06 April 2009

Masters of Portuguese architecture

My friend Paulo Sousa (from work in London) recently moved back home to Porto in Portugal. And a few months back along with a few friends I had decided to visit him there. However, a lot has changed in these last few months - the worsening crisis and I guess because of the constant fear of job less everyone backed out.

I on the other hand had nothing to really loose -of course that's assuming that the cost of travelling is an investment on my life that might one day lead to something that is unforeseeable today. So I decided to stick to my plans and meet Paulo on my own and from New York I flew to Porto only stopping in London to change flights.

I had learned a lot about Portuguese architecture while in London thru another Portuguese friend - Bruno - and had been planning a trip there for almost 6 months now. But nothing I knew, read and had seen online would have prepared me for the great architecture that Paulo would introduce me to first hand!

It all started almost the very moment I got there, to start off Paulo stays in an amazing social housing project (Bouça housing complex)

designed by Pritzker prize winner and undoubtedly the most important Portuguese architect alive - Alvaro Siza. The project, though only recently (5 years back) completed was designed in 1973 and the first phase was built back in 1977 and its age is clearly visible both in its language and social intentions (pleasantly reminding me of the Kiefhoek housing project by J P Oud in South Rotterdam).

Over the span of four days I would cover over 250 kms with Paulo, who not only showed me a large no. of works by Siza but also a few by his student - Eduardo Souto de Moura and his teacher - Fernando Távora. These three masters (from different generations) of Portuguese architecture have a long history of collaboration and even share the same premises for their individual practises.

In this first posting of my trip to Portugal I will cover only the projects by these 3 architects and all within the city of Porto (and neighbouring Matosinhos) starting with the works of Alvaro Siza:

Casa de Chá Boa-Nova

This project finished in 1963 announced the arrival of Siza to the architecture scene both within Portugal and internationally.

Of all of Siza’s projects it is here that you can most clearly see the influence of Alvar Aalto’s work on his thinking.
This beautifully detailed tea house sits on an amazing site on the rocks that form the coast of Matosinhos.

Leça da Palmeira swimming-pool

The swimming pool is very close to the tea house and was completed only 3 years later, yet Siza has already moved away from an architecture interested in the vernacular to one that is more concerned about its relationship to the landscape and to its materiality.

Siza himself stresses the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture on this particular (non) building.

Promenade along Avenida da Liberdade, Matosinhos

The promenade between the tea house and swimming pool was also recently designed by Siza, in a way completing the edge of Matosinhos.

The wide pedestrian strip is designed and landscaped with great simplicity, making it one of the most pleasant beach fronts I have seen. Siza also planned where the various pavilions/restaurants were to be placed along the way (these however were designed by young Portuguese practises).

Porto architecture school

Of all of Siza’s projects in Porto the most influential one is probably his architecture school for this building is where the next generation of Porto’s architects are forming their ideas. It sits on a terraced site high above the Douro River.

The group of buildings that make up the school stretch out along two vertices of a triangular site, enclosing between them a courtyard and central meeting space.

The main building on the northern side, a continuous volume which provides visual and acoustic protection from the road above, contains departmental offices,

lecture halls, an auditorium and a library (above photo) . Across the courtyard on the southern side are four individual studio towers, which are placed several meters apart to allow views to the river, their different heights and facade configurations conforming to variations in the program.

These are connected to the main building by a series of corridors below the plaza. The volumes of the main building and towers converge westward, where a cafe pavilion and outdoor terrace mark the entrance to the site.

Bouça housing complex

As mentioned earlier the project was designed in 1973 to create social housing, what is most remarkable of this project is how Siza was able to create an amazing complex of houses at highly controlled costs!

It has to be one of the most successful mass housing scheme that works within the scale of an existing city fabric.

The relationship between the various blocks, its landscape and context is truly worth studying.

Boavista housing project

This housing project was completed in 1998 and is just of the main Avenida da Boavista on a smaller street called Rua de José Gomes Ferreira.

Its a simple housing slab on a slightly sloping site and is sometimes known as the 'wave housing'.

The Armanda Passos House

This is the latest individual house by Siza to be completed in Porto and was designed as a house- atelier for painter Armanda Passos. The house is made of three volumes, interlinked and joined around 2 patio-gardens. I understand that the house is designed with a lot of attention given to the light quality within; sadly all I could see is this view from the main road.

Serravles museum

This is probably the most important art museum of Porto and is set in Quinta de Serravles, a large property comprising a large house surrounded by a beautiful garden (below).

For the main body of the museum Siza designed a ‘U’ shaped building creating a courtyard between.

As in most of his buildings, the furniture and fittings were also designed by him, including lighting fixtures, handrails, doorknobs, and signage.

(The lights in the above picture were designed by some artist as part of an art installation in the library of the museum)

The abstract and mute white walls of the museum have some occasional openings which frame unexpected views of the garden, creating a great sense of dialogue with its landscape.

Sao Bento metro station

This is the only metro station in the city designed by Siza. It's a very straight forward design that can cope with a large no. of commuters but here to Siza has managed to get the best possible materials and quality of construction possible for a public project of this nature.

Of particular note is the hand made tiles (especially the circular ones of the columns) and his characteristic sketches along some of the key circulation spaces (and stairways)

Housing at Parque Navegantes

This is the latest project by Siza to be completed in Porto; in fact it’s yet to be occupied. This project was done in collaboration with architect Antonio Madureira – one of his students who worked for him for a long while. My friend Paulo works for Antonio and almost all their work is in collaboration with Siza.

Unlike the Bouça housing this one is not a social housing project and hence the individual houses and overall landscape/setting is of a very different level of detailing and quality.

The overall simplicity, feel and scale of the individual buildings and block as a whole reminded me of the Super Quadras in Brasilia.

Now moving on to the works of Eduardo Souto De Moura:

Edicicio Burgo

I feel this is a good project to start understanding Souto De Moura’s work, his inclination towards the architecture of Mies Van De Rohe is probably most clear here.

This complex of two buildings (one horizontal and one vertical) is configured to leave a large square along Avenida da Boavista.

Interestingly, the buildings themselves are reduced to its façade (warped in a skin made up of a single module) and - like the Seagram building in Manhattan by Mies - they merely form a background/definition to its open space.

Trindade metro station

Most of metro stations in Porto were designed by Souto De Moura. Although a large no. of them are very basic and more like urban furniture of the scale of a bus shelter he also got to design some of the more significant stations like the one at Casa da Musica and this one at Trindade .

This is the central station and the only one where the two lines of the city's metro network interface. The main building is set back off the main road creating a large open square in front of it.

Commercial building and (non city) housing along Avenida da Boavista.

In this project Souta De Moura has a lot of fun with the retail part of the program and designs a building like a succession of boxes disposed randomly over a platform. He rethinks the concept of the box-like architecture; transforming it into a composition of boxes that generate an urban façade over the avenue and here you can see similarities to contemporary Japanese architecture (especially to firms like Sanaa) bringing a certain universality to his architecture.

However, this sense is most evident in the housing component of this project where he resorts to creating a very bizarre sense of alienation by completely cutting its users out of their context.

The long featureless driveway leading to these upmarket individual houses reminded me most of utopian (or should I say dystopian) projects like no-stop-city by Archizoom. This project evokes in me the same sense of unease I have with most works by Sanaa, sadly making it impossible to appreciate its finer details!

Promenade along Av. do Gen. Norton de Matos

If the last project felt like no-stop-city this promenade in Matosinhos (with parking below) goes beyond. Souta De Moura’s extreme confidence in minimalism and super fine detailing has now reduced his architecture to non existence.

As I walked into the car park I heard in the background of my head a voice that said ‘welcome to the desert of the real’.

Nevertheless, if I were to provide a defence for this sort of ‘cold’ architecture I would probably say –‘Architecture is at its best as a mere background to everyday life and it need not actively engage with its users, it could move into a realm of scientific perfection’.

Since it is highly unlikely that I would ever have to make such a defence I will wholeheartedly agree with those who believe that architecture is all about intuition. And sincerely hope that Souta De Moura’s future projects incline more towards his earlier works that were not over obsessed with minimalism and were much more rooted in its place.

And lastly moving on to Fernando Távora:

The only project I was able to see in Porto by the pioneer of Portuguese modern architecture and member of CIAM was the ‘Velho Porto information centre’ that's right next to the city's main cathedral.

This tiny but bold project is very significant for Porto not only because of its physical location, but also as a political polemic with regards to events in the city's history. In 2001 when this project was built it fulfilled a long standing utopian idea of placing a 100 hands (palm) high secular public building at its exact location to counter the dominance of the church on this the highest hill in Porto.

The projects of these three great architects in Porto represent a rare moment in architectural history where you can clearly identify a lineage of architectural knowledge being passed on from one generation to another to develop a distinct culture of making architecture. But this is of course not the only such moment, for instance you could relate the works and concerns of the Portuguese trio Távora – Siza – Souto De Moura to that of three most important Brazilian architects of the 20th century Lucio Costa- Oscar Niemeyer-Mendes Da Rocha. In fact the more I think of it the more uncanny this comparison gets - Both Costa and Távora were highly influenced by the thinking of Le Corbusier and the ideals of CIAM but at the same time they were both working to understand and preserve ‘vernacular’ architecture in their home countries; the next generation of Niemeyer and Siza gained the maximum recognition and single-handedly defined architecture in their countries for a long while; and the youngest/current generation in both cases though extremely aware of the architectural significance of their earlier generation decides to make an architecture which seems to be less concerned about it's specific roots and starts moving towards another level of perfection in detailing and what could be considered universality in their approach to design.

Before ending this posting I will share some photos of one last project. This is the building where all three ‘Masters’ have had their respective ateliers since 1998. Távora’s office was based here till he passed away in 2005 while Souto De Moura and Siza (who also designed it) continue to use this building.

The building sits on terraced site quiet similar to the architecture school and the main studio spaces have great views to the river. The building is ‘U’ shaped in plan and the meeting rooms’ face the small courtyard.

Though this is not a public building I was able to enter it as Paulo had managed to get us an appointment to meet the great Siza himself! It goes without saying that this was THE highlight of my trip to Portugal!

We got to spend some 15 minutes with Siza – who was kind enough to draw me a nice little sketch and talk about his encounters with Indian architecture (visiting Chandigarh, meetings with B V Doshi/Charles Correa and lastly his travels in Goa).

Paulo – How could I possibly thank you for making possible this amazing trip?!!


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Sahil Latheef said...

Many thanks and Happy New Year!

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