Álvaro Siza once asserted that “architects don’t invent anything; they transform reality.” The Portuguese architect has struck a steady balance between the opposing pulls of regional tradition and global design currents. Constructed over the course of a 60-year career that continues to expand geographically, his poetic forms are technologically innovative yet restrained responses to the complex interplay of topography, cultural context, and design.
Raised in a small coastal village near Porto, Siza was spurred toward architecture by a childhood visit to Antoni Gaudí’s Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Between 1949 and 1955, he received formal training at the University of Porto School of Architecture, where he studied and later worked under the well-established Portuguese modernist Fernando Távora. Távora instilled in Siza a keen appreciation for the idiosyncratic cultural influences that shaped the region’s vernacular architecture, prompting the young designer to integrate red terracotta roof tiles and other traditional coastal materials with building components that reflected influences from other parts of Europe and the world—concrete, wood, and long expanses of glass, among others.
Siza’s first forays into professional practice took place in his hometown of Matosinhos, where he cultivated a keen sensitivity to how his buildings connect with the landscape. Drawing inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and Alvar Aalto’s holistic approach to design, Siza sought a formal cohesion of interior, exterior, and the surrounding environment. For the seaside Leça Swimming Pools (1966), one of his first projects to gain broad recognition, he methodically embedded concrete barriers in the sand to complement existing rock forms. A series of sunken ramps, open-air corridors, and low-slung eaves create a step-by-step transition from an elevated urban promenade to the jagged shoreline below, incrementally exposing the user to the sounds, scents, and sights of the ocean. Simple geometric forms that yield to the contours of the landscape became a defining feature of Siza’s subsequent work, prompting one of his students to compare his designs to “cats lying in the sunlight”—so at home in their surroundings as to appear natural.
For Siza, the process of developing an architectural idea is rooted as much in pure instinct as it is in intensive studies of place. He produces dozens of hand-drawn sketches for each of his projects, referring to the medium as a direct and irreplaceable instrument of architectural communication. “At some point,” he insists, “there’s a cross between rigor that comes from precise information and the complete freedom of my intuition, they meet.” This methodology is evident in the Banco Pinto & Sotto Mayor (1971–74), in which Siza manipulated natural lighting, curved geometries, and stark materials (mainly marble and glass) to calibrate a fitting relationship between internal offices, a public lobby, and the urban streetscape beyond.
After the Carnation Revolution of 1974, which ended 40 years of fascist rule in Portugal, Siza began to explore new programs and geographies. In one of his most politically engaged endeavors, he helped lead a team of architects in designing low-cost social housing to mitigate the lack of affordable homes in some of Porto’s most densely populated neighborhoods. The SAAL S. Victor Social Housing (1974–77) project was conceived through an extended participatory design process with members of the community, taking cues from both local traditions and modernist design influences, most notably Aalto’s housing complex for the Sunila Sulphate Pulp Mill (1936–38, 1947, 1951–54) in Finland.
Siza’s interest in melding building and site reached its most dramatic expression in the Iberê Camargo Museum (1998–2008) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Nestled into the side of a waterfront escarpment, the museum’s gently curved, concrete facade is accentuated by the protrusion of three angular, enclosed ramps that define an open-air entrance courtyard. The interweaving of internal and external circulatory routes throughout the galleries reflects Siza’s commitment to spatial experience as a driving force in the creation of new forms, as well as his enduring belief that in architecture, “beauty is the peak of functionality.”
Aaron Smithson, 12-Month Intern, Department of Architecture and Design, 2021