Álvaro Siza & Vicente Verdú
In Dialogue
Pamplona, España
In the Baluarte Congress Center of Pamplona, the renowned journalist of the newspaper El País, Vicente Verdú, interviews one of the main referents of contemporary architecture: the Portuguese Álvaro Siza.

Álvaro Siza (Matosinhos, 1933) wanted to become a sculptor, but his father thought that wasn’t enough. He became an architect instead, but something good always comes out of something bad, and he soon started receiving prizes and honors. He has picked up the Pritzker (1992), the UIA Gold Medal (2011) and dozens of extraordinary distinctions, and has been invited by the best universities in Mexico, Colombia, Switzerland and the United States. Still, when becoming acquainted with him one might think he has just returned from that fishing town near Porto where he was born, but soon, when talking with him, a plentiful source appears, an ocean of wisdom and cordial intelligence. Getting a taste of Siza means, therefore, enjoying the pleasure of his many exquisite works and also meeting someone with a unique quality. The wise, in sciences or in arts, ennoble us every time we come close to them.

©Miguel Galiano

Vicente Verdú (VV): I have always liked Álvaro Siza’s buildings –, I would like to remember the first time I met him. I had quit smoking, and he chain-smoked, so I told him: “If you stopped smoking, you would breathe better, you wouldn’t get tired so easily but, above all, you would gain lucidity.” To which he answered: “Even more?” I think this defines his work: that lucidity, or that conscience of lucidity in his work. And this is what I would like to ask you about.
Álvaro Siza (AS): Yes, but I am also conscious of my lack of lucidity, and this brings me many problems…
VV: Indeed, but there is that idea of light, the idea of purity, of cleanliness. Your drawings caught my attention, because they are not so clean. I thought that what Siza built was a replica of the drawings he had done previously, and I see this is not so, and that the drawings are much more tangled…
AS: Of course, because when you are designing your mind is also tangled… Everything is blurry at the beginning, and then little by little it becomes clearer: the geometry is more controlled, and so on. Drawing lets me think. Recently I read Pallasmaa referring to the thinking hand. And it is true that I use it to think. Above all, I don’t want to censure what I do, what my mind thinks. But you have to go through it, because if you don’t a lot is lost. One must go through a certain madness, a certain indiscipline. And then, little by little, the form of the spaces becomes subtler and the drawings become clearer. _x005F_x000D_

VV: I know you wanted to be a sculptor, and that your father finally convinced you to study architecture. In a certain way, both things have come together…
AS: When I just got into the school architecture, there was also painting and sculpture. I got into arguments with my father and wanted to switch careers, but then, when I actually started, it was a very stimulating moment: the School had a new director, a new team of young people, and all of this coincidentally at time when the Regime was opening up. I was enthusiastic. I also devoted some time to painting. Later I married an exceptional painter and, when I looked at her drawings I thought “what’s the point of my painting?”
VV: It happens with painters, who have their own way of painting, and it becomes an identifiable brand. The same thing happens to you: you give your architecture a personal stamp. But sometimes the author needs to do something different, driven by a need for expressive freedom. Have you felt that temptation?
AS: Of suddenly changing? Yes, but I must say that it didn’t come from outside, but from the work circumstances. Usually the work itself makes me want to change. Some time ago I was commissioned to build a house somewhere where there were only three or four ugly houses. A flat site; an area with no history, no geography… The client, who was very nice and open, asked for a solution, but didn’t want anything in particular. Everything was very neutral, and I didn’t know what to do. Then, when I began, I coincidentally visited a work in Vienna by Adolf Loos, whom I wasn’t too interested in I must say. I looked at the photos: a window here, a window there, and thought: “What’s with this confusion?” But I went into his Müller House, and there I realized that the windows were all in place. It wasn’t modulation, proportion, nothing. I saw that the rigor in how these windows were arranged and the secret to their overall unity was that they were born from the interior. And they were born as a complement of an overall project, and therefore, though at the beginning one might not understand it, there was magnetism: it was totally authentic, there were no tricks. It was sublime. When I returned to Porto, I further developed the theme of the windows, and it was Frampton who identified the direct influence. The place is very important, the context. But in many cases it is necessary to go beyond in order to find new things. _x005F_x000D_

©Miguel Galiano

VV: But in the pavilion you did in Lisbon, for the International Exposition, you designed a canopy that wasn’t Siza-like.
AS: It’s true that it didn’t look it. And I like that. When I designed the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London with Souto de Moura, a friend of Eduardo told him “this project doesn’t look yours,” and another friend said the same to me. And this happens because the theme is different, and there is something non-recognizable that comes from the different work circumstances, from open stimuli. In the case of the Lisbon project they were asking for something the use of which was unknown (even today I don’t know what it’s for). They wanted a large space to welcome people. I started out with a large slab with columns, many columns, as Niemeyer would do. I sized up a series of options that were nonsense and, then, one day a very good engineer came along, and he didn’t want columns: he wanted to build a large dome. But that didn’t work, it didn’t offer shelter because it was very tall. The curve of the dome had to be upside down. And I thought: “Is this feasible?” Then I thought about a solution using a plastic sheet, though I wanted something hard and heavy. Finally, the engineer tendered a simple solution: braces wrapped in 20 centimeters of concrete and then a series of tubes. Everything was quite prosaic actually.
VV: I had the feeling that it was rather a display of an acrobatic move, and thought that wasn’t something you would do…
AS: There is a fun anecdote. At the pavilion I drew some furniture pieces, and the woman who directed the Expo told me: “Siza, be careful because Coll has to sit on that chair, and he has a very big b…” And then I drew a big chair. But later there was a ceremony and Sampaio?, who was small, sat on it, so his feet were dangling…

©Miguel Galiano
©Miguel Galiano

VV: It draws my attention that you have taught at different schools: what’s the essence of your teaching? What do you teach with greater enthusiasm?
AS: What interests me the most is what I learned with my master during my first experience at the School: understanding what lies behind the goals, the creation, the intelligence of each student. Now that classes are larger (back then we were fifteen or so, and the professor could talk with each student), it is quite easy to ruin a student’s work. It is a way of annulling his qualities, and not understand his skills. And that’s when I remember when I was a student, when I wanted to become a sculptor and didn’t care for architecture, and when I received the first critique from a teacher (from the director in fact, an extremely intelligent person). He looked at my work, smoked, thought… and then started. And what a way of starting… He said to me: “You can tell perfectly well that you haven’t seen any architecture at all, so I suggest you go to a bookstore and buy some magazines.” So I went and bought four issues of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, which is what we had back then: an issue on Gropius, another on Aalto, another on Neutra and another on hospitals, that I didn’t even read. But Aalto was a shock, Aalto above all. Instead of making me feel I was a disgrace, my teacher let me think that, with more information in my hands, I could change the results. And that’s a good thing. _x005F_x000D_ I would say young architects to fight while energy lasts, and to not accept those negative trends. We are in time. We have to fight in a more constant manner, with long-term objectives. But the essential conquest is the pleasure that practicing architecture gives… If we don’t get there, the profession is unbearable. _x005F_x000D_

©Miguel Galiano

Siza’s last phrases could sound like a doctrinal claim, a rousing speech, but he himself is the best example of why we should listen to his words. The determination, focus on work and pursuit of style have turned Álvaro Siza not only into a professional role model but also into an ethical symbol. And surely it is no coincidence that the purity of his work, white and tuned, matches that rectitude of the firmly asserted spirit. Loving the profession, striving for the well-made work, being attentive to the finishes, taking the measure of a building from the high structure to the details or conquering an idea and a social conscience are the greatest treasure of an artist, and also his personal fortress. The fame of this Portuguese giant isn’t, after all, just the result of his skill and inventiveness, but rather of a professional ethic that in its human condition integrates everything.

©Miguel Galiano

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