Alvaro Siza

 

Profile

Alvaro Siza is now recognised as one of the most subtly profound architects of his generation. His early works around Porto in Portugal were brilliant essays in reinforced concrete; the influence of Alvar Aalto and awareness of J J P Oud’s housing in Holland manifested themselves in sensitive housing and planning projects which reflected both the Portuguese vernacular and the twentieth century avant garde. Siza’s architectural literacy and freedom of formal invention also informed such beautiful constructions as the University of Aveiro library, the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art and the Portuguese Pavilion at Expo 98, with its astonishing reinforced concrete canopy. A prolific draughtsman, writer and theorist, Siza is among the most influential of all architects at work today.

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Rising to world prominence in the early 1970s, when his organic approach to architecture was first recognised, particularly by Mediterranean critics, for its poetic power and contextual relevance, Álvaro Siza Vieira has since become one of the most prolific and subtle architects of his generation. Having studied at the Escola des Belas Artes in Porto from 1949 to 1955, Siza’s early career was closely linked to that of his teacher and lifelong colleague, Fernando Távora who, together with Carlos Ramos, helped to re-situate Portuguese architecture during the final years of the Salazar regime. In the first decade of his practice (1958–68), Siza realised two swimming pools near Matosinhos which were as much landscapes as buildings. These works – the Quinta du Conceição pool, 1958–63, cradled within the garden of an old villa, and the nearby Leça de Palmeira pool, 1961–66, blasted out of the rocky sea front, established him immediately in the local architectural context.

 

In 1968, when Portuguese architects were once again permitted to travel abroad, the school of Porto elected to visit Finland in order to see the works of Alvar Aalto at first hand. Aalto’s work would prove to be particularly pertinent to Siza. While the Finn’s influence was already detectable in Siza’s work prior to 1968, it would emerge more forcibly in his early maturity, above all in the Banco Pinto & Sotto Maior that he realised in Oliveira de Azemeis in 1971–74 and in the Beires House in Povoa de Varzim of 1973–76. Both works demonstrated Siza’s capacity to synthesise elements taken from the Portuguese vernacular with alien aspects drawn from the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde. This is particularly evident in the Beires House, where elements drawn from Aalto and J J P Oud find themselves combined with a system of timber sash-window fenestration derived from fishing villages in the north of Portugal.

 

Since April 1974, the period known as the Portuguese Spring when the Salazar regime collapsed and the country shifted politically to the left, Siza has been preoccupied with low-cost housing. His first schemes in this genre were built in Porto, namely the Bouça and São Victor settlements of 1974–77. After these were more or less complete, Siza shifted his attention in this area to Évora, where he has since been continuously occupied for more than 20 years with the design of a gradually expanding low-rise, high-density housing quarter – a work which is arguably his most socially significant achievement to date.

 

Notwithstanding the exemplary urban and ecological character of this work, low-cost housing hardly afforded sufficient scope for the full play of Siza’s design talent and critical intellect. This intellect has revealed itself across the years in three closely interconnected activities: first, the endless flow of sketches, projects and topographic drawings which constantly issues from his hand; second, an equally fertile series of incisive interviews and essays that in effect constitute a one-man existential theory of modern architecture; and third, the major public works that he has achieved, particularly in recent years. All of these last have been subtly inscribed into their respective sites: a teacher’s training college in Setúbal, the new faculty of architecture in Porto, a university library in Aveiro and a centre for contemporary art in Santiago di Compostela. The university library stands out among these pieces, not only for the way it relates to the campus and the marshland lying beyond its confines, but also for the richly articulated character of its internal volumes.

 

One is forcibly struck by the enormous range of Siza’s production from low-cost housing in Évora to the luxurious villas he designed for the Veneto; or, say, from his large civic and cultural institutions to the design of major engineering works such as stations for Lisbon’s new underground system. These latter are closely integrated with his reconstitution of the eighteenth-century Chiado district of Lisbon, which was destroyed by fire in 1988. Here Siza reconstructed the burnt-out fabric in the neo-classical manner of its time, reserving for the inner courtyards his neo-Loosian syntax of blank walls and well-proportioned windows.

 

Siza’s ethical, stoic attitude is evident from his many sardonic aphorisms, such as ‘an architect who gives the people what they want is a demagogue’ and ‘architects don’t invent anything, they transform reality’. Such phrases assert only too trenchantly that simply pleasing the lowest common denominator is a cultural dead-end and that the late-modern drive towards gratuitous aestheticisation is equally insignificant in terms of critical culture. It is just such dicta that serve to put Siza in a class apart, as one of the last truly critical architects of the century.

 

Kenneth Frampton

Biography

  1933  Born June 25, Matosinhos (near Porto)
  1949 Studies at the School of Architecture, University of Porto (until 1955)
  1954 First built project was finished
  1955 Collaborates with Architect Fernanndo Tavora (until 1958)
  1961-66 Piscina en Leca da Palmeira, Portugal
  1966 Teaches at the School of Architecture (ESBAP) until 1969
  1971-74 Banco Pint & Sotto Maior, Oliveira de Azemeis, Portugal
  1973-76 Beires House, Povoa de Varzim, Portugal
  1976  Appointed Professor of Construction at ESBAP
  1977- Expanding, low-rise, high-density social housing settlement, Evora, Portugal
  1986-93 Setubal Teacher's Training College, Portugal
  1987-94 Oporto School of Architecture, Portugal
  1988 Awarded the Gold Medal by the Alvar Aalto Foundation
  1988-93 Galician Centre of Contemporary Art, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
  1988-94 University of Aveiro library, Portugal
  1992  Awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  1993 Awarded the National Architecture Prize by the Portuguese Architects Association
  1996-98 Portuguese Pavilion, Expo 98, Lisbon, Portugal
  1998 Awarded the Praemium Imperiale Prize in Architecture, The Japan Art Association, Tokyo
  Bibliography Alvaro Siza : complete works / Kenneth Frampton. London : Phaidon, 2000.
Alvaro Siza : Casa de Cha da Boa Nova = Boa Nova Tea House. Lisbon : Blau, 1999.
Alvaro Siza : writings on architecture / edited by Antonio Angelillo. Milano : Skira, 1997.
Alvaro Siza / Philip Jodidio. Koeln ; London : Taschen, 1999.
Alvaro Siza 1954-1976 / edited by Luiz Trigueiros ; texts by Paulo Martins Barata ; introduction by Alexandre Alves Costa and foreword by Kenneth Frampton ; photographs by Roberto Collova ... [et al.] ; translations by Mark Raishbrook and Andre Martins Barata. Lisbon : Blau, 1997.
Alvaro Siza : inside the city / preface by Alvaro Siza ; text by Marc Dubois ; photos by Giovanni Chiaramonte. New York : Whitney Library of Design, 1998.
Alvaro Siza 1986-1995 / edited by Luiz Trigueiros ; with texts by Alvaro Siza ... [et al.] ; photographs by Rui Morais de Sousa, Christiane Wolf and Teresa Siza ; translations by Mark Raishbrook. Lisbon : Blau, 1995.