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Álvaro Siza: in/discipline at Serralves

Name: Álvaro Siza

Discipline: As little as possible

This is how the architect Álvaro Siza Vieira (Matosinhos, 1933) filled the identification of one of his drawing notebooks. This (in)discipline was the starting point for the exhibition Álvaro Siza: in/discipline, curated by Nuno Grande and Carles Muro, currently held at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art.

Taking advantage of the celebration of the Foundation’s 30th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the Museum’s building, conceived by Álvaro Siza, thirty projects were chosen, built or not, developed by the architect between 1954 and 2019. These are presented through a wide variety of original documents – drawings, scale models, sketchbooks, travel notes, photographs of the author or even testimonies of people who met him during his journey.

This would not be possible without the fundamental collaboration between the Álvaro Siza Archives of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, the Álvaro Siza Fonds of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), Montréal, and the Álvaro Siza Archive of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (FCG), Lisbon. It is the architect’s first exhibition after the donation of the archive to the three institutions.

From the four houses in Matosinhos, which he designed at the beginning of his career, to the tower building recently designed for New York, the sample of thirty projects reveals the evolution of the architect’s work. It starts with the “regionalism” introduced by Fernando Távora, his teacher and collaborating friend, translated into his first works, like the four houses in Matosinhos, or the Piscina de Marés in Leça da Palmeira. Then, the geometric and formal exploration announced by post-modernism, through works such as the Agência Bancária in Oliveira de Azeméis or the Casa Beires in Póvoa do Varzim. And his involvement in the SAAL Process (Local Ambulatory Support Service), after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, where he developed projects together with the communities that wanted to solve the precarious housing situation in the working-class neighbourhoods in the centre of Oporto, such as São Victor and Bouça.

Then, the year 1988 stands out, when he won the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Prize, having been invited to rebuild the Chiado neighbourhood after the great fire. In 2000, his practice extended beyond Europe, with emphasis on the construction of the Iberê Camargo Foundation building in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the Mimesis Museum in Paju Book City, South Korea; the China Design Museum in Hangzhou, China; and his most recent project, a skyscraper in the Hell’s Kitchen district in Manhattan, New York.

In the text he wrote for the exhibition catalogue, Álvaro Siza mentions the influence of his brief experience as a roller hockey player on his practice as an architect. In comparing the two practices, he defines architecture as “a long and uninterrupted journey that requires (in)discipline. Discipline finally carves the ‘keystone’. It does not act fully without engaging in a kind of disorder that precedes and invokes it, making it a free and comprehensive time. This is how the architect’s work happens. It all depends on the tiny tip of the stick’.

The excerpt from the artist’s book “rigorous indiscipline”, by Isabel Carvalho, at the beginning of the exhibition, materializes the thoughts of Álvaro Siza about architecture as a discipline, where we read that “learning is constant (…) in learning a discipline, one finds a new discipline (…) in error one discovers virtues (…) where there is accident, there is discovery”. And, finally, “any discipline is self-discipline”. Therefore, the (in)disciplines of an artistic practice and an architectural practice are put in parallel, where there is a rigor and a discipline between the chaos of indiscipline.

On the other hand, at the entrance to the exhibition, the large-sized reproduction on the wall of part of a sketch, made by the architect in Berlin, is a metaphor of his practice. Fragments of bodies – torsos, busts, feet, hands – resting on a large table, which constitute a whole of something else, are analogous to the practice of Álvaro Siza, who once wanted to be a sculptor, and whose work finds references in various elements, sometimes dissimilar, that give it body when assembled. Metaphorically, it can be compared to the surrealistic games known as “exquisite corpse”, since each of its buildings has historical fragments, of the place where it is established, of personal chimeras and of his quintessential humour, which adds a certain historical irony to them.

From the museological standpoint, the curators wanted the building to be a leitmotif for the exhibition. In the rooms where Álvaro Siza designed inverted tables, placed on the ceiling and providing indirect lighting to the areas, tables were installed on the floor, which are a reflection of the ceiling tables, where all the exhibition elements related to the thirty projects are placed. The table, a horizontal plane, the architect’s work space, is the protagonist, to the detriment of the totally stripped walls. The exhibition’s informal ambience is similar to that of the studio, where drawings, mockups and sketchbooks, whose facsimiles can be touched by visitors, are spread over two large tables.

In addition to the projects, the exhibition has three other parts. In Percursos, several personal items that Álvaro Siza purposely chose for the exhibition are gathered – old photographs, books and magazines that he acquired and read along his journey. Or even drawings of trips he made, where he whimsically recorded places and people that spiked his interest. In Testemunhos, we find testimonies of twenty-six personalities who crossed paths with the architect. And, finally, Registos, a compilation of some photographic records of Álvaro Siza’s work made by several photographers (some of them also architects) and the corresponding publications in books and/or magazines.

In the exhibition, it is evident that Álvaro Siza’s work is characterized by a profound knowledge of the history of architecture, motivated by his enormous curiosity to know and study works from the past, measured and compulsively recorded through drawing. In his buildings, we can see the translation and contemporary reinvention of the subliminal dimensions of these buildings that are the object of study. In his testimony given to the exhibition, the architect Manuel Aires Mateus questions whether Cabo Espichel preceded the Setúbal School or vice versa, showing that, through the work of Álvaro Siza, we can read the history of architecture. Gustav Mahler mentioned that “tradition is the passage of fire and not the cult of ashes”. The work of Álvaro Siza is an excellent example of the passage of fire referred by Mahler.

The exhibition Álvaro Siza: in/disciplina is a unique opportunity to revisit the in/discipline of Álvaro Siza. Until February 2, at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art.

Joana Duarte (Lisbon, 1988), architect and curator, lives and works in Lisbon. She concluded her master in architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura of Universidade de Lisboa in 2011, she attended the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and did her professional internship in Shanghai, China. She collaborated with several national and international architects and artists developing a practice between architecture and art. In 2018 she founds her own studio, concludes the postgraduate degree in curatorial studies at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of Universidade Nova de Lisboa and starts collaborating with Umbigo magazine.

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