Noticias de Arquitectura

Alvaro Siza: the epic and the everyday
marzo 1, 2009, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Siza

27 February 2009

Why the work of Alvaro Siza, the Portuguese architect who this week receives the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal, is an inspiration for architects everywhere

My introduction to the work of Alvaro Siza came by chance in 1979 as a 19-year-old student visiting the ancient town of Evora in Portugal. Arriving by train, one could see in the distance two strong fields of white, like fields projecting beyond the edge of the town. It was Siza’s patio mat housing still under construction.

With bare concrete block viaduct-like structures linking terraces of low houses, these newly inhabited and only partly complete constructions of unadorned forms and the street spaces between them contributed to the feeling of a thousand-year-old typology, the rhythm of walls with doorways into small courtyards, repetitive but still with variation and not stubborn.

Five years later, I encountered Siza’s work again while studying at Kingston Polytechnic. The architectural debate of the day was between the neorationalists — in the shadow of James Stirling’s office, several of whom were teaching there — and the hardline modernists headed by David Dunster. The two positions achieved confluence with the writer and architect Aldo Rossi, who had completed a series of important buildings: school, cemetery, floating theatre, and an apartment building, all in Italy. These buildings were in part conceptual polemics supporting his thesis on memory and the European city enunciated in the book, A Scientific Autobiography. For many of us, Rossi made it possible to be a student of architecture.

The Italian magazine Lotus had published Siza’s competition-winning scheme for housing on the Giudecca in Venice, and students had been set a similar brief on that site. His design was not built but was similar in concept to the corner apartment block he built in Berlin a few years later, also a competition entry.

Whereas Rossi’s were severe archetypal forms, Siza’s, though also familiar, were at the same time a little different, partly distorted and decidedly mute. But the work opened up the possibility of using recent history in a way that allowed everything in the city to become available as a reference.

Siza’s work was — and remains — uninterested in either material or constructional novelty, and so in that sense allied itself with that of Rossi. Rossi’s work about the city had been developed by Siza from idealised archetype into something deeply rich and acutely responsive to place, and one could observe that the Italian had revealed, through writing, something that the Portuguese transformed into great architecture.

Siza is undoubtedly a master, but one might set him apart from the others within the 20th century in the sense that his work is as much about the city as it is about the object. He remains as interested in the everyday as the epic. His is a lineage of vital figures: Loos, Oud, Rietveld and Scharoun. Siza speaks about the city as being in constant transformation, and for him the works of all architects as well as builders are alive and available as references with which to work. This is what a city is — material over which we have little control, or what Tony Fretton describes as “not mistakes or byproducts, but part of an unconscious collective project which has to be acknowledged”.

“Siza absorbs what may seem to be insignificant qualities and recasts them into an emotionally resonant proposal”

Looking across the range of works, it is clear that Siza’s capacity to work meaningfully in a range of settings and building types is neither adolescent nor predictable. His gift for observation regarding the nature of a place, to absorb what may at first seem to be insignificant qualities here or there, and recast them into an emotionally resonant proposal of originality — this is his significant contribution to architecture, and one that exerted a great influence on my generation.

I first met Siza in London in 2004 and we spent a day touring the city looking at buildings. He impressed with his energy and enthusiasm as he discussed points of detail. In a conversation following the completion of his housing in The Hague, Siza was asked how he moved so easily between making private houses for the very wealthy to social housing. He replied: “Perhaps only knowing what people for whom money is of no consequence want can we be better able to make decisions for people who do not have such a say in what they can have.”

I asked what he felt about the newer things in Portugal, including Koolhaas’s concert hall in Oporto. “It is very good,” he said. “But now he must support other architects who wish to build around there at a similar height!”

And his advice to the younger architect in practice? “Muchos compromisos.”

A master is one who produces exceptional work, discovering new forms and their relationships with things, and whose influence on others is great. Yet for Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn and Rem Koolhaas, more often than not their architecture is less concerned with the city and more with the building as object.

With Corb and Koolhaas, the writings leave aspects of the buildings unexplained where such a description would divert the attention from their agenda of newness. Both distance themselves from the past and downplay their debt to history and, for Corb, to the present.

Siza, who remains highly active and fecund, has already established a legacy of influence, and still has the power to surprise.


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