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Alvaro Siza in Machu Picchu

An exhibition of Álvaro Siza’s sketches of Machu Picchu makes Tim Abrahams reconsider the glorification of the architect’s scrawl

On his trip to Machu Picchu in 1995, Álvaro Siza bought whatever sketchbook was available. No soft cover Moleskine notebooks, no Marlborough leather journals by Noble McMillan, just simply the next sketchbook at the next stationers he happened upon. He was business-like about sketching and didn’t indulge in stationery fetishism. The only value he placed on his notebooks were the ideas in them and how many he needed to sell in order to buy a Picasso drawing. (He owns several.) It is a more modest vision of sketching than the one we have grown used to, one vividly captured in the film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, which opens with a series of scribbles over which Sydney Pollack intones, ‘So what is so hot about Frank Gehry?’

Fabrizio Gallanti, former architectural consultant at Abitaremagazine and now head of programming at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, talks about demolishing fetishistic ideas about drawing having recently hung an exhibition of Siza’s Machu Picchu sketches. The drawings, observations of both the settlement as a whole and in detail, are not conventionally beautiful. They are, however, hugely instructive in the development of his practice. Having observed the use of massive stone lintels in the Inca settlement, he moved from using stone as cladding to using it as a structural material, notably in the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art in Santiago de Compostela.

It would be simple-minded to completely reject the sketch as a means of understanding architectural production, either as a means of aiding close observation or of communicating ideas to collaborators. The fact is that architects, great ones like Siza, sketch. If we are interested in the way that architecture is produced, we need to look through the layers of fetishisation, particularly the politicised Neo-Luddite approach, which reacts against the fact that the primary means of creating construction drawings is by computer. We must also put aside the assumption that because architects had a more significant role in the construction process in the past, any sweep of a pen made before 1980 gave birth to a building.

If architects are guilty of promoting the idea that the sketch is somehow the loci of genius – the place where the primary act of architectural creation takes place – then curators have a tendency to over-value these drawings because it gives their work a mark of authenticity. Architects and the public often join in the self-deception, keen to believe they are close to where the work was first conceived. Culturally, we are growing to a stage of fetishisation with the architectural sketch; appreciating it singly, losing the complicated, and always singular relationship that it has with the design process.

There is nothing wrong with the well-developed sketches of projects by architects such as Shigeru Ban, Norman Foster and Eva Jiricna collected together in the book Architects’ Sketchbooks. Despite the beauty of some, they perpetuate the idea that sketches offer direct insight into the design process. I would argue that you can only really understand the beauty of an architectural sketch if you know what building it’s for. Nick Grimshaw’s recently released sketchbooks might on the surface look like a vanity project, but from his programmatic sketches, such as one for the cooling system of the 1992 Expo Pavilion in Seville, you can see that the drawing is as integral to hi-tech architecture as it is to Siza’s contextual monumental Modernism. 

Gallanti has opted not to accompany Siza’s sketches with photographs of his Pritzker Prize-winning work, although the exhibition does feature some pictures of his Quinta da Malagueira social housing complex on the outskirts of Évora in Portugal, completed long before his trip to Machu Picchu. More important is the juxtaposition with the work of Martín Chambi, a Peruvian indigeño photographer who took photographs of Machu Picchu in the 1920s. Chambi’s pictures are forceful documents that capture the architectural complexity of the settlement and by extension suggest the developed nature of Inca society.

In Siza’s hands, it is utterly transformed, part of a discourse that relates to his own situation. Under Salazar, Portuguese Modernism wasn’t able to appropriate industrial construction techniques, but instead explored those available. Their Modernism was more akin to that of Picasso than Le Corbusier; they wrenched the primitive into the present. Far from being an exercise in exoticism, as Gallanti puts it, Siza’s sketches of the ruins, ‘confirm the intuitions and choices made in his architectural projects’. However, he ends his exhibition with the cover of the notepad Siza bought next; a fantasy science-fiction scenario with a lunar vehicle dragging a giant pencil across the surface of a far-off planet. Sketching need not be confined to a particular architectural style, only to architects who understand that it is the quickest means of turning architectural ideas to one’s own ends.

Tim Abrahams is a writer and blogs at cosmopolitanscum.com. His extended essay on the architecture of the Olympic Park is published in April

Alturas de Machu Picchu: Martín Chambi – Álvaro Siza at Work, The Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, until 22 April 2012, $10

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