works as a reinforced concrete shell, similar to an egg, so internal supports are reduced to three central pillars and two stairwells. Barbosa takes us back round to the initial comparison of art in architecture: “You can see in a picture, a painting or a sculpture that the people are moving, but the object is static. This building has the same difficulty. We can make this sense of movement but of course the building is static. This was the main idea of the project.”
The layout is over eight floors: three underground for parking and technical areas; a ground floor with a colossal Vodafone shop facing the street, plus a cafe and auditorium at the back; and four upper floors of open-plan office space. (As an aside, it’s a shame about the way in which the office space has been fitted out – Vodafone slapped blue carpets and less than savoury systems furniture in, both of which try to promote the brand through colour but actually detract from the overall effort of having an amazing building for 250 staff, but B&G could do nothing about that. The really dazzling bits of this building are not the office floors but the ground floor, the timber-slatted roof terrace, the garden and, very unusually, the stairwells and the loos. Every last detail has been taken into account, which is all the more puzzling as to why the open-plan workspace feels so ordinary and drab, despite the asymmetrical windows.
A corridor through the ground floor, which strangely looks to me like some sort of icy birth canal, leads into the black, panelled auditorium and the canteen. Fissures of light zigzag down the length of it and into the canteen, giving the illusion that tectonic plates under the building are slowly shifting. Indirect natural light glows down into the hallway from skylights. To make a connection between the ground floor and the garden, which is on a peculiar slope, Barbosa designed a cement stairwell from the small patio outside of the cafe and auditorium up to the top of the hill. A timber frame is embedded into the grass, mimicking the shapes of the building facade. The dimensions of the garden are reminiscent of a surreal fairytale – as if the Queen of Hearts will pop out from around the corner with her croquet stick. It doesn’t seem the most obvious place to sit and take in the sun – but it’s pleasantly jarring in the same way the building is. One gets the sense that the architects are pleased about this. José António Barbosa and Pedro Guimarães, born in Porto in 1967 and 1969 respectively, met at architecture school and started working together in 1994, shortly after graduating. Now they each take the lead on big projects. “It’s important to maintain your point of view because we can complement each other and that means the final result is better,” says Barbosa. At first it was small jobs for family and friends, but what really catapulted them to the next level was a penchant for winning an astounding number of competitions. Since the first triumph in 1995 for an urban renewal project, Viela do Anjo in Porto, the pair has trumped up a 70 per cent success rate for all competitions they’ve entered. Commissions on the back of this include the Vizela health centre in 2001, the Gouveia courthouse in 2003 and the Triana quarries in 2007 – but there are nearly 30 in total.
Now that they’ve made a name for themselves, work is coming in steadily. At present, plans are being drawn up for a primary school, a golf resort, residential schemes and the first project outside Portugal, a development in Tripoli, Libya. So, despite being a fairly young practice, there is a substantial body of work (including big, public building projects) in which to see the common thread, or a real sense of their identity as architects – though Barbosa feels there is a lot to learn. “We are young so we haven’t developed a coherent language yet,” he says. “Of course we’re growing and evolving until we die. But I think the process is ongoing.”
Along with the Vodafone building, the municipal pools in Povoação, completed in 2008, demonstrate a clear example of B&G’s architectural language – one of dreams and otherworldliness. The black basalt, green grass creeping over the built volumes and perky skylights all speak to this. “The most important thing for architects, like a painting or a sculpture, is to have a dream. I work every way, but I work not sleeping but dreaming,” Barbosa explains. “I have this aspiration to make something new. I don’t always know exactly what it is, but I have a philosophy.”Barbosa wanted to bring this idea to Vodafone, B&G’s first big office project, by turning the idea of “office” on its head. It would seem that workplaces are the ideal territory for the architect to break the mould. “I would like to work on more office buildings, it’s very interesting to do them,” he says. “Of course, they’re difficult because we have a typology that is very sturdy and difficult to innovate. When you do a museum or a house, you are allowed more freedom to do something else.” Yes, but when you do an office building, you can create a glacier that dazzles and mystifies. And that’s the point.