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Siza matters

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review - lvaro Siza: Private Houses 1954-2004 By Alessandra Cianchetta and Enrico Molteni. Skira, 2004. 232pp. £39

If you were asked to name a natural-born genius in contemporary architecture, then lvaro Siza would surely spring to mind.

There are a number of figures who dazzle with the power of their ideas and designs - on my list would certainly be Koolhaas, Hadid and Herzog - but in those cases you can still see the brain cells in motion. By contrast, Siza quietly gets on with things, and turns out buildings of exquisite detail and intellectual rigour. Without ever trying too hard, he gets all the moves right.

Siza is best known for his cultural and institutional buildings, such as the open-air swimming pool at Leca de Palmeira, the Porto School of Architecture, the museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago de Compostela, the church of St Marco Canavares, and, more recently, the Serralves Museum in Porto. He has also produced a subtle yet remarkable reworking of the Chiado commercial and residential area in central Lisbon.

Much less attention has been given to the one-off private houses that Siza has designed in Portugal and abroad, but this book aims to rectify that. It is a treasure trove for architects, in that it traces in a fairly systematic fashion the design process of each one of his single-family domestic projects, from the start of his career in the mid-1950s to the present day. This gives it a time span of half a century, no mean feat in itself.

The tone throughout reflects Siza's attractively pessimistic view of culture. As he himself writes: 'I have never been capable of building a house, an authentic house. I am not referring to the design and construction of houses, a minor pursuit of which I am still capable, though I don't know how well.' There are not many internationally acclaimed architects who would be so selfdeprecating in their choice of words. But his observation is rooted in a reality that we all grasp only too well. 'My idea of a house is a complex machine, in which something goes wrong every day, ' says Siza. So there we have it: the house is indeed a machine for living in, only the machine is always broken.

The actual designs by Siza surpass his modest self-assessment. Starting in the wealthier western suburbs of Porto, close to the sea, they have spread across Portugal and Europe.

A rich collection of thoughtful, engaging and understated designs is revealed. There is a remarkable simplicity in these projects, worked and reworked over such a long period for people who are manifestly in the middle of the middle-class in terms of income. Only in the latest proposal, for a breathtaking house cut into the side of a Mallorca cliff, does there emerge an image of servicing the plutocracy.

Instead, the houses tend to be for family members, friends, or those who know Siza's reputation. Domestic space is treated as simple transitional volumes mediating between the inside and outside, rather than as an excuse for geometric gymnastics to express grander notions of interiority. In many schemes the regular units provided by kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms are displaced on either side of a central living room, which is often cranked to take advantage of views or topography.

Clear influences come from Alvar Aalto and the Usonian houses of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Each house has its fascination, although two of the slightly larger projects stand out.

One is the Casa David Vieira de Castro in the north of Portugal (1984-94), in which the slightly stepped and serrated living room is further enhanced by a long slit window that runs along the side wall. Then there is the renovation of the farmhouse and outbuildings at the Quinta de Santo Ovidio in Lousada (1989-92 and 1997-2001), with its gorgeous indoor pool and tough-as-nuts detailing.

Reading the book disproves two unhealthy myths within the contemporary British architectural scene. The first is that there is a conceptual distinction between architects who design showpiece iconic buildings and those who are engaged on humdrum everyday buildings. The idea of a battle between icons and ordinary architecture is silly, in the same way that battles over a 'national' style of architecture plagued the late-19th century, or those over a 'machine aesthetic' hampered Modernism in the 1920s.

What Siza shows, of course, is that the same architect can just as equally produce modest and closely worked projects for houses, and then pull out show-stoppers such as the Santiago or Serralves museums.

Secondly, there is a need to rescue Siza from an association with a dry and rationalised approach to architecture, which many of his supporters in Britain seem to emphasise.

It is wrong to portray him as anything other than a sensualist who is emotionally vital, even exuberant, in his work. The photographs in this book prove the point with ease.

In Portugal a few years ago, I was struck by how often Siza was on television to discuss some aspect of Portugal's struggle to modernise within the European Union while retaining a sense of its cultural past. He clearly holds a valued position, and the houses on show here, with their casual crystallisation of how Portuguese people might possibly reconcile such tensions, provide valuable clues as to his wider architectural importance.

Murray Fraser is a professor at the University of Westminster

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