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Kenneth Frampton About Alvaro Siza Vieira

Alvaro Siza
[Kenneth Frampton]

I first saw a chair by Alvaro Siza some twenty years ago in an unfinished rough plastered music room that formed part of a luxury penthouse in Povoa do Varzim. It was, as the architect is fond of saying, "a chair that looked like a chair". It was in fact a simple skeleton of dressed wood from which chairs have been made since time immemorial. The only unusual feature was its back, an inverted "U" of stripped-down timber. It was surprisingly light, all but insubstantial, with a hard wooden seat. I assume in retrospect that it was the prototype for the model 2 chair that is now being produced in upholstered versions with leather seats, framed in oak or sycamore. In my memory the chair stands in the space like a piece of flotsam beside a splayed column, a relic from another time; solitary, coincidental, an object trouve' even. One felt that, far from being designed by the architect, it had merely been found on the building site and left there as a gift to the future client, along with the fragment of a broken mirror, dating from the same time, that propped up by a piece of wire, was equally provisional. What more does the solitary need in the lonely hours of the morning? One is shown to one's room and there is nothing in it, except a bed, a chair, and a mirror. One deposits one's bag and sits on the chair and shortly, after a cigarette, one begins to draw.
All of Siza's furniture designs and objects seem like set pieces for a mythic narrative that miraculously rises from the pages of his cadernos to occupy an uncertain portion of space and time, somewhere between the real and the sur-real. Thus many of Siza's pieces partake of an everyday timeless world, long before the avant-garde, where every piece of furniture was as phenomenal as the next, where little served to separate the timeless antique from the latest bespoke piece assembled in the workshops of the street. Thus at times his pieces seem to have been quite literally found, as in his folding wooden chairs. At other times they possess and odd dream-like quality, abstracted from the pages of a sketchbook, they seem to enter the world at a scale that is paradoxically smaller and thinner than things usually are. Somehow they are both there and not there; a piece of "calligraphy", as it were, realized in three dimensions. This last accounts perhaps for the protracted manner in which Siza's objects often assume their final form, for the architect is in the habit of designing them through the process of meditating endlessly on a single theme, as in the sketches that move step by step towards the cutlery that now bears the name of Prata, or alternatively the interchanging ensemble of tables, chairs and sofas as they were imagined forty years ago while furnishing the Boa Nova restaurant.

Among Siza's works one may surely find an occasional testament to "the tradition of the new" as in Gavetas Dresser of 1985 which clearly pays a passing homage to the work of Eileen Gray or in the glassware which, "born of the laboratory", openly acknowledges that it has been cast and blown from the technology of our time. It is here and in his light fittings that Siza comes most decisively into his elegant, oneiric own. I am thinking of the Havana cast glass ashtrays and the jars and bottles dating from the mid-90s and, last but not least, of the Espelho Alvaro of 1975 and the Candeiro Fil of 1990. Bolts, coat hooks and outmoded car door handles, steel rods and bent wire, a naked light bulb and piece of flex running free, these are the figures of Siza's pen as it flashes across the page, alternating between the generic and the calligraphic. Here the passage between the sketch and the thing is reduced virtually to nothing. It is merely a mater of choosing the material and the finish. Where these linear configurations are turned into light fittings with the aid of steel plates, crystal shades and bent metal reflectors, they recall, however unwittingly, some of the more ephemeral ironic tropes of twentieth century art. Looking at them one cannot help being reminded of Paul Klee's Twittering Machine or Alexander Calder's circus performers or even more generically of Saul Steinberg's melancholic caricatures. These are the dramatis personae of his work, the emaciated homunculus and the mutilated angel that not only occupy the spaces of his buildings before they are built but also, once they are transposed, are used to furnish them.



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