Since its completion in 1966 the Leça Swimming Pool complex, by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, has been an internationally recognized building. Still almost half a century later, it has gracefully retained its architectural integrity and remained a popular retreat. The Leça Swimming Pools has established itself as one of Siza’s greatest early works, and as an example of his careful reconciliation between nature and his design.
The Leça Swimming Pools were one of Alvaro Siza’s first solo projects. After graduating from the University of Porto in 1955, he worked briefly with architect Fernando Tavora before setting up a studio as an independent architect. He is still practicing and has received various awards and accolades for his work, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1992.
The Leça de Palmeira beaches are on the northern coastline of Matosinhos, a small town to the north of Porto, as well as Siza’s birthplace. It is also the site of another early work of Siza’s, the Boa Nova Tea House. Both the Leça Swimming Pools and the Boa Nova Tea House were constructed and completed around the same time in the mid 1960s. They both use concrete and have a similar respect for the natural rocky coastline near Siza’s home.
The Leça Swimming Pool complex consists of changing rooms, a café and two swimming pools, one for adults and one for children. It is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the access road that follows the coastline, but positioned almost completely out of sight. By sinking the building behind the road Siza promotes a disconnect between his pools and the infrastructure of the city. He is also considerate of the ocean views from the roadway. Siza was careful to preserve a large portion of the existing rock formations when planning his modern interventions into the landscape. The pools he created reach out into the ocean and blend easily with the natural pool formations along the coast of the Atlantic.
Visitors to the Leça Swimming Pools enter down a smooth concrete ramp parallel to the road. As they walk towards the corridors to shower stalls and changing rooms, the rough concrete walls begin to obscure the views of both the traffic behind and the ocean ahead. With no views, the ocean beyond becomes audible and the transition between roadway and ocean is captured in an sensory experience within the building.
Visitors exit the changing rooms onto a series of platforms. Looking back, a previously unseen view of the building emerges now below the street level. The straight walls hold their own against the surrounding stone and the building acts as an attractive barrier from the road above. The color of the concrete walls is a shade lighter than that of the natural stone, and this view of the juxtaposed materials demonstrates Siza’s appreciation of the natural setting with his restraint to avoid imitation.
Turned back towards the ocean, water again becomes the dominant view and the swimming pools are able to nestle themselves between the vast open ocean and the pool complex. The children’s pool is bound on one edge by a curving concrete wall, a bridge and large rocks on another. It is located further inland whereas the adult swimming pool seems to be set inside the Atlantic Ocean. The adult swimming pool is made with low concrete walls and natural rock formations are spread along its edges. From almost every angle the water levels of both the pool and the adjacent ocean appear to be equal, visually connecting Siza’s pool with the vast Atlantic Ocean.
This intentional blurring of the ocean’s edge not only enhances the swimmer’s feelings of the expanse, but also blurs their understanding of this man made limit. In the Leça Swimming Pools, Siza demonstrates a connection with the natural while maintaining its individuality as a modern construction. The pools have been recognized as an important moment in architecture because of Siza’s incredible tact in reconciling his own design with the principles of the changing ocean tide.