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 Thoughts on the Works of Alvaro Siza

Thoughts on Siza by Pedro Vieira de Almeida

Thoughts on Siza
[Pedro Vieira de Almeida. Editorial Blau, July 1995]
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.
Siza 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.

Having had the opportunity to follow the career of 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.

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.

Siza 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.

Another characteristic of Siza'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.

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 Siza 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 Siza 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.

Architectural Conjecture




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