Lynch Architects

'Siza 3' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

30 Oct 2008

Even though this is almost the end of my year’s tenure as a columnist at the AJ I’m going to break my habit of never writing more than twice about the same architect, because I have more to say about Alvaro Siza. His charismatic houses teach us that character in architecture is paramount. The mysterious yellow house that he built for his brother Antonio Carlos groups a series of enfilade rooms around a wedge shaped courtyard. Each room is evolved such that the various forms appear like features in a face. Sat behind a yellow wall trees and bushes spill over like bushy eyebrows, in ragged contrast to the aquiline features of the house. The house is almost a self-portait of the architect, squinting and bearded. Presumably his brother’s family recognise this similarity to themselves? Who knows? Passages divide family members from each other, enabling escape. Steps echo with footsteps, they seem to run through the rooms. Grouped as they are though each room looks onto the shared court. Filled with shadows and plants, it is a melancholic centre, reminding inhabitants of absent loved ones, and I feel, the immanence of the absence of their presence, of the loss that lurks within happiness. The house embodies an extreme psychological acuity and sensitivity to the privacy and longing to leave that is at the heart of a loving family: all families eventually fragment, the centre cannot hold the house seems to be telling us, no matter how much we hide away.

Siza is the complete architect, working at almost every scale from ashtray to city quarter. Character is the primary quality of his spaces, although what he fashions is an ambiguous, even an ambivalent character. He stops just short of caricature. Whilst his work is mimetic, even reminiscent of architecture as an art of memory, it is not an impersonation of tradition. You sense the freedom of someone searching and yearning for solutions to old and new problems. Siza always surprises you but it is also the shock of recognition that reminds me of beautiful music or poetry. He seems to begin with analogues and proceeds to deform them until their essence is disguised but can sensed nonetheless. His work is certainly a challenge as much as an invitation; he awakens possibilities in you. He is almost clairvoyant, sensitive to resonances in places and he makes you too.

Siza refers to a sense of incompletion in his strategy at the new town of Evora, whereby space is left free for future appropriation. This sense of ‘just enough’ is not Alberti’s notion of ‘conchitas’, whereby nothing can be added or taken away from a perfectly proportioned whole, but is not its opposite. Architecture oscillates between an impulse towards the generic and the specific, and Siza’s buildings manage to be both at once. In this they are house-like and city-like, body-like and worldly, and also utopian and ideal. You can perhaps see this ambivalence best in his art galleries, where the art of architecture recovers its maternal instinct for the creation of settings. Other artists are invited and challenged to complete the gallery spaces. The monotony of ‘The White Cube’ tradition is enlivened by rooms arranged around internal streets and gardens, they are open to imagination and mis-use. His art galleries redefine the relationship between artist and curator and re-establish the role of architecture as a prompt to and collaborator with things yet unseen, but perhaps foreknown.