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Pages from The Invisible in Architecture

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There is not much that is definitivos about Alvaro Siza except for his favourite brand of Portuguese cigarettes. After a career to date of four decades of unbroken activity, he is now among the select group of most acclaimed master builders of our time; yet he has always remained remarkably modest both in his pronouncements about architecture and in the claims he makes for himself. While nobody would deny his extraordinary professional skill and while the ease he displays in projects of every scale is universally admired, Siza remains someone who does not put on airs about how unique he is. On the contrary, in his numerous interviews he continues to define his role emphatically as being that of someone who does no more than transform something that already exists. To quote his own words, 'Architects don't invent anything; they transform reality. They work continuously with models which they transform in response to the problems which they encounter'. The critical role in international architectural practice that is attributed to him is not expressed in any stated programme; his appeal lies more in his subtle approach to the trade, to his materials and to the social context of his work. One feature that is always present is a notion of frozen conflict. In practice this means a process in which all the elements, architectural and otherwise, are allotted their place in all their integrity, almost always in 'innocent' white or in the natural colour of the surrounding environment. This is true of the Bouça dwellings in Oporto where the little aisle that is so typical of the normal working class housing in Oporto is preserved with its proportions unchanged while at the same time a transformation has been introduced that makes the flats a pleasure to live in. The same goes for the apartment building that Siza designed in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood in Berlin where a typical gloomy tenement block has been turned into a once-off statement by the foreign 'author' and is imbued with his charisma. No matter what the project, Siza concentrates both on ensuring that the paradoxes inherent in the commission are given free play, while at the same time highlighting the frozen semblance of a consensus based on the local conventions he is confronted with. When these conventions suit him so, as for instance in the Punt en Komma project in The Hague, the result is small-scale context-based works that always seem to say 'yes' to the conditions that gave rise to them. In Berlin, however, the context and the point of departure have a negative historical content: here Siza's architecture would seem to say 'no', however much as a designer he would rather not admit it. Modernism functions here as a mask to express an infinite sadness, something that graffiti artists have in fact immortalised in the facade: bonjour tristesse.
Those who have not had the chance to visit any of Siza's buildings, or who have only seen a few of them, will have to make do with Siza the critic if they want to come to a proper assessment of his critical approach. Siza himself will in any case not be of much help, concerned as he is with seeing that fine craftsmanship gets maximum play. Concern about what people think of his work has no place here. To put it concretely, Siza's concrete architecture is all that Siza cares about; Siza's echo is the domain of his admirers. If you want the architect, you'll come across him in the endearing interiors of the prospective occupants of his buildings, sometimes caught off his guard as he draws a Corbusier-type sketch; or else you'll see him travelling somewhere between here and eternity. But you'll rarely, if ever, see him in the frontline of his own exegesis.
All the same, we cannot say that Siza refuses to have anything at all to do with his fans. He has already given many interviews; in the lounge of a Maastricht hotel, enveloped in a cloud of schlager music, he was pleased to pass the time of night with us and to talk about the work of the architect and the role of criticism. We did not understand how so pragmatic a person as Siza, who takes the world as he sees it, could at the same time be such a great artist. He reminds one of Picasso who once said with apparent nonchalance, 'I don't seek, I find'. In the meantime he continues to astonish his public with these apparently random works. Right from the start we have to admit it: we are still none the wiser. [More... see PDF]

Desperately Seeking Siza A conversation with Alvaro Siza Vieira by Ole Bouman, Roemer van Toorn

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