In this session has two talks, first one by Sérgio and then one by Jorge, followed by a discussion. Both talks are about the post-war context in Portugal with a focus on the period just before and after the fall of Salazar. Bruno will introduce our speakers. We are also very lucky to have Álvaro Siza with us here today. He will join our discussion after the talks.
Sérgio Fernandez graduated in 1965 in Architecture from the School of Fine Art in Porto, which is today the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto. As a student in 1959 he participated in the last CIAM meeting at Otterloo and met the members of Team 10, which is probably the beginning of the connection between Portuguese architectural culture and British architectural culture. Sergio has been a member of the Faculty of Architecture in Porto for decades and is presently an Emeritus Professor in Architecture. His professional work has been widely acclaimed and published internationally. Sergio has lectured in Portugal, Angola, Brazil, and the former Soviet Union, Panama and Columbia. In 1985 he published his book which was important for me, I read it when I was in second year, called Percurs: Portuguese Architecture 1930-1974, and by reading this book I learned the context of what modernity was in Portugal in the middle of the 20th century. Jorge Figueira graduated from the Faculty of Architecture in Porto in 1992. He started developing his teaching career in 1992 and focused on the role of Álvaro Siza and the school in Porto in contemporary architectural Portuguese culture. Since 2009 Jorge has been a Professor of Architecture at Coimbra following the presentation of his PhD thesis titled The Perfect Periphery, Postmodernity in Portuguese Architecture from 1960-1980. In 2010 he was elected as the head of the Department of Architecture in Coimbra. Jorge has lectured in Portugal, Spain, the UK, Greece, Brazil, Macau, Argentina, Columbia and Mexico. Jorge was my tutor in second year, and introduced me to some quite important things in my architectural education and was later my supervisor during my Masters dissertation. It was a pleasure to work with him and I appreciated his very sharp clarity of argument and intelligence. About Álvaro Siza, one always feels that words will be redundant in trying to introduce someone like him. It’s the second time that I have the pleasure to be in his company, the first time was two years ago when Noel Cash and I took our students from the school of architecture at Oxford Brookes, where we used to teach, to Porto and met Álvaro Siza who very kindly spent two hours with us in his office talking about architecture and his work. I have the feeling that in attempting to say something about Álvaro Siza I will say nothing new, and for that reason I’m going to quote people who have written quite wonderful words about his work. I’ll start with Vittorio Gregotti’s Thoughts on the work of Álvaro Siza, an essay that was published in 1992 when Siza received the Pritzker Prize: “I have always had the impression that Álvaro Siza’s architecture sprung from archaeological foundations known to him alone. Signs invisible to anyone who has not studied the site in detail through drawings with steady focussed concentration.” Another quotation from Professor David Leatherbarrow from Philadelphia, an essay called From Description to Design where he says: “When one reviews the whole collection of Siza’s Thoronet drawings, it is clear that the surveys outline possibilities for the design project that followed, that the descriptions anticipated the projections. From the drawings and comments that survive it seems as though the pages of notes became the reality of the project, but a reality that developed in steady dialogue with the reality of the place, which was itself described in the discretion of the project.” I’m trying to develop a line of thought here, returning to Gregotti he says: “Siza’s work is characterised by just that sense of architecture as a means of listening to the real, in that it hides at least as much as it shows. Siza’s architecture makes one see and it reveals rather than interprets the truth of the context.” It is the subject of the context that is highly neglected in contemporary architectural production. Jorge Figueira sitting next to me once wrote that: “Siza studies the context with millimetric rigour, not to be contexualist, rather in order to be convincingly universal.” and I remember that conversation between Álvaro Siza and my students when we opened the discussion asking what the relationship was between the universal and the specific in his work, to which he replied: “The universal is the specific.” And with that I think we’ll pass on to our next speaker.
I’d like to thank you for the invitation to this wonderful city where I’ve never been before, and to thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to have an exchange of opinions. I’m going to speak about the house that most of you have just seen in the film by Luis Urbano that preceded this conversation. The evolution of architecture, as the evolution of all cultural movements, being always very slow, is not linear or continuous. It is a consequence of a large number of different facts and circumstances, where political, economical and social development has a fundamental role. Following the slopes of its own way, architecture, even if sometimes seems to anticipate the future, providing unknown qualities and quite new forms, depends, directly or not, on power. In Portugal, those links are expressed in a very clear way, particularly along the period when the right wing dictatorial political regime was imposed; this is between 1926 and 1974. In a first period, just immediate to the military coup, the image the politicians needed to irradiate, was that everything should be radically different from the production of the previous republican regime, existing from 1910; different and to be more convincing, adopting the more recent architectural models. The best architects, most of them having had post career grants in Paris or in Rome, will be chosen to draw, with the most advanced concepts many representative buildings of the Estado Novo, which is the name of the new political regime. Art-deco languages or directly inspired in the functionalism of Gropius projects, are adopted in quite a wide amount of examples, fully accepted by the authorities, as we can see in the Instituto Superior Técnico, Pardal Monteiro, 1937, Teatro Capitólio, Cristino da Silva, 1925/31, Cinema Eden, Cassiano Branco, 1937 or Instituto de Oncologia, Carlos Ramos, 1935, in Lisbon, or Garagem do Comércio, Rogério de Azevedo, 1930, Porto. These were the models that the regime promoted to show that they were really modern.
The Secondary School in the city of Beja, by Cristino da Silva, 1931, and The Church of Nossa Senhora de Fátima, by Pardal Monteiro, 1934, in Lisbon, will lead, concerning architecture, to a deep change on the directives of Salazar’s regime. The first one, had an extraordinary depurated design but also an inappropriate constructive solution to the local climate; the church, was an isolated and meaningless attempt of the ecclesiastical authorities, main support of the political regime, to show they knew how to be modern too. The regime becoming stronger and stronger didn’t need to express an image that was the opposite of its real reactionary character anymore. The early ‘40s, with the advance of the fascist nazi forces in the world war, gave to the dictator the strength he was looking for, to put an end to these modern experiences.
The Exhibition of the Mundo Português in 1940 was the departing point for a long period of a highly controlled architecture based on supposed historical or pastoral aesthetic elements. After the end of the war the regime, isolated and weaken, had to admit the progressive conclusions of the first congress of architects in 1948. The attempt to control architecture went on, but that battle was losing power against the slowly, but continuous, improving of the so called International Style, justified not only by inevitable cultural changes coincident with a more wide interrelationship with other nations, but justified, also, by economical reasons.
Modern architecture previously with very rare examples ordered by private clients, became more and more common in general building activity and even, in some cases of political propaganda, adopted by official authorities, by reasons linked with the prestige of the most significant companies, as the ones of the hydroelectric sector. Modern architecture values and languages would become normally accepted. The fight for modernity against the established political rules led, quite frequently, to the common use of models that didn’t suit our real conditions, habits or aims. This was the main reason why a quite important sector of modern architects, the best of them really, decided to develop a survey of Portuguese vernacular architecture. The objective was to find authentic roots for a consequent modern architecture that could be correctly linked with our reality. This survey was done between 1956 and 1961. We can also read evident affinities with the themes that mainly were present in the 10th CIAM meeting, in Dubrovnik in 1956. There was a real movement towards a more humanistic architecture, closer to ordinary building systems, to an ordinary space character and, perhaps more relevant, a new conscience of a new and more adequate scale. A spirit of modernity, together with a permanent link to the context, a deeper attention to history and a certain formal contention would be, generally speaking, the items that defined the atmosphere of the qualified architecture. These kinds of attributes could be more clearly read in small public equipment or in projects for non-speculative aims, like a private house.
Now I want to talk about a house I built. The house, for holidays, uses a common scale and vocabulary of the region mixed with modern techniques and concepts. It profits the smooth landscape to establish an appealing relationship between indoor and outdoor life. Man is at the centre of these projects. This is the background in which my own holiday house, A Casa do Lado has been drawn. As a student I followed, in a very close way, the elaboration of the above mentioned Survey, and my final work to obtain the diploma, was an experience, as an architect, of one year in a remote small village in the north of Portugal. This route, allied to the spirit of modernity, but also of strict connection with reality always cultivated in our school, influenced I’m sure, my natural tendency to look for simplicity, when conceiving architecture. In that time I had the opportunity, twice, to spend more than one month, living in London. I decided that I would visit, almost every day, an example of qualified modern architecture. This impressed me quite deeply. As a student, too, I was at the last CIAM, in Otterloo, in 1959. There, the atmosphere revealed that modern architectures had lost the necessary contact with reality, as emphasized, among others, by Aldo van Eyck. A new way to produce architecture had to be found. I met there, Allison and Peter Smithson, and I was seduced by their concepts. The Hunstanton School with the consequent so-called Brutalism, or the Sugden house, opened new perspectives for an architecture that reduced to the essential, didn’t neglect, even underlined its indispensable artistic attributes. All those facts had a great influence in my professional activity. On the other hand, I can say I was probably not aware of that influence, when I thought the project of my own house, in 1971. Some items were determinants; two similar houses, mine and another for a close friend, the plot, facing west, being one hundred and fifteen meters over the Rio Minho and the sea, strongly sloped, had a wonderful view I couldn’t neglect. I didn’t have much money, so the house should be as simple as possible. In such an interesting and still unspoiled landscape, the solution had to try not to stand out; on the contrary, it should pay special attention to the main characteristics of the environment. And last, but not least, the program should answer to the intention of a permanent contact between the users themselves and, simultaneously, a permanent contact between interior and exterior spaces. It should be quite comfortable, in its interior, and rough in the exterior, as rough is the rocky land where it is built. Those predefined characteristics probably led to a solution where, perhaps, hypothetical links with English architectural movement can be read.
I’m going to show you some photographs of the house. As I said before, it’s a very special place facing the sea in a very high position with a wonderful view. And on many occasions we are over the clouds.
View from house in Caminha
I needed to design two houses, one for me and another for a friend who died two years ago. He was much older than me. He was a very wealthy man, I was not, and he had a very luxurious house by the sea and he told me: “I want a house exactly like yours.” I said: “But my house will be very strange.” And he said: “It doesn’t matter I want a house exactly like yours.” Well as a matter of fact the houses are repeated, they are both the same. The only difference is that they’re not in a line because of the characteristics of the land. What I wanted for myself was a sitting room with kitchen space, which you would have contact with every day. And I wanted the same for the other rooms, the bedrooms for the adult couple and two for the children. There aren’t any doors, but in the end I put one door in the last room, but really the house is about permanent contact. The building system was the most elementary, a local technique with stone but without any special treatment. Because the land was made of this stone, I didn’t want that the house would stand out of the land. This photograph is from some years later of course, but the relationship between the landscape and the exterior of the house has the permanence that I was trying to achieve.
House in Caminha exterior
Photograph by Inês d’Orey
The house is an axis that exactly follows the contours of the land. It’s a long axis and everything is connected with it. This is the sitting room, and you can see the entrance through into the bedrooms.
House in Caminha interior
Photograph by Inês d’Orey
The bedrooms just have curtains and are used in different ways. This isn’t a common situation, some students from Porto visiting the house.
Students at house in Caminha
In this situation we also use the rooms as places to study.
I’m going to do a brief presentation on Siza’s work and some context for the discussion. My point of view is that we live in a time when the notion of Europe and the notion of European identity are specially debated. Not just in Portugal but in the whole of Europe. My presentation intends to briefly make some arguments in favour of the European approach of Siza’s architecture. That’s why in the first slide I show him thinking for us in Delphi.
Álvaro Siza at Delphi
It’s important to refute this idea that Siza’s work is regionalist. I will argue that his work is especially internationalist, that it’s founded in the experience of the modern avant-garde from continental European, and also that it integrates around the British debate on Brutalism from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Of course Porto’s architects are thankful to Kenneth Frampton for the invention of ‘critical regionalism’, which allowed the Anglo-Saxon world to become familiar with it from the ‘80s onward. But in particular Siza’s architecture has a universal pulse originated at a time, perhaps the last, when Europe provided the coordinates for the future of architecture. I will briefly talk about a set of poetic lessons, of Siza as an illustration of this argument. These are not lessons in the masterly or academic sense; on the contrary, Siza’s knowledge is famously achieved in the ground, work by work, year after year. And when I say poetic, I mean, as was once said by the Portuguese thinker Teixeira de Pascoaes, and I quote: “God and the demon are incompatible everywhere but in Portugal.” Or also: “The Portuguese genius is more emotive than intellectual.” But even if we take into account that the Portuguese poetic is Atlantic, southward and eastward, to Africa, to Brazil, to India and Macao, this architecture is firmly anchored in Europe. Siza’s poetic lessons are European lessons. There is this statement by George Steiner that I really like, which says that Europe was built on its cafés or coffee houses, or I might add pubs. I think Siza has attended one of them, maybe he has even designed one of them.
We can start by going to the terrace of Marseille’s Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier. As you know, it is a building that results from Le Corbusier’s obstinate research into housing, and in which the social programmes, complementary to the dwelling, are placed on the terrace. The terrace is thus an artificial Olympus space.
The first lesson is given to us at this moment when we move from a cosmic high to the ground and to the sea, in Leça’s Swimming Pool, into a tangible reality, but with its particular metaphysic, into the play of rocks with raw concrete, into a non-distant relationship with nature, from freshwater to the southeast sea. Only twenty years have passed between the two works. We move from the gentle influence of the Mediterranean to the wilder Atlantic. Now in Prague, in the Villa Müller of 1930, by Adolf Loos. Loos’ lesson is clear and famous; against ornament and waste, as he famously theorizes.
Forty years have passed and the bourgeois clientele of Braque is replaced by the fishermen of Caxinas, in the north of Portugal, replace the bourgeois clientele of Prague. This is a free appropriation, to which Siza will return later, in the eighties, already as an assumed quote. This project of Caxinas implied the possibility of the residents build accordingly to local models based on a set of rules.
Vila do Conde 1972
Loos’ architecture is here used as a basic model for participatory experiences. And a central Europe architecture arises here as an apparition, a dislocation, facing the Atlantic once more.
In S. Vítor, forty years have passed since Le Corbusier unveiled his houses at the Weissenhof Siedlung, but with Siza the fenêtre is not en longueur. Nonetheless the experience of the Siedlungen as a space for experimentation is revived in this social housing programme after the Portuguese revolution of 1974, to the surprise of the architectonic culture which thought that those days were long gone. Here we don’t fetishize the machine, the glamorous car, but the stone and the ruin.
S. Victor Residents Association Housing
Lesson number three is the dialogue between the tradition of the tabula rasa and the maintenance of pre-existing elements, even if poor, creating a strong cultural tension. While the Villa Savoye, was in ruins in the ‘40s the images of the house created an overwhelming sense of anxiety and discomfort. The hygiene-ism and rationalism don’t include the possibility of the ruin, of the poetics of melancholy, and so Modern architecture starts to include the melancholy of the ruin, of the unfinished. It is not treason; it is an enlargement, central-European rationalism is taken by mysterious forces of the south. But also the strong post-war British culture has a very large influence on Siza. In particular, brutalism and James Stirling, were extremely influential in the Portuguese architecture at that time. The Lordelo Cooperative is a direct result of a brutalist approach, exposed materials, raw materials. And the work of James Stirling is evoked, transformed in works of this period. Here we see a sketch from Siza’s archive, of the Oliveira de Azeméis Bank, which show very clear this phase of homage to Stirling. This is lesson number five: the United Kingdom is also Europe.
Álvaro Siza fonds
C/O Canadian Centre for Architecture
Gift of Álvaro Siza
The seventh lesson could be called, ‘how to build Europe in Porto’. The building of the Architecture Faculty of the University of Porto has close ties with Pessac and Ozenfant’s house by Corbusier and the Triztan Tzara house by Loos. Siza is not afraid to dialogue with the giants, or perhaps quoting Oscar Wilde: “Talent borrows, genius steals.”
Compared to Corbusier’s modulor, the drawings by Siza, which tilt and bend, have all the measures of the world. After all, science must intersect with art, the rationalism of continental Europe with southern poetics. We know of Le Corbusier’s attraction to the machine, of this analogy between the Delage and the Parthenon. I don’t know if this group from Porto, where we see Siza, a younger Sergio Fernandez, Távora, and other friends, looking at a document but I think they are not making this analogy with the machin.
Portuguese Architects on a field trip
C/O Alexandre Alves Costa
I suspect that the Porto lesson is a different one. Although Siza and Porto have a special appreciation for constructivism and the themes of the heroic avant-garde, I think there is a melancholy and a classicism that always resurfaces.
Jorge, you brought up something interesting at the beginning of your lecture. Portuguese architecture is often talked about as being regionalist, mainly because Kenneth Frampton talked about it in that way. He of course meant it as a criticism of the postmodern architecture of the ‘70s but it has somehow muddied the discussion around the work that came out of Porto in the 1950s and ‘60s, which was of course deeply linked to its own historic, and more importantly, political context. So I’d like to open by asking how you engaged with Modernism after the war?
We are all postmodernist. This does not mean postmodernism in an architectonical language. I should begin by saying that when I first entered the school of architecture in fact I did not want to be an architect, I wanted to be a sculptor. For family reasons I finished as a student of architecture in a particularly good moment for the school in Porto. It gave me my interest in architecture, but I knew nothing about architecture. The first time the professor talked with me about my project he made a very good point, he said: “Looking at your work I can tell you know nothing about architecture, so my advice is that you go to a bookshop and buy some magazines of architecture.” And I did it, and I was lucky because the ones there, copies of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, which dominated during the war were about Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius who was discussing architecture as the director of the Bauhaus, and Neutra, I think. But I was mainly enthusiastic about Alvar Aalto. I had no idea who he was and had never seen any of the photographs of his work. When I entered school in ‘49 the dominant personality and reference was Corbusier, and that’s because we didn’t have much information at that time, very little information books or magazines, there wasn’t even a library in the school. When I started school, a new generation of professors also came that were less controlled by the government, there was no longer Mussolini in Italy. They came with a little more freedom, not very much, but enough so information could come, and after a few years the reference was no longer Le Corbusier alone, we had more references. Learning architecture means knowing more and more. And at a certain moment our projects were no longer copies but something that came from inside our mind, that often comes, and this is the best way, from the subconscious. So we were not conscious of the references anymore because we had a lot of them. Our mind became a magazine, a store of information. I began working soon after leaving school in this ambience of renewal from the Faculty of Architecture, and of course influenced students, the need to make a revision of what the modern movement had become and was becoming in the activity after the war, with reconstruction and so on. The conscience of Portuguese culture, the importance of history, the importance of geography, professors who were critical of a regime imposed national language of architecture, and at the same time critical of the ways of the modern movement created for us quite a different atmosphere inside the school.
I was at the same school as Álvaro and I’m more or less the same age. We lived in a very peculiar situation. The regime was not as terrible as Franco’s regime in Spain, but it was very difficult to live there. I remember I used to say to my students that every morning we woke up and were not in prison was a victory. Although it’s nice to say that this is funny, it was not funny at all, and the regime was really very tough on us. The school of architecture was a school of liberty. We had a headmaster with a very open mind, who was fond of Gropius as Siza said, but who always reminded us of the necessity to be linked to the reality of the country. The period in which we studied also coincided with the period in which the survey was being done. And I think the interest generated by the survey made everybody pay attention to vernacular architecture. It was done with the intention of renewing our reality but at the same time to remain modern. The two ways were always thought of together. That’s why I decided, and it was a very poetical action, to go to a very remote village to do my final work. None of the projects we did were built, but it was a marvellous experience in knowing directly what people need and the techniques to make modern architecture. As Álvaro said, the regime had lost the support of the fascist regimes so it was becoming weaker and weaker, and bit by bit Salazar had to admit modernity. This kind of turned things upside-down, modernity was just adopted as a model without any care for necessities or possibilities of new materials, it was just copied, so we felt that we should know things deeply. Of course my idol was Le Corbusier over all the others, and I have to admit that I only became aware of Alvar Aalto much later in my career. Actually I discovered him through the interests of Álvaro. Alvar Aalto was for us an example that an architect could be extremely modern and extremely linked to the roots that should underlie those of modernity. So it was quite a natural evolution in a fight against a regime that even if it admitted modernity, was always somehow overseeing our projects and controlling them to ensure they could enforce their reactionary tendencies. I think it always depends on who is in power. Even though we can try to change things, if we look at history we see that architecture and power are linked. Architecture is a good way to express power. We had to suffer it until 1974, but even before then there were times when we experienced the regime becoming more liberal.
Before the revolution the modernists were the ones that were always against the regime. One had to be modernist to be against the regime. And after the revolution it was the modernists that were able to do social housing. So, after the revolution being modernist was also the right option. In fact it was a strong desire, a very bottled-up desire, from the 1920s onward to be modern. And finally after ‘74, after the revolution, the architects could be modern, and that’s the moment when postmodernism began! That created a very beautiful confusion; because Portuguese architects were finally free to be modern in a context where to be postmodern was the right thing to do. So it’s very interesting to study, and I’ve done that extensively, the way for example Siza dealt with that contradiction, of desiring to be modern in a postmodern context. I think Raphael Moneo synthesised that dilemma when he said that Siza does a kind of play-time architecture from the ‘80s onward, which means that Siza is still an emblematic and very convincing modernist but in a context in which he can quote and in which he can play and be ironic or be very serious, and where the distance between seriousness and irony can be very small in his work. This kind of playtime architecture is Siza’s answer to the postmodern context while being able to respond to the modernist tradition.
I want to mention that the end of the war was very important everywhere, that after a period of isolation, there was an openness provoked by the war, and by the end of the war. It became impossible for the regime in Portugal to maintain the same attitude after the war. This was a big opening of Portugal. It was a period of great hope and enthusiasm everywhere and particularly in Europe. There was a lot of activity in all the countries and a lot of information flowing between them. We received fantastic doses of information, of knowing what was going on in Italy in architecture, and through cinema, in Neo-Realism, in England the reconstruction program of schools, from France of course Le Corbusier, form Japan came the Japanese magazine that we all used to buy because it was the cheaper one. A lot of influences came. The influences from Great Britain were very natural because the first neo-classical building in Porto built in the 18th century came from an English architect called John Carr, building by adapting to the topography in Porto. Porto had an important community of English families. The ambassador was somehow connected to science and architecture, one of the English ambassadors. The central square was planned by an English architect Raymond Unwin and planned Richard Barry Parker, the square that opens to the river. And in Lisbon where there was a big fire in the 18th century, the architect in charge of the reconstruction had been in England. So after the fifty years of isolation, we in a way recuperated the possibility of being in dialogue, which we had lost in the time of the regime.
All the nations, including Portugal, took part in the CIAM meetings after the war. Do you think it was an important mechanism for architects from Portugal?
I’m not sure it was that important. The participants of CIAM were limited, about four or five architects linked to the school of Porto. In that way we can say that it was important. But I’m not so sure that the ideas from CIAM were spread around the country. It was a coincidence that the problems that were raised in CIAM were somehow the same problems we were dealing with. It was more a coincidence and I wouldn’t say that everyone in Portugal was involved in CIAM. I was lucky. I was chosen as one of three hundred students to participate. I went there and everybody was very nice, and for me it was marvellous because the authors of the books I used were there, and I could speak with them. It was fantastic. And I saw for example how Fernando Távora presented the two buildings that I presented to you here, the market building and this small house, and I knew how the people in CIAM sponsored this wing. It was very well received. I remember there were terrible rows between Alison Smithson and Giancarlo de Carlo, and then they both became Team 10. They accused Giancarlo de Carlo of being too historicist, and he was really, because in this period the Italians were still recovering their history. History for us is of course very important, but I should say not the plastic expression of it, and she accused him of this. It was terrible. With Fernando Távora and the market, it’s a place that lives, it’s only justified if there are people inside, if it’s a human body made of architecture. That’s very important, and this is a kind of relationship that was considered in CIAM. At that meeting there was a different way of looking at modernism, I wouldn’t say because of CIAM itself but as a repercussion of the CIAM spirit.
As Jorge mentioned, this kind of anachronistic course of events that modernism was being resisted by a political regime. If you look at the research project called Silent Rupture I think that the rupture is political, because despite the change of regime and the opening up of our culture there was clearly a continuity that was somehow strengthened by the impossibility of being modern in the 1950s. So it created this very special fusion of things in an anachronistic way to the rest of Europe, when the modern movement, until very late, and I think it is still present today, that’s the question I have for Álvaro Siza, remains as a reserve, as a place we can always come back to. And the question I would like to ask is that Jorge showed the slide with Le Corbusier and the Tristan Tzara house by Adolf Loos and then the School of Architecture in Porto. We have to remind ourselves that we are at the end of the 1980s when the rest of Europe was going crazy with postmodern architecture. So my question to you Álvaro Siza, is did modern architecture work as a shelter or as a protection against what was going on elsewhere?
Yes for you, but you were much younger. Why do I say no? I’m not impressed by the way people classify postmodern architects, or not. I can understand that it’s possible to put me in the same group for instance with Stirling or Rossi and with other kinds of postmodernists, but I think it’s too quick to classify things like that. For me, in my mind what happened was continuity in the evolution of architecture that goes back centuries, not from modern or postmodern. And in Postmodernism, the thing I don’t like, the thing I don’t consider good, was not to say no to Modernism, or to say no to history, which is very contradictory, because they use architectonic elements taken from history, but to break the continuity which I recognise in the evolution of architecture through the centuries. It is true that there are moments of rupture, that we can see very well, but as the world and time goes on, the rupture, step by step, forms a continuity. The interpretations we make are too quick, too fast and a little superficial. When I visited the Villa Savoye, it was fresh; it was completely new, we could see in it a new way of life. But then I went home and began thinking with distance of emotion, terraces, Paris was already full of these terraces, piloti, the market in Venice, the old market is on piloti, horizontal windows, they’re all there through history, sometimes in the back of buildings not in the front façades, it’s also not new, it’s improved by new materials, structure, new technical possibilities, but all these things existed already. The point is that in a certain historical context they can be used in a different way, and we say it’s a rupture, but after we say it’s not a rupture, it’s a way of continuity promoted and pressed by historical challenges and special moments in history. So the answer to your question, no, Modernism was not a defence, because as I went on I took it, I received it that very special way at that moment in the school of architecture, and I was a person that was not very interested in architecture, was very influenced, but I was never really attached to it obsessively, just as I was not attached to vernacular architecture, which sometimes I hear was such an important criticism of the International Style in Portugal. I was not attached to the vernacular, nor were you Sergio, even though you are much younger.
I would like to respond to Bruno. To my knowledge Siza is not a revivalist or nostalgic about modernism. I think Siza is always on the attack. I think he uses Modernism in a very visceral way, like second nature, because Siza lived in those coffee houses that Steiner mentions as creating the idea of Europe, so it’s visceral; it’s in his DNA. He has the natural authority to develop these images without being revivalist or nostalgic. Also, if you take Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Venturi, as a textbook for Modernism, which I think it is. Venturi says yes to Alvar Aalto and says no, to Mies van der Rohe, and we know that Alvar Aalto is the key reference for Siza’s work, and you have to know that Mies van der Rohe was nowhere to be seen in Portuguese architecture until Eduardo Souto de Moura invented Mies in the 1980s. Mies van der Rohe was a strange character to Portuguese architects. What I’m saying is that Siza returns to the roots of postmodern thinking, in line with Complexity and Contradiction’s view of Alvar Aalto’s work.
Do you agree?
Relatively. The problem is that everything that happens in architecture, or in the work of an architect, has different reasons. Every detail we make in architecture is not only for one reason, there are many reasons. Of course I agree with what you said Jorge, but it’s not enough to explain it fully. The process is very complex and there are many aspects to consider. Then you spoke about Venturi, and I remember at that time there was a group in Spain who were mainly active in Catalonia and the north of Spain, and I was invited several times to go to meetings that they used to have. At one of the meetings, they were coming from the United States and very exited about Venturi and Complexity and Contradiction, and they offered me one, and I read it. It was a great stimulant to read, and Caxinas, that work is the result of that reading, but also the result of the village at it was, in the process of clandestine construction. So I agree with you but not completely—laughs. But go on and you will find a lot of things.
Are there any questions from the audience?
I found it very interesting when you were talking about being in Britain in the ‘50s Sergio, you spent a month in London at that time. I found it quite surprising because, if I understood you correctly, when you visited London in the ‘50s you said you could visit a modernist building everyday? That’s interesting because I’ve just been reading about that period and the period just before that, and the thing that strikes me among British architects from that time is how profoundly embarrassed they were about how little modern architecture there was in London or elsewhere in England. You get the feeling that through the ‘30s and ‘40s and the beginning of the ‘50s, they’ve got this sense that they are still the avant-garde and that they’re somehow still on the outside, that they’re projecting an idea of what architecture should be that was in complete contradiction to what the government and the powers-that-be wanted to deliver, a kind of Lutyens inspired architecture, he was good of course, but this was the critique, that at best they wanted to deliver a kind of Scandinavian soft version of modern architecture. The energy that comes from architects like the Smithson’s comes from the fact that they’re on the outside, that they’re not part of the establishment, even though retrospectively we can look back and say that that was what British modernism was about. How important was that to the development in Portugal, that sense of being in opposition to the powers-that-be? To what extent did it allow architects practicing to really feel that they were struggling to express their time? Because quite a few of the speakers have said they wanted to express reality and they wanted to express their time, and there was a sense that the authorities prevented architects from giving expression to the moment. How important do you think the idea of being on the outside or being in opposition was to architects in Portugal in that period?
That’s quite a difficult question. My situation was special. The first time I went to London I was very young, sixteen years old, and when we arrived London was completely bombed. My image of London is of walls no more than twenty centimetres over the soil, a terrible image. But when I came the second time I was a student and they allowed us to do a study visit, and so I went there and thought I should profit from it, and I decided to visit at least one building every day. I’m not sure I visited one hundred and twenty buildings, but for sure a lot. It was the period of reconstruction and for us, or at least for me, it was very important because it was an attempt to make architecture that seemed to me very sharp, without any superfluous details. For me, as a person from Porto, coming from a place that has architectural characteristics that are very solid, solid architecture, it was very new and different. We in the north of Portugal have solidity. That’s one of the reasons; I think there are two, why Mies never became popular in Portugal. The second reason was that he used techniques that were impossible to achieve until a few years ago. I’m not so sure that English architecture was so important to the Portuguese, but Leslie Martin came to give some lectures in the school in Porto. It was an architecture that represented the reconstruction, of the possibility of reconstruction, and for us, we didn’t have a war, but we had an absence of any contact, everything stopped, and people were kept in an inadmissible state. We thought it could be a way to go on, but I’m not sure this was important for everybody, but for me it was, and I did three or four buildings that were quite English really. I live in one of them. It’s quite English, quite Leslie Martin.
But the reasons the Smithson’s were outsiders was totally different to the reasons we were. We lived in a fascist regime, not in a democratic one.
But was it important in terms of feeling that the work was an expression of the ‘now’ of the time? A few of you talked about how that the work had to be real, that it had to be about reality. It was important to the Smithson’s to Stirling, they had an energy that made them want their work to be part of the moment.
The thing is, is brutalism an ethic or an aesthetic, as Reyner Banham put it. Brutalism was a very strong influence in Portuguese architecture, because even if it was an ethic, it had a very passable aesthetic. It was credible, and the Portuguese fell in love with it.
It was already at the Otterloo meeting and then at the Team 10 meeting in Dorn, the Portuguese were also involved in the meetings. It’s not something that came from England alone.
It was born when Corbusier designed the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, when he decided that beton-brut was the way forward. It has its roots in continental Europe, so that affiliation was good for Portuguese architects. And then Reyner Banham also mentions Louis Kahn as a brutalist architect. We have a strong connection with Kahn because we have several Portuguese architects who in the ‘60s worked for him, from Lisbon, not Porto. So there are ramifications for Portugal that converge around Brutalism.
Brutalism was perhaps an unfortunate term. The idea behind it was much more the attitude that you would deal with things as you found them; that you now had to deal with reality and to include things that had previously been ignored. It was anti tabula rasa.
I think for us it was recognising that history, in its widest sense, should be an important element to make new architecture. We wanted to include everything; history, context, everything that was there. So when we used to make tabula rasa it was against history.
But were the modernists not making history?
Yes, but if we were to copy their models without paying any attention to what our real condition was then we would not be making history even if their models were important historically. This was the problem in Portugal, as materials and techniques arrived then the models of modernism came from abroad and people liked this, and nobody cared if it was appropriated or not, they were just copies, and this is not history because it becomes removed from their real life.
The first thing I remember about brutalism was in 1954. The first project I saw was in an architecture magazine, Architectura I think, but I just looked at it superficially, I didn’t study it in detail, I saw the images just as I saw the images of Alvar Aalto. So I think I was in love with Aalto because I was ignorant. When I showed Aalto to my colleagues and also to my professors they didn’t always like it, saying you’re crazy, and I used to go home feeling very confused. It was only later that Aalto became popular in Portugal. Those colleagues and the professors of course already had a solid architectonic culture, they already had consolidated a corpus of knowledge in that moment, and Alvar Aalto didn’t figure in their culture because it was still in the process of being structured. So I was completely free. I was ignored, and I just took the images that preoccupied me. This is something important to maintain in school now that we’re speaking about it, is this balance or dialogue between what is solid structured knowledge, the theoretical knowledge, and the spontaneity that is brought by the image, not only the image, but going to a town and looking around. This is a difficult thing to do, to achieve and maintain the balance between the naïve and the fresh, and the solid.
Are there any final questions from the audience?
You have said in the past, and this conversation is primarily about the importance of the physical context in the design and generation of a project, and also the cultural context I gather from this discussion, and those are important points that I think are often neglected. But the world of architecture is changing so much with globalisation, and many architects like yourself have worked on projects on other continents, which is increasingly the way that architecture is done, and I’m wondering if there is the possibility of an authentically understood cultural context if you get European architects going to Asia and so on. And it seems to me that the tradition that everyone is working within is European Modernism. That seems to be the one consistent language that can be translated to different places. I’d like to know your views about that?
There is a Portuguese proverb: “The future belongs to God.” At this moment in time there is an increased interest in the regions. Since the war we have always spoken about the importance of relations and increasing relations. And now the increase is enormous. For a European or at least for the Portuguese it’s very difficult, there’s not enough work, not enough for everybody, architects have to emigrate, and in a way this is a panorama of Europe. But this isn’t the worst thing, maybe it’s a crisis, and maybe it will last a long time, but the word crisis at least brings hope. The worst thing is the tendencies that are coming, that are clear already, about the future of architecture and the future work of an architect, or the role in the multidisciplinary process. In Portugal recently there’s a movement coming from other professions. They are proposing that architects cannot coordinate projects that the team must be made of specialists; everything is being reduced to specialists. Our work is about bringing together different disciplines of knowledge, but there must be coordination for which the only preparation I see is in the architect, also through the tradition of the architect. This is being contested at the moment and there are big interests at play to change the process and to reduce the architect to a draftsman who would work in a big company with a concentration of work. This is my perspective from what I read and hear, and see happening in my practice. I had a project in France, it was a church and at first there was a very intellectual dialogue coming from the Bishop, a preoccupation about the liturgy and so on, but when it came to executing the project, to the moment of construction I received a letter by a specialist charged to do the work by the Bishop saying that the project was a scandal, that it was very bad. It seemed that what he wanted from me was my talent, and to get rid of this idea of designing the detail of carpentry, leave that to the specialists he said. This immediately made me very pessimistic. I’m not sure what the evolution of this will be. On the other hand I found the opposite attitude in distant countries, for instance in China, where I was invited, that’s important for a project, because it’s routine to do competitions in the European community, in fact it’s obligatory, so if you are invited it means someone is interested in what this or that person can do. Everything was well executed in China, the choice of builders was made carefully, the details were respected, and the team that included people in Portugal and people in China worked because everyone wanted it to work. From the start they had decided they wanted an important architect, a ‘number one’ architect. This is a good way to work, but the other way is terrible for architecture and for architects. Then I think that the future is a fight between these tendencies, with some people fighting for this, others for that, with vested interests everywhere, and we architects who think authorship is important will have to fight too.
I think there was another question in there about localism in the context of Portugal and in relation to Europe. When the profession starts to be highly globalised, which is not a totally new phenomenon, in the past many architects worked in other countries and contexts. How do you embrace cultural contexts that are strange to you, working in Korea and China and places like that?
They are not that strange; they are strange, but not really. Since the 16th century we have been hearing a lot about India, about Japan and about Brazil of course, so we already understand a lot when we are dealing with a concrete work. But also I find the relationships easy, I found it easy in China and Korea. They even know about Portugal, especially in Japan. It means making an effort of course, not by reading books, because there are millions of books on the subject, but by making contact with people. I always work with people from the country. And then the challenge is very natural. The first time I went to work in Berlin it was fantastic because my mind opened, seeing new places, speaking and meeting new people, these are stimulant forces.
I think it’s a good question. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the Portuguese in the last centuries have built on all continents, in Brazil, in Asia and Macau and so on. So the idea of building very far away with more difficulties, there was no Internet and things like that, I don’t think scared the Portuguese. I think Siza doing a building in China; now doing a building in Macau and Korea is normal. A lot of Portuguese architects in the ‘60s and ‘70s were based in Macau. There were Portuguese architects working in China in the time of Mao Tse-tung. It’s a very complex narrative. I think that we are very humble and very modest but also have a fearlessness to build anywhere. The thing that is worth fighting for is the place of the architect as an author, not necessarily that of local tradition. I think it’s maybe romantic, a thing of the past, but fighting for the architect to have control over the final product is very important.