'Siza 1' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch
The award of the RIBA Gold Medal to Alvaro Siza is recognition at last that architecture of the highest quality can still be produced for a range of clients and a variety of purposes without prejudicing the quality of thought and imagination and execution. I feel humbled by his example and my heart is gladdened that an architect can still aspire to inspire in people a sense of the absolute relevance of the beautiful today. He is the great artist of our period, but also the best example to us. His essay about the difficult tasks of working with communities and scant resources at Evora ‘in the course of twenty years’ should be read by everyone interested in what architecture can and can’t do. Siza explains how in order to retain the existing character of Evora the town decided that rather than attempting to accommodate people in ‘high buildings’ that ‘threatened the city’s profile’ it was decided to build instead a new town beside the old. In the revolutionary fervour of 1974 a resident’s association and the communist town council approached the architect and so he was simultaneously appointed to design ‘the city’ and ‘the architecture’. ‘The initial premise for the design lay in attempting to delimit the territory with a series of interventions,’ he writes, in an essay published in Complete Works (ed. K Frampron, Phaidon 2000) ‘leaving time and various initiatives to accomplish the task of completing the project, occupying the vacant spaces.’ This strategy began with the assumption that ‘social housing’ was not ‘some kind of specialization’ since ‘housing is a constant presence in a city and it is always social.’
However he had budget only for houses, and yet had to find a way to create an urban scale. The single typology by which ‘the building lies back from the road, each with a patio and a wall which divides it from another house’ would have been pointlessly repetitive if it were not given orientation and a grander scale through the ‘idea of raising the infrastructure networks to the height of the roofs’ so that also ‘a secondary pipe’ perpendicular to the main one establishes a classical town plan. These raised ‘aqueducts’ bundled up all of the services for the town, in such a way that the lack of a budget for urban services were ‘finally approved mainly because lower maintenance costs made the overall intervention more economical.’ In other words, the solution to a technical and economic problem was to establish at once an ordering device that immediately gives both scale and orientation and articulation to the place, invoking the axis mundi of a Roman town. This is one of the best examples I can think of in which an architect has a really good idea that not only solves a multitude of maintenance and thus financial problems, but is such a good idea that technical and pragmatic matters disappear in the face of territorial and representational content. This is what good design can do; it raises mundane matters to a new status. ‘Between the blocks and the aqueduct I set aside some open spaces for commercial activities at a later date’ Siza explains, ‘my morphological concerns with the complex was very real and these places are now beginning to be occupied.’ He finds ‘rationalism’ to be ‘alien’, stating in contrast that it is ‘necessary to study the economic and technical reasons for a context in which one intervenes.’ For example, ‘the patio, which is certainly the result of historical influences, is explained by the need to create a micro-climate between the exterior and the interior, since the materials used did not give adequate protection for the rooms.’ You get the sense here of the humility necessary for the audacity of good architecture.