Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Alvaro Siza: In the Garden

© Juan Rodríguez

Amag Publishers and the Caja de Arquitectos Foundation have just released Siza x Siza, which focuses on six projects chosen by the architect, with black-and-white photographs by Juan Rodríguez, original drawings and sketches, and extensive interviews on the projects themselves and other themes.

Siza took a special interest in this project, working very closely with the editors.

I am very proud to be included in this book at Siza's request, with a short text, In the Garden. Other texts are by Kenneth Frampton, Eduardo Souto de Moura and Juhani Pallasmaa.

We will all be present this coming November 20th in the official presentation of the book at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. 

Boa Nova Tea House and Restaurant. Photo © Juan Rodríguez

In the Garden 
In various articles I have written over the years covering different projects by Álvaro Siza, I often focus on their relationship to the landscapes and urbanscapes of northern Portugal, coming back again and again to the image of a neglected garden, lush, unkempt and overgrown. Traveling as I do from the high, dry, flat meseta of central Spain to Porto underlies for me the particular character of the place: its verdant humidity and mild temperatures, and its abrupt topography, which disrupts any would-be orthogonal order on the part of would-be planners, contributing to the general disorderliness of urban and rural settlements. As I wrote in an article on the Serralves Museum in 1999, "The verdant hills overlooking the Douro are covered by a crazy-quilt of development, in which dense new growth jostles for place among old villas, small industries and languishing vegetable plots."

The strength of the relation of this landscape and its patterns of settlement to the work of Siza struck me most forcefully when I visited, in 2002, his restoration of and additions to the 18th century country estate of the Quinta Santo Ovidio, east of Porto:

"The fragmentary Baroque elements of the Quinta [its allée of lime trees, Baroque fountain, simple house and small formal garden] bear the same relation to the grand axes of Rome or Versailles that Siza's quirky modernism has to the canonical works of Le Corbusier or Mies. Siza ... transforms [modern architecture] from a universalizing formal language into a language of particularity and fragmentation: he passes Modernism through the historic, rumpled, genteel hillside gardens of northern Portugal."

An essential quality of this relation between the Portuguese landscape and culture and Siza's work is precisely the concept of gentility. I have always been struck by the bourgeois, slightly antique feel of many of Siza's details. When I interviewed him for the Serralves Museum, for example, he was still designing the seating for the auditorium:

"Each seat is a self-contained armchair, with its curving back sloping down and around to form the arms. 'I will make them out of maple, like this,' Siza tells me.  'With velvet backs and leather trim, here and here.  It is something I saw in the opera house in Naples.  Side by side, like armchairs.  Its very intimate. You feel more at home.  You feel decadent.' "

What makes such details seem so at home in Portugal is their cultivation of gentility, which one still encounters, for example in old restaurants and cafés, with their uniformed waiters and handsome table settings. And what could be more genteel than an unkempt garden? It is a surviving fragment of past wealth, culture and glory, now somewhat faded but respected and maintained through the generations. The gentleness in the word genteel is embodied in Siza's respect for this landscape and its past, its ancient cultural richness lingering in a disheveled, poorer present, a situation one could appreciate even before the country's current economic crisis.

Siza extends the largess of this well-mannered respect not only to the more aristocratic qualities of the landscape but also, simply, to the traces of the past and place. His is not an architecture of the bulldozer and the tabula rasa; instead, his designs seek their place amid what already is. For this reason, the Boanova Restaurant and Teahouse in Leça da Palmeira is sited not on along the flat expanse of a seaside promenade, but instead is embedded in a forbidding outcropping of rocks.

Siza's mastery of natural light and relative indifference to building materials form part of this faded aristocracy of manner. Modernism allows him to dematerialize gentility to its essence as a dignification of everyday life and its pleasures. Visiting again the Serralves Museum, I wrote,

"As you explore the Museum, you are surprised and delighted at every turn by his spare, elegant geometries and off-balance symmetries, and by the way that natural light is reflected and re-reflected from walls and horizontal planes, creating an effect of expansive, luminous spatial containment."

Writing about the Galician Museum of Contemporary in 1994, when I was much younger, I summed up all these intuitions about Siza's method in a general attack, with the help of the philosopher Theodor Adorno, on an opposing formalism of perfect geometric abstraction that I found in certain Madrid architects. These words can stand in as well, I think, for a philosophical argument in favor of Siza's design method as the superation of an excessive reliance in the modern tradition on concepts of internal logic, functionality and reason:

"In Siza's poetic approach to architecture, his regard for the site is transformed into a peculiar personal formal geometry.  Siza uses regulating lines in plan to lay out, from the point of entry, the two intersecting volumes of the design.  These regulating lines fan out from their point of origin as if from the viewing point of a perspectival construction, producing strange intersections, collisions and incongruities deep in the body of the building.  The access ramp and tilted horizontal soffit of the facade reflect these same visual lines in the vertical plane.  When seen from other points in the building, it is as if Siza had scrambled the rules of perspective and the abstract geometry it was designed to portray, returning us to a more immediate, anarchic register of perception, a mannerist retake on modernism which complements the eccentric Baroque monastery next door."

"Siza's fractured geometry reminds me of a passage in Theodor Adorno's ... Against Epistemology, in which he attacks certain aspects of the scientific spirit which have been well represented in postwar art and architecture, in the cult of formalism: 'But the more hermetically the unconscious of the mathematician seals his propositions against any inkling of involvements, the more perfectly pure forms of thought, from which memory is expunged in abstraction, come to appear as the sole "reality".  Their reification is the equivalent for the fact that they were broken from that objecthood without which the issue of "form" would not even arise.' "


Articles by David Cohn:
“Projects: Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Portugal,” Architectural Record (New York), November 1999, pages 102 - 109.

“Weekends in the Country,” World Architecture 105, April 2002, pages 26 - 33.

“Siza in Granite,” Bauwelt 19, May 13, 1994, pages 1038 - 1045.

Theodor W. Adorno, Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, English edition, The MIT Press, 1983, page 55.

English edition:
Juan Rodríguez and Carlos Seoane, editors
Siza by Siza
Amag Editorial, La Coruña, Spain, 2015

Spanish edition:
Siza x Siza
Fundación Caja de Arquitectos, Barcelona, 2015 


Made For
Juan Rodríguez and Carlos Seoane

The Craft of the Poet
Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Seoane

Álvaro Siza: A Revised Interview
Interview with Eduardo Souto Moura, by Juan Rodriguez in Pamplona, April 24, 2015

The Boa Nova Tea House and Restaurant. 1958-63
The Locus

The Leça Palmeira Swimming Pool Complex. 1959-73

The Malagueira Housing Complex. 1973-77 
Politics and Architecture 

The Flittering Image of Reality
Kenneth Frampton 

The Riches of Restraint
Juhani Pallasmaa 

In the Garden
David Cohn 

Conducted by Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Seoane (Porto) 

FAUP. The Porto Architecture School. 1986-93
The Porto School

The Galicia Museum of Contemporary Art (CGAC). Santiago de Compostela. 1988-93

The Santa Maria Church. Marco de Canaveses. 1990-96
Light and Architecture

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