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To Siza The Day at the Biennale

Álvaro Siza’s sketches, on show to coincide with the Venice Biennale, capture the personalities of Portugal’s architecture scene

In parallel with the Biennale exhibitions, there are three other notable modestly scaled exhibitions: one the drawings and models of Aldo Rossi concerning the theatre and the city, which are a vivid reminder of the potent presence of Italian urban and architectural theory through the ’70s and ’80s; the second is a stunning display in the new Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, of the remarkable collaboration between Carlos Scarpa and the Murano-based glass production of Venini glassworks during the years 1932-1947; the third is a small but elegantly conceived exhibition of 53 sketches edited from nearly 500 sketchbooks that Álvaro Siza has thus far produced in a career spanning 60 years. These sketches are exhibited in the galleries of the Querini Stampalia palace, whose earlier metamorphosis by Carlo Scarpa together with its historic enfilade of rooms and exhibits makes an ideal escape from the rhetoric and noise of the Biennale.

The Siza exhibition, which at first reading is unrelated to his architectural oeuvre, is in fact a wonderful and intimate entrée to the maestro’s working methods, imagination and critical overview. It consists of 53 framed reproductions, a number chosen to comfortably fill the galleries but also, like a code, the street number of Siza’s Porto studio. This is only the tip of the cultural trail that then unfolds.

Accompanying the exhibition is a fine catalogue, lightly and judiciously edited by the exhibition curators Raul Betti and Greta Ruffino, which includes a complete transcription of their 45 minute interview with Siza on 10 August 2011. The quadrilingual text opens with a photograph of an ordinary doorbell and nameplate on the building housing Siza’s studio, but on closer inspection the group of names is remarkable, a palimpsest of the most influential strand of 20th-century Portuguese architecture no less. At the top is F Távora & JB Távora Arquitectos, Lda: Fernando Távora is the subject, as are the other names on the bell push, of one of the sketches, his balding head and bushy eyebrows nestling on folded arms, taking a nap between shared thoughts at a restaurant table.

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Fernando Távora having a nap, in a drawing by Álvaro Siza on show in Venice

Távora, who was one of the two Portuguese reps at CIAM and a participant in Team 10, was a young tutor at the Porto School of Architecture headed at this time by Carlos Ramos when Álvaro Siza arrived at the tender age of 16. Siza credits Ramos with the reformation of the school − small and only one of two in Portugal − at a critical moment at the mid point of the 20th century. Second in the line is Álvaro Siza himself, below whom one finds Eduardo Souto de Moura, and lower still, Rogério Cavaca.

As Siza explains in the wonderfully simple but sophisticated interview, ‘The reason for having a building in common was our close friendship and our reciprocal need for space, new space.’ Siza cites several elusive reasons for his sketching habit. The first was an uncle who was ‘determined to make me draw’ beginning with horses (a particularly difficult subject), which he says he drew very badly, but got him scribbling and enjoying the habit. Another reason Siza suggests is to aid memory: ‘I’ve never had a very good memory − not even visual memory − so I take notes’.

Perhaps at the core is his observation that when sketching a ‘view of a city people pass by, appear; and this helps me to understand the spirit of the city’. Siza quotes Alvar Aalto in the use of the sketch or painting as a means of disconnecting with the pressure of decision-making, as an indirect reverie and aid to clearing the ground. Read together, the sketches and text are inspiring in their directness, generosity and illumination of the workings of a fabulously rich spatial imagination.

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Besides the sketches and catalogue there is also a film, mainly of talking heads interspersed with site-specific references. Low budget and modest, it nonetheless poignantly picks up Siza’s acute reading of the specificity of place in the sequential contribution of other architects and a recognition and real respect for what they achieved, together with an eye for more general urban detail.

Like the horses of his childhood struggles, people are difficult to capture in a sketch, yet Siza’s economic lines have been honed to convey character very well. As one observes the sketches of people − some intimate friends, others strangers − it is not difficult to see how his skill migrates effortlessly to those architectural compositions, in which so much is condensed into a few sparse lines distilling and clarifying his intentions.

Less well known than Siza’s influential body of architectural work are his urban projects, like the rebuilding of the Chiado district in Lisbon, a heroic struggle that deserves more critical attention as an excellent case study, with many lessons to be learnt and emulated. Central to its success is an eye for architectural detail, the same eye clearly demonstrated by Siza’s skilled portraits.

This modest exhibition is an apposite and timely parallel to Álvaro Siza’s receipt of this Biennale’s Golden Lion award and very worth while visiting.

Alvaro Siza: Viagem Sem Programa (Journey without a Plan)

Venue: Fondazione Querini Stampalia
City: Venice
Dates: until 11 November 2012

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