Álvaro Siza tells a story about his first being impressed by architecture when, at the tender age of 10, he travelled with his family from their home town of Porto, Portugal, on a trip to Catalonia. In Barcelona one evening his brothers took him to Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, which frightened him. The following day, however, taken to see Gaudí’s Casa Milà, he observed that although the building seemed to him to be a sculpture, it had the same elements – doors, locks, windows – as any house. ‘It impressed me very much, how those normal things I knew in my house could be put together to make a something else.’
For his own architecture, Siza received a formidable number of awards, among them; the European Community’s Mies van der Rohe Prize in 1988 and the Praemium Imperiale in Japan in 1997, the 2009 RIBA Gold Medal, and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. His work is strongly rooted in the modern movement, nevertheless he has a subjective approach, and continually seeks out alternative interpretations of modernism. He is noted for approaching each project with sensitivity to context without relinquishing the autonomy and strength of the new construction. In designing the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2005, Siza sought to guarantee that the new building, while presenting a totally different architecture, established a dialogue with the Neo-classical gallery. While the resulting structure, based on a simple rectangular grid distorted to create a dynamic curvaceous form comprised of interlocking timber beams, mirrored the diminutive scale of the Serpentine building and made coherent use of the landscape between the two structures, it also achieved a contiguous relationship with the surrounding Park.
Siza studied at the University of Porto School of Architecture from 1949 until 1955, and opened his first practice in the city before completing his studies in 1954. Many of his best known works are in Porto: the Boa Nova Tea House (1963), Porto University’s School of Architecture (1987-1992), and the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (1997). During the 1980s, he undertook increasingly larger institutional projects in Portugal, including The Teachers Training College at Setubal (1991). Siza designed the Santa Maria Church in Marco de Canavezes, Portugal (1997) and the Portuguese Pavilion at Expo ‘98 in Lisbon, (with Eduardo Souto de Moura). But he had started building abroad in 1983 with the Schlesisches Tor Apartments in Berlin, Germany. In 1994, he returned to Germany to build the Vitra factory at Weil-am-Rein, the same year he designed the Centro Galiziano (Museum of Modern Art) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Between 1995 and 2009, in collaboration with Rudolf Finsterwalder, he worked on an architecture museum on Hombroich island, near Düsseldorf, Germany.
There’s a very touching video on YouTube, shot in 2004, of an animated converation between a 71-year-old Siza and Oscar Niemeyer ‘the man who built Brasilia‘, 21 years his senior, who died in 2012. The film is without subtitles and the two giants of architecture are speaking the Portugese language common to both, but from the drawings and buildings each sketches in the air with fingers, hands and arm movements one senses that their understanding of one another and their subject is on a higher plane than the mere spoken word. Commissions to build whole cities from scratch are few and far between, and although Siza, now 80, internationally famous and with a glittering career behind him, has come closer than many – he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1992 for coordinating the renovation of the Chiado area of Lisbon that was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1988, and since the mid-1970s has produced numerous designs for public housing – he hasn’t been given that particular job yet. On a smaller scale, in 2000 Siza began coordinating the rehabilitation of the monuments and architectonic heritage of Cidade Velha founded by the Portugese in 1462, on Santiago, in the African Cape Verde islands archipelago, which is now a Unesco World Heritage site.
Images from top
Meteorological Center of the Olympic Village, Barcelona, Spain, 1992
Iberê Camargo Foundation Museum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2008
Santa Maria Church and Parish Center in Marco de Canaveses, Portugal, 1997
All photos ©Duccio Malagamba
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