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Taking a trip to see Alvaro Siza's work

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[THIS WEEK] Seeing Siza’s Porto meant joining in with the students, writes James Pallister

Tagging on to a study trip to Porto recently gave me privileged access to some of Alvaro Siza’s finest buildings. I joined my fiancé Nicola Read and her colleague Matthew Phillips of DRDH Architects on a second year undergraduate trip where drawing, facade studies, and more drawing was on the agenda. That, and visits to some of Porto’s great landmarks, over which the influence of three architects, Fernando Távora, Alvaro Siza and Souto de Moura looms large. The trio’s studio arrangement had the sweet simplicity of an Allan Ahlberg children’s book: Tavora at the top, Siza in the middle and Souto de Moura at the bottom, with engineers on the ground floor.

All three taught and studied at the University of Porto, for which Siza designed new studios, auditoria and a library for the complex in 1995. Our tour by Manuel Montenegro reminded me of the importance of some old-fashioned but enduring values; learning your craft and balancing ambition with humility. Computers are banned in first year, with any offenders expelled: designing is something you do only after mastering drawing. The complex’s highest point is a full-floor drawing studio where studies of buildings, anatomy and fruit help students learn about scale, and how to apply it to everything from door handles to auditoria. Throughout, Siza makes his own improvements to set pieces from Michelangelo (a staircase) to Frank Lloyd Wright (a gallery). Even the fenestration has a pedagogic purpose, with windows arranged in different locations around otherwise identical studios, so students can experience different qualities of light.

A quick march to Siza’s Boa Nova Tea House (1963) warmed us up after sketching his swimming pools (1966) (pictured). Here, as in his later Serralves gallery, he shows his mastery of compression and release, with a tight window giving a fantastic view of the Atlantic. One to visit in 2012.

Visit Nearby Guimarães, 30 miles from Porto, is the European Capital of Culture 2012

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