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Álvaro Siza: RIBA Gold Medal winner

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Kieran Long introduces a tribute to Álvaro Siza from Kenneth Frampton to celebrate the architect’s RIBA Gold Medal win

My first experience of a Siza building in the flesh was a visit to the Serralves Foundation in 2000, a couple of years after it had been finished. I remember the blindingly bright day in Porto, and how the white walls of the long, low building shaded me as I wandered towards the entrance.

The most striking part of the building was the bright white courtyard just before the entrance, with a single orange tree standing alone. There is something almost too cool about this reference. Siza’s Serralves Foundation sits on ground that used to be the vegetable garden and orchard of a grand house. A single tree remains, slightly forlorn, at best poignant, surrounded on three sides by white walls. On a normal summer’s day in Porto, it’s so white you can barely look at it.

But the tree is about so much more than imagery. Just above it is the terrace of the café, where you can sit overlooking the gardens to the east of the building. Sit close enough to the balustrade and the aroma of the orange tree surrounds you. It’s a wonderful moment of abstraction and sensuality. For me, Siza’s ability to contain this paradox of modern architecture in his buildings is at the root of his greatest achievements.

‘Architects don’t invent anything; they transform reality’ - Álvaro Siza

Returning to the Serralves Foundation a few years later, I remember the gift shop, with nearly half the floor area dedicated to Siza-related merchandise. It was the first time I realised what a giant this man is in his own country; how dominant he is culturally.

Siza picks up his RIBA Gold Medal from the Queen this week. His is an achievement unmatched by any Portuguese artist, and almost any architect of the 20th century.

Kenneth Frampton on Álvaro Siza

Born in the Portuguese city of Matosinhos in 1933, Álvaro Siza studied architecture in Porto from 1949-1955, under the distinguished Portuguese architect Fernando Távora, with whom he briefly collaborated following his graduation. Siza’s first building of consequence was the Boa Nova Tea House, built on a spectacularly rugged coastal site at Leça da Palmeira in 1963. This work already displayed the whitewashed, part-orthogonal, part-organic Mediterranean manner for which he would become renowned - despite the fact that, in this instance, the building was crowned by an overhanging roof covered with red tiles.

Portuguese Pavilion Expo

Portuguese Pavilion Expo (1998), Lisbon, Portugal, By Siza and Souto de Moura

Here, as elsewhere, Siza’s work already manifested a markedly topographic character, carried further in two successive works immediately following the completion of the tea house. Both, in fact, were swimming facilities in Leça da Palmeira: the first, a temenos situated within the park of Quinta da Conceição (1965); the second, two pools incised into the rocky coastline of the sea (1966).

As with the Alcino Cardoso House, built in Moledo do Minho in 1973, these swimming pools were set into their respective sites as though they were relief constructions writ large. While the first is a conventional swimming pool set within a walled compound, the second comprises two pools let into a rock formation, with changing rooms accommodated in a partially recessed timber and concrete bunker running parallel to a road lining the sea.

In the Alcino Cardoso House, the architect mediated the presence of a new single-storey addition by recessing its floor below the grade of the pre-existing stone farmhouse. As in the cubistic two-storey Beires House realised in Póvoa do Varzim in 1976, the local vernacular made itself delicately manifest in the form of light timber fenestrationpainted black. Thus Siza’s initial entry into the legacy of the modern movement was inseparable from a wider Portuguese effort to integrate aspects of the local vernacular into modern form. As in the Beires House, this was often fractured and eroded, as though its form had been blown apart by a bomb and subsequently reglazed.

As Siza has remarked on numerous occasions, ‘architects don’t invent anything; they transform reality’. The force of this aphorism resides not so much in what it literally says, but rather in what it implies. Siza highlights the sobering fact that a great deal of construction is socio-culturally pre-determined, and that all we can do is modify the received fabric as it passes from one historical moment to the next. He has, perhaps, never expressed this Heraclitean insight more laconically than in his 1979 prose-poem entitled ‘To Catch a Precise Moment of Flittering Images in All its Shades’.

For Siza, the notion of transformation in architecture implies a complex process, passing from the circumstantial modification of received typologies to the transformation of a given context through specific strategies of intervention. At the same time, the project stands and falls on the nature of the relations transpiring between client and architect, on the influence that the architect has on the client and vice versa. As Siza remarked in 1983: ‘For me these participation procedures are above all critical processes for the transformation of thought, not only the inhabitants’ idea of themselves, but also of the concepts of the architect.’

Siza's Summer House, Majorca

Siza’s Summer House, Majorca in Spain

As far as this is concerned, the shortlived revolutionary situation of the so-called ‘Portuguese Spring’ of 1974 both liberated and compromised the creative potential of the political organisation SAAL (Servicio de Apoio Ambulatorio Local). This tends to be confirmed by the fragmentary housing complexes that Siza designed for SAAL between 1973 and 1977 - the São Victor and Bouça residential complexes built in the working-class districts of Porto.

Siza has invariably assumed an equally strategic attitude towards the given topography, maintaining that is always necessary to choose between opposing the context or harmonising with it - or even occasionally combining the two stratagems. This is evident in the Pinto & Sotto Maior Bank that he designed for the small town of Oliveira de Azemeis in 1971. The main lines of the form are governed, to a degree, by the profiles of the adjacent buildings, and by echoing the scale and alignment of adjacent windows and sill heights through the horizontal glazing of its facade.

The sweeping form of this quasi-cubist composition is controlled through a series of arcs, which are struck from points both within and without the plan of the building. These radial cuts not only generate the baroque rotations of the mezzanine floors, but also control the sweep of the service counter, the line of the clerestory above and the trajectory of the main stairs. Of this, Siza wrote in 1980: ‘A plan is a representation and in certain cases regulating lines allow one to obtain a desirable rigor. They are the result of a reflection, however, not only on paper but also in space. They both embody the facade and all that is comprised within it.’

From the late 1970s onwards, Austrian architect Adolf Loos began to emerge as a decisive referent in Siza’s architecture, informing not only the critical stoicism of his cultural stance, but the latent iconography of his architecture. This is evident in Siza’s Malagueira housing, built in 1977-1997, which may be seen in retrospect as adapting the generic atrium house to a species of low-rise, high-density terraced housing, occupying leftover, interstitial sites in the outskirts of the city of Évora. The fenestration of Malagueira has much in common with Loos’ Moissi House, projected for the Venice Lido in 1922, with Siza indulging in a series of elevational permutations, playing symmetry against asymmetry.

The equally Loosian Duarte House, completed in Ovar in 1985, directly embraces a number of disjunctive themes first pioneered by Loos and later elaborated by Le Corbusier. The frontalisation of its largely blank cubic mass and its open plan on the ground floor are among the Loosian tropes to be found here. But the decisive feature, which determines the underlying order of the house, is a disjunctive Palladian ABABA rhythm, manipulated to omit the last A bay and reduce the accompanying B bay to a single-storey element. Thus, the mass of the house is structured about an ABA system, with the central B bay serving as the main entrance. Two other Loosian references are evoked.

The marble stair rising to the first floor harks back to the double-height living-plus-mezzanine volume within Loos’ Müller House (1930) in Prague, and Loos is again present in the application of a fragmentary marble revetment to the free-standing column and fireplace in the main living room. The latter is treated as an eroded archaeological fragment, the marble giving way to a mirror as it cuts across the upper part of the chimney. The net effect of this sophisticated orchestration is to transform a suburban house into a modest palazzetto, with Siza subtly combining a sense of domestic intimacy with a feeling for grandeur rarely encountered in a contemporary house.

The scale and scope of Siza’s output shifted dramatically in the second half of the 1980s, when he won a series of institutional commissions of ever increasing civic importance: first the Setúbal College of Education, followed by the Oporto School of Architecture and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago de Compostela. The sequence was topped out, as it were, by the Aveiro University Library, completed in 1995.

This run of collegiate/cultural work was followed by a series of urban commissions realised at a much larger interstitial scale, ranging from a number of brick-faced, low-rise, residential infill terraces built in the Netherlands in 1989-1993 to the reconstruction of the Chiado district in Lisbon after a devastating conflagration in 1989. All these works brought Siza face to face with the implicit cultural and ethical necessity of achieving a normative urban fabric without lapsing into the kitsch of stylistic post-modernity.

Of recent date, the aspiration of the Siza office towards similar levels of urban continuity has found its fulfilment in a number of simple, well-proportioned blocks of offices and flats built in various parts of the Iberian Peninsula. One might see this as a kind of latter-day Miesian ‘almost nothing’ rendered in an altogether more rational and sustainable form.

Despite this cultivation of the banal, in French architect Auguste Perret’s sense of the term, there has been no diminution in the rigour and vitality of Siza’s agile imagination. His office has been able to maintain its ideological commitment to both poesis and reason without reducing the work to meaningless repetition or succumbing to sensational images. Proof of this resides in two contrasting works of recent date; one orthogonal and the other organic.

The former is a monumental, four-square public library, poised over a former dock in Viana do Castelo, Portugal. The latter is the Iberê Camargo Foundation, built on a tight site adjacent to a coastal road in Porto Alegre, Brazil, following the River Guaíba out of the city. In both instances, a dynamic space-form cast in béton brut asserts itself as an integral part of Siza’s poetic vision, framing the panorama of a waterfront by raising the building clear of the ground and providing a virtual, gyratory volume that activates the gallery space within but also orchestrates the aerial ramps without.

These ramps, despite Siza’s penchant for subtle transformation, constitute a radical invention. The flying arms of the Iberê Camargo Foundation present the visitor with a constantly changing sculptural play of light and shade, form and illusion, as the sun makes its way across the front of the building. Far from indulging in gratuitous rhetoric, this is a monumental portico without precedent in the annals of architecture, which achieves a dynamic play of form and space appropriate to the threshold of a major civic institution. It is as though the generic ramp of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye has finally broken free from its prism to reiterate itself as a cranked arabesque in space.

Siza’s habit of discreet typological citation does not end here, however. The aforementioned arms, far from being perceivable as free-standing ramps or even as bridges, are rendered as fractured tendons of some calcified monster. They are as aberrant as the side chapels that burst out from the base of Corb’s La Tourette near Lyon, France. A more local source for this trope may be found in Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompeia factory (1986), São Paolo, in which a number of concrete ramps serve to connect the main building to its cylindrical service tower.

This reference tends to be confirmed by the irregular apertures let into Siza’s concrete ramps, recalling the buracos of Bo Bardi’s building. At the same time, one can hardly deny some trace of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which serves to unite the ground-floor entry with the upper reaches of the gallery via a top-lit atrium.

Today, on the occasion of Siza being awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, we should recognise him as one of few architects of his generation to have kept faith with the liberative promise of the ‘unfinished modern project’. At the same time, he has evolved an exceptionally sensitive and sophisticated syntax capable of responding in a rational, modest, yet vital manner to a very wide range of building tasks.

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