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Thoughts on Álvaro Siza Vieira

Posted on 02 January 2010 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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 01 January 2010 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.
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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