Modernist Master’s Deceptively Simple World
[Nicolai Ouroussoff. The New York Times, August 5, 2007]
It’s unlikely that the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira will ever enjoy the fame of, say, a Rem Koolhaas or a Frank Gehry, architects who have vaulted to international attention by demolishing accepted orthodoxies.
For one thing Mr. Álvaro Siza Vieira rarely builds outside Europe, while his celebrity counterparts shuttle around the globe. He has spent his career quietly working on the fringes of the international architecture scene. He dislikes long plane flights, mostly because of a decades-long smoking habit and recent back problems. And he still seems most at ease in Porto, Portugal, his native city, where he can often be found sketching in a local cafe with a pack of cigarettes within easy reach.
Yet over the last five decades Mr. Álvaro Siza Vieira, now 74, has steadily assembled a body of work that ranks him among the greatest architects of his generation, and his creative voice has never seemed more relevant than now. His reputation is likely to receive a boost from his museum here for the Iberê Camargo Foundation, his most sculptural work to date. Its curvaceous bleached white exterior, nestled against a lush Brazilian hillside, has a vibrant sensuality that contrasts with the corporate sterility of so many museums today.
Yet to understand Mr. Álvaro Siza Vieira’s thinking fully, you must travel back to his earlier buildings. Set mostly within a few hours drive of Porto, an aging industrial hub in northern Portugal, they include a range of relatively modest projects, from public housing to churches to private houses, that tap into local traditions and the wider arc of Modernist history. The best of them are striking for a rare spirit of introspection. Their crisp forms and precise lines are contemporary yet atavistic in spirit. The surfaces retain the memory of the laborer’s hands; the walls exude a sense of gravity.
His apparent reluctance to stray too far away from home is not simply a question of temperament. It is rooted in deeply felt beliefs about architecture’s cultural role. In a profession that remains stubbornly divided between nostalgia for a saccharine nonexistent past and a blind faith in the new global economy, he neither rejects history nor ignores contemporary truths. Instead, his architecture encapsulates a society in a fragile state of evolution, one in which the threads that bind us need to be carefully preserved.
A pensive, heavyset man whose face is partly masked behind a trim beard and wire-frame glasses, Mr. Siza has the air of an Old World intellectual. Among architects his reputation began to flourish in the late 1970s and early ’80s, as Portugal and Spain were emerging from decades of isolation imposed by the rightist dictatorships of Salazar and Franco. By the mid-’80s, he had emerged as an important creative voice in Europe’s architectural milieu, with commissions that included a low-income housing complex in Berlin and an apartment and shopping complex in The Hague. In 1987 the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo, organized the first show of Mr. Siza’s work in the United States. And he received broad attention when he captured the 1992 Pritzker Prize, his profession’s highest honor.
Mr. Siza’s projects are notable for a delicate weave of allusions to specific regions and cultural figures. In the 1950s and ’60s he worked closely with the Portuguese Modernist Fernando Távora, who instilled in him both a strong respect for the traditions of Portuguese architecture and an understanding that no creative work has real meaning unless it is anchored in the present.
“Távora was a very cultivated man,” Mr. Siza told me over dinner in Porto Alegre. “He was very interested in the traditions of Portugal. But he was interested in the continuity of that tradition, of how it could be the basis for a modern transformation not in any one architectural style. This was very important for me.”
Among Mr. Siza’s earliest works was a mesmerizing public pool complex he created in the 1960s for Leca da Palmeira, a fishing town and summer resort north of Porto. Built on a rocky site on the edge of the Atlantic, the project is hidden below an existing seawall, and is virtually invisible from the city’s peaceful seaside promenade. To reach it you descend a narrow stairway and then pass through a series of open-air changing rooms with concrete walls before emerging on the shore. The pools themselves are nothing but low, gently curved concrete barriers between the rocks, their languid forms trapping the seawater as it laps over them to create big natural swimming areas.
The rough concrete walls fit so naturally into the context of the sea wall, the rocks and the ocean that they feel as though they’ve been there for centuries. Yet by drawing the procession through the site, Mr. Siza is also able to build a sense of suspense that is only released once you finally immerse yourself on the water.
He builds on these ideas in later projects, creating clean geometric shapes that seem to have been distorted in order to fit them into their surroundings. One of his most mesmerizing buildings is a small two-story structure designed for the University of Porto’s architecture faculty that frames three sides of a small triangular courtyard. One edge of the building follows the line of an existing stone wall; another orients the viewer toward a long narrow garden on a bluff. The entrance is cut out of a back corner, giving the impression that the building cracked open as Mr. Siza strained to adapt it to the site. It’s as if the design is a kind of hinge, linking past, present and future.
Mr. Siza’s ability to evoke a powerful sense of historical time through his architecture struck me with special force a few years ago when I visited a small church complex he designed for the dusty working-class town of Marco de Canavezes, a short drive east of Porto. The beauty lies in the slow pace at which its meaning unfolds. A tall narrow building in whitewashed concrete on a steeply sloping site, it is anchored to the ground by a beige granite base. Its three sections frame a small, unadorned entrance court.
That simplicity, altogether deceptive, becomes a tool for sensitizing you to your environment. As you move through the church, for example, the smoothly polished stone floor changes to wood, allowing for an intuitive transition from the formality of the entry to the intimacy of the main worship space. Sunlight spills down through big curved scooped openings near the top of the walls in a modest nod to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, a masterpiece of high Modernism.
But the resonance of the building does not hit home until you proceed through the entire sequence of chambers that make up the church. A narrow passageway descends from the main worship space to a mortuary chapel. From there you step out into an arcaded courtyard with a solitary tree. Then you can climb back up a stone staircase along the church’s exterior and circle back to the front.
It’s like a measured procession from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and back again, one that only unfolds slowly overtime.
“The big thing for me is the pressure to do everything very quickly,” Mr. Siza said to me recently over drinks. “That is the problem with so much architecture. This speed is impossible. Some people think the computer is so quick, for example. But the computer does not think for you, and the time it takes us to think does not change.”
The Iberê Camargo Foundation is in many ways the ideal project for Mr. Siza. He has deep emotional ties to Brazil. His father, an electrical engineer, was born there. And Mr. Siza has always been enchanted by Brazil’s early embrace of Modernism and its tinge of hedonism.
“My father told many stories about Brazil,” he said. “When I came here the first time 20 years ago, I felt like in Portugal, but with a tropical atmosphere. More free.”
That freedom is evident in the sculptural exuberance of the museum, which is expected to open sometime next year. The building was conceived over a decade ago by a local industrialist to house the work of Iberê Camargo, a Brazilian artist revered locally for his somber figurative paintings and etchings.
As with all of Mr. Siza’s best work, the museum’s forms forge a closely calibrated architectural narrative, regulating your pace through the site. Visitors approach the entry on a narrow path set along a series of low, one-story structures that house a print shop, artists’ studios and cafe. Your eye traces the long low line of the roof, which is interrupted by a small sunken court before picking up again, setting up a gentle rhythm that draws you deeper and deeper into the site.
Once you reach the main entry court, you can turn back and catch a diagonal view across the cafe of the town center, with the slender smokestack of a former thermoelectric plant. The view locks the museum back into the cityscape, as if to remind you that art is woven into everyday life.
Most magically, cantilevered passageways curl across the front facade like an enormous hand. When you gaze up in the courtyard, it’s as if the building were embracing you.
The foundation building is still incomplete, and when I arrived, Mr. Siza was still fiddling with details. Scaffolding filled the main atrium; at one point he spent a half-hour or so discussing the position of a light fixture. You could already feel the force of the interior. In a twist on Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Mr. Siza located all the galleries around the towering central atrium. Visitors will wind through a sequence of galleries that overlook the atrium on each floor, slipping repeatedly into long fingerlike passageways to reach the next level.
Mr. Siza uses light to heighten the contrast between the galleries and the dark narrow passageways. A thin slot at the top of the atrium wall allows sunlight to wash over its white surface, enlivening the interior. Big windows frame views of the Guaíba River. By contrast the curved passageways have the aura of secret spaces. Only a single small window framing a view of the city punctures each one.
Ultimately the passageways are yet again a way of drawing out the time spent in thought, allowing us to absorb more fully what we have just experienced. In a way they are Mr. Siza’s rejoinder to the ruthless pace of global consumerism.
In that respect the building echoes projects by a sprinkling of architects who are seemingly in revolt against the psychic damage wrought by a relentless barrage of marketing images. Mr. Moneo once designed a cathedral in Los Angeles whose entry sequence was so drawn out that the journey felt like doing penance. Like Mr. Moneo, Mr. Siza seeks to prolong the architectural sequence to its furthest extreme. The question is whether the public will feel at ease in this building. How will the contemporary art lover, accustomed to constant diversions, deal with this level of silence?
“All of us have doubts about our work,” Mr. Siza said one evening after a tour of the site. “I worry I am working in a way that doesn’t conform to our times. So I wonder, should I accept more the times that I live in? But I’m not so sure that this will lead to a good answer to improve the situation of people in the world.”
Whatever his doubts, his vision of an architecture rooted in a historical continuum seems vitally important in a world fractured by political conflict and ethnic hatreds. If an earlier generation of Modernists believed that architecture could play a vital role in spurring us along the road to utopia, we now know that progress is no longer a guarantee. Almost any society, it turns out, can quickly and unexpectedly descend into darkness and savagery.
At the same time the march of global capitalism has made faith in technology, a Modernist dogma, seem less and less attractive. And if the bold and delirious forms churned out by celebrated architects today mirror social upheavals, they can also serve to camouflage the damage.
Mr. Siza’s architecture suggests a gentler, alternate path. It does not promise a better world but reminds us that the threads binding a civilized society can be rewoven. And in an age that rarely bothers to distinguish shallow novelty from true moral engagement, that is an act of courage.
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