The Poetic Modernist: Portuguese Architect, Álvaro Siza

Álvaro Siza (b. 1933) is Portugal’s most distinguished architect, and a recipient of a string of awards including a Pritzker Prize for a restoration project in Chiado, a historic commercial area in Lisbon that was destroyed by fire in 1988, the Prince of Wales Prize in Urban Design from Harvard University, the Alvar Aalto Medal, Portugal’s National Prize of Architecture (in 1993), and the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other awards.

Born in a small coastal village just north of Porto, young Siza initially wanted to be an opera singer. But it was only after a trip to Barcelona at age 14, where he recalls being mesmerized by the work of Antonio Gaudi, that he committed to the architecture profession in which he started even before his graduation in 1955 from the University of Porto.

Siza first gained reputation in the late 1960s, a time when Modernism was increasingly under attack. And yet, unlike some of his contemporaries, throughout his long career, he has remained unapologetically committed to the Modernist doctrine, creating one after another structure of stark austere beauty, functional forms in which sharp geometries, spartan surfaces and deft manipulation of light and shadows embody the strict minimalism espoused by the Modernists. In this manner, he has professed to being heavily influenced by the works of the great Finnish architect and furniture designer, Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) and the acclaimed Mexican Modernist, Luis Barragan ( 1902-1988).

The minimalist monumental beauty of the Portuguese National Pavilion, Lisbon.

Siza’s trademark interpretation of Modernism is on full display in what may be his greatest work – the Portuguese National Pavilion for Expo’ 98 in Lisbon (pictured above). Here he sculpts two mighty concrete porticoes, both encased in ceramic tiles, and positioned 70m apart on either side of a large public plaza. Then in a stunning shift, Siza drapes a vast, delicately thin 70m-long concrete canopy between the two porticoes that bows towards the center like a hammock swung between the two gigantic posts. The effect is utterly extraordinary. Quite apart from the tectonic improbability of concrete assuming the tensile qualities of spun fabric, the simple contrast between the muscular porticoes and the delicately hanging canopy creates a sculptural effect that endlessly delights the eyes. Like much of Siza’s work, it cements his reputation as a poetic Modernist architect of the first rank.  

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