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From Tea Houses to Art Galleries: a Visit with Architect Alvaro Siza

Written and photographed by Trevor Boddy

North Portugal’s Porto is one of Europe’s most beautiful small cities—an undulating series of tight and lively neighborhoods spilling over steep hills on both sides of the Douro River. Best known for the fortified red wine that bears the city’s name, Porto has long been the hub in a zone of agricultural and vinicultural abundance, but over the past two decades, it has become home to thriving software and creative industries. At first sight, this small city seems an unlikely base for one of the world’s most lauded architects—winner of the 1992 Pritzker Prize and the 2012 Venice Biennale Golden Lion. But Alvaro Siza, best known for his art museums and university buildings around the globe, has grounded his increasingly international practice in Porto for sixty years, and currently works out of a studio in a modest apartment building he designed to overlook the river valley.

When I meet Siza at his studio with several other architecture writers last fall, the 85-year-old architect shuffles out, clad in a heavy black wool jacket despite the early autumn heat, an unlit cigarette in his hand.  He smiles broadly as we sit down around his wooden table, politely inquiring if any of us mind him smoking. After one of the writers objects, the cigarette still stays in Siza’s hand, albeit unlit, and is used to emphasize various points throughout the entire 90-minute interview.

Fresh from current work on enormous university and museum projects in China, Siza begins by noting with a surprised shrug that clients in Asia have dominated the last decade or two of his practice. During this period he has built up a ring of collaborators in China, allowing him to turn down international travel and insist that personal client meetings be held solely in Porto. Last year construction wrapped on the China Museum of Design Bauhaus Collection (a collaboration between Siza and architect Carlos Castanheira) in the eastern city of Huangzhou and Siza tells us the story of how this museum is the unexpected realization of his dreams from three decades ago.  

In 1992 Siza proposed the design for a museum to house two of Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece paintings—Mujer Embarazada and Guernica—in Madrid’s Parque Oeste. Based on the powerful themes in each of the two paintings, Siza started calling the proposed museum his “life and death” building. Unfortunately, due to a loss of funding, the planned museum never proceeded. Nearly a decade later, Siza was invited to take part in a Madrid civic ideas competition, one that allowed him and four other prominent designers to pick their own program and site within the city to explore—a hypothetical exercise in imagination. Refusing to let go of his “life and death building,” Siza defiantly returned to the same Parque Oeste locale and produced a new iteration of the design for his original Picasso gallery. The architect says that even though 10 years had passed, he still felt “unhappy because the previous competition [winner] was canceled. So for this new ideas competition, I chose to work on the same site.” The revised scheme was published, but not built, and Siza thought little of it until he received a call (yet another) ten years later from a wealthy Chinese patron of the visual arts. “A man in China saw the published project and wanted to do this building!” Siza looks up and stabs his unlit cigarette into the table a few times for emphasis. “Three years later it was built… simply amazing!”

After sixty years of practice marked by such acclaimed commissions as the 1973 Leca da Palmeiras swimming pools, the EXPO 1998 Portugal Pavilion in Lisbon, and the 2008 Camargo Gallery in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Siza is at the career stage of setting his house in order.  Much of his archive of drawings and models has gone to the Serralves Museum in Porto and the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, but a portion is now at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture, where it will reside beside collections by Peter Eisenman, Arthur Erickson, Cedric Price, and many others—with one eye on his legacy, Siza wished for easy access to his work by North American scholars.  Portugal’s slow-but-steady growth means that most buildings from Siza’s career are still standing, but many now require significant preservation. One of his earliest non-domestic commissions, the 1963 Boa Nova Tea House, has been recently restored to its original glory.

Positioned on a rock outcropping overlooking the Atlantic shore outside Porto, the Boa Nova Tea House represents an important aesthetic turning point in Siza’s career. With this building, he began departing from domestic designs inspired by local traditions to embrace the modernist minimalism that characterizes much of his work since. The white plaster exterior walls are a respectful abstraction of local house forms, surfaces which also harmonize with a nearby small chapel dedicated to fishermen.

However, much like the old book-and-cover adage, the exterior does not predict the deeply sensual inventive forms inside the two simple rooms of Boa Nova. Floors are set with polished planking of red Afizelia wood from Africa, and the sculptural details are most striking. Dining room skylights are ringed with skirtings of saw-toothed geometric ornament in extending boards, while the tops of rough concrete columns are capped with projecting ‘capitals’ of similar boards. These wood embellishments—in combination with a cantilevered ‘brow’ roof on the ocean side—evoke Arizona-era Frank Lloyd Wright. Siza agrees that Wright was a design hero when he designed Boa Nova and ever since, noting “but then, so is Aalto.”

Siza is currently working on another tea house, this one for a park in Korea.  While the Boa Nova has now been adapted into a high-end seafood restaurant, the Korean project is a return to the simplicity of a traditional tea house—a full circle, six decades in the making.

As our time with Alvaro Siza comes to an end, he walks us to the door and at last lit that long-delayed cigarette. The smile on his smoke-ringed face is even larger than the one that greeted us when we arrived. As the work and life of the Portuguese architect demonstrate, a pleasure extended is a pleasure amplified.


Vancouver architecture critic and curator Trevor Boddy’s most recent books are CITY-BUILDER: The Architecture of James K.M. Cheng (Images Press, Melbourne) and Glacier Skywalk (Figure 1 Press, Vancouver.)


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