Interview with Álvaro Siza: “Beauty Is the Peak of Functionality!”

Throughout the 60-year career of Álvaro Siza, his work has continuously defied categorization--having variously been described as “critical regionalism” and “poetic modernism,” with neither quite capturing the true essence of Siza's intuitive architecture. In this interview, the latest in Vladimir Belogolovsky's “City of Ideas” series, Siza discusses those attempts to categorize his work, his design approach and the role of beauty in his designs.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your student, Eduardo Souto de Moura said, “Siza’s houses are just like cats sleeping in the sun.”

Álvaro Siza: [Laughs.] Yes, he meant that my buildings assume the most natural postures on the site. There is also a reference in that to the human body.

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Leça Swimming Pools. Image © Wikimedia user Christian Gänshirt licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

VB: Do you think it is important or even possible for an architect to explain his or her work and process in a conversation such as we are having now?

AS: I think so. Maybe in the wrong way [Laughs.] I like explaining my work. When I am asked to present a lecture, I always choose to talk about one particular project because I like to explain how ideas come about.

Boa Nova Tea House. Image © Samuel Ludwig

VB: I have seen a number of your projects in Portugal and Spain, and just yesterday, I went to see your Restaurant Boa Nova here in Porto, which is a kind of project that is impossible to understand through photographs. It is not about an image, but something else, which does not translate into pictures. What do you think that is?

AS: Well, that is true for most buildings, not just mine. Photographs can’t convey space.

Boa Nova Tea House. Image © Samuel Ludwig

VB: Except that most buildings look better in photos and with your work, the opposite is true.

AS: There is such a thing as a sensation of understanding and feeling space. I had this realization when I first visited Fallingwater by Wright. First, there is a density of the atmosphere there; then the scale can never be accurately understood. Wright’s house is actually much smaller than what you would expect from just looking at photos. He reduced such dimensions as parapets or ceiling heights.

Portuguese pavilion for Expo 98. Image

VB: I want to talk about your architecture as an approach. Kenneth Frampton said that you are a part of the “Critical regionalist” movement. And by “Critical regionalism” he understands “an approach to architecture that strives to counter the placelessness and lack of identity of the International Style,” and an approach that “also rejects the whimsical individualism and ornamentation of Postmodern architecture.” What do you think about being placed into this category, “Critical regionalism?” Do you agree? Because you also have a very strong individualistic character, so it is a mixture of things.

AS: Yes, I agree with being categorized as such. When critics talk about critical regionalism the word that is overlooked is critical. What Frampton meant, I think, was not that architecture should go in the direction of closing its global discourse, but that such discourse should encourage continuity of local cultural traditions, as opposed to celebrating the International Style, which was becoming placeless.

The Building on the Water / Álvaro Siza + Carlos Castanheira. Image

VB: And so you see your work as a continuation of the local traditions.

AS: Yes. But don’t forget that all traditions either change and transform or they die.

VB: You said, “Tradition is important when it contains moments of change.”

AS: Yes, tradition does not mean closure, immobility. Quite the opposite, the value of traditions is in being open to innovations. Tradition is not the opposite of innovation, it is complementary.Tradition comes from successive interchanges. Isolated cultures that try to preserve their traditions without being open to new ideas collapse. Every traditional culture is influenced by outside cultures. When I was growing up there were very few centers of global culture – Paris, London, New York, and the rest was a periphery. Portugal was in the periphery and it was closed until the 1974 revolution, after which the country was rediscovered. Frampton was one of the first critics who came here and he traveled to other parts of Europe, including Spain, Greece, and Scandinavian countries. It was the time when architects were interested in rediscovering non-mainstream architecture. In this context, he was perhaps the first critic who insisted on the importance of identity.

Fundação Iberê Camargo. Image

VB: You often say, “Nothing is invented. There is a past for everything.” You are not interested in making something entirely new, right? Your work is based on what was done before. Could you talk about your position?

AS: It is impossible to make something entirely new. Look at the Villa Savoye in Poissy by Le Corbusier. When you see it, the sensation is that it is entirely new. It is clearly new architecture for a new kind of man. But the reality is that nothing is new but modified or transformed. There were horizontal “slit windows” in ancient structures in pre-Columbian America or in Portuguese vernacular; there are pilotis in the old market of Venice; you can even find examples of open plan in ancient structures where there was just a roof and perimeter walls with no interior partitions. The new only comes from new combinations and materials, but nothing is completely new. We, architects are constantly being influenced by what is around us. For example, I remember when my Bonjour Tristesse social housing was being built in Berlin. I was in that neighborhood and I saw a building that I thought was under construction; it had a similar roof profile as mine. So I told my contractor – look I haven’t finished my building yet and it is already being copied. Then the contractor said, “If anyone is copying that’s you because that building is being demolished.” [Laughs.] And the truth is that I probably saw it before I did my design and it influenced me subconsciously.

Wohnhaus Schlesisches Tor (Bonjour Tristesse) / Álvaro Siza Vieira + Peter Brinkert. Image © Wikimedia user Georg Slickers licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

VB: Kenneth Frampton said: “Like Aalto’s, all of Siza’s buildings are delicately laid into the topography of their sites. His approach is patently tactile and tectonic, rather than visual and graphic. Even his smallest buildings are topographically structured.” At the same time you said, "Even before I have complete knowledge, or good knowledge of every single problem, I begin sketching possible solutions with the little information I have. I feel I need to begin immediately with an idea – although then it can be completely changed." Could you talk about your process of drawing and design?

AS: I start drawing from the very beginning. I don’t worry about analyzing the problem, the site conditions, or even the program. Because if I first do all the analysis there would be too much information and little architecture... So first, I sketch, sometimes before I go to the site. This is because I immediately start working and searching for an idea, even if I only have a photo of the place. And most of the time the first sketches are good for nothing. But I use them to construct an idea that comes out of many sketches. Gradually, with more information, a real thing emerges. I always work with collaborators who feed me with information. I work with models directly and at some point, there's a cross between rigor that comes from precise information and complete freedom of my intuition, they meet.

Taifong Golf Club. Image

VB: You said that a drawing establishes a dialogue with the mind. You called a drawing hand not just thinking but provocative.

AS: It often happens that in the very beginning of a project it is not clear how to develop it. In those moments, I try to distract myself. I take a break, do many sketches and drawings, and suddenly a spark comes. So there is a relationship between the hand and the mind. One complements the other. Aalto too spoke of this.

The Building on the Water / Álvaro Siza + Carlos Castanheira. Image

VB: Your work is very intuitive. You said, “I don’t work within any theoretical framework nor do I offer a key as to how you should understand my work.” Your work is intuitive but also very particular and you have a very controlled repertoire. For example, most of your buildings are white, some have red brick. They are solid-looking, faceted or with curved profiles and convex and concave facades. Do you intentionally discipline yourself or is it about developing your particular and recognizable language?

AS: I don’t think I have a unified language. I worked in Portugal and Spain, in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, China... These are very different circumstances. Building techniques are different. Materials are different. Climatic conditions are different. Histories and cultures are different. The atmospheres are different. My decisions are based on what I observe and absorb. When I worked on the art museum in Santiago de Compostela, I did not want to use local granite (gris); I wanted to use white material in the interior. I chose Greek marble because at the time it was cheaper. I also wanted to use the same marble on the facades but that provoked opposition from the locals. I wanted the museum to be white for two reasons – to distinguish its civic importance and also because in the past, the whole city was painted white. Throughout history, Santiago was white. Only in recent times, stucco was removed to reveal stone and granite. So every building is a response to specific circumstance and I don’t have a strict theory. Of course, I do have a theory, otherwise how could I have a practice? But this theory does not limit my work.

Viana do Castelo Municipal Libary. Image

VB: You once said, “Beauty does not interest me.” Yet, your work is very beautiful. What is the main intention then?

AS: Did I really say that?

VB: Do you think you were misquoted?

AS: I could only say that if I was drunk. [Laughs.] Of course, I am interested in beauty. Beauty is the peak of functionality! If something is beautiful, it is functional. I don’t separate beauty and functionality. Beauty is the key functionality for architects… I wonder how I could say that beauty was not of interest to me... Perhaps someone provoked me by saying that I am an aestheticist. I am not that. But a search for beauty should be the number one preoccupation of any architect.

Gondomar Sports Complex. Image

VB: Nowadays many younger generation architects pride themselves on the fact that they don’t personally initiate projects with a sketch. They developed a team approach with multiple contributions. But I read that you like to design your projects alone sitting in a cafe. What do you think about the collaborative approach to architecture?

AS: This is partially true but it was years ago. I no longer draw in cafes. I used to do that to get out of the ambiance of my studio. This used to happen on daily basis. A coffee house in Porto was an institution. You could see students studying in cafes or meetings would take place there. Now coffee is something that you drink quickly and move on; it is no longer an authentic experience. I even saw a sign at one café that said, “No studying.” But I have another reason for not going to cafes. After certain projects, here in Portugal I became known, so when people see me they come to say hello and when they see that I am drawing they ask if I could draw something for them. So I had to resist. [Laughs.] Now I do sketches in the studio because my collaborators don’t demand sketches from me. [Laughs.]

Mimesis Museum / Alvaro Siza + Castanheira & Bastai Arquitectos Associados + Jun Sung Kim. Image

VB: Nevertheless, you start projects with sketches and for a while, you stay one on one with the project, right?

AS: Yes, but at the same time I involve my team from the very beginning. Engineers, for example, start right away. What I don’t like now is when younger architects start working on projects immediately on the computer. This does not give them a chance to start the project freely with free thinking and freehand drawings. Fresh ideas come from thinking and drawing, not from the computer. Sketching is important for thinking.

Fire Station in Santo Tirso. Image © João Morgado - Architecture Photography

VB: You also said, “I am a functionalist.” Then you added that “the form, spaces, and atmosphere don’t arise from solving functions. Every architect is forced to provide answers to functional problems. But architecture with a capital A begins when a project obtains freedom, free of all constraints, able to take flight and develop in other directions.” What does that mean for you – architecture with a capital A?

AS: Very difficult… Architecture is a service. When a client asks for something architects have an ethical responsibility to deliver a project that responds to a particular set of objectives as rigorously as possible. But we should still remember that architecture should remain free. Architecture should strive to become another thing, not just be a solution for pragmatics. As an architect, I don’t just want to be preoccupied with solving problems. There are other issues at stake. The real issue is to keep a good balance. Functionality should never suffer, but architecture should be much more than that and achieving beauty is the top priority of any architecture.

Amore Pacific Research & Design Center / Alvaro Siza, Carlos Castanheira and Kim Jong Kyu. Image

VB: “Architects do not invent anything, they just transform reality” is one of your favorite expressions. Kenneth Frampton said that this aphorism of yours should be engraved at the entrance of every architecture school. He also said that many of our leading architects can’t accept this idea even as a joke.

AS: Bad for them because this is true. [Laughs.]

VB: There is a very strong belief among leading architects in this notion that “here is my work” and “there is everyone else.”

AS: Well I would agree with that. My architecture is also different. But at the same time I know that I am not an inventor. I am the transformer. That’s all.

Fundação Iberê Camargo. Image

VB: You said, “Rationality is not enough. I want to go around the problem.”

AS: [Laughs.]

VB: I want to finish our conversation with another one of your phrases, “A good architect works slowly.”

AS: Computers made it possible to design and build architecture much quicker. But thinking still takes as much time. Architecture is about a debate and provocation; that can’t happen without thinking. Computers can enhance thinking, but architecture is a slow art.

Ribero-Serralo Sports Complex. Image

VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.

Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.

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Cite: Vladimir Belogolovsky. "Interview with Álvaro Siza: “Beauty Is the Peak of Functionality!”" 11 Jan 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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