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Sensible signification by Simon Gill

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Commended

Looking up, as one almost always does on entering a church, most of what I can see is white - material-less whiteness. It is a large space without a great deal of plastic articulation save one long swooping wall. And yet I feel placed - I feel intensely my position in space. I am held while the building moves around me. As my gaze returns to my own level, I start to understand why.

I look at the floor - I am standing on a grey, veined stone - it is beautiful, and of the earth. Just in front of where I am standing at the west entrance, it turns to a rectangular brown tile that is bonded in a manner that is not quite prosaic, yet not elaborate. It is has a slight sheen which hazily reflects the whiteness above. At the walls it meets a plinth of the same stone that I am standing on, which runs all around the space, rising and falling in dialogue with the materials above it, subtly suggesting areas within the main space.

Along the east and south walls it meets ceramic tiles above it.  They are cream; have a slightly irregular glazed surface that is highly reflective. What I initially thought was a simple white painted, plastered space starts to reveal an unfolding complexity. But this should not surprise me given its author - this is a work by Álvaro Siza: the church of Santa Maria at Marco de Canaveses.

Looking behind me I notice that the ceramic tiles entirely cover the walls of a baptistery - a small space off the nave in which I am standing.  The undulating tiles create liquid, rippling highlights. Seeing the font in the centre of this space, I immediately sense the appropriateness of this theme of water. In the centre of the baptistery stands the font. It is of the same grey stone - it has been carved from a solid block, and in a very particular way. The veining runs in horizontal layers throughout its height, suggesting not so much that it has grown up from the floor, as that the solid bedrock of the church site was excavated away and the font, as if a natural spring, carved from an outcrop left behind for this purpose.

In front of me, across the full width of the east end of the church is a dais of unexceptional wood. It is a very particular decision to make the floor of what is effectively the chancel - the most sacred area of the church - out of a prosaic, acoustically gentle material. It seems to suggest a stage - to intimate the connection of liturgy and theatre. It also seems to tie the congregation’s individual wooden chairs to it. At one place, along the front steps of the dais, the wood turns upwards to form a lectern, again pulling furniture and architecture into one.

The altar is directly in front of me on the dais. It is of a gleaming white marble - even whiter than the walls and ceiling, set off by the tiled dado behind it. The most precious stone has been reserved for the most sacred element of the church.

 Finally, across to the left of the altar I see a cross - the only one in the church. It is a freestanding ‘T’ set at right angles to the altar, as if standing witness to the liturgy being enacted on it. I am instantly struck by its shape and size - dimensions that must be similar to those of the real crosses used for crucifixion. But to my amazement it has been entirely covered in gold leaf - an extraordinary collision of realistic form and symbolic material.

The cult of materials has taken over as the default antidote to, not only the unhaptic semiology of Postmodernism, but also, latterly, the pursuit of iconic shape-making. But, as with so many cultural reactions, there has often been a compulsively single-minded response to what went before.
In the gamut of buildings so held up as exemplars of architectural quality, we are continually confronted by works that, in their obsession with materials, are no less monomaniacal than those of which they are a critique. Buildings where we are asked to gorge on in-situ concrete like a child home alone with a large box of chocolates, where our senses are assaulted by the relentless grain of ply panelling, without the relief of contrast or human‑sized detail.

These works subscribe to the aesthetic of minimalism, but are nothing of the kind. The strict rationing of formal articulation is simply replaced by a sensory overload of materiality. And, worse, this excess is frequently expressive of absolutely nothing beyond itself. How often is this style (and it is a style) actually appropriate to the enrichment of the experience of the building? A school made entirely of concrete (imagine the noise); an apartment block clad entirely in detail-less Cor‑ten steel (home is a metal box); a medical centre apparently excavated out of an scale-less volume of brickwork (a structurally ludicrous conceit). And in each case the prosaic stuff that buildings require is suppressed, eliminating the possibility of legibility or measuring it against the human form.

Materials can never be the protagonist in an experientially fully rounded building (even Peter Zumthor states that ‘materials in themselves are not poetic’). They can only be part of what creates a complete mise-en-scène.  The hopeless dilution of the physical and semantic richness of a material through its ubiquity is matched only by the tedium of experience engendered by eliminating any form of experiential multivalence. Materials that could be alive with meaning become dumb.

The truth is, in experiencing a building, we need a rest from the haptic - a cleansing of the palette. Minimalism needs to be rationed, materials need to be admeasured. At Marco de Canavezes, Siza shows us how to use them in a way that not only maximises our enjoyment of their sensual qualities but also how to deploy them so that they have meaning. But further, vitally, he goes far beyond straightforward semantic legibility - that would be simply to write intelligible prose.  The task of an architect is to create poetry. As Paul Valéry observed, buildings can be mute, or better, they can speak, but the truly great ones sing. If materials are sound then Siza has created music with them where others only generate relentless noise.

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