Álvaro Joaquim de Melo Siza Vieira, known as Alvaro Siza, is one of the masters of the Portuguese School, with Fernando Tavora and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
It is very difficult for an observer to describe and understand the whole work of Siza, because one of his features is the incredible variation of his projects, impossible to circumscribe in a specific architectural language.
He was born in 1933 in the city of Matosinhos, a small coastal town near Porto. He graduated in 1955 at the former School of Fine Arts of the University of Porto, now called Facultade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto.
Tavora was one of his teachers, and the story says that once he told him: “it’s clear you know nothing of architecture, go buy some magazine!”. This little rash made a profound change in Siza: he went to buy a magazine and found a monographic number of l’Architecture d’aujourd’hui about Alvar Aalto, who, from that moment on, became an important reference in his work. This scholar exchange permitted to Alvaro Siza to have the occasion to work for Tavora in his early career, from 1955 to 1958, a period in which he learned the method and absorbed the passion for architecture of his master. Then he collaborated also with Eduardo Souto de Moura on Portugal’s flagship Pavilions at EXPO ’98 in Lisbon, and EXPO 2000 in Hannover, as well as on the Serpentine Pavilion in 2005.
Speaking of Siza’s architecture, Fernando Tavora said in a homage to his friend and colleague in 1992 that he has the right to be described as “a builder of works of gravity“, which in the XVII century in Portugal was the definition of the master who puts into practice an architecture which is serious, important, significant, meditative. He speaks about Siza as one person who can actually make an architecture “profoundly simple, but with great creative force“.
But how does a Siza’s project begin and develop? Is there a specific process he follows?
Siza answers to this question in an interview reported in a monograph published by Electa Mondadori, saying that most of his projects have never been built or will never see the light, others will remain incomplete, others transformed in something totally different and others abandoned until they become ruins. But the design processes which lead to all of them have similar roots.
“I begin a project in the exact moment I am seeing the field in which it will grow.” From this point, Siza starts drawing sketches, often in cafes (because Cafes give him the“anonymity and concentration” he needs, he says also that he changes a Cafe when he starts to care too much about tea blends and coffee tastes), just to fix ideas on paper. He knows that not much from the first sketch will remain in the final project, but this is not the point, the point is that drawing sketches helps him seizing with the maximum rigour a specific moment of a fleeting image in his mind in all of its shades, without forgetting that the more precise the first drawings are, the more vulnerable the fixed idea will be.
He looks at the field like a stratified history of that particular place. What he actually sees is the result of the constant process of construction/destruction which occurs wherever in the world. Even if the destruction is meant to make disappear part of history, something tougher leaves signs in space and in the minds of people who have lived the change. His work is to try to find out the key of a place, to understand as profoundly as he can the context and then re-elaborate the history with the aim of doing something new, respecting the programme, but also respectful for what it has been in the past.
Derived from these ideas, we can see projects that every time express different architectural languages, materials, forms, curves, details. Alvaro Siza reinvents himself each project, despite he considers himself “conservative and traditional”.
He districates himself through many different points of view, with conflicts, compromises, inbreeding, transformations. He doesn’t make in practice his own projects, he just draws them and follows the process: he accepts the choral nature of architecture as a whole, with a practical approach to the subjects. We can remember some of his first projects, the restaurant and the swimming pools of Leiça de Palmeira. His aim was to give a new public space to the seaside city to enhance the beauty of the ocean, and he did it in an elegant way with simple but precise signs on the ground.
“I am told (by some friends) not to have a support theory, neither a method. That nothing of what I do indicates clear ways. That my work is not pedagogical. A kind of ship at the mercy of waves, which inexplicably often doesn’t shipwreck. I don’t strain to the limit the ship axes in open sea. The excess will break them. I study the currents, eddies, I look for creeks before taking the risk. I can be seen walking alone on the deck. But all the equipments and all the instruments just lay there, the captain is a ghost. I don’t even touch the rudder, but when I can see the North Star. And I don’t indicate a clear way. Ways are never clear.”
Words that make us reflect on why all of his projects are like a rebirth. The master, paraphrasing Aristotle, “knows not to know”. Every new experience is a challenge against unknown enemies and factors; only the time will decide who is the winner, the mind of a brilliant architect or the surrounding enemies.
– K. Frampton, Alvaro Siza, Tutte le opere, Electa Mondadori, Milano, 2005, pp. 620;
– G. Todaro, Muratore di opera grave, Conversazione con Alvaro Siza Vieira, LetteraVentidue editore, Siracusa, 2013, pp. 48;
– Alvaro Siza 2008-2013, El Croquis no. 168/169
– Carlos Castanheira, Alvaro Siza, Alvaro Siza: The Function of Beauty, Phaidon Editions, London, 2009, pp. 304
Photo by Yannis Bournias