Álvaro Siza Vieira

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About Álvaro Siza Vieira

Alvaro SizaAlvaro Siza is a problem for the writer. While looking as natural as possible, his buildings do peculiar things – they lie or tell jokes, they are exquisitely beautiful or dull to the point of torpor. Yet Alvaro Siza is one of a handful of the world’s greatest architects. He is simply making architecture – not architectural theory. Born in Portugal in 1933, Alvaro Siza completed his first famous project in 1963 – the Boa Nova Restaurant in Leca da Palmeira, with its luxurious, airy, vernacular late Modernism, designed down to the light fittings and ashtrays (only stable when upside-down). His concrete, open-air swimming pool nearby (1966) is similarly relaxed – and of a completely different language.

Alvaro Siza is intensely well informed, using references widely – Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Adolf Loos, the vernacular – without being defined by them. ‘Architects’, he says, ‘are the great copiers…to copy one architect is not good…To copy a thousand is food for development.’ But these references are often hidden – some even secret. Walk through the Chiado district of Lisbon and you would hardly notice anything. The area burned down in 1988. Siza rebuilt it faithfully, making new routes through the congested courtyards and streets. The area does not look different: it works differently. Pragmatic elements can be the most dramatic, like the service aqueduct in the housing at Evora (1997).

Despite some criticism of the Baroque Modernist whimsy of build¬ings like the Serralves Institute in Oporto (1999), Siza has become one of the most important Portuguese artists in any medium. Respect for his work and teaching is international: Alvaro Siza won the Pritzker Prize in 1992. But the sheer range of type, idea, scale, manner and degree of expression defies categorization, from the elegant work at the University of Alicante (1998) to the Portuguese Pavilion at Lisbon Expo in 1998, displaying a simple Modernism yet with a visually perverse, sagging, reinforced-stone canopy. ‘A builder of works of gravity’, he is funny with it.

Alvaro Siza is certainly not your average contextualist: ‘I am not in favour of submitting to the context. The very idea fills me with a type of horror,’ he says. New buildings must enter their context like a ballerina into a ballet, ‘not creating something new but transforming something that already exists’. Despite its fragile context, his Santiago de Compostela Museum in Spain (1995) is powerful – a wedge-shaped granite form with simple, sophisticated circulation, its servicing housed in what looks like an upside-down minimalist table hanging from the ceiling. His 1996 Santa Maria de Canavezes Church and Parish Centre is a wonderful abstraction of Modernism and the Baroque.

Alvaro Siza, like Aalto, is called an architect without theory – surely a huge compliment. His own brief, lucid descriptions blow theory away, suggesting a more personal understanding of architecture and its integration into life. In this, he is, incidentally, theory’s best critic. ‘Architects are modest if anyone is. In one way or another they wrap mantles around their own work. These mantles, very intricate and occasionally elegant, with a complex hang, stand up perfectly well when suitably starched and can be confused with the body of a theory’ (quoted in Kester Rattenbury, ‘Siza Matters’, Building Design, 15 December 2000). He seems to see right through the emperor’s new clothes.