Magazine article Artforum International

Landscape's Architect

Magazine article Artforum International

Landscape's Architect

Article excerpt

Winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1991, sixty-four-year-old Alvaro Siza, Portugal's most renowned contemporary architect, is known for his geometric deformations, his controlled composition of interiors, and his fascination with the everyday architectural forms of the modern urban landscape. If you add to these obsessions a "nostalgia" for the foundations of Modernity (Loos, Taut, Oud), a framework within which to read the work of this marvelously inventive architect begins to suggest itself.

His proposal for a new museum of contemporary art in his hometown of Porto evinces Siza's penchant for asymmetry, his skill in transforming a preexisting structure from the inside and in channeling light to construct a new space. In this unfinished project, to be built on the grounds of the manorial home that is now the Serralves Foundation, Siza will doubtless surprise us again with his ability to suggest permanence while linking disparate architectural periods through minimal, apparently simple means.

Siza's first work, Quatro Casas em Matosinhos (Four houses in Matosinhos, 1954-57), in the north of Portugal, already embodied the stripped-down structures that were to serve as the foundation of his oeuvre. The organicism of these houses echoes the architecture characteristic of the region, while his subtle torsions of the geometry of standard rooms give each interior space a particular definition. On the outside, tall, narrow slits cut into a wall beneath an exterior staircase reveal Siza's predilection for filtering local forms through the language of Modernism. Yet he does not specifically attempt to integrate the traditional and the Modern (these are small urban homes), but, rather, to break with the conformist '50s-style modernism of the buildings that line the street.

Similarly attuned to its environs, Casa Alves Costa (Alves Costa House, 1964-68), in Moledo do Minho, reflects Siza's sensitivity to landscape and the qualities of light in a given region. Featuring intersecting planes, an opening onto a small pine forest, and an almost naked street-side facade, this extremely delicate, albeit complex living space is marked by such carefully thought out, almost imperceptible details as wood-leaf wainscoting painted a very pale yellow, placed precisely at the point where the sun penetrates the interior.

The Pinto & Sotto Mayor Bank in Oliveira de Azemeis (1971-74) is a work whose geometries are even more "abstract" than those of Siza's earlier small-scale projects. Traversing various dimensions of the space, they construct a captivating box in which all the seemingly neutral shapes, painted white, gain expressive power, color, and drama. From the outside, the corner seems huge, despite the delicate scale of the building. The suave horizontality of the window frames, of the blinds, and the horizontal supports converge and summon light, while massive planes climb and delineate the interior space - details that recall early Modernist experiments. But here formal play is uncoupled from the naive utopianism of those times and becomes a knowing articulation of passages and themes that are then given to us in ruptured and discordant form.

In 1977, Siza was asked to leave the verdant hills and stone buildings of northern Portugal for the whitewashed, baked-red-clay landscapes of the south. …

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