goto Appendx main menu Alvaro Siza : Robert Levit
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I would like to start my discussion of the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza's work by first considering some texts frequently cited in discussions of his projects: one by Siza himself, one by his mentor Fernando Tavora, and another, a poem, by Portugal's most celebrated poet from the first half of the twentieth century, Fernando Pessoa. 
    My architecture does not have a pre-established language nor does it establish a language. It is a response to a concrete problem, a situation in transformation in which I participate.... In architecture, we have already passed the phase during which we thought that the unity of language would resolve everything. A pre-established language, pure, beautiful, does not interest me.1  
    Alvaro Siza (1978)
    Those who advocate a return to styles of the past or favor a modern architecture and urbanism for Portugal are on a bad path . . . "style" is not of importance; what counts is the relation between the work and life, style is only the consequence of it.2  
    Fernando Tavora (1962) 
Appendx 3 page break 74 | 75 
 
    Tenho tanto sentimento  
    Tenho tanto sentimento  
    Que e frequente persuadir-me  
    De que sou sentimental,  
    Mas reconheco, ao medir-me,  
    Que tudo isso e pensamento,  
    Que nao senti afinal.  
    Temos, todos que vivemos,  

    Uma vida que e vivida  
    E outra vida que e pensada,  
    E a unica vida que temos  
    E essa que e dividida  
    Entre a verdadeira e a errada.  
    Qual porem e verdadeira  
    E qual errada, ninguem  
    Nos sabera explicar;  
    E Vivemos de maneira  
    Que a vida que a gente tem  
    E a que tem que pensar.  

    I'm so full of feeling  
    I'm so full of feeling  
    I can easily believe  
    I must be sentimental  
    But when I mull this over  
    I see it's all in thought,  
    I felt nothing whatsoever  

    All of us spend  
    One life living it,  
    Another, thinking it.  
    And the only life we have  
    Is split between  
    The true one and the false.  
    But which is true  
    And which is false  
    Nobody can explain.  
    And as we go on living,  
    The life we spend's the one  
    That's doomed to thinking. 3  

    �Fernando Pessoa 

 
 
 
All three texts reveal currents of feeling and thought that are distrustful of language. Pessoa poses his point, in his broad appeal to the reader—"all of us," that is—as a general human condition. He suspects that in all of us thoughts run like a parallel stream beside a "life that is lived." Language has its own independent logic. We tell stories about ourselves, define experiences, judge events, and give voice to our feelings. Yet what we tell ourselves follows on the structure of language as given to us. The murky liquid dynamism of life is poured into the ready mold of language without convincing us that something is not left out in the shape assumed. The events of our life take on the form of known narrative structures. We imagine in the events of our lives the shadow of a bildungsroman, a cinematic melodrama or life as advertised. Ready words name our sentiments and we love, miss, and grow angry—whatever—according to the elaborate histories connected to the words that name these sentiments.Appendx 3 page break 75 | 76 Meaning—even that conveyed by a rudimentary individual word—is divided up in certain arbitrary ways, as a simple attempt at translation from one language to another readily demonstrates. Although inevitably and endlessly falling prey to the preformed patterns of thought, intimations of another life shimmer out of thought's reach on the horizon of consciousness. (Pessoa's trickiness lies in not calling that sense of the incommensurate the glimmerings of a truer life, but pointedly supposes that no such judgment is possible: "But which is true / And which is false / Nobody can explain"). 

Alvaro Siza's and Fernando Tavora's statements suggest that something analogous has occurred in architecture. Tavora rejects what he calls "style," which is really expression that no longer seems properly linked to its content—expression that seems superfluous to meaning, mere flourishes. He instead favors something that will grow out of the relationship between "work and life." Siza, a student of Fernando Tavora and a lifelong friend, echoes the older architect's sentiment: he rejects "pre-established language" and seeks to respond to a "concrete problem, a situation in transformation in which I participate." In architecture they aim for that utopia where form would be neither an arbitrary inheritance nor an arbitrary system of forms, but would grow directly out of our needs, and those needs' interaction with our environments, and most generally (if also most vaguely) out of who we are. 

Yet what does all that mean? It reminds me of an analogous ambition ascribed to the "American action painting" of Pollack, Kline, de Kooning, etc., by their champion and critic, Harold Rosenberg. He said that this painting "at its inception was a method of creation—not a style or look that pictures strove to achieve." 4 The paintings were records of human gesture unmediated by the treacherous pressure of thought and preconceived images. These paintings, like the track left behind a figure skater, recorded life itself unfolding. 
1. Bairro do Alvito (plan and photo)
 
2. Praca do Imperio e Exposicao do Mundo Portugues (photo)
But what could this mean in relationship to architecture, an art that is by its very definition premeditated? First we draw, then someone following what amounts to instructions must build. Architecture is neither a very spontaneous process nor is it very receptive to those patent contrivances that try to transpose "automatic" drawings to the built realm. To understand how these statements, or theoretical ambitions, relate to architecture, and to understand what consequences they finally had on Alvaro Siza's work, we will have to trace two parallel histories. The first relates to the understanding developed by the previous generation of Portuguese architects—among whom Tavora played a significant role—of Portuguese vernacular architecture, Appendx 3 page break 76 | 77 and of the impact it had on their thinking. The other historical thread that needs pursuing relates to the development of the architectural promenade: there the notion of a mobile subject reflected a changed perception of the subject and its relationship to the architectural object. Of particular importance will be the conceptual precedent set by how these changes inscribed themselves in Le Corbusier's work. 

In the Portugal of the 1940s and 1950s, two developments lent depth to the feeling of at least one group of architects that the country's architecture was falling into a set of empty stylistic patterns. The fascist dictatorship of the Estado Novo (as the regime was called) had adopted a narrow range of models by reference to which they were able to promulgate a homogeneous state manner—monumental, even when small; quasi-neoclassical in appearance; modern in functional considerations (figures 1 and 2). Following a familiar fascist pattern, it proffered this architecture as the sole and unique representation of a single and historically homogeneous Portugal. It did not matter that this architecture, drawn from a version of the past adapted to contemporary programmatic demands and the heroic goals of the state's self-representation, looked little like any of the traditional Portuguese architecture from which it purportedly drew its legitimacy. Just as the representation of the state in the guise of a stern father leading a Portuguese nation as if it were an extended family required the expression of real political differences, so too did the architecture mandate an artificial stylistic homogeneity. The state in a sense held language hostage, and lent an exaggerated urgency to the suspicion of language's treachery.5 

3. Vernacular farm building from Tras-os-Montes region of Portugal
The second development came from the increase in private and commercial building in the country. Large numbers of citizens working abroad and returning to Portugal to build homes or businesses—a pattern that persists in Portugal today—had encouraged the construction of buildings in many imported architectural styles. Appendx 3 page break 77 | 78 Their roots within entirely different urban, climatic, technological, material, and social circumstances, and the contrasting uniformity of many towns and countrysides of Portugal, made these new buildings appear quite bizarre. 

Architects, led initially by Keil Amaral and later including Tavora, sought in the traditional vernacular a model of architecture to which they could look as a remedy. They eventually produced a thick survey called Arquitectura Popular em Portugal, in which they documented, region by region, the varieties of vernacular architecture in Portugal. What they sought in the vernacular was a form of building without resort to "style," or what they called "constants," by which we can understand formal norms. Although they chart typologies within the body of the book, in the introduction they deny the importance of type. They are afraid that from types a "Portuguese architecture" might be sought and reified into a code, just as the state had done with its models. They flee from the stifling and betraying codifications that are language. They do say that the buildings reflect, although not in types or specific architectural elements, "something of the character of our people" in terms of a tendency to domesticate and turn "humble" certain traits of the baroque. Exactly what that is, which must be some formal characteristic—simplification of contour, for instance—is purposely left unsaid. Instead they point out the "strict correlation" in those buildings "with geographical factors, as well as economic and social conditions." They are "simply direct expressions, without intrusions nor preoccupations with style to perturb the clear and direct consciousness of these relations."6 Paulo Varela Gomes, in his brief but excellent synopsis of Portuguese architecture, has called the thinking reflected in this book a "metaphysic of the relation between work and life."7 The vernacular is seen as the unmediated and, shall we say, prelinguistic product of life and its conditions. I would again bring to mind Rosenberg's idea of "American action painters" Appendx 3 page break 78 | 79 whose work did not represent the being of the artist so much as it was an unmediated trace, or record of the artist's life in action.8 These buildings are like tools, transparent to their human task (figure 3). They bear the logic that brought them into being: the task to be performed, the hand that will need to grip them, and indirectly that aspect of the society reflected by the very existence of the need to perform that task to which the tool is dedicated. The sign is not yet broken into the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified. 

Whatever degree of truth there may be in the supposition that form has a more natural relationship to "life" in the rural communities and regions from which these architects drew their examples, the central fact of unselfconscious reproduction and incremental modification of traditions is lost and inaccessible to the very self-consciousness that goes in search of it in the vernacular. If the vernacular were merely a model for how to produce buildings in harmony with one's contemporary circumstances, these architects' work might have been more like certain traditional strands of modernism. They, like Hannes Meyer, might have tried to eliminate the question of language by focusing exclusively on modern techniques of construction and solutions to contemporary problems. But there was something in the actual formal character of the vernacular that was appealing to them. 
4. Vernacular farm building from Minho region of Portugal
 
5. Plano Regulador do Porto
The architecture grew in an incremental way and not, as they pointed out, with great concern for formal precepts. Buildings accommodated themselves to the existing conditions of their sites. Buildings attached to walls allowed themselves to be shaped by those walls (figure 4). Both walls and, to a large extent, buildings allowed Appendx 3 page break 79 | 80 themselves to be shaped by the contours of the land. Much of Portugal is hilly or mountainous, and much of the building in towns and countryside exhibits the highly irregular figures that result from this conformity to the landscape. They created an angling, fragmented, mosaic pattern across the countryside. Even in major towns, the streets are rarely straightened, nor is the geometer's mark to be found in the squares. These too still bear the geometry of original terrain-driven figures (figure 5). There is then a general absence of an architecture of a priori geometrical form; building maintains the legibility of the antecedent world into which it is built—that is, the rolling forms of the earth—and its slow, incremental pattern of addition and growth are visible; new building does not raze old building. The vernacular has an archeological effect whereby its own history and natural history are inscribed in its form. In this respect it satisfies some of those objectives sought out by its investigators. When Siza begins to practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of these characteristics will have an effect on the strategies he adopts. How his work diverges from this model, however, will intensely reflect the remoteness of the unselfconscious practices of these rural communities.next page 
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