fala meets siza

álvaro siza interviewed by fala

daidalos, 2022

fala: Are you a post-modern architect?

álvaro siza: The answer to that question is that we are all post-modern, not just architects. Post-modernism came to architecture via literature. Architects are always a bit late when it comes to these matters, but they do get there. Then a notion of post-modernity was transferred, which is normal in a period of history. Now... I don’t know what name they will give to the next current. Post-post-modern? And after that, post-post-post-modern? I’ve no idea. We are all post-modern. That doesn’t mean that we use pediments, Doric columns, and the color lilac in our buildings. An idea of a certain period, of the passing of a period of time, of innovation, etc. was captured... and transformed into a kind of style. But that is now finished.

fala: Did you contribute to that discussion?

siza: That is a recurrent point of confusion. I do not refer to myself, but to great architects. I remember that many spoke of Rossi as a post-modern architect, Stirling as a post-modern architect. At the same time, they spoke of some unfortunate who designed pediments and columns, and he too was called post-modern. The former really were post-modern, in a conscious way, one that examined the question; the latter was not. To classify “this” or “that” as post-modern goes too far.

fala: What kind of relationship did you have with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown?

siza: At the time, I was very interested in the book (Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture), and it influenced me a lot. It's very well written, and comments on a lot of very important buildings, including some by Alvar Aalto. Beyond that, it raises the issue of “learning from the people”. There are some magnificent pieces in their body of design work, such as the mother’s house and the firefighter building; then there are other things I’m not so interested in. But, on the whole, I was very much interested in the book’s subject matter. I got to know the book when Spanish architects went to America and brought me back a copy. Later I met Venturi at a Biennale, at a debate, and during the break they introduced me to Denise Scott Brown, and I unfortunately told her I had just finished reading Venturi’s book and was deeply interested in it. To which she replied, with a withering look in her eyes, “Venturi and Scott Brown’s book”. (laughs)

fala: When that discussion was very much en vogue, you designed, in Bonjour Tristesse, that corner pillar that almost doesn’t touch the ground.

siza: Doesn’t touch the ground? Now it does because they connected it to the ground. That was just one of the aggressions carried out, not to architecture or the architect, but to the spirit of the times. The first was to write Bonjour Tristesse with all/the “s” the wrong way round, which gave the idea that the people were not able to write correctly. The second was the pillar (he draws a corner perspective of the building). I needed something hard to offset the building’s gentle curvature, so I added a peak to the loggia and the pillar came down to the ground, initially. Then the Berlin city government did not approve that solution based on the argument that the sanitation pipes went through there; it clearly was not a problem, as there was enough room below the ground, but they did not accept the idea. So, just to have some fun, I said: “Ok, if the pillar is not necessary, then it will not go down to the ground”. And even though they did not like it, they allowed it. 

fala: What was the reception like for the pillar at the time?

siza: I received a disapproval.

fala: But that was for the one that touched the ground. This one was approved.

siza: No, there was no reaction at all, but I had my fun! Afterwards, just to complete the provocation, they placed a sign there that said “this pillar is not structural” in German. (laughs) 

fala: Do you like to return to buildings you designed years later? 

siza: Generally speaking, I don’t. Because, in most cases, they have become very perverted. There are some where I would like to go back but I don’t because they were never built, which is the reality for most of an architectural firm’s output. One example is the international competition for the Alhambra. Another is when I designed the Faculty of Letters Library in Salamanca, right bang in the center of the university... and it wasn’t built. I remember the Prado Walk (Paseo del Prado), of which only a third was built – because then the mayor changed. And so on. I even forget some, kind of a self-defense mechanism. 

fala: Is there any work with which, looking back, you don’t identify. Or where you feel that, for whatever reason, it’s not what it could have been?

siza: That it’s not what it could have been... that would be all of them. You see, a design has to be finished... a construction has to be finished. When we finish a design, we feel that it could be massively improved, but we quickly understand that even if we had 90 years to come up with a design, it would still be unfinished. But it’s obvious that the more time you have the better the design is.

fala: Any of your designs you are not proud of?

siza: I don’t look at them that way. I look at them as moments in an investigation that began some 60 years ago. I don’t classify them using some abstract quality order; they are all part of an investigation. Obviously, some later designs will not feature the errors of youth because then you are more experienced, but perhaps they also don’t have the newness of the works from your youth. So, there is a balance. Experience is very important, but it isn’t everything and can even be a terrible hindrance.

fala: How do you begin a design?

siza: Frequently, a first idea emerges and then I distance myself from it. It’s important for me to begin right away, not to get lost in studying the problem or the place too deeply. Atmosphere is important, but I cannot begin in an analytical and informative way, otherwise, a lot of the capacities needed for an artistic activity will be smothered. The opposite would be there being so much information that it’s impossible not to articulate the whole in a satisfactory manner. For me, information must be a part of the evolution of a design, gradually included like the design idea itself, which also emerges gradually, through breakthroughs and setbacks, until the final space is found.

fala: What are you looking at presently?

siza: I’m looking at the agony that is architecture. The work conditions are awful, aren’t they? In Portugal, and not just in Portugal, it’s even worse in some other countries... Orientations are taken literally. It’s all about “giving the work to whomever will do the cheapest design project”. Work conditions are terrible; copyright no longer exists. Construction costs are rising. The cost of living in general is rising. The cost of having an architect is on the way down. One interpretation of what architecture is, a recently invented one, in my view, but one that is very much current, is architecture as luxury. That is the current scenario. For many years, maybe 15, and for me that’s not a long time, I worked in China and Korea. They were marvelous years because I received invitations, not to competitions but invitations from clients/persons who really wanted quality. So, I have a lot of works that were well built there. That is because I was also supported by the developer, who is, as I like to say, the first architect because if the developer does not want quality... then it’s not going to happen. We are obviously experiencing a major presence in terms of cultural activities, also in relation to architecture, but, in essence, that presence is marginal. There are a lot of conferences and interviews, a lot of activity, but these don’t impact on the exercise of the profession as such.

fala: Why do these conferences, publications and interviews not have an impact?

siza: They do have an impact, but not on the current professional practice. But for those who take part in (or read) them, they are interesting. A portrait of the architect has been painted as someone who fulfils the caprices of rich people. A characteristic of the Modern Movement is a concern with satisfying the greatest number. So, architecture ends up being the negation of the history of modern architecture, which is based on programs of a social nature. In the world out there, a monstruous distortion is exacting revenge.

fala: You have done museums, housing, and furniture. You recently completed a skyscraper in New York. What haven't you done yet?

siza: For a certain amount of time, I was only called upon to do social housing. This was all good because, thanks to the fact that I did social housing in Portugal, I was out of work. Then came the calls from Germany and Holland. Which was important and very interesting for me, as I was able to visit the respective cities at my leisure. There was a moment when I was worried I was only getting called upon to do social housing. Not that I didn’t like it, but in the training of an architect, which is something that is never complete, it’s very important to have experience in a range of construction types; in one and the same city these may be very similar to each other, and not having certain experience and transversal investigation to look back on gives rise to a certain imbalance. At the moment my worry is different...  I don’t want to do museums only. I have done five already in Asia... It’s necessary and always good to speak of widening your experience but there is no program where I would have to say, “I regret not having done it”. All work is of interest.

fala: “...and the architecture is in the place”? 

siza: Some contexts can present extra problems, but they can also be extra stimulating. Contact with people can also mean contact with people from other areas; it’s fundamental, opens the mind and avoids narrow regionalism. By this I do not mean Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism”, which is criticized by a lot of people – wrongly, in my view, because they forget the “critical” part and the trajectory that already existed. Frampton encouraged precisely that opening to contacts and interexchange.

fala: What is the position of the architect as an auteur in this relationship with the place?

siza: The position is walking in it. But now, where I can no longer travel like I used to, I seek out the necessary documentation and dialogue. When I had a job in a place I had never been before, Berlin for example, for the first few days I didn’t have a program, I visited the museums. There is a special atmosphere to be found in every city. You have to capture it. It’s not just forms or styles... it’s something that lies beneath. I remember the first thing my father did when we arrived in a new city was to go to a market; he used to say that at a market one could take in the whole city: its ambience, its people, etc. That aspect of the atmosphere, human and physical, you are going to work on is fundamentally important.

fala: How do you see the representation of your work beyond the buildings? The photographic registration, drawings, writing, criticism, etc...?

siza: I don’t feel any responsibility because, essentially, they ask me to publish, and I fulfil their wish. It’s useful for me because I’m always comparing what I’m doing now to what I once did. Publishing things can be useful in not letting you forget. Sometimes published things can provide support when you least expect it! There are times in a design process when you are blocked and a memory of some experience or other of yours comes to you and converges to resolve the problem at hand. This is also an essential part of the training of architects, like when I began my studies. This has remained essentially true, but now there is a total information overload!  But I also see problems with this bombardment because it can be difficult to digest it all without losing your global vision and capacity for comparison. Everything is much more upfront now.

fala: Do you sense that the relationship with the “reference” and “what comes from outside” still has the same importance?

siza: Fundamentally, yes! I was lucky because when I went to the School of Fine Arts in 1949, a little after the end of the war, there was relative openness... I say relative because the dictatorial regime was to continue for some more years. Nevertheless, there were the first international contacts. First of all, there was a professor who was a member of CIAM; and then the school began organizing trips. The first at the time was to Paris, (where else?), and then to Finland, Sweden, Italy... The school was small, but we received magazines. One that was never missing was L'Architecture Aujourd’hui. And then others began to appear: English, French, Italian, Japanese...

fala: Today, unlike back then, access to references – be it via the internet, magazines, or conferences – is extremely easy.

siza: Of course, information is getting better. By that I mean when it comes to observing other countries and cultures, there is a very important stimulus today. In the past in Portugal this was also the case, with journeys to India, China, and Japan. The impact that the encounter with other cultures had on the architecture of the day is obvious. Magazines are an influence that have a major impact, but travel and direct observation are essential. It’s really all about the connections between things.

fala: The architect Siza is frequently referred to in a logic of continuity. Has there been any rupture?

siza: Continuity consists of ruptures, without a doubt. Otherwise, everything would be boring, and nothing would ever change. One thing is a “rupture” in the sense of breaking with the past... One only needs to think of the CIAM, the heroic years of the Modern Movement. At that time, everything that was history counted for very little because the end of the 2nd World War was still fresh, coming out of that major trauma. There was the modern man, the new man of the New City, everything was new! The Bauhaus movement had no discipline historically, but the CIAM changed that idea through their evolution, not by chance, and the theme of one of the last congresses was the “historic center”. So, one quickly understands that that break was not a break but a phase, one that was probably necessary, based on purification and enthusiasm. It was a rupture and simultaneously a re-establishment of continuity.

fala: Is the architect politically responsible?

siza: We are all politically active in some way. For some, it’s very intense and takes place at fixed hours and in a fixed place; for others this is not the case. Architecture depends a lot on the given political situation. For example, during the Portuguese dictatorial regime a national architectural style was imposed, even though it had never existed in Portugal, because Portugal may be small but is open to a huge multiplicity of influences. There are geographic and historic differences in Portugal. If you fly over Portugal (he draws a map of the country and marks the different areas as he speaks), from north to south, from here down to the River Tagus there are mountains, not very high, up-and-down terrain and the material is granite; when one crosses the Tagus, the landscape changes completely, so much so that it impresses. Here (points to the south of Portugal) there is marble and limestone. Then there are major differences between the coastal region and the interior; we have never managed to end the isolation of the interior and I think we never will. There are major differences and the architecture, through history, reflects that.

fala: Is that a result of being Portuguese?

siza: It’s very much a Portuguese problem. Spain has the high-speed train. Portugal does not. There are major differences in the territory, historically and politically.

fala: Is making architecture today different to making architecture 30 years ago?

siza: That is a complicated question. For sure, a central concern of the Modern Movement, that of architecture for all, was revisited during a certain period; such as in the period after the Portuguese revolution of 1974. But in architecture as it presents itself currently, I see constraints that originate elsewhere. In historical terms, it was as it was. And today it’s as it’s. There is a continuity that is tragic, and things are slowly returning to the way they were... They are different, but they are returning. Something new has developed, the barrage of regulations and mandatory things. It’s not easy to live through regulations... there must be a green sign indicating the way out; a blue one indicating the toilets; the fireman’s red hose; a ceiling with a multitude of lamps and spots; anti-smoke mechanisms... So much so that it becomes difficult to have an ambience, a space, you would want to be in. I think there are many interests at the root of all this and that each of these signs costs money, doesn’t it? I think people come up with a new regulation every day.

fala: You regularly use the color white. But what kind of white is it?

siza: It’s not pure white, because a brilliant white is a little uncomfortable. Besides, I have designed buildings in all colors. The São Vitor neighborhood is green! I have also used red in another design. Normally the color has to do with the material: if brick, then red; if plaster, white is the norm. I suppose the origins of all this are in Malagueira, Évora. The city of Évora is all white, due to the climate; white protects from the sun. Using different colors in Malagueira is like putting a red button here (points at his white shirt buttons): it makes no sense. Obviously, in the south almost everything is white; so, only if you wanted to really stand out would you opt for a different color. There would have to be reasons for that; but, then again, a reason would be necessary.

fala: Why was the São Vitor neighborhood painted that shade of green?

siza: It has to do with Porto, the Porto of traditions. It’s not a strong green color but a pale green that is, or was, common in Porto. Just as ochre is or was common, pink not so much. And white was less common... white is not a color that is used much in Porto; it all has to do with the cityscape because the center of Porto, historic Porto, is a whole, i.e., one agglomerated area, and granite is in itself dark, very dark.

fala: There is a phase in your career with a certain predominance of more abstract buildings, in volumic terms, that were frequently almost totally white.

siza: I think not. I don’t do all white, but I do a lot of white. But I should say the issue of color has become a very difficult one: I used to adjust the paint color, but now everything has to be done by catalogue. So we go to the catalogue, pick a color and order using the corresponding number. When it arrives at the work, sometimes the shade is completely different, even though the correct number was ordered. They no longer go to the trouble of doing paint mixtures, which has become a problem.

siza: Today I received a magazine(he gets up to look for the advanced copy of the latest issue of El Croquis; he opens the magazine and begins to leaf through it, pointing to different designs).White concrete, not really white, but concrete. White concrete. White. Red. Brick. White concrete. Red. Black, this one is in China. White, Serralves. Ochre, this is that Italian stone, travertine, and for this reason it’s a light yellow color. This is in aluminum, so it changes: as the patina grows it becomes black, but in the sunshine, it shines like silver, it changes color.(He continues to leaf through the magazine).Grey stone, this one is in Zagreb. White. White. It’s true that today you’ll find more things in white than anything other color, but not just white. Red. White. Red... there is a funny story. It takes place in Bouça, in a social housing project. When I was presenting the design project to the population, I drew attention to the red shade on the uppermost floor. It was a strong shade of red and I explained it was an homage to Bruno Taut. In Berlin, I visited Bruno Taut a lot because he was a great architect who had worked for housing cooperatives and had used that shade a lot. When the project in Bouça was suspended, the Council engineers tried to convince the residents to leave because it was a poor area and they said: “Just look at that color, look at it!” And one of the residents responded: “No, no, you’re wrong! It’s an homage to Bruno Taut!”(laughs)The engineers didn’t know who Bruno Taut was, did they?