Pancho Guedes - An Alternative Modernist

  • Location: South African National Gallery
  • From: May 22, 2008     To: August 31, 2008
Pancho Guedes - An Alternative Modernist
Pancho Guedes - An Alternative Modernist


Described as an ‘alternative modernist’, Pancho Guedes draws on traditional African skills and motifs in his work. Now eighty-three years old, he has been prolific in terms of output and diversity, both in Africa and internationally. Born in Portugal, Pancho moved to Mozambique as a child and studied in Johannesburg, obtaining his architectural degree from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He returned to Wits in 1975 and was Head of the Department of Architecture until 1990.

Twenty-five years after the Architectural Association of London exhibited his work, an exhibition entitled ‘Pancho Guedes – An Alternative Modernist’ was commissioned and produced by the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel in 2007. Curated by Pedro Gadanho, this exhibition focused on the nearly twenty-fiveyear period during which he was active in Mozambique, and his extraordinary achievements in more than 500 projects. Pancho’s capacity to seamlessly bring together Europe and Africa, art and architecture, dream and reality, are revealed and further explored in the newly-curated component that introduces work created mostly in South Africa after April 1974. Curated by architects Henning Rasmuss and Dagmar Hoetzel, in consultation with the architect, it is separate yet conceptually linked to the S AM show.

At a time when little attention was paid to the aesthetic production of Africa, Pancho was a promoter and supporter of vernacular architecture and African artists, notably Malangatana Valente and Tito Zungu. Despite this, his work has never been shown in either Mozambique or South Africa.

The exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg are sponsored by Instituto Camões in Portugal, Arup, the Cement and Concrete Institute of South Africa, Business Arts South Africa, Grand West Cultural Heritage Trust, as well as various businesses, architectural practices and individuals. 


Marilyn Martin
Tel: +27 (0)21 467 4660

Opening address

Thank you for giving me the honour of opening this exhibition. 
I’ve spent a large part of my professional life exploring the permeable boundaries, the bridges and links between art and architecture. All of Pancho’s work demonstrates and celebrates this interconnection; he has made it real and has shown how rich and exciting the fusion can be. It is fitting that the National Gallery host this show – my warm congratulations to its director Marilyn Martin who has succeeded – against some odds, in making this show happen.

I first met Pancho nearly 50 years ago, in what was then Lourenço Marques. I had joined Revel Fox as his first assistant when he opened his Cape Town office, and was due some leave. When Revel heard that Rhona and I were planning a trip up to Mozambique island on a Portuguese tramp steamer he said ‘you must meet Pancho’, whose name was already legendary in our two man office. Pancho was there at the boat to meet us and took us round for a tour of his boldly gestural buildings recently built, and those he was working on (roughly around the time when the Smiling Lion apartment house was conceived). I was struck by Pancho’s passion, his enthusiasm, his visual imagination, his omnivorous appetite for information – and at the end of the day his insistent search for the perfect ice cream. 

Pancho has classified his architectural inventions (his words) ‘ into a number of families and filed them into a more or less definitive catalogue of 25 architectures which are (his) Vitruvius Mozambicanus’. They fulfill the well known Vitruvian virtues of ‘Firmness, Commodity and Delight.’ But don’t let the abundant presence of the latter virtue - Delight - obscure the presence of the other two.

Those exuberantly demonstrative elevations are underpinned by some very rational plans.

And this calls to mind another recollection: Pancho giving a lecture demonstration at an architectural conference in Cape Town in the early 1960s. Imagine a lecture theatre full of largely conservative and skeptical architects listening to Pancho doinglecture theatre: flashing on to the screen a stream of provocative elevations and ending with a final slide that showed a drawing with an apparently abstract pattern of red lines, accompanied by Pancho’s triumphant Annunciation: ‘DRAINAGE PLANS'!!!

So in memory of all that, and in honour of this momentous occasion, Pancho, allow me to offer a little poem in the form of an acrostic on your name: imagine the letters disposed vertically, thus - Acrostic for Pancho

is for Pancho, poet, provocateur and planner
is for Architect, modern, of alternative manner 
is for Narrative, buildings storied, allegorical
is for Creativeness, coded, metaphorical 
is for Hortatory, manifestos flown from the mast
is for Oracle, future from past

is for Guedes, at 83, buoyantly afloat
is for Ulysses, captain of his cultural boat
is for Eclectic, taking here and from there
is for Dada, architectural cabaret Voltaire
is for Epigrammatic edifice, made with wit and with guile
is for Stiloguedes, his seductive panoptic style

Pancho makes his philosophy manifest in many ways . And not the least notable of them is that chosen weapon of the avant garde- the manifesto. And of all his sayings, witticisms, polemics and pronouncements there is one that, above all, encapsulates what his work is all about. It’s on the invitation:


Not only has he claimed that right ; he has made it into a philosophy whose lexicon includes narratives, fables, foibles, parables, and paradoxes, anarchy and animism. His work is steeped in an understanding of the universal roots of art and architecture, both in its classical Western and African traditions. 
He draws on many sources --from Frank Lloyd Wright to Corbusier and to Louis Kahn; from Bruce Goff to Antoni Gaudi. (It was, after all, Gaudi who warned that to be truly radical, you had to rediscover your roots).

Pancho’s radicalism has been to root this cognitive tree in an African soil, and to graft on limbs which bear distinctivelypersonal fruit: an animated animism, an anthropomorphic humanism. As one of the writers on his work, Timothy Ostler, has quite shrewdly observed Pancho seemed to be talking about his buildings as if they were living personalities . He saw architecture through the eyes of an animist – an animist, that is, who had hitched a ride with African art on its way to being discovered by Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, then stopped off in Vicenza to exhume and revive the body of Andrea Palladio.

I would like to explore this dada connection a little further. Before it was a movement dada was a state of mind – iconoclastic, anarchic, irreverent. It found its initial focus in the cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916.

It’s interesting to note that Pancho hosted one of the original Zurich group of founding fathers of dada - Tristan Tzara - in Lourenço Marques in 1962. This was Tzara’s first trip to Africa in the year before he died; and here he is, the famously irreverent Tzara, being very serious – and recognising the seriousness behind the joker’s mask of Pancho’s work:

One has indeed come to the end of the world, and for me at least to Africa, to find the most ancient, the most archaic things and also- surprisingly though it may seem, the most extraordinary things which were dreamt of thirty or forty years ago ( in Europe) and are now becoming reality on this soil of Africa. Mr Guedes, apart from being a sculptor, considers that painting and sculpture are not solely arts of pleasure, but should be applied to housing, to social life, to spiritual life, to the life of the imagination… He has built some extraordinary houses in Mozambique, a whole architecture of the imagination, which of course links Guedes with the Dadaist and Surrealist schools.

I would like to take this a little further and suggest that there are links between Pancho and that most profoundly thoughtful of the dada pioneers - the man who founded the cabaret Voltaire - the poet Hugo Ball. Ball was the ‘organizer, promoter and primary architect of dada’s philosophical activism’ ; he was to advocate the international destruction of and clearing away of the rationalised language of modernity; his poetry was an attempt to ‘to return to the innermost alchemy of the word’ to invent and discover a language untainted by convention.( these were some of the ‘extraordinary things’ that Tzara was presumably referring to). Ball, in 1916. announced the invention of a new poetic genre,Verse ohne Worte - poems without words, which he calledLautgedichte, sound poetry. And so, on the stage of the cabaret Voltaire, here is Ball, in his pointed witch’s hat, flapping the arms of his cardboard tunic, chanting the sound poem that was to enter art history. I won’t recite all of it, but its beginning started something like this:

Gadji beri bimba glandridi lauli lonni cadori….

And ended in cadences that evoked an imaginary Africa by sound association:

Zimzim Uralla.. zimzim Zanzibar zimzalla zam
Elifantolim brussala bulomen

And then, he tells us, he was carried off stage, like a Magical Bishop.

Ball’s writings show that he was keenly aware of the link between primitivism, magic, word and image. And so is Pancho who has talked and written of architects as “magicians, conjurers, dealers in magic goods, promises, potions”, himself as a “witchdoctor”. I would add - Himself as ArchiDada.

Pancho, too, has found alternatives to the rationalized language of modernity. As Ball made Lautgedichte - sound poetry, so Pancho has made what I will call Bau gedichte - building poetry. He has made, among many other things, a Swazi Zimbabwe-- in his words - ‘ a foolish round house outside the world of money’. He has made a habitable woman, a pregnant building, a hysterical building (his words) - “ lascivious passages, halls of infinitesimal multiplications, visceral buildings turned inside out . We must listen to the voices that speak to all of us”. 

One of the voices that speak to me, is that of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (Archi as in Architect), who invented a fable about a hedge hog and a fox. (a four- legged fox, that is).

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing. 

His idea was appropriated and developed in our time by the Oxford liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin as a metaphor for different kinds of creative activity: Goethe and Pushkin were foxes; Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were hedgehogs.

I suspect that Pancho combines elements of both fox and hedgehog. He certainly knows many things -- he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature of art and architecture.

But he also knows one big thing: that architecture can be art.

There is a story told about Antoni Gaudi - that after he met his untimely death under the wheels of a tramcar on Barcelona’s Gran Via, (maybe he was pre-occupied in solving problems in his unfinished Sagrada Familia) his circle of friends gathered round to pay tribute. One of them exclaimed “What a wonderful thing it would be if Don Antoni were canonized! Then everybody would want to be an architect”.

Now I don’t have papal authority to do this, but by the power vested in me in declaring this exhibition open, I hereby proclaim Pancho Guedes as the living patron saint of alternative modernism -- of architecture as magical space, of architecture as poetry, of building dreams, and buildings that dream of themselves.

Neville Dubow
Cape Town, May 2008

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