As history unfolds, unexpected connections appear between the recent and the more distant past. Works which were once discussed as central retreat into the background, while others which seemed marginal at the time move into the foreground.
The late 1950s and early ’60s in Porto were crucial turning points in which Fernando Távora (1923-2005) and his younger colleague Álvaro Siza established their personal styles while crystallising a wide range of issues to do with modernity and tradition, the architectural object and surrounding space, the universal and the local. In retrospect, the Tennis Pavilion by Távora and the Swimming Pool by Siza, both in the park of the Quinta da Conceição near Matosinhos, stand out as seminal buildings.
It is insufficient to refer to these achievements by means of muddled historical characterisations such as ‘critical regionalism’ or to try to tie them to the nebulous formulations of Team Ten. They need to be understood in relation to the Portuguese architectural culture of the period and the ever evolving strands of modern architecture combining the local and the general in places as varied as Spain, Mexico, Japan and Yugoslavia at the time.
The ensemble of structures built by Távora in the park of the abandoned monastery of the Quinta da Conceição − including the Tennis Pavilion, the outdoor room of the northern entrance, the stepping walkways and the reconstructed cloister − constituted an entire symbolic landscape laden with hidden memories and allusions, and drawing together influences as varied as the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the temples of ancient Japan, but in an exploration of a modern space.
They also returned to archetypes such as the platform and the hovering roof. The park, conceived in 1957, served as a pastoral filter between the residential areas to the north and the harder industrial region to the south, even passing under the roadway at the lower end to establish an extension of public space. In addition to the primary axis and diagonal routes over platforms, Távora established stopping points where people might pause and meditate upon historical fragments, textured paving stones, rough masonry and troughs of water.
One of the underlying themes at Quinta da Conceição is that of the outdoor room open to the sky. This is first announced at the northern entrance with its red walls, and its main portal with hovering granite lintel framing the way into the park along the main axis. It suggests a Meso-American ruin and recalls works by Luis Barragán (which Távora did not know).
The path descends towards a point of punctuation in the distance: an abstract sculpture resembling an ancient stele with a semi-circular top, which turns out, when one is below, to be the back of a curved archaeological fragment embedded in a modern form.
This game of representation and abstraction continues throughout the park, as does the contrast between modern materials such as concrete, and traditional ones such as masonry. Immense care has gone into the articulation of joints so as to reinforce the materiality of stonework, particularly in the sustaining walls and the rough blocks of granite used in the paving of the main pathway.
Inevitably one thinks of the ground plane in Japanese temples in Kyoto (which Távora experienced) where movement is guided by the changing feeling of the paving underfoot. In the park, the types of wall run all the way from the boldest granite masonry to thin, plastered surfaces − from traditional rustication to suggestions of the cultivated.
‘Like a navigator of modern times, Távora travelled far and wide in his quest for architectural truths’
The Tennis Pavilion itself plays against the ground plane and the horizontal of the tennis court in a complex game of weight and flotation. It relies upon modern materials such as concrete and steel to achieve wide lateral spans without supports, yet it still flirts with the idea of traditional masonry pillars. These are inserted in the rear wall in such a way that they protrude from the surface but do not touch the ground.
They recall the granite piers used in vineyards in northern Portugal and convey a sense of the rustic, even the primitive. They allude to traditional construction, but subvert it in a manner that underlines the feeling of hovering of the main pavilion space, an airy room entirely open along its south-eastern side so as to afford an uninterrupted view over tennis court and park.
The floor is covered in red and white tiles while the entire roof is supported on wooden rafters sitting on a long concrete beam which runs from one end to the other without intermediary columns, sits on a whitewashed wall at each end and protrudes beyond them. The long horizontal handrail, a cylinder of steel, and the rain gutter above, are also detailed so that they appear suspended in mid air.
There are subliminal allusions to bamboo rails and gutters in Japanese temples, but these are combined with a reinterpretation of the overlapping planes and struts of De Stijl. The Tennis Pavilion works with voids as well as solids, and engages at a distance with the spatial dynamics of Neo-Plasticism and the abstraction of Mondrian.
It is like a delayed reaction to a past avant-garde in defiance of a cloying and earthbound traditionalism, that of the formulaic and official ‘Portuguese House’ with its folkloric clichés, which Távora openly criticised in writing. The Tennis Pavilion takes on the character of a modest manifesto in favour of a modernity that also returns to roots.
One recalls the architect’s interest in the writings of Bruno Zevi who tried to define the essence of modern architecture through its liberation of a new kind of space, first revealed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright then carried forward in what he felt was an ‘organic’ tradition.
Aalto also figured in this lineage and in the floating, angled roof of the Tennis Pavilion one encounters echoes of both Wright’s Taliesin West (1937) with its tilted, tent-like superstructure riding over a base of crude masonry, and of Aalto’s Maison Carré (1957), with its wedge-shaped roof hovering above a stepped section responding to the sloping landscape.
These ‘modern’ precedents coexist in tension with Távora’s readings of the rural vernacular of northern Portugal, especially the tiled and tilted roofs and the terracing. Modern concepts and images interact with traditional ones, just as they do in several of Távora’s other works of the same period such as the Mercado Municipal at Vila de Feira of 1953-59 or the Casa de Férias of 1957-59. The Pavilion was a synthesis of fundamental ideas, even suggesting a Primitive Hut − an essay on the very notion of architectural origins.
Portugal is sometimes treated as a ‘marginal’ country, a caricature which forgets the numerous links to the Americas, Asia and the rest of the world. In Porto, in particular the very notion of the ‘local’ has been modified by historical overlays imported from places around the globe. One is struck by the cosmopolitanism of Távora’s architectural culture, his absorption of past monuments and civilisations, and his investigation of basic themes transcending particular examples. Like a navigator of modern times, Távora travelled far and wide in his quest for architectural truths.
Porto School of Fine Arts
Professor at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Porto
Municipal Market, Santa Maria da Feira (1953-59), Tennis Pavilion, Quinta da Conceição Park, Matosinhos (1956-60),
Santa Marinha Convent, Guimarães (1975-84)
‘A good building is like a good shirt, it must have a good collar and a good pair of cuffs, if it doesn’t, it’s still a shirt, but is it a good one?’