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hailing siza

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Alvaro Siza's refusal to be pigeon-holed and delight in 'making buildings happen' have led to a diverse portfolio of work, numerous international awards and a reputation as one of the world's greats

While Alvaro Siza has come to international prominence through his public buildings, it is his approach to social housing that provided the foundation to his career. It was also the reason for a visit to London last December, to speak as part of the RIBA's series of events on housing, 'Coming Homes'.

Alvaro Joaquim de Meio Siza Vieira, born in the small coastal town of Matosinhos in north Portugal in 1933, had his first experience with social housing in 1970s Porto. In the period of optimism following the 1974 revolution, neighbourhood associations flourished and the participation movement was born.

The state response was the SAAL housing association, established to raise the level of public housing, and Siza was charged with designing Porto's Sao Victor estate. During consultations with residents, discussion expanded beyond the layout of the individual housing units to broader debates about the connections between adjacent housing associations, the town's facilities, its borders and its future - in effect an exercise in town planning.

'What I retain from this experience, ' Siza says, 'was that everyone, non-professionals too, can talk about architecture. Everyone can understand.'

The result was a network of two-storey apartments intersected by pedestrian passages to integrate the new housing into the existing neighbourhood. Two years after the start of the Porto project, it became embroiled in political divisions between the local administration and the socialist junta.

Siza and his team were accused of gunrunning and sacked from the project.

A similar scheme in the southern town of Evora followed, an experience that was 'also intense, but in different ways'. Here, the key challenge was to produce an innovative, modern design for an established community - and to support the traditional community networks and avoid creating a dormitory town.

'From this second experience, I learnt that people get angry when social housing comes with some character, ' he says. 'People get angry when it's beautiful. Most people think that social housing shouldn't be beautiful.'

This ambition to raise expectations for the design of social housing has yet to take hold in Britain, Siza says. Indeed, the label itself is dubious, since 'all housing is social'.

Siza's identification with the participation movement and his success in Porto (if altered beyond his original vision) led to an invitation from the Dutch government for a project in The Hague. The commission was based on the misconception that he was a specialist in consultation - a 'monstrous' idea, he says.

During the design process, Siza's team constructed models made up of moveable blocks to help residents visualise the plan.

One persistent request, which he managed to meet, was for each flat to have a front door that opened directly onto the street. And with 50 per cent of the future residents made up of various immigrant populations, Siza had to be sensitive to different cultural needs. But the apartments also had to be flexible, as the make-up of cultural groups occupying them would shift over time.

Siza became pigeon-holed as a housing specialist and his work during the 1970s and '80s was dominated by this building type.

'I was sick of housing!' he says. But a commission for a new modern art museum at Santiago de Compostela (1988-93) opened up other opportunities.

In addition to private houses, swimming pools, banks, restaurants, and education buildings, his portfolio includes the rebuilding of the Chiado district of Lisbon, and various regeneration schemes in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. Other projects include the Portuguese Pavilion at Expo '98 in Lisbon, the church at Marco de Canaves in Portugal (1998), and a pavilion at the Expo in Hanover in 2000.

Having escaped the housing label, he rejects the notion that he is now making a specialism of arts buildings. 'I hate this idea of specialisms. This tendency to put stamps on architects.We must deal with different scales, different projects. The small-scale project and the repetitive scale of the town are complementary. You have to achieve both.'

And yet much of his recent work is indeed arts buildings - the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto (1999), an extension to the Stedlijk in Amsterdam (ongoing), and the Iberê Camargo Foundation, for which he won the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Biennale.

Along the way he has picked up numerous other prizes, including the Mies van der Rohe award for European architecture in 1988 and the Pritzker in 1992, and though he has yet to receive the RIBA's Gold Medal, he is certainly in line for it.

His own measure of the success of a project, he says, is less the architectural quality of the finished building than the experience of making it happen. The buildings which give him the most satisfaction are those where the client was supportive and the builders were in tune with his vision.

And the projects that never made it off the drawing board are the only ones that cause him regret; most notably, his smallest project - to rework the gallery within Milan's Palazzo Sforzesco. His designs sparked such controversy that they were eventually abandoned. His frequent experience of competition wins that came to nothing - among them a cultural centre for the Ministry of Defence in Madrid - have made him an outspoken critic of competitions. It is his refusal now to enter competitions that has kept him from clinching work in Britain, he says. The process makes too huge a demand on resources: 'It is almost necessary to have a department for competitions.'

But if he hasn't managed to build in the UK yet, he has been taken to heart across the rest of Europe. He is currently developing a masterplan for the Paseo del Prado in Madrid. And he is moving into landscape design, with plans for a seaside garden walkway for a small town north of Porto.

Another scheme for a school in Pasadena is a collaboration with Frank Gehry, one of his favourite architects - 'that an architect's work is different is not a reason to dislike it'.

The scope and diversity of his work now is in part behind his reputation as one of the world's greats. One critic has described him as 'the father of the new minimalism' - a far cry from 'participation specialist'.

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