Interviewed in Porto, July 8th 2006
Alvaro Siza has held an extraordinary place in architecture for several decades. He earned it primarily with his prolific opus, where all the works, from the earliest to the most recent, show that he was never interested in global trends. His architecture is a reflection of the world where he lives, of Porto and Portugal, but also of his complete immersion in his own subjectivity: “When I think about Architecture, I always take my example from writers, and particular from the Poets, the most skilled inventors of register and sound, the inhabitants of solitude.”
When he talks about the significance of truthfulness, it is obvious that he finds his internal world at least as truthful as the external reality. This is why his buildings are so poetic and surprisingly primeval at the same time, self-explanatory in space, but never inconspicuous; restrained and modest in their forms, but also timeless in the richness of offered experiences. His work proves that even in the age of high technology and globalization architecture can remain an art that it is related to space, culture and tradition, and that the task of architects is first and foremost to create an atmosphere, which is, in the words of Fernando Pessoa, “the soul of things”.
ORIS: Let us start with the building we are in – where is your office and the offices of Souto De Moura and Fernando Tàvora. We see this building as a symbol of a very beautiful and unique relationship between architects of three different generations. Fernando Tàvora, who died recently, was your professor, you worked with him and he was also the professor of Souto de Moura who worked with you as a young architect. So you were teachers and collaborators as well as friends. You were all together like a large family. Could you say some words about the importance of Fernando Tàvora for Portuguese architecture and for you personally?
Siza: Fernando Tàvora was important for Portuguese architecture, no doubt about that. Firstly, he was the professor for generations of architects in the school of architecture in Porto. He was also the organizer of the faculty of architecture when it became part of the university. We previously had the Beaux Arts system, where painters, sculptors and architects were together, which was great. But then we had the chance to enter the university, which brought some guarantees and advantages, of course. He was the main organizer of the faculty. Also, he was very young when he began teaching. He knew many international architects, since he was a member of CIAM. He knew that generation that included his good friend Aldo van Eyck, Giancarlo De Carlo, and many others. Tàvora was in the group inside CIAM that went on with criticism of and new ambitions for architecture, and, of course, laid stress on the importance of history and context. He talked about all those contacts at the school. The school was very small, so it was really like a family. That has to do with the context of architecture and architects in Portugal. There were few architects in Portugal. The power in civil engineering belonged to engineers, they could do anything. At that time, architects were not so important; they had less prestige, even if they were great architects. Then everything changed, mainly after the “Carnation” revolution of 1974, when there was a movement towards decentralization in the country. The towns in the interior needed and wanted architects. While I was still a student, being taught by Tàvora, I worked in his practice, where he had invited me. We quickly became friends. We did some work together, like, for example, in Macao. I went on many trips with him, his wife and friends – to Egypt, Greece, South America, Brazil…The relation between teachers and students was very direct, there was this familiar atmosphere. His influence was particularly important to me because from our direct contact and friendship I obtained my first project through him. At the time he was working on the swimming pool in Matosinhos, not the one by the sea but the other one. I was so engaged in the work of his practice that he told me “it’s better that you do it yourself”. I was surprised, but I did it. And concerning the restaurant of Boa Nova, in fact, Tàvora’s firm was competing. He had to make a big trip, visiting schools of architecture in United States, Asia, Japan, so he could not do the competition, but he told me and the other four collaborators: “you do it”. He came back after a year, in time to write the description. It was a very beautiful text and I think our winning the competition owes much to that text, a poetic text about that site, which was related to a poet who used to go there to look at the sea.
When I entered the school, Tàvora together with other architects and many students, did research into vernacular architecture in Portugal. It was published as a very famous book. They used it to show the connection between architecture and social atmosphere. Also, to prove to the government, which was then very conservative, that it was a crazy idea to try to impose a national architecture. They proved that there were so many variations in a country that had had influences from the Arabs, Normans, Romans, Greeks. So, the government had supported that work, thinking probably they would get a national Bible of architecture. They were surprised when it was completely different – there were different regions, different cultures, making a whole, really, but including so many differences, not being a cliché. This was one of the influential things he did.
ORIS: Tàvora was the one who succeeded in integrating traditional architecture with modern schemes. He gave a very nice description of you, saying that you are a builder of gravity. It had a double meaning, as we understood it: one is the serious commitment to our profession and the other is the physical weight of architecture. Looking from distance, we see these characteristics of his and your work as those that characterise contemporary Portuguese architecture. But, on the other hand, you deny the existence of a school of Oporto. Can you explain that?
Siza: Yes, I can. At the time Portuguese architecture was not known at all. The reason was that the government was refusing cultural exchange. Portugal had almost disappeared from the cultural map - a country that has such rich and open history, the first in Europe to go to India, Japan, Brazil, which is the opposite of closedness. This period of fifty years almost erased the general knowledge of this history. Even today, I am surprised by certain things. For instance, there is the exhibition of Brazilian Baroque that does not relate to Portuguese Baroque. Not only were the Portuguese going abroad, but there were also Italian architects working here, as well as many Central European architects. After the revolution, after everybody’s curiosity about what was going on here, in a very special European context, the time of the fighting in Italy, La lotta continua and so on, and big movements in France, it became important to be seen. People discovered, in a way, that there were architects and architecture here. What followed then was a lot of publications, and mythical ideas, especially about the school of Oporto, because of the many works of people who had studied in this school. It became a bit mythical, not really true, so we decided not to accept that mythical idea. What is the school of Oporto? It is a school with professors and students, with different approaches to architecture, different tendencies; it is a milieu for studying and debating architecture. It is the opposite of the idea of a monolithic school with a single style.
ORIS: Now we would like to talk about our impressions and feelings after visiting the Boa Nova Teahouse. The other day, we spent an evening there, which was a terrific experience for all of us. We walked from the Leça da Palmeira pools in the sunset, on the promenade, and it was very windy, the wind was coming in from the ocean. Then we had dinner and enjoyed it very much. Afterwards, you can rationally think of many things there, of the relation between the built and the natural, or about the relation between you and the architecture of Wright, you being a young man then, or about the dynamic of the spaces there, of openings as frames for this tremendous ocean landscape. All our senses were influenced by these spaces; we were deeply touched by it. Your intention was surely to make architecture which goes far beyond the rational, expressing your encounter with the world at that time, as a young man. Still, it was very surprising for us how mature this building is, especially for a young man of 25.
Siza: Of already 25. Well, it brings memories, perhaps nostalgia. I already said that Tàvora convinced us to go on and do it, even though we were only collaborators. He went out into the world and said: “OK, you do it.” Before going on his trip, he went with us to the site. There were four of us collaborators, all young. He went up that small hill and said: “it must be here”. We panicked, because it was a mountain of rocks with a difficult access. So we began to work, visit the site, put up a project. He came for the finish, wrote the text, and we won the competition. It was a municipal competition. Some criticisms came immediately, because the project meant going back to the roots. People said it was a stupid building which had the façade at the back. But we had the support of the municipality, we worked for one year, did the project, and the construction was scheduled to begin. Still, I was not personally happy with the result. Maybe Wright was already on my mind… One day, I concluded that the problem was the concept itself. We had to change it. I went home and considered the thing. Then I made some drawings – not immediately, but step by step. There was the idea of entering into the middle part, looking to the sea, and connecting the restaurant and tea house at the back through the kitchen, serving both. My colleagues were not happy with it because they had been working for more than a year and did not want to waste all that time. So we went to speak with Tàvora. Some said that we would have to do all the drawings again, and he looked and said “no, this is much better”. He convinced the others and we began the new project. During the execution, I stayed with one of them – the others had other work to do – and we developed this. This is the story. I remember making the site designs, step by step, all the rocks, and we made plans, and then we put marks in the ground here, I said “no, this rock will be major, and less here”, it is like going to a tailor for a fitting. At that time, there was no wish to do everything quickly, there was much time to study and then to execute. I am speaking of 1957, it was finished in 1958, I think. The workers were very good at that time. The wood was also very good, African wood. They worked it fantastically. Almost at the same time, there was the investigation into vernacular architecture, which I did not participate in, but I followed it. I began to turn to other things, not exclusively the vernacular. It was a time when much information began arriving in Portugal, starting in the fifties. In the thirties, there had been much contact with Europe, and now we were again receiving more magazines: Architecture d’aujourd’hui, the only one that we received all the time; magazines from Italy and England; information about the big debate and practice in Italy, neo-realism; also, Frank Lloyd Wright, because Bruno Zevi republished again Wright in his magazine. I remember I bought the book of Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and I marveled at it. I also learned about Alvar Aalto, mainly through Italy. Then new ways were opened to our minds and I followed them, explored them. I think the Boa Nova Project is not a sign of maturity, but of big concentration on work, almost one work, in this period so rich in ambitions and meetings.
ORIS: In this project, and in the Ocean Swimming Pool, one can see a kind of a passion for place. Your later projects also have a unique sensitivity for place. What is important about the place of your projects? We are asking this because the contemporary trends in architecture go into the opposite direction: the buildings show less and less respect for their spatial context. Somewhere you said that to begin a design and be obsessed with being original is to be uncultured or shallow. You said it in Immaginario d’evidenza. We are afraid that most of the trendy architecture today is just like that – ignoring the site. How would you comment on this?
Siza: Things are going down, as you described it – place, for instance, used to be a very quiet thing. But now transformations are very quick: the explosion of the towns, the quickness of everything, the rhythm of technological changes, and the ambitions and the wish for difference that comes together with a natural uniformity, because of technology, exchanges and globalization. It is almost natural and I think it will change. At the moment, not looking so much at the context you lose the landscape, its power. Also, there is a line of thinking that says: this is the contemporary situation; to deny or fight it is like being Don Quixote; this is our world now; thinking differently is pure nostalgia. I do not think so at all, I think there is also strong protection for speculation and for destruction, pollution of the atmosphere etc. Then there are other protagonists of a different way, many things are happening, I do not think we are going in a single way.
ORIS: Would you say that we should go for architecture of identity? There is also a strong thinking against the architecture of identity.
Siza: Yes, there is, people consider it a kind of a nostalgic position. I have heard that many times, from critics. Yes, I have to think about that, but it does not convince me, because even when we have much more intense action and relations, that is very good. In history, it always happened. Every civilization wins by having contacts. Imagine the impact in Portugal when it met Indian culture and architecture – a complete change and a kind of enthusiasm. Or look at Japan, what Japanese architecture meant to Frank Lloyd Wright, to the Dutch architects, or what African art meant to Picasso or Japanese etchings for Van Gogh, and so on. The culture in each place can live if there are these inputs, these contacts. If not, it is dead. But it does not mean that everything becomes the same and that historical documents are not important. The history of architecture is much more a history of continuity than of rupture. Episodically, there were ruptures, with good reasons. But if we go a little further, we see continuity. It sometimes even goes backward, which I do not like. But basically, there is continuity, and that is still important. Today there is a very strong tendency to try to create a tabula rasa, which was an experience that was already done and proclaimed in the thirties. At the same time, it is a reality that suddenly, for economic or political reasons, enormous towns are appearing: Shanghai has completely transformed and so many things have been destroyed. This movement is so strong that it brings everything down – like an eruption, a disaster. But in the end it is not a disaster, because it is the ascent of a civilization that appeared to have stopped I do not think that today things can go on quietly and that we can immediately have that peace you described – looking at the sea. This world is in big convulsions. But I refuse to be pessimistic about it.
ORIS: If you got a commission in Shanghai, how would you react? Let us say, a request for a corporate tower, a generic building?
Siza: Firstly, I would think carefully about it. In many cases, for reasons of health, energy (I am 73), I would probably not accept. But if something were intriguing, I would accept. I did a project in South Korea, it was a fantastic experience for various reasons. Firstly, I said I would not go there. I told the client to send me a lot of videos, as well as all information, to make me feel the atmosphere, not only of the buildings, but also of the people, what was going on there. I created the project, the investor came here. We talked about ideas, I saw they were very competent, they did the building very quickly, very well. It is a beautiful site, a hall for the performance of music in a park, for leisure. I am now doing a building for Seoul University. Again, the professors came here, the atmosphere and contacts were very good. In Shanghai, as far as I know, and I know a lot of architects working in China, it is more difficult, not so inviting. They are interested in the image, which can be seen in competitions and even in architectural magazines. In competitions, what usually wins is the image. Those who refuse to present an astonishing image with fantastic virtual effects have no importance for them, no possibility of success. The time for the competition is very short, because it is the time to create an image, not to make a building. It would be difficult in Shanghai.
ORIS: Once you said that architects just transform things. The input of different architects and architecture must be important. If we go back to the swimming pool at the ocean in Leça de Palmeira, what was the input that time? It is a very specific work.
Siza: Yes, it is very different, less dependent on care for details and workmanship, wider in a way. When I made the swimming pool, there were rocks, and the idea of making a swimming pool was already underway. I was asked to do the installations. My intention was to say: do not do a geometric swimming pool, but use the rocks, then we only have to put a wall here and another there. The limit of the pool will be the rocks, they will be reflected here. Then I made the building for cloak-rooms, very low, so that the people here could always see the sea, the beach. I made it rather dark so that we could go down in a ramp, and there is not much light, and then we go outside, and there is a wall, and we turn and – pop! – we are in the open. This was the idea. Developing this idea that came step by step, I remembered there were rocks here, and I made the wall here to protect it from the north. I remember very well that when I did this, it came to my mind what I had seen in the Henry-Russell Hitchcock book, maybe it was the Taliesin project. The development of detailing here: this is only cement and wood, also because the site is very exigent in terms of materials, very hard. On the one side it is protected by the rocks, but on the other it is open. Step by step, I developed this, spaces, defined by nature. When I put something here, it had to be completely autonomous, strictly geometric. But I had to take care where to touch nature, where to touch the rock. The way we went to the swimming pool was helped only in some places by two or three steps to make it more convenient, but the whole of the way was found in the natural rocks. In a way, it is together with the landscape, but it is a whole, absolutely continuous and autonomous.
ORIS: Now you were speaking about an early project. But you said in one of your interviews: “all my works are always with me”. Is it possible to compare your most recent work, the Iberê Camargo Foundation in Porto Alegre, with the Beires house in Povoa de Varzim from 1976? Both have a certain ambiguity: one side is smooth; the other is corrugated, rough. There are some important issues which appear in your work again and again. How would you describe these crucial issues?
Siza: Sometimes people ask me: which is your favourite work? And I say I do not know, because in my mind it is all one work, it is not divided. I am thinking and learning about architecture, it goes on, and it will stop one day. If some things come back – ideas or details or whatever – in a work made much later, it is normal. Today and yesterday, it is in my mind. Which things do I consider more important? It does not depend on my wish, but on the conditions and where we work. For instance, why is the Beires House so full of contrasts? The first reason is very prosaic. Previously, I had made a house surrounding a tree, a patio. This lady, the client, said to me “I want a house like that one, with the patio”. I said, “It is impossible, because this is a small site, I cannot do a patio because I do not have the space for it”. She insisted. But I had to build a rectangle, there was no other possibility with such constraints. Then I said, “Maybe I can break a part of the house’s perimeter and make a suggestion of a patio”. I made it very open to the exterior, very simple and geometric. The lady was satisfied with that, “I have my patio now”. There is also another reason. Previously, I had made a house very near, and some other houses, where I was really able to do a patio. They were very open to the exterior, to the patio, and much more closed to the street. That caused impressions and reactions: “a blind house”, “Why are you closing the house to the street, you have an antisocial mind”. I had to think about it and realized that, building as I was then, there were no other opportunities except these residences in the periphery, in urban areas, where you had a lot of objects, almost all of them horrible. I was putting up a defence against this terrible atmosphere, creating a small paradise inside, but then I thought it was crazy, I was living in the middle of these things, I could not deny it. I would be very melancholic in my paradise. When I did this, I decided I would open it here completely. This is my life, it may be horrible, but this is where I live, I mean, where the lady lives. So much about the connection between the Beires house and the museum in Porto Alegre… I never thought about what you said, but really, in this case there is not a curve, but a modulation. Why? Basically, because I had to build a whole, and I had there a big river, like the sea. The space was reduced, with a big difference in levels. It was wonderfully invaded by the greenery, by plants. I said I did not want to touch that, because it was impossible to remake that beautiful whole. The difficulty in this was that I had to have access to the exhibitions on the hillside, but I could not make the access from the road, so I had to do a movement parallel with the acces. I could not do it another way. When I was designing it and thinking of a big motorcar going there, the curve appeared very strong. Afterwards the ramps came. I made the big interior space. You will say – and it is true – it is like the Guggenheim. But half of the ramp is inside, half is outside, and the rooms are rectangular. In the exterior, you can see the small windows. They are small, but in fact, you see the river and there is an angle where you see the whole town. These arms (ramps) make an exterior whole, so you arrive and you are surrounded by these big structures, then you enter. This did not come as quickly as I am telling you. I remember the first idea I had: to enter by the higher level and then make a small bridge and go back as in some California houses. But they could not buy the ground here; it was a very rich residential area. For this idea, I had in my mind the beautiful lift in Baixa in Lisabon. We always associate things, ideas come step by step; some die and we have other ones. It has to take some time. The problem of architects today is that some people think ideas come just like that. Ideas have very tortuous ways to make a clear road.
ORIS: Let us go back to your idea that architects do not invent anything, they just transform reality.
Siza: Maybe engineers can invent something, but architects do not invent. They always follow what has already been experimented on. We look into new things, but we never make an invention. The first motorcars had the form of the chariot.
ORIS: In fact, all architecture goes through the filter of the personality of the architect. Would you say it is the portrait of the architect?
Siza: It may be a reaction to the portrait he has in each moment. There is the need for us to feel so strongly, to go another way. The experience we have is useful, but it is not the way to a new project, because a new project involves other people, sites, conditions, human atmosphere. It influences us. We have our identity, but we are open in our work to what comes from the outside much more than to what comes from the inside. There is stability, but there is also receptiveness.
ORIS: Yesterday, during our stay in Porto, we visited Bouça, the social housing project you started years ago. Now we can talk about the social role of architecture. We were very impressed by the Évora project, we must say, because there is this continuity with the spontaneous architecture that was already there, a high respect for the way the people built by themselves. What we really admire in your project is the modesty that becomes a virtue of architecture. As you said when you received the Pritzker Prize, you were always a communist architect from Matosinhos.
Siza: But I did not say that.
ORIS: It was written in a magazine. You did not say that? Maybe somebody else described you like that.
Siza: I did not know this had been written. Some time ago I read an interview with Gregotti, published in Casabella, maybe, about Portuguese architecture. They did an interview with me about relations with the Italian architects, because we have been friends for many years. Before the interview was published, they sent it to me for review. I read it and discovered a phrase, not by Gregotti but by the interviewer, saying that I had said I was nothing but a communist architect. I called them and said I did not understand that, I would never say that for different reasons. One reason is that I am not crazy. How could I go to the United States and say that I was a communist? They would immediately turn me out, with no prize, no passport authorization. So I could not have said that. The second thing is that I do not want, by any means, to present the image of a communist fighter because in reality I never had the clandestine fighting life that many have, for instance, my friend, the photographer here was in prison, so it would be an incredible lack not only of respect but also of self-respect to present myself as a communist fighter, regardless of my approach to the political scene. I never was a fighter, I never was in prison, I was doing projects while some others were fighting and suffering. So I said: “Publish the interview, but without that”. Then I went to Gregotti and talked to him, and he said: “I also did not understand how you could say something like that”.
ORIS: The Évora project took about twenty years to finish. Did it change a lot during that time?
Siza: All the houses were made in the first step. Unhappily, the facilities were not made. I mean, there were spaces reserved for facilities like a clinic, a church, a sports hall… Many were never done. The reason is that this was a communist administration and the central government was giving the money, but less to the communist administrations. Later, they lost elections. The new government did not like me, so it stopped. The houses began receiving changes, of course, like things that were absolutely exact and still exist like making the windows in wood. Each election campaign would bring a tremendous attack on this: trying to persuade us to use aluminium and not wood, and so on. Also, there is the normal adaptation of people to the houses – for instance, the patio, where the main idea was to have a pergola, which is also traditional, but some people put in a tree, others put marble in the ground, and some put a cement lion. A lot of things: some put colorus here, and some colours were not so beautiful, but it has rather consolidated even without the facilities. The easy connection with the town makes it, in my opinion, a much consolidated community.
ORIS: There is also the question of participation. You worked with the future users, discussed the project with the inhabitants, and somewhere you said it was a great loss that such participation was forgotten so quickly in our profession. On the other hand, we would say that the dialogue with the clients of single family houses, with bourgeois clients, is a necessity for any architect. Can you comment on this?
Siza: It was after the revolution, in 1974. Such work was not possible before. I had had some experience with making family houses. One of the interesting things about it is that there is usually an interlocutor.So we usually discuss family houses with the owner, the wife, the neighbours… There is a rich atmosphere and motivation to make the project properly. Social housing, before this time, and in a way again, was a very poor thing: you make X houses with three rooms and Y houses with two rooms, you do not know who is going to live there, and so on. That is very poor for architecture, for the discipline. The reason why most social housing is so poor is that there is no dialog, no motivation, and no clear objective. At the time, it was very hard work; the atmosphere in Portugal was full of conflicts. It became uncomfortable for most architects, so we worked more with students in teams. It was very uncomfortable to have three hundred people saying: “You are nothing but a bourgeois architect,” to have to explain and defend your ideas. It was not only hard and uncomfortable, but also badly paid. Social housing is always badly paid. Every country discounts the normal fees 20 to 30 per cent, because it is social housing, while I said it should be 30 per cent more. It was also not fashionable, since an architect working in such a project was considered a bad architect. Not without reason, however, because some horrible things were made in those programs, which were probably excuses for bad architecture. Then I had an experience in Holland, same kind of project, but in a different way, the Dutch way, with more discipline and support. It was a very interesting project. I received the approval for my proposal with the support of the users, because the technician did not want to approve my proposal. It was related to people’s problems then as they explained them. The project was not approved, and then it went to the parliament, where it was approved by the parties of the right. That is the incredible thing – it was not approved by the left. For me, it was a sad thing.
ORIS: Regarding that project in the Hague, the social housing scheme for immigrants, especially in the De Punkt en De Komma building, you overcame the technical problems, the programmatic specifics of the inhabitants. Can you explain the specifics of this project?
Siza: Immigrants made up fifty percent of the population in that area. There were conflicts and problems. Most of the immigrants were Islamic. According to their tradition, they needed privacy in the houses. One of them explained to me, “If I go to my house with friends, I do not want them to see my wife”. Then they did not want what was usual in the social housing there: you open the main door and there is the toilet. The administration wanted to satisfy the immigrants because they would vote the next year. They proposed to make a part of the houses for Islamic families and a part for the others. I said no, it would be a double segregation. We had to find a house that would be good for everybody. There is a corridor with sliding doors where you can separate the social area of the house from the intimate area with a big sliding door. There is an access space, actually a double space, with sliding doors. It appealed to everybody, because the Dutch had a little more space in the house, and the others could organize their life. An easy criticism is to say: it is reactionary, what about the rights of women and social evolution? But I said we could not tell these people to suddenly change. They had centuries of a different culture. It is crazy to say this is reactionary. In two generations, maybe even one, they will change, because they will have another experience of life. But there are many people who do not understand or are not interested in this. I could have done that in another group of houses nearby, but then it was finished. I do not think it would have influence in the future. In the middle of the project, which was very tiring, as I had an office in Amsterdam, the administrator told me they made a small park in the middle of those houses and an underground parking lot. They told me they wanted me to make two houses and a bicycle shop with an access to the garage, which was already built, to create a sign of intervention, a very special building. I was so tired of making apartments that I made a crazy design in one night, but with a reason. There was a discussion I found in Holland, which was very old-fashioned, between white architecture and brick architecture. It was an intense and authentic discussion from the thirties: the moderns were white, while the Amsterdam school was reacting with brick, in the old way. In Germany, too, brick was old and white was explosive, but that was a long time ago. I decided to make one brick house and one white house to prove they can make up a whole.
ORIS: You stressed the importance of reality, of dealing with the real. Somewhere, when talking about teaching, you said that teaching architecture has to be real. We are afraid that this view is in opposition with the star system in architecture. In many cases it is not interested in reality any more.
Siza: Many times it is not. In a way, it gives other instruments that are making contact with reality. In the practice of some important architects I can see what is changing in the contact with reality. There is a measure needed, a difficult equilibrium. Learning architecture is interesting, all things get inside. When they do not come inside the school, at least, for many people, it comes into contact with the reality outside, which can bring different troubles. In the end, however, architectural work is dependent on what is real. Some people begin with virtual drawings, all very beautiful, but then they get a first, second, third job, and you can see how things change.
ORIS: Your church of Santa Maria in Canavezes is very poetic, but you described many details through very real, everyday things, like somebody going out, having a cigarette or looking out through the horizontal window to the city life…
Siza: Those are very important things, yes. There is a specialized idea of religious architecture, but the results are usually bad. A poem does not come because you want to be a poet; it comes because there are conditions for it.
ORIS: In connection with Santa Maria, William Curtis compared Canavezes and a chapel by Le Corbusier- Ronchamp in the sense that both are installing a social meaning through the church, installing a concept that creates a social structure, a social centre, by means of a religious building. It was said that a very important thing is the horizontal incision in the body of the church; it is a very high, wide, spiritual space, but when somebody sits, the horizon is opened through the horizontal strip window so it relieves in a way the people who are inside. But there are other questions about the church: the secret of the high door; the scale, since it is a very high space; the statue of Mary which is on the human level. You also acted as a sculptor and a draftsman; your drawings are on the tiles, which are very characteristic of this church. Would you say that the Canavezes church is a crucial project in your work?
Siza: The project of this church and its construction was a very good experience, very gratifying for me, firstly because the priest was a fantastic person. But he is no longer a priest; he is doing a master’s degree in philosophy, a master’s degree about architecture. He really concentrated much on this project, even more so since there were problems about it being accepted. In the church hierarchy, it was said that I was an atheist. I asked how they knew. I never said I was an atheist. He fought very much for the project to be given to me, even threatened he would leave the parish. Then I was accepted, maybe because the bishop discovered that I had a sister who is a nun. It helped a lot. The priest really founded a community. There was an active community, not only religiously, but culturally organized, with exhibitions, amateur painters, theatre, a real community. He presented me to the theologians of Porto. We had very interesting discussions, because the church was made in a difficult time for architecture, Catholic architecture, after the Second Vatican Council changed things. Many things in the history of religious architecture now serve for nothing. You cannot make a golden, rich, apse when you turn your back to it. That is the interesting thing about church architecture today. The theologians were also very interesting, because in a way they were going on with discussions, they were in disagreement. There were many tensions inside the Catholic Church, because there was a void. The first experiments after the Second Vatican Council were made in the direction of the church as an amphitheatre or a circle, with the idea of democracy and participation. I did not like this orientation in architecture, because something was missing in the atmosphere. I did not feel able to concentrate, religiously or not, on my intimate problems in an amphitheatre, which is a place of debate. I had a Catholic education as a child, I went to church every Sunday and had many memories, childish sensations, like being uncomfortable because the church was very dark, sad and closed; the need to go outside during the priest’s speech and gradually to smoke cigarettes as adults did, but secretively. All these things came back; how mysterious in my mind those church windows were. Because of all these mysteries and passions, it made sense to put the windows very high. For instance, the corridor in the center, which some say is too conservative as one of the theologians explained it to me. I had access to the altar nearby, but he said, “No, we must go by the other side and then through all the people to greet them”. So, there were functional things related to a very old use, culture, debate and so on, which I wanted to include in the thinking about this. The horizontal window… this is on a high place overlooking a wonderful valley. The other idea was the need I had for the freedom to go outside for a moment, to have a view of that. Then a lady said to me, “I cannot concentrate in this church, I like it very much, but that window…” But if you really want to concentrate, you do not look through the window. This is one of the more interesting memories I have of the whole process.
ORIS: It seems you were not that much interested in symbolic elements, but more in things like the ones you described – the light, the water, the sound of water – to create an atmosphere which is more spiritual and poetic. How do you see the relation between the poetic and the symbolic?
Siza: Many suspected I wanted to introduce symbolic things. I think a symbol is not something you create. It is something that is made concrete through life and experience. I had that problem or preoccupation. I remember I asked the priest many questions about symbols. I bought books about symbols. The priest told me, “Do not think about that, it is not important.” He told me that turning the altar to the east was not so important today. Still, I turned it to the east. I knew I had to put some things, like the cross, of course, the Virgin’s image, but the priest told me he did not want many things, only the Virgin and the cross. I tried to find someone to do a cross. I did not want to put the old cross. In the old church, there was not a good old cross. There was a bad one, made in the twenties. Then I saw the work of local sculptors and painters, but I thought that there was a failure in religious art. So I decided to make one myself. My first tries with sketches were a disaster. I understood why they did not do good things. The church was opened with a borrowed cross, because I was not able to make one. The priest said, “OK, take your time, we will put another one in.” Then we had many discussions about the position of the cross, which used to be in the centre, between the two windows. I did not like it, it was too axial. I tried many things for two years. I made a lot of sketches. In the end, it is the golden piece, when you see it you have the feeling of a body there. In Catholicism, the cross usually must have the body. The Protestants do not do that. So I had to find a suggestion of a body, something like that. And a door, a big door. It is also a memory that I had from a visit to the Sanctuary of Monreale by Palermo. I arrived there, the door was open, an enormous door. At the end, you could see Christ Pantocrator in a mosaic. Wonderful, unforgettable. A golden mosaic. That idea of an enormous door… I had to put it there. When the time is right, we open the door and the people come.
ORIS: Can you tell us about the importance of drawings for architects? Our magazine prepared an exhibition of architects’ sketches. Every architect published by our magazine was asked to give a sketch for the exhibition, made by hand and original. We saw that many younger architects do not even take a pencil in their hand; they sent some computer things or declarations. It is losing the importance it still had twenty years ago. And yet, there is this direct transfer from the mind to the hand. You draw all the time, what do you think about it?
Siza: I like it. In fact, I am a frustrated sculptor. I wanted to be a sculptor. I painted before entering the school, I made watercolours… I always draw. It is a pleasure, but also a liberation. As you know, architecture is a very hard job. The most beautiful text I know was written by Aalto, a small text, where he says: “Sometimes I am working on a project and I get blocked. Then I stop and make drawings, paintings, without thinking about the project. Sometimes they produce an idea that makes it possible to go on with the project.” It is that liberating thing: you are obsessed by so many problems – economic, functional etc. – that it is easy to get blocked, so this pleasure-time is very good. Also, it is the quickest way to communicate; when you work with someone and want to show him what you want or even to show yourself in a schematic way, you draw it in seconds. You cannot have such a direct exercise on a computer. As an instrument of architecture, it is irreplaceable. But it can also be a vice. A sketch is just a sketch. Sometimes people want a sketch from me, and I am not able to do it, it is something spontaneous. A painting is another thing, more elaborate. It is very liberating and a very direct form of communication, with yourself and with others.
ORIS: You also make many models.
Siza: To save time. We need to mentally create spaces and walk through them. You can do it without drawing anything; you can build a project mentally. But it takes much more time and it is a terrible effort. If you can make a model where you can enter, this is not as good as going to the building itself when it is being constructed. But if you have a number of projects, you cannot go around so much. In the office, I have models – big or small, depending on the phase – but in the phase of executive drawings, and even before, you have to control more quickly, more rigorously. Virtual images are not the same thing, although they are useful. Now I am making another project in Korea, for a museum.
ORIS: Can you show us?
Siza: No, because it is not being developed in my practice here, but by an ex-collaborator who now has his own practice, we are doing it together. He made an enormous model. You can sit in a moveable chair and enter the building. It is fantastic, you cannot imagine how much time it saves. Before, I used to do many sketches of the interior, lots of sketchbooks. But if you have such a model, you can go inside. Especially if you cannot go to the site, which is in Korea in this case, it is fantastic. But it must be big.
ORIS: The project for the Portuguese Pavilion for Expo in Lisbon you did in 1998. We would relate it with your early projects, also done near the ocean, facing the sea. In this case it is a river, but it is almost like a sea. Seen from the sea your Pavilion seems like an imperial portico. But from the other side it is more like a large window framing the view to the sea, the horizon. It is like Portugal itself, always facing the ocean at the edge of Europe. In a way, we are at the other edge of Europe, at the beginning of the Balkans, also on the periphery. Can you comment on the fact of being on the periphery? Is it a privilege in this age of globalization or does it still have a negative connotation?
Siza: It makes things difficult. Today you have all these means of communication and transport, but it is still not such a comfortable thing as being in Switzerland, in the centre. I read a letter written by Le Corbusier to a friend. He had an exhibition of sculpture in Switzerland, and commented, “Look, my friend, Le Corbusier is in the centre of the world,” he was happy with that. It is not the same to be here, but the sea is a wonderful thing. You cannot have it better than this. Globalization and tourism, it began so attractively, but it turns into disasters. Also, for a small country, there are more obstacles to achieve equilibrium in the territory, because everybody wants to come here, more tourists, a tremendous and destructive concentration. But as for the relations, it is not as it was in the old times, because it is not only Europe, it is the whole world. For instance, I could go to Brazil easier than a Swiss. But now, with the concentration of the airports, I probably have to go to Switzerland to go to Brazil. It is a creative confusion, I hope it is creative. Still, it is difficult to be on the periphery.
ORIS: We had in mind the issue of authenticity, of small scale, which has been lost in the big cities of Europe, which are becoming all alike, very similar. But in this periphery we will still find authentic places, which we see as a privilege. Also, in terms of architecture, we would say that the most interesting projects are not coming from the centre any more, but from the periphery.
Siza: There is a long story behind that. Look at the importance of Alvar Aalto. He had such success in South Europe because of some affinities. In your country, too. There is a very strong appeal to go far, especially if it is a small country. At the same time, there is a way to turn back to the other things going on. The history of Portugal is like that: Spain, the Pyrenees, and the world. It is a funny story – Portugal and Spain. Portuguese independence happened very soon, while the Spanish unification came about only in the 16th century. This, and the geography, means these are two countries. We were discussing recently about Spain probably becoming a federation. I think it will happen, it is not a problem, it is good in our opinion. The Spanish went to America, to the West, and we went to the East.
ORIS: There is also a young generation of architects in Portugal, rather strong. Regarding what you said about the school of Porto, can you say something about that young generation? Are you satisfied with the position of the young generation in Portugal?
Siza: I am not satisfied with not belonging to the young generation. Since the opening of the country, evidently, there were many influences and contacts from the outside, especially today, with all the student exchange programs. There are currently many tendencies and groups; it is the general atmosphere today. There is a search for answers to the actual situation; there are many opportunities for work. Today already, a number of Portuguese architects work abroad, while we had immigrants before, it was the other way round. It was also very good for architecture. We had Italians and Central Europeans here. You have something similar in your country, a concentration of cultures, a strong mix of cultures.
ORIS: Which young architects do you like?
Siza: Many of them, but I do not want to say any names, mainly because I could forget someone. Still, I can tell you the name of a young architect that I appreciate; it is Souto de Moura, a great architect. But he is not the younger generation any more, just younger than me. There are others who are very promising, inside and outside Portugal.