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Thoughts on Álvaro Siza Vieira

Posted on 31 July 2009 by Alvaro

siza_1_popupThoughts on Siza by Pedro Vieira de Almeida

Álvaro Siza Vieira is the greatest living Portuguese architect -perhaps the finest the country has ever produced- whose works over the years have proven to be amongst the most coherent and complete of all architectural works this century. This coherence is not based on stylistic repetition: it lies in the progressive evolution of the act of designing and, as such, Siza’s work is immediately recognisable wherever it be found.
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Álvaro Siza Vieira himself says: “What I appreciate and look for most in architecture is clarity and simplism. Simplicity and simplism are known to be opposites, just as unity and diversity are not. Simplicity results from the control of complexity and the contradictions of any programme [...] Complexity and internal contradictions - external, also, when a new structure is confronted with what preceeded and what surrounds it, taking on a not necessarily predictable destiny. For this reason, the more character a building has and the clearer its form, the more flexible its vocation.”

Álvaro Siza Vieira
I am not sure whether the work of Álvaro Siza has ever received the attention it deserves in Portugal. This reticence on the part of national critics is perhaps due to the sheer difficulty of the undertaking, a veritable challenge in itself. It may also be that the fairly sparse ranks of Portuguese critics were and are still not prepared to handle such a task.

My aim here is certainly not to correct these shortcomings, but rather to set down a few thoughts of my own that provide what I consider to be a necessary interpretation of Siza’s work.

First
Having had the opportunity to follow the career of Álvaro Siza Vieira very closely -I recall excursions to see his first works when we were all still at the Beaux Arts- has been a particularly gratifying experience for me (although I must confess that this was perhaps tinged with a certain natural envy) and gratifying for a whole generation of architects. The latter, certainly with more involvement than I, have witnessed the development of an architect whose works over the years have proven to be amongst the most coherent and complete of all architectural works this century.

This point of view should be made clear from the outset so as to avoid any ambiguity regarding what I think and say or may say further on.
This coherence, which I believe is evident, is not based on self-proclamation or stylistic repetition: it lies in the progressive evolution of the act of designing. Siza’s work is thus immediately recognisable, no matter where we find it. For this very reason, it is easy to detect fakes, easy to spot imitations by those who think they understand Siza, copying his gestures, repeating his “way of doing things”.

It should be pointed out that the permanent quality that characterises the work of Siza Vieira cannot be achieved by mere capriciousness of form, however elegant this may be. And if there are architects that can be called elegant, Siza Vieira is one of them. This elegance, however, is not the same type of elegance that characterises a beautiful outfit in a fashion show, but rather the kind of elegance that mathematicians find in a correct mathematical formula. The elegance is inner, not exterior, its seduction lying in the fact that it is truly structural. For this reason it cannot be achieved with simple strokes of intuition, however brilliant these may be, but rather through the lucid exercise of critical intelligence. This needs mentioning since one of the shrewdest ways of removing someone from competition, disquieting affairs that they are, is to proclaim that person’s genius, his quasi enlightenment, thereby putting him on some kind of pedestal. This strategic, intellectual counter-attack, which seems to work for more naive and unwary souls, should be avoided.

Second
I have on various occasions stressed what I consider to be Álvaro Siza’s greatest contribution to Portuguese architecture in general, apart from the obvious quality of his work. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I should like to emphasise once more his ability to re-create history -our history- to revive it, freeing Portuguese architecture from a complex with no critical sense to it which has dragged on for generations. And this was done inevitably -returning to the previous point- in the manner of a cultural conquest, certainly intuitive, yet discursive also.

I am reminded of a phrase by Antonio Sergio that I once quoted in respect of Raúl Lino: “…I beseech my compatriots to rid themselves of this division of humankind into two completely distinct, incompatible, incommunicable, pure classes, to wit: Emotional and Intellectual, Sensitive men, Intelligent men.” Álvaro Siza is a fine example of this: acute sensitivity, acute intelligence.

Third
Álvaro Siza Vieira has frequently been linked to Minimalism, as if he were in fact a Minimalist architect. I do not think so. This strikes me as a rather superficial idea. Siza is not -not even labelling someone, whatever that label may be, has ever posed such a problem- an architect that at the merely formal level of architectural understanding can be defined and labelled… Nevertheless, I suppose that if you have to mention an artistic attitude that does seem to fit him, if the subliminal structure of his work is in keeping with a particular movement, then that is the expressionism that is latent in his work. And I believe that expressionist roots are revealed in all his works, precisely because this expressionism is revealed at a deeper level in the formal structures. More immediately patent in the forms of the Tea House, more elaborate and subterranean in the Setubal College or the Santiago Museum, expressionist underlies his work.

In these last two examples, this attitude defines not so much the concrete forms, the formal forms, but rather the quality of the light and the way in which it is manipulated. Here, Álvaro Siza gets to the bottom of the very arguments that shape architecture. One need merely analyse his projects from this point of view to find the common thread running through them: light that has nothing cold about it, abstract light that is purely rationalist.

I recall many years ago drawing attention to the quality of the light in the Leca swimming pool. Today I would say that the quality and control of light are a constant in his work. The markedly plastic tactile light -not passive light, in the sense that it provides a service (the light that illuminates the “simple volumes” of a Le Corbusier) but light dealt with as an expressive object- remains, perhaps, the very stuff of architecture. And in Siza it is conceived as being rooted in expressionism.

Perhaps the Chiado experience, the contact with windows and the thickness of the walls, will result in a certain hardening of light. By this I do not mean a loss of quality, but rather an alteration to this quality.

Fourth
Another characteristic of Álvaro Siza Vieira’s works is the permanent absence of inflated rhetoric. One of the reasons for this -there are others- is the scale he always introduces, regardless of the size of the project. Without wanting to go into the subject in too much detail, it is interesting to note how there has always been an attempt to incorporate a German influence into Portuguese architecture. It seems to me that the Austrian influence is far greater than the German, and that control of scale is one of the aspects of this influence, on the one hand patent and on the other long-lasting. In Siza’s case (which is just one of the cases in which it is noticeable) the influence is a recollection that has been absorbed in refined style, but it is present nonetheless.

I believe that this precision of scale is contributed to by the subtle understanding of the surroundings, and the recent project for the Faculty of Architecture in Oporto, in which he rejects a large-scale solution, seems to me to be a fine example of this.

Fifth
Unlike a certain consensus that seems to have been established around his work, I find the effective participation of the population in solving their problems to be of only relative importance. Firstly, because I think that this participation is extremely ambiguous, and is in urgent need of re-evaluation. Secondly, because Álvaro Siza Vieira certainly does not need such a social pseudo-crutch to lean on. As far as I’m concerned, this participation is nothing more than -in Siza’s and not only Siza’s case- a pious myth, only aggravated here by the importance that is given it.

It’s worth looking at and briefly commenting on an article by Hans van Dijk, who dedicated part of an essay on the work of Siza to this very topic after gathering together various bits and pieces of information, including numerous interviews with Siza himself. Van Dijk states that Álvaro Siza Vieira believes that participation leads to conflict and that (and here he is not concurring with the above statement) the absence of conflict can only signify insufficient or even non-existent participation.

Accepting for now, then, that participation implies conflict and that the absence of conflict thus denotes the absence of participation, this does not necessarily mean that conflict implies participation. In other words, conflict may be a necessary condition for participation, but is not sufficient on its own.

Van Dijk points out, however, with reference to an occasion on which there was a certain negative reaction from the population, that this was based on “class arrogance, populism, misunderstanding of the context and excessive romanticism and nostalgia for the past.”

Even when the population’s point of view coincided with that of the project, it was “full of contradictions” and their points of reference were based on misrepresentative television pictures.

Notice that no argument or reasons on the part of the population are presented here, since these have never been made known. Throughout Van Dijk’s description, the whole affair seems almost artificially created, with one of the sides getting caught up in personal arguments that have little or no sense to them.

I do not believe in the method of participation. More importantly, I do not believe that the architecture of Álvaro Siza is in need of it. What does count at the critical level, however, is that the preoccupation with this aspect (misleading, as far as I’m concerned) of his work conceals a need to confer a social worth on Siza, as if this were lacking. The work of Álvaro Siza has poetic worth in itself, displays inventiveness, formal reliability, theoretical richness and a prodigious linguistic assurance, with nothing to be gained by attributing marginal validation values to it, which merely bear witness to the mental frameworks we were forced to develop in decades that have thankfully gone by.

Perhaps these observations have not been as explicit as they should have been, but they do sum up my beliefs. I believe that only through a mutual effort, a continual exercise of lucidity, which Siza’s work prepares us for, will we be able to put it into its proper critical perspective.

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Philosophy, Theory and Practice

Posted on 30 July 2009 by Alvaro

siza2The work of Álvaro Siza Vieira is a paradigmatic example of a reciprocal relationship between the place and the global, probably the crucial subject for the disciplines related with the production of the space since the late sixties.

For Álvaro Siza Vieira it is natural that a typical case as yours is produced in Portugal, that is a country that traditionally stayed very isolated after to Second World War. There were a lot of restrictions to leave the country. The information was regulated, there was a lot of censorship.

The distance condition was an incentive for the learning and the construction of an Architecture capable to jump out of the scene strictly place and to be more universal.
For Álvaro Siza Vieira universality it is not neutrality, it is not an aspect of the Architectural expression, it is a capacity to create from the roots. Like a tree that opens up.

His sense of universality has more to do with the vocation of the cities, that comes from centuries of intervention, of mysticism, of overlapping and of the mixture of the more opposed influences, but that results unmistakable.
He says that in some occasions a first intuition is crucial for the criative process. He believes that in the first idea there is a strong component of relationship with the past through the memory.

For Álvaro Siza Vieira, the formation, the point of the author’s interior development is crucial to solve the gradual implementation of the knowledge, of developing the rationalization course and communication, that is specific of the project, inside of the production of Architecture. For himself, the spontaneous never falls from the sky, it is one more assemblage of the information and knowledge, conscious or subconscious. Each projectual experience accumulates to form part of the next solution.

Álvaro Siza Vieira likes a lot of Art to explain architectural projects.
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His act is produced by side drawing, what considers mutant of Architecture for an Architect, because maybe, in others it is produced with another way, with an image, with a narration. For himself it is impossible to imagine the first creative act without the support of instruments. This is always loaded of previous experiences, of memory, etc.

Álvaro Siza Vieira considers that the opening in the discussion of a theme is essential. On the opposite the perspective tends to be more subjective and personal and, therefore, limited. For himself the way of work of an architect request a great trust and statement capacity, and at the same time a certain estrangement.

It is Brecht’s attitude regarding the theatrical representation: the estrangement isn’t meant to assume a character, it means to be conscious of represent her.

For himself team work is very important, because in one case only one ends up getting entangled in the project: it is certain that in a certain moment what is being done doesn’t come from what projects it comes from the project. This point is important: he means that the project reached it density. But it also considers that it is a deviation possibility: he also wants to say that the project is not controlled. There are always other ways of introducing verification and control.

He is convinced that a project is not deduced directally of an analysis. For Álvaro Siza Vieira the learning of Architecture goes in one moment by an inferiority complex spicies in relation to the scientific subjects, complex that he/she translates (himself) in a specialization of the practices.

For Álvaro Siza Vieira this fragmentation of the knowledge was institutionalized excessively. When he sees himself exposed the real process of any scientific investigation ,it never meets an incompatible succession of analyses. The human mind doesn’t work lineally, but in a form much more sincrética in curves or Zig Zag.

For himself that non linearity of the thought is that it allows the production of a new information that didn’t exist before, because it is open to possible accidents. He believes that there is a series of prejudices institutionalized through the productive machine, in that the possibility that sometimes appears continues remote.

Certain day he read a text of a composer describing his form of composing, in which he explained: “sit down to the piano, I play the first notes, and stop… I change something and soon I continue, but I should change the first part, because the second one becomes structure (…) ” Álvaro Siza Vieira says that each one of their projects has been following a different course.

For Álvaro Siza Vieira forms and function has a complex and relative relationship, as the one that was analyzed between the place and the universal. They cannot be analyzed in a lineal or inevitable relationship.

It always feels better in an old house that in a new one. It can look for reasons and assume that apart from reasons as the amount of available space, the reasons of this annoyance were the linearity of the identity between the form and function.
Álvaro Siza Vieira says: “Maybe in some stages of my work there is excessive concentration in the plastic values. In subsequent stages, and trying to correct everything this establishing a certain estrangement between my personality and the product”.
Their projectos explore the aesthetics of the unfinished of the fragmented, of the deformed.

His language is more distinguishable by the use of more lines than perfect formes, it interests him the fragmentation as reaction to the complexity of a program, for opposition to the proposal of a self-sufficient system, but this doesn’t reduce his enthusiasm for the ideas and some works classified as disconstrutivists.

Their strategies derive of the conviction that a work never finishes. It doesn’t interest him the imposition of the perfection and of the style, but the construction of a support for the urban life in their transformations.

According to Álvaro Siza Vieira we should not forget that the city is not isolated, in its reality, but also has a memory.

For himself, to find the most important in the balance between the object and the city is one of the works and more important demands, to his judgement, for an architect. Then his obsession for the proportions, that it is for himself, one of the determinant of the importance of each intervention. We have always worked in this conflict among the monotony and belong to a whole.

For Álvaro Siza Vieira the process of transformation of the project is in a certain point out of control; it is as who writes a romance: the characters earn a living and they lead to the evolution.

For himself, the diversity, the imagination depends entirely, integrally, of this sense of the proportions that makes a place have interest.
It interests him the proportion as alternative of the contemporary obsession for the total innovation of the image, the fear of the monotonous.

In the historical centers the houses are practically all the same and nothing seems boring.
The tendency for the personal expression is inevitable, it is the brilliant phase, little it ripens of a project.

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Thoughts on his Style

Posted on 26 July 2009 by Alvaro

siza23

Álvaro Siza Vieira and his Style

I would like to start my discussion of the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza’s work by first considering some texts frequently cited in discussions of his projects: one by Siza himself, one by his mentor Fernando Tavora, [...]:

My architecture does not have a pre-established language nor does it establish a language. It is a response to a concrete problem, a situation in transformation in which I participate… In architecture, we have already passed the phase during which we thought that the unity of language would resolve everything. A pre-established language, pure, beautiful, does not interest me.
—Alvaro Siza (1978) [Peter Testa, The Architecture of Alvaro Siza (Oporto, Portugal: Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto, 1968), p. 39]

Those who advocate a return to styles of the past or favor a modern architecture and urbanism for Portugal are on a bad path… “style” is not of importance; what counts is the relation between the work and life, style is only the consequence of it.
—Fernando Tavora (1962) [Paulo Varela Gomes, "Quatre Batailles en Faveur d'une Architecture Portuguaise" Europalia 91: Portugal Points de Repere: Architecture du Portugal (Brussels: Fondation pour l'Architecture, 1991), pp. 41–42 [my translation]

[...] All three texts reveal currents of feeling and thought that are distrustful of language. [...] Language has its own independent logic. We tell stories about ourselves, define experiences, judge events, and give voice to our feelings. Yet what we tell ourselves follows on the structure of language as given to us. The murky liquid dynamism of life is poured into the ready mold of language without convincing us that something is not left out in the shape assumed. The events of our life take on the form of known narrative structures. We imagine in the events of our lives the shadow of a bildungsroman, a cinematic melodrama or life as advertised. Ready words name our sentiments and we love, miss, and grow angry—whatever—according to the elaborate histories connected to the words that name these sentiments. Meaning—even that conveyed by a rudimentary individual word—is divided up in certain arbitrary ways, as a simple attempt at translation from one language to another readily demonstrates. Although inevitably and endlessly falling prey to the preformed patterns of thought, intimations of another life shimmer out of thought’s reach on the horizon of consciousness. [...]
Alvaro Siza’s and Fernando Tavora’s statements suggest that something analogous has occurred in architecture. Tavora rejects what he calls “style,” which is really expression that no longer seems properly linked to its content—expression that seems superfluous to meaning, mere flourishes. He instead favors something that will grow out of the relationship between “work and life.” Siza, a student of Fernando Tavora and a lifelong friend, echoes the older architect’s sentiment: he rejects “pre-established language” and seeks to respond to a “concrete problem, a situation in transformation in which I participate.” In architecture they aim for that utopia where form would be neither an arbitrary inheritance nor an arbitrary system of forms, but would grow directly out of our needs, and those needs’ interaction with our environments, and most generally (if also most vaguely) out of who we are.

Yet what does all that mean? It reminds me of an analogous ambition ascribed to the “American action painting” of Pollack, Kline, de Kooning, etc., by their champion and critic, Harold Rosenberg. He said that this painting “at its inception was a method of creation—not a style or look that pictures strove to achieve.” [Harold Rosenberg, "The Concept of Action Painting," Artwork and Packages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 213]. The paintings were records of human gesture unmediated by the treacherous pressure of thought and preconceived images. These paintings, like the track left behind a figure skater, recorded life itself unfolding.
But what could this mean in relationship to architecture, an art that is by its very definition premeditated? First we draw, then someone following what amounts to instructions must build. Architecture is neither a very spontaneous process nor is it very receptive to those patent contrivances that try to transpose “automatic” drawings to the built realm. To understand how these statements, or theoretical ambitions, relate to architecture, and to understand what consequences they finally had on Alvaro Siza’s work, we will have to trace two parallel histories. The first relates to the understanding developed by the previous generation of Portuguese architects—among whom Tavora played a significant role—of Portuguese vernacular architecture, and of the impact it had on their thinking. The other historical thread that needs pursuing relates to the development of the architectural promenade: there the notion of a mobile subject reflected a changed perception of the subject and its relationship to the architectural object. Of particular importance will be the conceptual precedent set by how these changes inscribed themselves in Le Corbusier’s work.

In the Portugal of the 1940s and 1950s, two developments lent depth to the feeling of at least one group of architects that the country’s architecture was falling into a set of empty stylistic patterns. The fascist dictatorship of the Estado Novo (as the regime was called) had adopted a narrow range of models by reference to which they were able to promulgate a homogeneous state manner—monumental, even when small; quasi-neoclassical in appearance; modern in functional considerations. Following a familiar fascist pattern, it proffered this architecture as the sole and unique representation of a single and historically homogeneous Portugal. It did not matter that this architecture, drawn from a version of the past adapted to contemporary programmatic demands and the heroic goals of the state’s self-representation, looked little like any of the traditional Portuguese architecture from which it purportedly drew its legitimacy. Just as the representation of the state in the guise of a stern father leading a Portuguese nation as if it were an extended family required the expression of real political differences, so too did the architecture mandate an artificial stylistic homogeneity. The state in a sense held language hostage, and lent an exaggerated urgency to the suspicion of language’s treachery. [The historical thread of my argument here draws largely upon the article by Paulo Varela Gomes, "Quatre Batailles en Faveur d'une Architecture Portuguaise," pp. 30–62]
The second development came from the increase in private and commercial building in the country. Large numbers of citizens working abroad and returning to Portugal to build homes or businesses—a pattern that persists in Portugal today—had encouraged the construction of buildings in many imported architectural styles. Their roots within entirely different urban, climatic, technological, material, and social circumstances, and the contrasting uniformity of many towns and countrysides of Portugal, made these new buildings appear quite bizarre.

Architects, led initially by Keil Amaral and later including Tavora, sought in the traditional vernacular a model of architecture to which they could look as a remedy. They eventually produced a thick survey called Arquitectura Popular em Portugal, in which they documented, region by region, the varieties of vernacular architecture in Portugal. What they sought in the vernacular was a form of building without resort to “style,” or what they called “constants,” by which we can understand formal norms. Although they chart typologies within the body of the book, in the introduction they deny the importance of type. They are afraid that from types a “Portuguese architecture” might be sought and reified into a code, just as the state had done with its models. They flee from the stifling and betraying codifications that are language. They do say that the buildings reflect, although not in types or specific architectural elements, “something of the character of our people” in terms of a tendency to domesticate and turn “humble” certain traits of the baroque. Exactly what that is, which must be some formal characteristic —simplification of contour, for instance—is purposely left unsaid. Instead they point out the “strict correlation” in those buildings “with geographical factors, as well as economic and social conditions.” They are “simply direct expressions, without intrusions nor preoccupations with style to perturb the clear and direct consciousness of these relations.” [Arquitectura Popular em Portugal (Lisbon: Sindicato Nascional dos Arquitectos, 1961). Quotes are from the unnumbered pages of the book's introduction. The translations are my own.]

Paulo Varela Gomes, in his brief but excellent synopsis of Portuguese architecture, has called the thinking reflected in this book a “metaphysic of the relation between work and life.” [Gomes, "Quatre Batailles en Faveur d'une Architecture Portuguaise" p. 42] The vernacular is seen as the unmediated and, shall we say, prelinguistic product of life and its conditions. I would again bring to mind Rosenberg’s idea of “American action painters” whose work did not represent the being of the artist so much as it was an unmediated trace, or record of the artist’s life in action. [See Rosenberg's discussion in Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters" The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 27] These buildings are like tools, transparent to their human task. They bear the logic that brought them into being: the task to be performed, the hand that will need to grip them, and indirectly that aspect of the society reflected by the very existence of the need to perform that task to which the tool is dedicated. The sign is not yet broken into the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified.
Whatever degree of truth there may be in the supposition that form has a more natural relationship to “life” in the rural communities and regions from which these architects drew their examples, the central fact of unselfconscious reproduction and incremental modification of traditions is lost and inaccessible to the very self-consciousness that goes in search of it in the vernacular. If the vernacular were merely a model for how to produce buildings in harmony with one’s contemporary circumstances, these architects’ work might have been more like certain traditional strands of modernism. They, like Hannes Meyer, might have tried to eliminate the question of language by focusing exclusively on modern techniques of construction and solutions to contemporary problems. But there was something in the actual formal character of the vernacular that was appealing to them.

The architecture grew in an incremental way and not, as they pointed out, with great concern for formal precepts. Buildings accommodated themselves to the existing conditions of their sites. Buildings attached to walls allowed themselves to be shaped by those walls. Both walls and, to a large extent, buildings allowed themselves to be shaped by the contours of the land. Much of Portugal is hilly or mountainous, and much of the building in towns and countryside exhibits the highly irregular figures that result from this conformity to the landscape. They created an angling, fragmented, mosaic pattern across the countryside. Even in major towns, the streets are rarely straightened, nor is the geometer’s mark to be found in the squares. These too still bear the geometry of original terrain-driven figures. There is then a general absence of an architecture of a priori geometrical form; building maintains the legibility of the antecedent world into which it is built—that is, the rolling forms of the earth—and its slow, incremental pattern of addition and growth are visible; new building does not raze old building. The vernacular has an archeological effect whereby its own history and natural history are inscribed in its form. In this respect it satisfies some of those objectives sought out by its investigators. When Siza begins to practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of these characteristics will have an effect on the strategies he adopts. How his work diverges from this model, however, will intensely reflect the remoteness of the unselfconscious practices of these rural communities.

The other significant historical strand that threads into Siza’s work pertains to the relationship between the development of architectural promenade and the notion of a mobile subject. The historical evolution of architectural promenade, originally connected with landscape architecture, posited a human subject that would no longer contemplate from a single point of view a static and graspable order. It would move through a sequence of landscape environments meant to stimulate constantly varying states of sensations. Watelet, credited with making the first picturesque garden in France in the 1770s, thought (in Robin Middleton’s words) that “the essential enjoyment of a landscape arose from the constantly changing experience enjoyed as one moved through it.” [From Robin Middleton's introduction to Nicolas LeCamus de Mezieres, The Genius of Architecture or the Analogy of that Art with Our Sensations (Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1992), pp. 48–49] The focus of the subject’s attention in the garden shifted away from the apprehension of ideal geometries, or the formal relationships that seemed more important in the conceptual schema of architecture, to a focus on the continuous changing passage of sensation. A person involved in the appreciation of his or her own sensations will distinguish between these sensations, corporal and intimate, and the remoteness of an architecture’s abstract autonomous conceptual order—unless of course that order, as the eighteenth-century garden theorists sought for their gardens, is dedicated to the peripatetic subjects’ perceptions.

The transformation in the attitude toward the relationship between subject and object heralded by the promenade’s focus on a sensorial rather than conceptual order is significant with regard to this essay’s original discussion of language: if in the hierarchy of things greater value is placed on an apparently direct appeal to human sensation, certain orders whose presence can be thought without immediate reference to perception—ideal geometrical schema, for example, or the fugitive and intangible persistence of types—will appear more alien despite the fact that they too are apprehended by the human mind. Even though the environment geared toward the satisfaction of a thirst for “sensation” may be as rigorously orchestrated as the driest geometry, an apparently more spontaneous and natural appeal will be made to a self apparently involved in a more spontaneous and natural response. Forms arranged with a mind to this arousal of sensation and related to our “free” movement will seem like a more “natural” and human language, while what we might call conceptual orders will seem more and more obdurately alien—artificial and “other” like the cloak of reified languages that will not conform to the uniqueness of each human being.

Le Corbusier was obviously interested in this wandering person, and the promenade architectural was a central theme of his work. By giving the promenades a representative physical figure and by making this figure distinct from the idealized “order” established by structure (columns and slabs), he was able to construct an architectural metaphor of the disjunction between an idealized order of architecture and the order of the peripatetic subject of sensations. Thus stairs and ramps in his architecture not only facilitate the actual movement of an individual through his buildings, but just as ergonometric furniture suggests the absent body for which it is designed, the twisting ribbon of stairs—on the left as you enter Villa Savoye, or on the right as you enter Villa Stein—suggests the phantom of that promenading subject. The same is true of the ramps at Savoye, at the Mill Owners, and at the Dr. Currutchet house. These components of circulation follow the logic of the “free plan” and are distinct from the structure of the architecture. Thus the “free plan” not only distinguished between those eternal orders the structure would embody against nonstructural infill, but proposed a distinction between an idealized space and order and the incidental aspect of human passage.

Whether we are thinking of the universal space of the columnar grid or the endurance within it of a certain Palladian aspect—the ABABA rhythm of Stein’s structural grid—the percourse through the emblematic Stein house wanders “freely” across the grain. The columnar space is either a modern shell to be inhabited or a ruin through which we amble. We can thus extend the metaphorical scope that the “free plan” allows for: The stairs and ramps incarnate our contrary patterns of movement. But the “free plan” also identifies an enormous amount of what is connected with the particularization of space, the establishment of those hierarchies of dwelling connected with different rooms, windows, and their figurative aspects with the notion of a kind of permanent furniture. The apsidal wall of the Stein dining room is like a piece of furniture, while the bookshelves that are furniture and conceptually impermanent are used to articulate the space of the l’Esprit Nouveau living area. Furniture is what we bring to a building. It reflects not the preordained order of the architecture but the more personal act of our moving in and dwelling. The “free plan” thus suggests that all those freed materials are a kind of furniture within an area distinct from the principal order of the architecture. It is evidently very much part of Le Corbusier’s work. He created a dialectical opposition of an architecture of idealized order indelibly inscribed by the marks of a subject that is an other in the very midst of the architecture that shelters it.

Siza’s sketches reflect his own relationship to that notion. Architectural, urban, and landscape settings are always shown from a point of view that implies the unique moment of perception of the seeing subject. The drawings do not submit to the “proper” order of the architecture; we do not see from the vertex, for instance, of a perspectivally conceived space: the drawings infrequently attempt to construct the objective description of, say, a plan. In the collection of drawings published in 1988 as Travel Sketches [Alvaro Siza Esquissos de Viagem / Travel Sketches (Oporto, Portugal: Documentos de Arquitectura, 1988), series edited by Eduardo Souto Moura et al], scenes are cropped or viewed at odd and casual angles whether they are of classical buildings, spaces with baroque coordinating principles of preferred unbroken axial views, or ordinary street scenes. In a manner similar to that of the hand-held camera and with similar rhetorical effect, they represent views taken in while one casually ambles down a road or sits in a room or cafe. As in a sidelong glance, things are seen distorted, or as the view drops too low, the foreground’s intimate proximity is juxtaposed onto public distance. Here we might think of that comparison made by Panofsky between the “objective” distance and framing of St. Jerome in his study by Antonello da Messina and the intimacy of Durer’s engraving of the same subject, which places the viewer at the very frontier of the room, the foreground rushing up, thereby making one feel on the verge of crossing through the study to St. Jerome himself. [Erwin Panofsky, Perspective and Symbolic Form (New York: Zone Books, 1991), translated by Christopher S. Wood. pp. 174–175]

Siza’s sketches make us think of the changing views taken in during a stroll. Each sketch stands emblematically for one in a series of succeeding views, implying the uninterrupted stream of our perception as we move through the space of city and country. Possibly by association with the techniques of photography and film and their connection with immediacy and unmediated (nonconceptual) recording, there is the feeling of an “eyewitness” account—of being there.

Architecture is the background to life lived. As in Le Corbusier’s example, it retains the marks of our human use of it. Landscapes, rooms, and streets are filled with voluble human activity—people promenading, talking, buying and selling. Other scenes retain the clues of someone’s recent passage: rumpled clothing sits on a chair, laundry is left hanging to dry. Inanimate things retain their obdurate separateness but are criss-crossed and marked by human activity. Buildings and landscapes thus appear both remote and enmeshed in the resulting tangle.

These drawings create the peculiar sense that we hover just before the drawn scene. They suggest the physical presence of the voyeur at the very site of the sketch. In literal terms, in some drawings Siza allows his own feet and hands—hands caught in the act of sketching the drawing we are now looking at—to enter into the drawing’s frame.

Architecture thought of as the consequence of the relationship between work and life, and the reconceptualization of the subject according to notions of sensation and the promenade—these are the two fields of thought through which I would like to examine some projects of Siza’s. Although the chosen group of works cannot exemplify the full range or complexity of his entire opus, it does touch on persistent and central themes.

One of the reasons the vernacular was able to represent to Tavora and his colleagues their notion of a natural language had to do with its historicity. As an accretive process that maintained the evidence of the historical circumstances of its making—the topographical conditions to which it responded, and the accumulated agglomerations of an architecture continually added upon without erasure of preceding layers—it represented an architecture revealing the process of its own becoming. Maybe it did not so much demonstrate the naturalness—whatever that might mean—of its forms in relation to life itself; however, its archeological qualities suggested the historical record of life’s needs. Such effects depended on the passage of real history. But there is a manner through which Siza’s architecture produces an analogy, or more properly, a representation of this process, although producing an effect quite different from the original. As a representation, it is not the thing referred to any more than a painting of a landscape is a landscape. The very self-consciousness of the metaphorical construction of this historicity also leads to certain complications. There is a nagging self-consciousness—legible in the architecture—that suggests that the archeological metaphor also reveals the loss of the very continuity or natural historical process that it seeks to represent. The act is estranged from the very foundations that set it in motion.

One of Siza’s early projects is the beach-side public pools in Leca da Palmeira (1961–66). One portion of it is a series of intermittent parallel concrete walls and slightly sloped roof slabs running in parallel—some at a slight angle—and backing onto the face of a concrete boardwalk. [...] This architecture is intimately calibrated to its site; the pools hold water only through the collaboration of existing rock formations and the newly cast concrete walls. The group of parallel walls at the back of the site are like a delaminated extension of the boardwalk, its edge echoing in layers into the territory of the beach. And concrete is made from sand. Nevertheless, there is something alien about this architecture on the beach. The hard-edged forms of the concrete planes—straight or, in one small instance, smoothly and geometrically curved—do not enter into endless negotiations with the particulars of the terrain. Those portions of the project that enter into the territory or rocks stop and start as dictated by the natural formations, but they do not become distorted in an attempt to accommodate themselves. Walls, platforms, and roofs do not fuse with the landscape, but form a kind of interrupted tracery over it, a kind of drafted graffiti. And instead of a literal historical accumulation of artifacts deposited over time, they offer something more akin to the primal markings of a draughtsman over the territory. They seem more like the emblems of drawing than of building.

Yet this drawing is no simple matter either: The syntax of slipping planes and spatial porousness has something of that original spatial generality, or placelessness as it has been called, that was a quality of the de Stijl vocabulary; it lurks in the pattern language of this project. Like the gridded canvases of Mondrian or the brick country house of Mies, the spatial order—because there is nothing finite about it, no closed figure—suggests the possibility of the pattern’s extension: beyond the frame in Mondrian’s case, or as a latent and hidden order in the continuum of space with Mies’s house. In the Leca project, the tendency to understand the language in relation to this more abstract extension makes the project feel that it lays there with a certain indifference between the new layer and the existing material of the site. We could imagine a series of traces, dashes, and hovering planes proliferating in collage fashion along the beach and beyond. And here lies the crux of one form of equivocation in the project. The particular arrangement of forms is particular to place, but hints at an abstracted indifference. The porous spatial paradigm of the syntax allows the site to visibly pass through it. Contrast this fact with the affect of an intact closed spatial figure or completed type where the nature of its autonomy would tend to close out the site, making the interaction and layering less continuous as the figure stated its formal independence. Here the formal syntax is everywhere autonomous, everywhere infiltrated by the site.
The constant contact between the space of the architecture and the space of the natural site binds them in an archeological fashion of layers, at the same time that the layer of nature is an alien intrusion. It is colonized without submitting to human reformulation, and thus suggests an archeology or historicity where the past—that is, the existing site or its representation—remains alien to us. The proposition is for an archeological intimacy that will not admit a naturalness of relation to the past.
The project suggests an architecture that, like graffiti, is drawn on the site. In this sense, the layers of archeology have to do with the act of conception and design settling upon the material of the existing. But as with Le Corbusier, we are also given little emblematic traces of our own peripatetic passage through the site. The ramps and the stairs are like those set into the background of the columnar grid’s spatial ideality. Here similar ciphers now have as their alien background a real site. The conceptuality of the architecture’s syntax, conceived of as intimately bound and alien to site, is echoed by the littered trail of ciphers that put our phantom presence amid a world of rocks that we can touch but cannot change.

[...] In other projects of this period the de Stijl character of the syntax gives way to interlocking groups of incomplete figures. This is the case in such works as the Boa Nova tea house (1958–63), the Alves Costa house (1964), the Alves Santo house (1966–69), and the Rocha Riberio house (1960–62). In each of these projects a certain more “architectural” character is proposed for the project: the projects adopt a somewhat more traditional vocabulary, using pitched roofs of ceramic tile; also the more traditional notion of rooms and spaces as closed volumetric figures is suggested. Yet in each case these figures are stated in abbreviated form: they are open “L’s” as in Boa Nova, or as in other houses a variety of fragmented “L’s,” unequal-legged three-sided rectangles, or other more difficult-to-name fragments, as well as simple straight wall segments, attached to nothing. The open figures nestle within each other and overlap.

In one respect the effect of these broken figures is not all that different from the open matrix of sliding planes. Space—whether conceived of as that universal spatial continuum of modernity, or the actual but open space of a palpable portion of the world (a site)—flows through these fragments. The projects propose a sort of Trojan horse of conventional architecture whose syntax, upon inspection, dissolves into a series of fragments. Space, or site, passes through them just as it does through the walls of the pool project. [...]

As with the pool project for Leca, the syntax of the Costa house is spatially porous. The conceptual transparency to the field of the site, the conceptual presence of that field in the midst of the very figures enclosing the dwelling space of the house, presents to us the house as intervention “layered” into the site, an open sketch on the site—and thus the persistence in these projects of the archeological metaphor.

The figurative expectations that the fragments set up—the expectation of closure that might have been absent in the more apparently modern and de Stijl syntax of the pool—in some respects amplifies the peculiarity of a conceptual intrusion of the site into the house, even in the absence of great rocks.

The percourse into the house adds another peculiarity. With the apparent conventionality of the ceramic tiled roofs and the bounding of figures, the expectation that one might move through the building in a more conventional pattern also grows. Yet instead of, for instance, passage into a bounded room through a cut in the wall—a threshold, that is—at the front and back doors a person would, as the space described above did, move between the fragmentary figures as if they were a landscape of ruins. Here we begin to see a theme that will develop with more didactic clarity in the succeeding projects, but the notion of how the subject is placed in contrast to the weight of latent conventions of architectural figures begins to emerge. The split between how human movement and perception is orchestrated in contrast to certain conventionally apparent orders of the architecture begin to create an architectural corollary to the sketches we have described.

From the 1970s Siza’s work begins to exhibit more explicit uses of type. In projects for housing we see a pattern of siedlungen-like town houses (the SAAL housing at Bouca, 1973–1977; Sao Victor, 1974–1977, both in Oporto; and housing in Caxinas, 1970–1972). In several other projects we begin to see the repeated use of U-shaped courtyard schemes (the Pavilhao da Faculdade de Arquitectura, 1984, the Carlos Siza house, 1976–1978, and the Escola Superior de Educacao in Setubal, 1986–1992).

Certainly, the concept of type is tricky and has changed over time. But let us say, for instance, that the “U” that appears many times in Siza’s work is a configuration of form that wakes in us a chain of associations with other like configurations. It tends to be nameable, because it is that very characteristic—that it belongs to a category—that constitutes the being of types. What I have referred to as syntax in the case of the pool does not constitute a nameable configuration. It is more in the nature of a strategy or pattern of form than a nameable entity as a type must be. Thus although Siza was using such syntactical patterns, he was able to avoid a certain aspect of that initial anxiety about preestablished languages. Flexible spatial patterns appear to be more spontaneous and less burdened by history.

Yet because the type has a certain integrity as a conceptual category, it also implies a kind of closed autonomy; its stable and independent conceptual existence is a form of aloofness. And it is here that it becomes susceptible to both the suspicions voiced by Tavora and Siza as well as Pessoa. It is not “style” but it has something of style’s formulaicness. It is not language, but like language it seems public rather than intimate; like words, types seem to exist independent of us. Thus types were held in suspicion by Tavora and his colleagues because they suggested the possibility of a reified formalization of architecture. And even though the vernacular may have been susceptible to a typological survey and analysis, what was held to be appealing in the vernacular were its qualities of flux, its qualities of historicity—its layering of past and present—that seemed a palimpsest of its becoming. We should note that like the language we speak, type’s impersonality is susceptible to that endless reformulation that allows all learned languages to acquire clandestine and utterly unique qualities added by each speaker. The resonance of a word is created by the unique world of each mind, and diction and grammar are shifting sands that reflect the biologically infinite permutation of speakers and history. But types also never lose their fundamental correlation to the historical things by which they steal away from the actual and specific into a realm of remote concepts and categories.

Types would seem to work against one complex and essential aspect of Siza’s archeological metaphor. The manner of layering so far described has suggested a simultaneous intimacy and estrangement between the layers of new project and site. The transparency and conceptual incompletion of the formal language of the project that allowed the “intrusion” of the site’s alienness into its midst is not obviously in the nature of the type. This is so because the type tends to be a closed or at least a finite world, which tends to conceptually close out or reorganize in its own manner what lies outside of it. It may rest archeologically on what precedes it, but it excludes those things through its own internal cohesion.

Siza uses a variety of strategies to “attack” this integrity, enabling him to persist in constructing a relationship between site and intervention (as each project should be called in his work) that binds them without naturalizing their relationship. He also deploys certain strategies that metaphorically present the alienness of the type, as an inherited formal construct, in relation to a subject that cannot see itself reflected in that inherited order of architecture.

The Pavilion for the Faculty of Architecture is a U-shaped building, a species of the three-sided courtyard. It is set at one end of an enclosed garden. [...] Perhaps habitual percourses around the edge of the garden drove the logic of a corner entry, now hidden and far from everything else in the garden. The inherited order of the object is treated with the kind of indifference that we might imagine in reinhabiting a ruin, or building the new city around it, as happens in Rome. New windows and doors are cut into an ancient edifice, new street patterns are laid out with no necessary regard for its original order or hierarchy or organization. It is as if the building were a piece of nature to be colonized. I exaggerate to make my point, because clearly each decision of dimension, shape, and location has been considered. But the cumulative rhetorical effect seems to suggest these purposeful contrasts and superimposed counterorders. The building is in many ways, like the pool at Leca, calibrated to its site, yet that calibration feels more like an exploration of how disparate things may be set together, existing simultaneously yet disturbing one another as little as possible. So here now is the found object of the Pavilion; the grass might as well pass right under it. A promenade wends its way around the garden, momentarily leaving hidden this built visitation to the site, and there, in the intimacy of the garden corner, we enter the building. The entry provokes a local eruption in the fabric of the building and an entirely localized figurative event occurs, as if marking the type with an event of human passage, as the stairs, ramps, or other such materials had occurred against the background of the columnar grid in Villa Stein or Villa Savoye. The type then becomes a kind of ideal background for a human promenade, as occurred in Le Corbusier’s work against the background of the space idealized by the columnar order.

In the Carlos Siza house, the effect of this artifice of apparently aleatory relationships between different layers of order is more radically visible. This project too is a pinched U. Its central axis is marked by the living room’s protruding bay window. Here too entry is made casually from the corner, although in this case one enters into a sort of ambulatory that enfolds the courtyard of the house. In this house the “indifference” of site is more radical. The house sits on a raised base. At a certain point along one edge of the site, the raised plot’s perimeter wall folds sharply back into the house, passing through one leg of the U and conceptually cutting off three of the bedrooms from the rest of the house. [...] Vision is inscribed as another uncoordinated order into the fabric of the building. The indifference of one order’s logic to that of another suggests the independence of each. The rhetorically aleatory nature of their relationships suggests the foreignness of one to the other—that is, they constitute an archeology of architecture, represented by typological formations or as in Leca, with syntactical strategies, site, and the order of the subject. Each is intimately bound to the other, yet alien.
It is possible to trace these themes through many projects. In the Escola Superior de Educacao in Setubal, the three-sided courtyard opens to an undulating landscape that rolls into its arms. Distinct from the University of Virginia example that ought to come to mind, the project does not so much classically frame a landscape beyond its orderly tranquility as much as prompt this very landscape to wash right into its midst. [...] The oddity of the paths to the building, traversing along the rolling grassy landscape from one side, or through an apparently casual closed patio placed at an angle to the long leg of the building, make this building seem to lay unexpectedly upon the ground. Paths unrelated to the logic of the building bring us to the “wrong” part of the building to initiate our entry into it. And the internal pattern of circulation carries on to similar effect. We wander the building as vagabonds about the ruins of Rome.

Our trace and mark appear upon the body of Siza’s buildings in other ways. Physiognomic figures in facade patterns lend a strangely human aspect of gesture to the body of many of Siza’s buildings. In the totemic boxes of the Faculty of Architecture studio buildings (1986–1993), different “characters” are detectable, one with close-set eyes, one glancing west, and one, a Cyclops, looking ahead. The skylights of the eastern-most studio seem like a creature from John Hejduk’s architectural bestiary. Yet all these gestures are not so surprising; they, like the optical cut in the Carlos Siza house, inscribe within the body of the architecture the roving subject’s perceptual experiences. These windows through which we see represent that act of seeing in a rhetorical gesture. Behind, a ramp rises along the face of the classroom and lecture hall building, and the gliding glance that peers out during the ramp’s ascent is cut from the building’s face—the slope of the roof suggests the ramp inside but is steeper, making the cut of the ribbon window, which follows the angle of the ramp, more palpable as a gash in the facade—that is, the cut is not “explained” in relation to the building’s sloped profile.
It bears noting that the gateway pairing at the west-end entrance to the Faculty’s campus is contradicted by the change in section that runs along the axis that they establish. Entrance is made through a flared vestibule stuck into the face of this sectional change, or up a flight of crossing stairs and into the bottom of the ramp’s figure. The markings of path about the building and the anthropomorphisms play similar roles, leaving a trail of marks on the building, suggesting an order of movement and perception overlaid onto the more stable order of forms. The project is set on a steeply inclined bank of the Douro River; the split in section is in fact related to a mosaiclike pattern of platforms into which the embankment is cut. Thus its disruptive role is, again, the superposition of the nonconforming patterns of site and architectural configuration.

One project summarizes particularly well the themes I have tried to highlight in Siza’s work. The competition entry for the Monument to the Victims of the Gestapo is somewhat anomalous in a body of work that on no other occasion contains an explicit component of the past’s classical vocabulary. Here, eccentrically located in the middle of a large round bowl of landscape, stands an inhabitable doric column. Inside, a spiral staircase nearly fills its shaft and runs up to its capital. The site plan shows the column at the intersection of important axes—one running down the center of the street, another running nearly perpendicular to and from the center of an adjacent building’s monumental facade (this latter axis is slightly displaced by the corner of an interceding building). Where the two axes cross stands the column. Yet the column’s location, in spite of this apparent logic derived from the larger order of the site, and following baroque notions of monumental urban arrangement, still stands strangely within the immediate surroundings of the monument. [...]

The buildings analyzed in plan all belong to one or another of two principal site geometries. However, I imagine that the effect of moving through the building is to distance one from the city through a certain disorientation, and to allow for a passage into the bowl-shaped park in which the column stands—stranded. Here this explicit emblem and trophy of a past architecture stands removed from its own “natural” context—once a component within the syntax and body of a classical building and from its possible normative relationship to the city, established by the classically conceived urban axes, and perceptually undone by the bermed bowl in which it stands isolated—in a garden. Under such conditions it is not unlike those nineteenth-century follies that were merely occasions within the more important order established by the narrative-like sequences of experiences in picturesque garden promenades: in those cases the dominant experience of the folly was not the reconstitution of the historical universe from which the folly came, but a more general and emotive nostalgia for a lost world. Follies, like collections in general, signify not the presence of the collected object so much as the absence of the world from which a relic has been saved. What then is the connection between this project and the purpose to which it is dedicated—a memorial to the victims of the Gestapo? The column appears in the city like some found object of a world lost, its withheld relationship to the larger city only making more poignant the absent world of ordered relationships of which it is an emblem.

The following is possible: The column can be viewed as a relic of a classical past—possibly of that classical humanist past whose vision assumed an organic continuity between man and the world, where man remained linked to the world around him by virtue of the analogy he saw between himself and the forms of the world. His own subjectivity was not rootless among the world’s autonomous objects and events, but shared in their order and could thus reform it. He imagined that the image he held of his own developing rationality could infuse the world, and if this rationality produced a humane order, then the world would be humane. Humanism could tame the obdurate alienness of the world by seeing “the human subject… incorporated into the dance of forms filled by the world” and should not be betrayed by this world. The human disaster perpetrated by the Third Reich, driven by an image of history that negated the importance of the individual subject, divides us from such classical humanist hope. The column, once homologous to man and a great emblem of the humanist reciprocity between world and subject, is now only a nostalgic artifact to be collected but incapable of integration within the city that survived the disaster.
It is also possible that the column is full of more frightening associations derived from its historical association with power, and more particularly with the neoclassical affectations of the Third Reich. In this case, we would stumble upon this symbolic structure collected from the wreckage, defanged in its museological park. Both readings (if not many more) are possible, even in one person. As they oscillate, what remains constant is the remoteness of history, its irrecoverability. When the past is conceived of, it is called history, and at that moment under the glass jar of a name it is as remote as is the world from which the items in a collection have been drawn.

The column is a ruin collected from a lost epoch. The pieces of architecture by which we are brought to it, guided in their layout by the geometry of the surrounding urban site, still gather as if merely part of a series of abutted fragments. By passing through them, we happen upon this lone column. The column, sited by an elaboration of the existing site’s order, remains unjoined and alien in the city’s midst. Such might be a parable of the memory of those victims within present-day Berlin.

Siza’s architecture emerged from an epoch that sought to recover from the betrayals of language and the misuse of history. The sense of language’s remoteness, the uncertainty of our own relationship to inherited forms and even to the historical soil on which we build, is codified in an architecture that joins subject, land, and language, without suggesting that there is anything natural about such a grouping.

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1998 Portugal Pavilion

Posted on 25 July 2009 by Alvaro


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pavilhaoportugalThe Portuguese National Pavilion is a prestigious landmark building designed by Alvaro Siza to host Expo 98 - the world’s largest trade fair. Siza’s shell-like design also served to introduce the ‘ocean & world heritage’ theme of the event and to represent the culture of the host country.

Appointed for the concept and scheme design, Arup provided: structural, mechanical, electrical, and geotechnical engineering; fire safety and lighting design; and specialist acoustic advice.

The pavilion consists of two exhibition areas, one housing main exhibitions, the second providing a large outdoor space for national displays. The most iconic feature of the pavilion however, is a thin, curved concrete sail which creates a canopy over the ceremonial plaza.

Cables supporting the canopy require enormous tension, provided by a series of 14m high fin-like walls which form porticos on either side of the plaza.

As Lisbon is an area of high sismic activity, the canopy and the building are completely separate, each with its own structural support system.

At the time of construction, the National Pavilion was Lisbon’s largest urban regeneration project since rebuilding the city in the aftermath of an earthquake and tidal wave which ravaged the city in 1775.

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Awards

Posted on 24 July 2009 by Alvaro

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Alvaro Siza Vieira Awards, Prizes and Recognitions.

  • 1988 - Gold Medal Superior Counsil of Arquitecture by the Colégio de Arquitectos de Madrid
  • 1988 - Mies van der Rohe Award for European Architecture -  Mies van der Rohe Foundation
  • 1992 - Pritzker Award - Hyatt Foundation, Chicago
  • 1993 - National Architectural Award - Portugal 1993
  • 1996 - Secil Award
  • 1998 - Alvar Aalto Medal
  • 1998 - The Prince of Wales Prize from Harvard University
  • 2000 - Secil Award
  • 2001 - Wolf Prize in Arts
  • 2005 - Urbanism Special Grand Prize of France
  • 2006 - Secil Award
  • 2008 - Royal Gold Medal for Architecture - Royal Institute of British Architects
  • 2009 - RIBA - Royal Gold Medal 2009
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    2006 Anyang Pavilion

    Posted on 23 July 2009 by Alvaro


    final1A Pavilion in Korea

    February 2005: the invitation, sudden and urgent. A small city of 300,000 inhabitants had launched a project for a cultural complex right in front of a natural park, wedged in amongst beautiful mountains. A multifunctional pavilion was needed as a complementary, but central element. Álvaro Siza’s name was mentioned and the invitation was answered, in person, in Porto.

    March 2005: This was an urgent matter and I immediately went to the site, to look around, take note, and bring back the necessary bases for an architect’s work, as the theme was sober: a multifunctional space, a small, possibly multifunctional office, perhaps for the police, and toilets for those who walk the park’s paths as well as for those who remain around the square or go to the local restaurants. Jun, a Korean architect who studied abroad, interned in Porto, and who is now based in Seoul has been a friend of mine for 20 years, and was waiting for me upon arrival. Our friendship and profession would establish the necessary connection. Arriving at the site, the urgency is present, the urgency of the urgency is present, because that is the way the country is, like its people and lifestyle. There is time to decide, but after decision comes the urgency. There is great euphoria at APAP 2005 – Anyang Public Art Project 2005. Many artists and a few architects have already confirmed it. There is some concern. Can so many guests of so many nationalities comprehend the urgency? Calmly, we gather elements, take photographs, solicit detailed plans, search for documentation, search for architectural precedents, most of it destroyed in the wars, for current architecture of merit….our friends help and point things out.

    The site is an open space, shorn from the mountain, a square to be created. There are already compromises, perhaps they can be coordinated, even eliminated, we shall see. Back in Porto and the West. I try to transmit the experience, way of life, flavours and foundations of the work. Siza receives, perceives, questions and interprets like no other. From the first work session, a few timid, interpretive blueprints are made. The second session, supported by a model of the site, is more approximate, form becomes form, content in search of a programme. Other sessions follow, primarily on Saturdays and Sundays. The atmosphere is excellent. Models are built, scale is increased, the blueprints require alterations of the plans, models and 3Ds. It is necessary to return to Korea and present the project to the client.

    July 2005: upon arrival, we are informed that the presentation is at 4:00pm. At four o’clock the meeting begins: the mayor, necessary council members, directors and as well as technicians, local architects and guests. Brief presentation of Álvaro Siza’s work, presentation of the proposal, some translation, intelligent questions, necessity of increasing the number of toilets, nothing that prevents the formal approval of the proposal, carrying out the necessary, requested alterations. Expression of thanks for the quality of the work, but also the urgent press for time. It is time to start construction, it’s urgent, and the snow…Seven o’clock, confirmation dinner to express satisfaction with the project, its acceptance and official approval. Back home, the process, though identical, is another, as we have proceeded to the execution phase. Adaptations to small alterations in the project, to the forms, and the form to the project. The designs acquire scale, rigour, but always follow the blueprint and the blueprint follows the rigour of execution. Construction starts and the designs continue. The Net permits the exchange of information, but also allows you to see the work progress despite the distance. Despite the urgency, the pleasure at seeing the work advance forward, unrestrained by bureaucracy, provides pleasure, because ours is a different reality.

    November 2005: back again for the opening of the park and to visit the construction site. An entire, rough volume of grey almost white concrete intuits the light. An exquisite execution born of urgency. The site was made for the volume and the volume rises from the site. Of the remainder of the square, little could be saved, we are left with our half. The Parque, fair of the vanities, is pleasing…; displeasing, the capacity of implementation amazes me. Very little is ok, much is of a temporary nature, even disposable. What is good will remain, time will not be merciful. Infrastructures, M & E services, finishings, materials, preparations for the next phase are discussed. In Porto, the final design is being followed up with our support almost in real time.

    July 2006: back again, a great surprise, despite the exchange of photos. Entering the finished space is sublime, as is the light. Not at all static, when we move, the space sings, as Siza would say. It is introverted when required, extroverted in its perspectives, in its passages, in the volumetry of the form and materials. The client and the city respectfully ask and the pavilion takes the name of Anyang – Álvaro Siza Hall. Already in use, the inauguration is just around the corner.

    Carlos Castanheira, architect.

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    2005 Serpentine Gallery

    Posted on 22 July 2009 by Alvaro


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    22102018_2bac00842cIn comparison, the replacement for the MVRDV pavilion is simplicity itself.

    A cafe by day and a venue for talks and events at night, it is little more than a grid made from short planks of timber, folded down at the edges to form the walls. Panes of polycarbonate fill in the squares of the grid until it meets the ground on extended “legs”. Anyone with a basic knowledge of woodwork will be able to see immediately how it’s been put together: with mortise and tenon joints. A bolt secures each joint and there’s your pavilion. So while MVRDV set themselves a mountain to climb, this looks like it could have been assembled from a flat-pack - given a thousand years’ worth of Sunday afternoons.

    “A pavilion is usually an isolated building, but with this site we felt we should maintain a relationship with the gallery and the trees, and these things were the start of the idea,” explains Siza. “In front of the house there are two hedges forming half an ellipse. That gave us the suggestion to make a curved surface to complete the ellipse. And as the trees outside were in a position that avoided making a rectangle, we decided to make the four faces curved. The curves are not symmetrical because of the position of these trees, so they adapted to these accidents. Also the roof began suffering accidents. It’s like a vault but it comes down approaching the gallery, like a compliment. Architecture is often developed through such accidents and difficulties. In the end that gives character to the buildings.”

    A quick poll of passers-by on the exterior of the pavilion before it had opened produced mixed reactions: many likened it to a dinosaur or an armadillo; some couldn’t wait to get inside; others found it hostile, unremarkable, or even ugly. A group of workmen nearby said they preferred it before they put the polycarbonate panels on it, others that it would look better with plants growing over it.

    After more than 50 years in the business, Siza is no stranger to such reactions. Although he is revered by fellow professionals, and won the prestigious Pritzker prize in 1992, he has never been a high-stakes architectural superstar like Norman Foster or Frank Gehry. Rather than turning out flamboyant structures, his buildings can look unremarkable at first glance. But Siza’s mastery lies in subtler qualities such as context, spatial relationships and use of light. He’s generally a less-is-more modernist who favours clean, straight lines, whitewashed walls and almost-blank geometric volumes, but his buildings are usually too sensitive to their users and their surroundings to veer into uptight minimalism.

    One of his most celebrated works, for example, is a public swimming pool built in the late 1960s at Leça da Palmeira. It consists of little more than concrete planes and platforms defining a group of tidal pools, but with minimal intervention they create a space that relates to both the natural rock formations and the concrete seawalls of the decidedly un-picturesque Altantic coastline.

    From a similar school of thought, the younger Eduardo Souto de Moura worked in Siza’s office during the 1970s before branching off on his own. At least one of his projects is arguably more famous in Britain than any of Siza’s: the Braga Stadium, which hosted football matches during Euro 2004 - it was the one with a sheer granite rock face at one end of the pitch. The two architects have collaborated before, on Portugal’s flagship pavilion at Expo 98 in Lisbon, but that was formal and monumental, in marked contrast to the casual, playful building at the Serpentine.

    “We worked at the same table, sometimes both writing in different corners of the same piece of paper,” says Siza. “It’s a work of friendship and amusement. It’s like a holiday, because one of the attractions of this work is that there is no bureaucracy, no need to know about regulations. It was very free.”

    The influence of Arup’s Cecil Balmond is there to see in the broken up geometry of the structure, and the fact that the whole thing stands up. On closer inspection, the timber grid appears to be warped out of shape and the lines of the timber elements are staggered zig-zags, as if it the building had been shaken by an earthquake. Despite the basic construction methods, the pavilion is the result of serious computing power and precision engineering. Every piece of wood and every pane of polycarbonate is different.

    Had they been allowed inside the pavilion, the sceptics of Kensington Gardens might have been won over by Siza and Souto de Moura’s artistry. In contrast to the exterior, the space inside is unexpectedly grand and yet almost ecclesiastically tranquil. The semi-opaque panels give the ceiling a luminous glow, and the leaves of the surrounding trees are silhouetted on the walls. A solar-powered light in the centre of each roof panel turns on automatically at dusk, but because each panel is differently orientated, the lights come on one by one. And as with Siza’s other works, the pavilion is acutely sensitive to its surroundings. The walls appear to bow outwards in deference to the surrounding trees, and openings at the corners neatly frame young trees and views across the park. The decision to leave the bottom metre or so of the structure open means that visitors sitting at the cafe tables (designed by Siza, of course) will be able to see out across the park.

    Siza has yet to visit the site, though. Souto de Moura came and took notes and photos from which they worked out the design. But Siza is not offended that people have likened his structure a giant armadillo. “Actually, I think it is my fault,” he says. “In the beginning when describing it, I said it was like an animal with its feet in the ground. It wasn’t in our minds to make it look like an animal, but in the end we are always confronted with nature and with natural forms. Forms are not only defined by complex mathematics and proportions, we can look around and we have trees and dogs and people. It’s like an alphabet of proportions and relations that we use. I think that’s one of the tasks of the architect: to make things look simple and natural which in fact are complex.”

    By Fernando Guerra

    Designed in Portugal, engineered in England, fabricated in Germany using innovative Finnish technology, built, with lashings of Anglo-Saxon enterprise, in London and all done in six months without a penny of subsidy: if Tony Blair wants a symbol of the New Europe to mark his presidency of the European Union, he had better claim this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in Kensington Gardens as his own.

    If all had gone well, this year would have seen the Serpentine Gallery swallowed up by the radical Dutch practice MVRDV’s mountain. But that proved one leap too far. Cost and, one suspects, such practical issues as fire escapes, intervened, so although technically still a work “in progress”, it was shelved.

    Instead, Julia Peyton-Jones, the Serpentine’s director, turned last December to the magisterial 72-year-old Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza and his long-term collaborator Eduardo Souto de Moura to come up with this year’s pavilion.

    Siza is one of the grand old men of European architecture, best known for crisp white buildings such as the Museu Serralves in Porto, the church of Sta Maria at Marco de Canavezes, and the wonderful Portuguese Pavilion at the Lisbon Expo of 1998, with its hanging concrete “veil”.

    Souto de Moura, who is 53, worked for Siza for five years before setting up on his own, but they still share the same building and occasionally collaborate on projects such as the Lisbon Pavilion.

    And there is a third figure to throw into the mix - the engineer Cecil Balmond, deputy chairman of Arup, who worked with Siza and Souto de Moura on the Portuguese Pavilion and has been the éminence grise behind all the Serpentine Pavilions, making sure that these small but complex buildings can actually stand up.

    The brief is simple: a pavilion that can be used by the cramped Serpentine Gallery as a café for the summer by day and a place for parties and events by night. But the aim is much more ambitious: to create an instant architectural exhibition as substantial and satisfying as any show within the Serpentine. Architecture is notoriously difficult to turn into an exhibition, so why not call in architects who have never built in London to design a temporary building instead?

    The last pavilion, the ageing Niemeyer’s small but monumental structure, was a built retrospective, a summation of key ideas from a career that has lasted more than 70 years. Those expecting something similar from Siza are in for a surprise.

    Instead of a highly sophisticated exploration of the ideals of classic white modernism like the Museu Serralves, this year’s pavilion is unprecedented in his work, a billowing lattice-like timber structure, filled in with polycarbonate panels, that resembles nothing so much as a “tortoise”, the instant defence that Roman legionaries created by locking their shields together.

    When I met Siza and Souto de Moura at the pavilion, fresh from the airport, it became clear that what had driven the design was the site, particularly the two handsome oak trees that sail over the pavilion, which Siza described as like a sculpture, and which form an anchor for the building.

    The parameters were simple: the two trees, the bulk of the Serpentine Gallery and the lawn in-between, which is embraced by curving paths. From this came the idea of a rectangular structure pushed out of shape by the trees - the timber supports almost seem to shy away from the branches - with the wall towards the Serpentine Gallery curving to respect the shape of the lawn.

    The first discussion with Cecil Balmond brought up the question of whether the structure should have a refined, almost “high-tech” feel (like all the preceding pavilions) or be something more vernacular. Despite their long-term interest in clean white lines, both Siza and Souto de Moura have always had a fascination with local materials such as timber, masonry and ceramic tiles, so they chose to take the vernacular route. (Siza explained that the result was partly inspired by English half-timbered structures, but with a strongly Japanese touch.)

    The structure is entirely constructed out of an innovative, strong laminated timber, Laminated Veneer Lumber, made by Finnforest in Finland, cut from great sheets into small planks outside Munich, stained to match the oak trees and bring out the grain and put together like a giant flatpack in London.

    Choosing the cladding was the other key decision. Should this be fabric or a fixed cladding? Siza wanted it to be light but solid, so he chose translucent polycarbonate panels, carefully arranged so that when you stand up your eye is caught by the structure, but when you sit down you can look through the open trellis to the park.

    Each of the panels in the roof is penetrated by a ventilation cowl holding a battery-operated, solar-powered light, which illuminates the interior by night and gives it an ethereal glow from outside - all with the added benefit that there is no need for any cabling to spoil the lines.

    The result is a chunky, engaging building that is definitely more challenging than any of the other pavilions so far. Instead of the spatial pyrotechnics of Hadid and Libeskind, the thrilling geometry of Ito or the satisfying inevitability of Niemeyer, Siza and Souto de Moura’s pavilion takes time to reveal its qualities. But sit under the restless grid, at chairs and tables designed by Siza, watching the life of the park go by and the subtleties of the building slowly reveal themselves.

    Architecture, particularly temporary architecture, should not necessarily be an instant wow. Sometimes it should require us to delve deeper, to think a little harder, and that is what Siza and Souto de Moura make us do.

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    1997 Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art

    Posted on 21 July 2009 by Alvaro


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    serralves3Rua D.João de Castro 210
    Porto
    Portugal

    Alvaro Siza 1997

    The new Museum of Contemporary Art is in the Quinta de Serralves, a property comprising a large house surrounded by gardens, woods and meadows, commissioned in the 1930s to serve as a private residence and later used as an exhibition space. The museum develops a new nucleus on the grounds of an existing orchard and vegetable garden, which have now been transplanted to another area of the property, and absorbs most of the functions previously performed by the main house. The site at the edge of the garden and near an existing boundary wall was chosen due to the proximity of the main avenue, ensuring easy public access, and the absence of large trees, which otherwise would have had to be destroyed.

    A roughly north-south longitudinal axis serves as the framework for the project. Two asymmetrical wings branch off to the south from the main body of the museum, creating a courtyard between them, while another courtyard is formed at the northern end between the L-shaped volume of the auditorium and the public entrance atrium.

    The volume of the main building is divided between exhibition spaces, offices and storage, an art library and a restaurant with adjoining terrace. The auditorium and bookstore have independent entrances and may be used when the museum itself is closed. The exhibition area is composed of several rooms, connected by a large U-shaped gallery - it occupies most of the entrance level, extending to the lower floor in one of the wings. The large doors that separate the different exhibition spaces and partition walls can be used to create different routes or organize separate exhibitions simultaneously. These spaces are ventilated through horizontal openings in the false walls, while natural light is brought in through a series of skylights above suspended ceilings.

    As in most of Siza’s buildings, the furniture and fittings were also designed by the architect, including lighting fixtures, handrails, doorknobs, and signage. Materials include hardwood floors and painted walls in gesso with marble skirting in the exhibition halls, and marble floors in the foyers and wet spaces. Exterior walls are covered with stone or stucco. These abstract and mute white walls with occasional openings, which frame unexpected views of the garden, create a minimal intrusion into the landscape, while the granite-clad base follows the variations of the ground along a slope descending by several meters from north to south.

    A landscaping project is currently being completed which creates a variety of new gardens in the immediate vicinity of the museum that blend into the existing park zone and help to graft the new construction to its natural surroundings.

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