Lynch Architects

'Siza 2' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

23 Oct 2008

Alvaro Siza’s housing is almost uniquely humane amongst modern examples. He always places the territory of inhabitants into vital contact with each other with respect, allowing the inhabitants to feel secure and also encouraged towards sharing with others. Siza’s urban projects heal the rifts made by modernist town planning, without abandoning a modern idiom, appropriating the best lessons of post-modernism. In this he is Stirling’s shadow brother, showing us all in contemporary practice how we can learn from our peers and from our mistakes.


The two swimming pools from his youth will haunt the architectural imagination for centuries, and his charismatic houses teach us that character in architecture is paramount. In the first pool at Matosinhos – the port of Oporto – you approach, through a ruined convent, garden fragments of ancient and new gazebos, a tennis court pavilion and hand ball court by Siza’s master Tavora. Secreted on a wooded hill like a hidden place from a dream, white walls huddle around a deep pool. Clay pan tile roofs slope down towards the courtyard at head height, making the large space oddly intimate and public, as if two scales exist at once, that of the horizontal subject looking and of the walking body emerging from the changing rooms as if shedding a skin. The architecture is palpably figurative, angled like a gesturing figure, caught in the moment of welcoming someone, as if half turning.

Joseph Rykwert reminds us in the conclusion of The Dancing Column (MIT 1996) that the ‘metaphor’ of architecture is ‘a double one; a body is like a building and the building in turn is like the world.’ Siza’s work embodies this double metaphor. If the pool amongst the trees is a village and a cosmic navel to the world, the rock pool a mile up the coast is at once an entire continent and a liquid and concrete carapace for homo-ludens. The sea is held back in the arc of an outstretched arm. It pummels the seawall and exhausts itself in sea spray and brilliant drops of light that vaporise before you. It’s less tectonic than plate tectonic. Concrete is made to do all that it does best. It marches soldiering split timber columns in tight rhythm, their brothers’ imprints left still in the concrete skin. Jutting out it return in tight oblique angles ranging out to gather spaces and territories, embracing them in the crook of an arm. And is steps between rocks making a space beneath the bridge beside the children’s pool, turned in their imaginations I can believe into a table, beneath which the form a den. Cast against rock, concrete walls form dams, where the tectonic form appears as a liquid still, as if the water is damming the earth. Large boulders are placed into the form work, poking out from the curvaceous line of a swimmers crawl, as if stones were human bodies too stuck in a petrified current, like big old men in a flood of time. The rock pool is at once the end of the earth and its transformation into another state, neither water not solid, but something energised and free. Just as swimming for pleasure transforms us briefly from creatures of gravity to buoyancy, you can sense swimming there the freedom of a hand drawing those strokes in the air, transforming space from lack or gap into something palpable. You can breathe it in, the architecture fills you, and will always be there inside of you as a well you can draw from.