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.