Looking back at key buildings and moments in Siza’s career
On a cobbled street among nondescript terraced houses runs a long, low concrete wall with a single window and a couple of doors. If you stand back this reveals itself as the podium for a four-storey slab of plain grey walls and a few modest lines of canopy and window. This, about halfway between the indelibly textured masonry of historic Porto and its blandly bourgeois coastal suburbs, is what every taxi driver in the city knows as ‘the building of the architects’, designed by Alvaro Siza as offices for himself, his teacher Fernando Távora, his student Eduardo Souta de Moura, and his brother, an engineer.
While we are readily reminded − by the slight displacements of the plan and the varying courses of fenestration − of Siza’s love for Aalto, Loos and Taut, and of his discovery in 1968 of Asplund and Lewerentz, there is little at first blush to contradict the supposedly inscrutable and ‘indescribable’ labels with which even his fondest admirers have tagged his works, and which I suspect the master’s own carefully contradictory and oblique statements on his stance and purpose are designed to reinforce.
On further thought, however, this ‘architects’ building’, patiently taking shape from discussion among its users over five years from 1993 to 1997, begins to talk to many of the ideas and conditions that have produced Siza’s work, that account for its force and variety, and that can suggest how to place and learn from it.
First is the fact that the building − for all its oddities of shape and detail, and though it looks nothing like its neighbours, and works at a different overall scale to a different orientation and in different materials − seems nevitable and unsurprising. Siza’s is a deferent practice, almost archaeologically observant of the patterns and rhythms of a project’s site, landscape and cultural setting. He talks of his sketches as steps along a circuitous ‘path that walks around a site looking for something from which to begin’. In a Portuguese metaphor worthy of Camões he rejects any notion of steering the ship of architecture towards a mark, preferring to rely on a compliant attitude toward the sea in which the captain relies on profound study of the eddies, currents, shoals, reefs, winds and depths to follow some oceanic logic that keeps the craft on a principled course. And he speaks of the humility of the architect whose best work, whatever mantle of ideas he dresses it in, will simply ‘trace the creases of that cloak down to the ground or up to the ether’. Yet he has been fierce in his denunciation of the ‘contextualism’ for which he has been applauded. The ease with which this outlandish monolith fits into its colony of traditional little houses makes it very clear what Siza means when he sets his goal as achieving the ‘obvious’ and revealing the mystery that lies within it.
Then there is the location, one of the ever-changing hinterlands of a nearly great city which has become Siza’s well-loved terrain. This is where the best known of his cooperative low-cost housing projects appeared, the ring of working-class suburbs north of Porto that saw the first of them, the then-forlorn Kreuzberg district of Berlin in which his IBA flats were built, the outskirts of the Hague for which he constructed an entire new city, or the string of beach towns west of Porto which have been his home and the proving ground of his inquiry.
They are zones of transformation − and if Siza has a doctrine the word transformation is at its centre − not reconstructing or reinventing, but changing the form of the familiar according to its own established (if often lost or forgotten) logic. This is how the street patterns, the bold palettes, and the back-to-backs of the Portuguese housing projects were traced and re-emerged; the massing of the central European Wohnhaus reappeared in Kreuzberg; the rhythms of opening and enclosure in the Netherlands.
‘Siza talks of his sketches as steps along a circuitous path that walks around a site looking for something from which to begin’
For Siza the first flush of international attention appeared in 1969. Critics were scouring the edges of the continent and its cultures for signs of a surviving aesthetic vitality on the margins of a now technocratic continent in which the emerging postwar geographies were those of the planners and social scientists. They discovered this vitality in places like northern Portugal, where patient and inventive projects might emerge from a combination of longstanding social hierarchies, the sense of being a little left behind, and the mechanisms of complicity that marked the relations between desire, authority, investment, design and construction in essentially intimate communities. Then characterised in more senses than one as ‘architecture of the margins’ by Rafael Moneo, Siza’s marvellously original early landscape projects were among those discoveries. These − a seaside teahouse and ocean swimming pool, and the bathhouse and pool of the Quinta do Conceição − remind us that perhaps all his works are ultimately landscapes.
Deeper attention followed the Revolution of 1974, his social housing projects coming to realisation in a new national atmosphere of community participation. For the rest of Europe, they were among the rare large works to appear in the years of the oil crisis. Their play on traditional forms seemed to be a sober and more respectful response to working-class housing needs than Runcorn or Robin Hood Gardens; and their sympathetic discussion with existing urban patterns came at a moment ripe for envisaging a new approach to the city. The projects are marked by cooperation − the sort of collaboration that Siza celebrates when he argues that a building’s vitality comes only when it is produced in conversation between designer, maker and user; and again, there is another more privileged layer of cooperation attached to their realisation, grounded in the close relations between Siza and successive ministers on either side of the change in regime. Consequently, and as jobs stalled through years of transition, in each of these projects Siza had years to work, weeks on site, and the luxury of hundreds of sketches to develop them.
Alvaro Siza Vieira
Boa Nova restaurant
Matosinhos, Portugal (1965)
Galician Centre for Contemporary Art, Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1995)
Serralves Museum of contemporary Art, Porto, Portugal (1997)
Ibere Camargo Foundation Porto Alegre, Brazil (2008)
Pritzker Prize (1992)
Praemium Imperiale (1998)
RIBA Gold Medal (2009)
Golden Lion for Lifetime
Architecture Biennale (2012)
‘Architects don’t invent anything; they transform reality’
What makes these works so moving now, however, is something even more distinctively Portuguese than the closeness of these relations, and that is a quality that brings us back to Siza’s deference. He says he is an unabashed conservative, and these works are marked by his acknowledgement of what is, rather than what might be: the housing projects reinforce, even celebrate, ways of life of the urban poor; they are transformations of a given reality; they do not want to change it. In that deference to urban life, they are in tune with a community of national sentiment about townscapes and the scent of the city’s meaner sides, the subject to which almost every great fadista in some way sings.
I don’t for a moment want to present Siza as so many have: as the inscrutable architect sui generis, a figure from the periphery, and of a culture that time forgot. On the contrary, you can look across the long trajectory of his work and see in its urbanisation of landscape, in its sense of quiet inevitability, and in the complex processes that have produced such semblances of simplicity, a persistent advocacy by example of building as a kind of pastoral: the ability to capture sound from silence and to gather a specific gravity from the concentration of thought upon a site and situation. This is poetry, and there should be an undying place for it in architecture.
Illustrator: André Carrilho - See more work on his website