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Four Portraits of Porto Through the Architecture of Álvaro Siza Vieira

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Every building tells a story about the city it was built in. And when an architect creates a building in the city they grew up in, it can take on a special emotional resonance.

This is certainly true of the work of Álvaro Siza Vieira, born in Matosinhos, a northern suburb of Porto, in 1933, where he studied and went on to become one of the most celebrated architects of the modern era. Internationally admired, he has designed buildings in as many countries as he has received awards, but his work in and around Porto offers some of the most perfect expressions of his design ethos, with structures that are as pleasurable to experience as they are to behold.

Described as a “poetic modernist”, Álvaro Siza Vieira has always sought to create a sense of atmosphere through architecture, caring for light and shade, pathways and feelings of possibility. This and his respect for the surroundings of a structure make his buildings deeply appealing on a human level. He is revered by the people of Porto who are justly proud of his socially oriented works.

The following four structures each tell a different story about Porto:

The Boa Nova Teahouse and Piscinas de Marés Swimming Pools

Piscinas de Marés Swimming PoolsNot many architects can claim to have had a positive influence on the love life of a city’s inhabitants, but for more than 50 years Siza Vieira’s breathtaking Boa Nova Tea House has been the setting for countless dates and marriage proposals.

Located close to Siza’s home town of Matosinhos, the teahouse was one of Siza Vieira’s earliest projects, taken on in 1956 and completed in 1963. Nestled amongst massive boulders directly overlooking the sea, its concrete walls and terracotta-tiled roof seem to be natural extensions of the landscape. The building is approached via a sequence of terraces and steps offering a succession of spectacular views. Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows are all oriented towards the sea and can slide into the ground, allowing guests to walk directly out onto the rocks.

The nearby open-air Leça de Palmeira swimming pool complex, completed in 1966, continues in a similar vein. Rather than imposing his modernist vision on the landscape, Siza made sure to respect the elemental spirit of this stretch of Atlantic coastline, enhancing it with two natural seawater pools settled among the rocks. The pools are accessed via a sequence of structures featuring changing rooms, a café and passageway between rough concrete walls before finally opening out onto the beach.

Both the teahouse and the pools offer a much-needed escape valve from the city on hot summer days and remain as beloved by locals of all ages as when they were first opened.

 

The Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art

Porto’s Museum of Contemporary art is located in a magnificent 18-hectare park that forms the grounds of the Casa Serralves, a pink art deco villa from the 1930s built by José Marques da Silva. Siza Vieira’s designs for the museum, located on the other side of the park, compliment its setting with a U-shaped structure, set around an open courtyard, reminiscent of 18th century Porto villas.

Nestled amongst the trees of the park, the blank white exterior walls are like a projection screen across which the shadows of leaves and branches slide. Visitors enter the museum via a porch followed by a long covered walkway to the entrance. The building itself offers a wealth of pleasing perspectives, a constant play of shadows and, sequences of patios and converging paths. Within, windows function like picture frames around the surrounding views.

Completed in 1999, the museum houses the Serralves Contemporary Art Foundation, devoted to contemporary art from the late 1960s onwards. It is a testament to the cultural and artistic energy that followed the Carnation Revolution of 1974 that brought an end to more than 40 years of dictatorship in Portugal. With its innovative and wide-ranging curatorial programme, the museum is not only one of the most-visited in Portugal, but an international standard; a fresh blueprint for thinking about museums and their possibilities.

 

The Architecture University

Porto Architecture UniversityPorto has a long tradition of architectural excellence, from José Marques da Silva, active from the 1890s until the 1940s, to Arménio Losa and Cassiano Barbosa from the mid 20th century, and Siza Vieira and his former student and frequent collaborator Eduardo Souto de Moura, both Pritzker Prize winners. They are all linked by the local architecture school, which educated and then employed them. Siza Vieira and Souto de Moura’s subtle, expressive and socially-oriented brand of modernism owes a debt to the school’s emphasis on public service and breaking down social barriers, a philosophy that crystallised during years of opposition to dictatorship.

For most of the 20th century the university’s architecture school functioned as a department within the school of fine art. In the 1980s, the decision was made to create a separate faculty with its own campus. This now sits on the banks of the Douro as it approaches the sea, amid an established park and gardens that plunge down the hillside towards the river.

A graduate and one of its most notable teachers, Siza Vieira was unanimously chosen by the faculty’s teaching staff to create its new home. He embarked on a staggered project over a decade during which he created a series of buildings that prioritise the students, with classrooms offering the best views over the grounds and towards the river.

Many of Siza Vieira’s signatures are here, with blank exterior walls hiding courtyards while interior façades offer great expanses of windows that fill interiors with diffused natural light. There is no hierarchy to the series of buildings; no grand entrance that dominates the setting. Instead, a host of pathways and perspectives are offered, an interplay of inner and outer space, with courtyards and patios offering shade, light and tempting settings for lingering. The architect’s respect for the surroundings is such that he even designed one pavilion with a cantilevered corner so as not to damage the roots of a 100 year-old neighbouring tree.

 

The São Bento Metro Station

The São Bento metro stationWith all Siza Vieira’s work there are pathways that take you on a journey through a building or a setting. In the 1990s he began to focus more on travel after being asked to design the São Bento metro station, part of an award-winning six-line metro project that has radically changed the way people move within Porto, forging connections between communities, suburbs and the city centre for a growing population.

São Bento metro is situated below ground under the iconic overland station of the same name, built in 1916 by José Marques da Silva. This richly decorated and ornamented structure features a soaring main vestibule whose walls are covered in traditional azulejo tiles depicting heroic scenes from Portuguese history.

With his customary absence of decoration, Siza Vieira’s designs seem austere in comparison. His focus instead has been on volume, perspectives and light, giving metro users a sense of space and wellbeing. The effect is elegant and airy, with columns, wells of light and simple materials: off-white tiles, pale concrete, glass and steel. Proving that he is no cold modernist, he also offers a cheeky wink to the neighbour upstairs; look carefully among the white tiles and you might find one or two featuring da Silva’s quirky little sketches.

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