Britain has bestowed its ultimate architectural honour on Alvaro Siza – even though he hasn’t built a thing in this country.
Jonathan Glancey travels to Portugal to meet a master
There are far too many buildings today’ …
Siza Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Guardian
‘When I was a little boy, I fell ill,” says Alvaro Siza, lighting up his sixth Camel cigarette. “My parents took me to a house high on a hill so I could breathe good air. I was allowed out on to a veranda. Here, I could look at a perfect view of a beautiful valley spread out below me. By the third week, I hated that view. I never wanted to see it again.”
From the moment he began building, in the early 1950s, Portugal’s most celebrated architect sought to frame views, to reveal landscapes, cityscapes, interiors and the ways through them. His aim was to delight the eye, and to make each creation a place of subtle revelation. Siza, now 75, has never been an architect of big statements and bigger pictures. He is, however, a designer and craftsman of some of the most considered of all modern buildings.
Siza is, quite simply, one of the world’s finest architects – which is why he is coming to Britain next month to receive the 2009 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, an award as highly regarded today as it was back in 1848, when the first was hung around the neck of Charles Cockerell, architect of Oxford’s Ashmolean Library. The award, for a lifetime’s achievement, is a gift from the Queen made on her behalf by Riba, the Royal Institute of British Architects. In all these years, Siza is the first Portuguese architect to be so honoured, though, apart from a 2005 collaboration with Eduardo Souto de Moura and Cecil Balmond on a summer pavilion for London’s Serpentine Gallery, he has never built in Britain.
“It’s a great honour, of course,” says Siza. “My own city, Porto, is home to many British-influenced buildings; and this is where you founded your long-lived port industry. Perhaps it seems odd to have this medal [without having] built in England, but I think an architect should make the best work he can wherever his star takes him. I have chosen to work mostly at home – but yes, how nice that the work is recognised by our oldest allies.”
Although he finds categories uninteresting and any attempt to list the influence of one architect on another little more than an academic game, Siza brings together more than something of the concerns of Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer, refracted through the defining lens of Porto, the northern Portuguese city where he was born, lives, works and evidently loves. The window of his low-key office frames a melancholy view of the architect’s home town. Terraces of shoulder-to-shoulder, sash-windowed buildings crafted in dark granite gleam in the light of the dazzling winter sun rising over the River Douro, all punctuated by narrow alleys, winding stone stairs and the red-tiled roofs of long, thin houses. No single building predominates. “Architecture,” says Siza, as if in explanation, “should never be an arrogant transformation of landscape or space. My wish has long been that the buildings I design have somehow always been there. I want them to be necessary, never forced.”
From his first well-known work, the Boa Nova teahouse and restaurant, completed in 1963 at the coastal edge of Porto, to the serene Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (1997) in the same city, Siza’s buildings are as gently inspiring as they are sotto voce; his intelligent, low-cost, terraced housing, found in swathes across Portugal, could be similarly described. The Boa Nova rises from rocks bashed by Atlantic rollers, like a natural extension of the landscape. Its great roof hugs the concrete building, keeping it cool in summer and safe from storms. It offers places to stand outside, sheltered from the winds, and a restaurant with a great window that slides down in the summer, letting diners enjoy an uninhibited experience of the restless ocean. Never has a cup of tea been so exhilarating.The Serralves Museum, meanwhile, is a low-lying sequence of galleries in a handsome park, offering visitors a gentle amble through contemporary art. What’s special about the building is that, though clearly very modern, it is crafted like a traditional 1930s gallery. Every detail, even when playful, is reassuringly solid, a thing of rich marble or well-turned timber.
“At first, I wanted to be an opera singer,” says Siza, a quietly spoken, warm and well-mannered man. “Then it had to be sculpture. My father was against this. He was an engineer, born in Brazil, who wanted his children to have proper jobs. When I was 14, he took us to Barcelona. I saw Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia for the first time and that was that.”
Becoming Alvaro Siza, the famous architect, was part of a long, slow journey from the polite house by the ocean where he was born in 1933, the same year that Antonio Salazar, the newly elected Portuguese prime minister, forced through a constitution granting him and his antiparliamentarian government authoritarian powers that would endure until the Carnation Revolution of 1974. Siza was brought up in a big Catholic family. One of his sisters is a nun. He rode by tram each day from the ocean to the city centre, to school and later to the University of Porto’s school of architecture, eventually becoming the revered professor he remains today.
“There was an opening for original work in Portugal just after the second world war,” says Siza. “We pored over Casabella, the Italian magazine, which showed us how an architect could design anything from a spoon to a skyscraper on the same day. My teacher and, later, colleague Fernando Távora was a member of CIAM [the International Congress of Modern Architecture] and attended the Festival of Britain in 1951. We made furniture and went to visit Aalto in Finland. All this was liberating, but by the time I began to build, the Salazar regime was working to establish a national style, to curb adventures in modernism.
“But Porto and Lisbon universities produced a wonderful book, Vernacular Architecture in Portugal. It demonstrated that there were many traditional styles. Portuguese architecture had been fashioned by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Arabs and the English. So, as long as we were careful not to make too much noise, we could build in new ways despite the regime.” The Boa Nova teahouse was a case in point. Neither iconoclastically modern nor nostalgically vernacular, this haunting building is built of concrete, timber, brick tiles and bronze – and made by local craftsmen.
Ever since, Siza has trodden a line between modernity and tradition, machine-age technology and age-old craftsmanship. “I like every building to be a calm house,” he says. “I like the way the patios and rooms of the Alhambra go from bright sun to shadows, from warmth to coolness, from wide to intimate focus. I like to dream about my buildings before I set them down in any detail. Architecture requires patience. How do you enter a building? How does it touch the ground?”
Siza toys with a packet of cigarettes, an ashtray and a lighter to show me how he imagines a building. When he has “established a proper relationship” with the structure that is taking shape in his mind, he draws many versions of what it might be, then begins toying with cardboard models. “I like to be involved, to design every detail, so the office should ideally be 15 people, although we are 25 today. Perhaps we have too much work. Architects find it hard to say no to commissions.”
He has, though, said a clear no to working in Dubai and anywhere else where he feels buildings are being rushed up without patience, pleasure or love. “Architecture without love,” he says, “is annoying. There are far too many buildings today. Architecture has become a business. Increasingly, there are people making a career from telling architects what they can and can’t do. It’s very rare for me now to be able to talk to craftsmen face-to-face. Buildings have to be specified down to the last cent, so you can no longer tailor them on site. This is sad. My last experience of real pleasure was in Brazil – I was very happy making the Iberê Camargo museum.”
It shows. This just-completed museum, dedicated to the Brazilian painter Iberê Camargo and sited in the lakeside city of Porto Alegre, is a magnificent mixture of sensual curves and glorious swoops, of galleries that samba out of the main building and then samba back in again. It is an alluring architectural carnival – yet austerely dressed, realised throughout in a smooth concrete. For all this dancing, it could never be called ostentatious. Just special.
Equally arresting is the winery Siza completed in Portugal’s Campo Maior two years ago, sited on what had been a rubbish tip. A lithe-limbed and smooth-skinned white building, it pulls the gently rolling landscape together as if its siting and construction were the most obvious things in the world. “I am grateful for this opportunity,” says Siza. “I hope the wine tastes good.”
Siza makes architecture seem all but effortless. This, however, is because he has worked hard and long at making his buildings as subtle as they are special. Since his wife, the painter Maria Antónia Marinho Leite, died tragically young in 1973, Siza, a devoted father, has concentrated on shaping buildings as a gifted medieval monk must have done illuminating manuscripts. He draws beautifully and writes well, too. A Modern of sorts, yet one who belongs to a tradition of age-old art and craftsmanship, Siza doesn’t see himself as a great artist, which he is, but as just another journeyman who has tried to add something worthwhile to the country he loves, whether that be dazzling galleries or smart social housing – all woven into that landscape beyond his window, seen through wreaths of curling cigarette smoke.
Fuente: The Guardian