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Alvaro Siza: The Complete Works Phaidon, 2000. 620pp. £60

Modern architecture in Portugal was pretty much uncharted territory until the so-called 'Revolution of the Carnations' on 25 April 1974, which released the cultural life of this beautiful country from a fascist dictatorship that had survived both there and in neighbouring Spain since the Second World War.

In the heady days of the revolutionary Housing Ministry, architects, among them Alvaro Siza, were directed towards slum clearance through public discussion with the occupants; in the event a somewhat fraught and shortlived period before the more moderate socialist government of 1976 disbanded these brigades. Nevertheless their work produced some inspiring results: a resurgence of the socially directed architecture of the Modern Movement - and it was white.

Siza's career had started modestly enough: a kitchen for his grandmother in 1952 was followed by a series of small buildings that learnt from the vernacular, culminating in the exquisite teahouse of 1958-63, which seems to grow out of its spectacular seaside site at Leca da Palmeira (see picture). The later ocean swimming pool, just down the road, equally rooted in its context, employs a more Purist geometry, as do the single family houses of this period, including the Loosian facades of Vila do Conde.

But it was with the resurgent democratic state of the 1970s that the scale and scope of Siza's commissions took a quantum leap. To see his project for the Bouca Residents' Association on the cover of A+U - in the dark days of 1980, Post-Modernism on one side, neovernacular on the other - was an inspiration for architects like myself. Since that time Siza's reputation has continued to grow, and this very large volume from Phaidon brings us up to 1999.

The benchmark for complete works is, of course, the Oeuvre Complete of Le Corbusier, first published and designed by Max Bill: the landscape format ideal for an architecture predominantly horizontal, and in comfortable volumes of several years at a time.

Phaidon elects instead to cram almost 50 years work into a 30 x 26cm format.With 620 pages and a weight of several kilos, it can only be leafed through at a library table.

The first headache comes in trying to read the somewhat minuscule drawings, which are considerably reduced and devoid of information other than section lines or code numbers for which there are no key. Only the single family houses appear at a reasonable scale, yet often only one floor is given; site, orientation, construction are absent; the beautiful photographs are presumed enough. So this heavy book is light on information.

Instead, there is interpretation, which leads to the second headache - 54 pages of Kenneth Frampton. For example, in discussing the Portuguese Pavilion for Expo 98, we are referred to the programme of the New Monumentality of 1943, the Italian Tendenza, Terragni, Niemeyer, the Roman Forum, nomadic canopies of the Mughal empire, Utzon's Kuwait Parliament and Le Corbusier's Assembly building at Chandigarh, before a quote from Siza's 1995 essay on 'Singer, Architect and Spontaneity' - 'the voice of the architect becomes hoarse'. Quite.

While Siza's career certainly grew in tandem with the success of the 1974 revolution, he remarked in a lecture at the Bartlett in the 1980s that, after the initial wave of social housing, he was now being asked to design banks. Yet thanks to his talent and liberated attitudes, these too seem to proclaim the new spirit. It seems no accident that all his buildings at home or in neighbouring Spain are more convincing than, for example, the Punkt and Komma social housing in the Hague, with its relentless march of horizontal centre-pivot windows, regardless of aspect or room depth.

The book concludes with an essay by Siza, 'On Design', and illustrates another aspect of his work - the close attention to detail and dialogue with craftsmen.We can only look with awe at balustrade details that would give our district surveyor a heart attack. But for all its beautiful photographs, lively sketches and words from Siza himself, this Phaidon edition seems more concerned with surface than depth, and remains tantalisingly abstract.

David Wild is an architect in London

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