Perhaps one of the most admired architects, Álvaro Siza has been inspiring modern design since his humble beginnings, building small home projects in his birth town, Matosinhos in Portugal during the 1950’s. Now, with over half a century of projects in his midst, Siza's range of architectural interests remains especially broad, from residences to churches, schools, shopping centers, libraries, museums, and occasionally furniture.
His design for the The Iberê Camargo Foundation’s, a monumental project, has been heralded as, arguably, his most outstanding work to date.
The Serpentine Gallery Pavillion is also notable - Siza was invited to create a temporary building in 2005 (along with fellow Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura). The lattice-wood structure, with the lower part open and the rest of the pavilion covered with a polycarbonate, allows light to stream in through the pavilion’s grid-work. Light sources centered in each wooden square, run by solar-powered batteries, gave the building a luminous aura at night.
In 1966, Siza joined the faculty at the School of Architecture in Oporto (ESBAP), and in 1976 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Construction. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, he continued to design private houses
as well as commercial buildings near Oporto, Portugal.
His hatred of extended travel has been cited for his lack of works outside of Europe, however, Alvaro states that his expressions of design are rooted in deeply felt beliefs about architecture’s cultural role. Subsequently, his designs are striking for a rare spirit of introspection, yet somehow traditional to his regional identity.
Among Mr. Siza’s earliest works was a mesmerizing public pool complex he created in the 1960’s for Leca da Palmeira, a fishing town and summer resort north of Porto. Built on a rocky site on the edge of the Atlantic, the project is hidden below an existing seawall, and is virtually invisible from the city’s peaceful seaside promenade.
To reach it you descend a narrow stairway and then pass through a series of open-air changing rooms with concrete walls before emerging on the shore.
The pools themselves are simply low, gently curved concrete barriers between the rocks, their languid forms trapping the seawater as it laps over them to create big natural swimming areas.
Simplism. This is the trademark of Siza who has been viewed a Minimalist Architect, though it is widely known that he is in fact an Expressionist.
Siza himself says: "What I appreciate and look for most in architecture is clarity and simplism. For this reason, the more character a building has and the clearer its form, the more flexible its vocation."
The “simplism” most likely comes from his traditional Northern Portuguese roots, where poverty produces surroundings which are stony, clear, poor and full of intimacy, where the light of the Atlantic is long and illuminates poverty in an abstract way, revealing all the harshness of surfaces. This indeed would describe Siza’s ‘style’.
Siza sketches constantly and often his sketches are incorporated into the decor of his buildings.
“Since I was a boy. I have made drawings. Drawings, landscapes, portraits and travel sketches, have always kept me busy. I don’t think that it has a direct relation with architecture but it is a good way to develop acuity of vision.”
From the mid-1970s, Siza has been involved in numerous designs for public housing. Back then, overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities plagued many old sections of Oporto. In 1974, Siza worked on renovations for the Bouca quarter that would both resolve the problems that had been characteristic of the antiquated buildings and also fit within the historical context of the site.
For instance, the project was sited next to railroad tracks, so he used a vertebral wall as a screen, giving the four linear terraces of double maisonette’s privacy. Additionally, by forming long courtyards he kept reminiscent of the type of neighborhood the new project replaced.
Siza's interest in urban design and architecture soon brought him to projects outside of Portugal. In the late 1970s he worked on an urban renewal design in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and in 1984 he won first prize in the International Building Exhibition (IBA) for the rehabilitation of an entire block in the same district.
Among several other public housing projects are Siza's design for the Guidecca district of Venice, which was first in the 1985 international competition for controlled-cost subsidized housing in the Campo di Marte, and his design for 106 low-cost units in The Hague.
During the 1980s, Siza expanded his international repertoire when he was invited to enter several international competitions.
He secured first place in the Schlesisches Tor, Kreuzberg, Berlin (1980) and again for the restoration of Campo di Marte, Venice (1985) Further first place awards were gained for the redevelopment
of the Casino and Cafe Winkler, Salzburg (1986) and La Defensa Cultural Centre, Madrid (1989).
It was also during the 80’s that Siza worked on several institutional and commercial projects. Most notable are his Banco Borges & Irmao in
Vila do Conde, Portugal, with its looming vertical identity and dramatic rotational character. Also, the "JoaÅo de Deus" kindergarten in Penafiel, Portugal, which is built on a plinth both overcoming challenges of the site, and to integrate the structure's various uses.
Siza continued his distinguished career throughout the 1990’s with sizeable projects including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and the Rector's Office and Law Library for the University of Valencia. In 1994 he completed the Vitra office furniture factory. “Siza's creation is one of great restraint and reminiscent of anonymous 19th century factory architecture”, say Vitra of the design.
He finds enjoyment in drawing and sculptures. "Architecture is not accepted as an art. It is almost taboo to say that architecture is an art. This is what gives me the need to stop sometime and make drawings. I am also dangerously interested in sculpture....."
Although in his mid 70’s, Siza continues to be active in his work and both as a designer and professor.