· Personality · · T. Maria Cruz · P. Daniel Camacho

Álvaro Siza Vieira

«When it comes to time, a person always loses»

Villas&Golfe Adv.

One, two, three, four, five...we lost count of the number of cigarettes he lit up. In a protracted conversation we listened to stories, experiences, and talked about the projects of the most awarded Portuguese architect ever - Álvaro Siza Vieira. Between each question, he lit a cigarette. Is it an addiction? Consolation? Maybe both. But what is certain is that our interview lasted as long as cigarettes did. Because if there had been any more, we would have talked longer. Siza Vieira is a byword in the history of Portuguese architecture. In his career he has accumulated various projects, travels, awards, and an innate knowledge of someone, who, with life, has learned to overcome challenges. And the challenge laid down by the arts began when he was still a child. His uncle, his father’s brother, would put him on his knee, hand him a piece of paper, and teach him how to draw, horses in particular. «I have to say that it was he who taught me and got me used to drawing», the architect revealed. He even invented him a nom de guerre for him, with which to sign his work – AJO. In our interview, Siza Vieira recalled his childhood, the April 25th Revolution and architectural life. He confessed to liking music. He revealed that if he were not an architect he would be a sculptor. He admitted laughing at a good film and at conversations between friends. Asked what makes him cry, he didn’t want to talk. And about dreams...he says that he still has some yet to come true.

You were born in 1933, with the birth of the Estado Novo and the Portuguese constitution of 1933. You spent all of your education and training, in this case more than 40 years, under authoritarian Portugal, until the constitution of 1976. They were two political phases and two completely opposite legislative ones. What do you recall of them?
I do not know the constitution in detail; but I do know the mood felt in the country. Of course my experience was as a student of architecture. It was a much closed country, with little information. And speaking of the architecture course: people who were fighting for contemporary architecture gave up. Some of the professors were great architects, and either gave up or worked under very constrained conditions. The lack of information was very different from what it had been in the 1930s, as some went to study in Paris or Rome. And this came to an end. There were great architects, for example, Rogério de Azevedo, in Oporto, and Manuel Marques – he was an architect of exceptional quality, he did a few houses in Oporto, almost all of them have disappeared or have been changed, and he made the famous Farmácia de Itália, which remains to this day. Then there was a void [I’m talking about the School of Oporto], which only changed after the end of the war. After the war, there was a relative opening up and, above all else, there was the arrival of architect Carlos Ramos. Carlos Ramos called in new lecturers, because the others were at retirement age, and he called in very young and very committed people. He made some excellent choices, such as Távora, Loureiro and others.

Tell us a bit about your time as a recently graduated architect.
Right after Carlos Ramos joined the faculty, together with this new generation of teaching staff, although I had still had, in the first and second year, the previous teachers, I saw that, as they were very high quality people, there was a latent frustration that was being communicated to the school in general. It was a really exciting revelation, but it only truly changed after several academic crises, after the April 25th Revolution. There was a marginalisation and, because of the work, it was much criticised and ridiculed. Interestingly, my entry into the work market, outside Portugal, was due to this, because this ‘programming’, also in a political and European context, and democratisation, had a great impact outside Portugal and, therefore, I received my first invitation to Berlin and then to the Netherlands.

«I don’t see ‘dark’ architecture in China, and in Europe I do see it»

What years are we talking about?
The 80s. In 76 I was invited to do the Malagueira project, in Évora. 

You were born in Matosinhos. What was Matosinhos like, architecturally speaking, in the old days?
In the 1950s, Fernando Távora, who was a friend of the mayor, António Fernando Oliveira, was called, not only because he was a friend, but because he was a person necessary for what really mattered in Matosinhos - which was working. The first important thing that Távora did in Matosinhos was a plan for the harbour area. It was the mayor himself and the director of the Port Administration, who called him. A viaduct needed to be built, the drawbridge, the entire layout around the harbour. The first call was to make a tourist park, on what was left of the land expropriated by the council to build the harbour, so the harbour didn’t need it all. Távora was called and it was there that he said to them: «Be carfeful! This isn’t going to work, with this system». This mayor was interested in the subject of tourism, because it was something hardly talked about. He called Távora to organise a tendering procedure for the Boa Nova restaurant. I and others worked with Távora. But Távora couldn’t make a bid. So he told us at the time: «You (employees) can do the bid and I’ll sign it». There were five of us. And that is how the Boa Nova came about. Later on, I was given the Leça Swimming Baths. I did the entire plan for Leça, the historic area and the waterfront, which fell by the wayside, because, in the meantime, the 25th April Revolution took place – and a situation of great instability came about. I was going to submit the plan on April 25, 1974. I didn’t make it there. This programme, this interest in tourism, was widely criticised in the city, because it was considered elitist and not problem-focused.

It never made it any further...
It ended up being tied up with the revision to the fundamental harbour plan for the new Matosinhos. The council involved many good architects, such as Arménio Losa. Matosinhos went through a major boost, following a period of standstill, coinciding with the decline of the canning industry. The factories began to be abandoned and these new ideas, linked to the harbour and tourism, completely transformed the city and gave it a different dynamism.

The subject of our interview is the man Álvaro Siza and his work. How were the times of your civic formation?
They were quiet, in Matosinhos. Although there was this development connected to the war. There were people who got rich in Matosinhos. It is interesting that the trawler boat owners, who got rich, were heralded like football stars. There were no radars then. There were those who managed to bring in huge hauls and they were fought over, almost like stars. And they called in quality architects. I remember Godinho – there is a factory still standing there, when you get to the Avenida da República, on Brito Capelo.

What were the streets of your childhood and how did you get on with people?
They were times of neighbourliness. The kids all got along with the other kids in the neighbourhood. It was a very parochial life, but very peaceful. A happy childhood.

«THE CAREER THAT SOMEONE OF MY AGE HAS HAD IN A COUNTRY LIKE PORTUGAL, IN LIGHT OF OTHER CAREERS, OBVIOUSLY CANNOT HAVE THE SAME IMPORTANCE» 

And what architecture was like?
The only thing I remember about the architecture is that there were many houses of these fishermen. And in front of my grandmother’s house was the Farmácia Moderna. It was the idea it had of ​​modernity, and it’s funny because even today it’s still the Farmácia Moderna. I even wrote a text about the Farmácia Moderna once. When there was the controversy about modern and postmodern, in which, to conclude, I said that I had no knowledge of any pharmacy that had been postmodern, but the «Moderna» was still there.

Has your grandmother’s house stuck in your memory?
My grandmother’s house was one of the so-called «Seven Houses». My family went to Brazil and then came back from there. At the time, the commander, who was Sr. Matos, built the «Seven Houses», and his house, which was a magnificent house, on the corner of Avenida da República and Brito Capelo, was demolished. One of the houses was given to an aunt, my father’s sister, who was Sr. Matos’s goddaughter. It is currently my sister Teresa’s house. From what I remember, and I must have been about six or seven years old, it’s from dock no. 1. The atmosphere in Matosinhos was very marked by the canning factories. Then competition from Morocco started to be felt and the industry began to lose. And the atmosphere was very marked by the women of the factory, because the workforce was feminine. They slept in the Real Vinícola building – today the Casa da Aquitectura.

What did you play with as a child?
With the neighbours. There was a time when (and you can see why) the kids were playing war games, because propaganda movements began to appear, and the German soldiers, en masse, and the allies, went their separate ways. So we organised simulated wars in the backyard.

And apart from these simulated ones, how did the war affect you?
I remember how the kids helped by putting tape on the windows, on the glass, because there was the fear that there would be bombing [and this was going to happen]. If Franco has not closed the door on Hitler, when he realised that Hitler coveted an alliance, and if Franco had allied himself with Hitler, it was very difficult to resist. I remember at night all the lights had to be turned off and, on one occasion, the legion came (something like the territorial civil defence) and knocked on the door because we had forgotten that there was a skylight and inside the house the light it was on, so it could be seen from outside. And I remember the end of the war. There was a big party.

«CONCENTRATION IS FUNDAMENTAL AND IS THE RESPONSE TO FEAR»

Is there any trait of your father, of your grandfather that influenced you in this talent for architecture, for the arts?
My great-grandfather, perhaps, through reports and photographs. My great-grandfather was a photographer in Belém do Pará (Brazil). Incidentally, my sister recently published a book, after doing research in Brazil and here, and with what she had at home, because when the family came, they brought some pictures, not the cameras. This great-grandfather was a great photographer. He got, for example, a medal at the Chicago exhibition. He was in Paris on the day the Eiffel Tower opened. He was a man with a lot of energy. A modern man. My father would tell us kids things about Brazil - my father came back when very young, he was about 13 or 14 years old. We were always left with a clear idea of ​​Brazil through my father’s accounts. He made an album from Pará, which was published with photographs of his of Belém do Pará. So that might have had some influence. I also remember that an uncle of mine, my father’s brother, when I was like this (little) would take me on his knee, hand me a piece of paper and teach me how to do drawings, especially horses. I have to say that it was he who taught me and got me used to drawing. At one point he said to me, «you have to sign these drawings», and so I started to sign. He invented a nom de guerre for me to sign with.

What was that name?
AJO.

AJO?
Yes. AJO. Because I am Álvaro Joaquim. He invented that abbreviation (he laughs).

So, Fine Arts came from your uncle’s influence?
I think so, because I really started to draw. In the first drawings he would take my hand, but then my hand started to be better than his (he laughs). He always got me excited about it, at this tender age. The compulsion to draw remained. There’s no doubt it came from there. The stories about my great-grandfather’s life came later. By the way, the «Sizas» stayed there (in Brazil), because my grandmother and my grandfather died there, my great-grandfather is who died here, shortly afterwards, but my grandmother’s siblings stayed there. At that time, communication was not like it is today. The family ties were completely lost. But later, my sister, who is the archives director, started to have a lot to do with Brazil, and also to gather a lot of information about our great-grandfather, and contacted Brazilian photographers, and, at a given moment, discovered the «Sizas». On top of that, I had a project in Brazil...and the «Sizas» started to appear. At one point I was invited to take part in an exhibition with photographs by my great-grandfather and of Pará, and drawings by me, of my places, as they are now. I went to Pará. I still remember driving along the road and hearing a shout: «cousin!». I met some of them.

Have you designed a house for yourself?
I have a two-bedroom place in Évora. For two reasons: I worked on that plan for about 15 or 20 years and was already tired of staying in hotels, because I went to Évora every week. I would either stay in a hotel or at my employee’s house, who I had managed to convince to go to Évora. The other reason is that the house is in Malagueira and, according to the principles of the plan, there were things I wanted to do in the houses, but they were not accepted. They were cooperative and didn’t like it; they thought it was bad and poor. I took the opportunity to make that house (mine) to introduce some of these aspects that had not been accepted: one was the plumbing in plain view, because the houses were so inexpensive, and the walls were in concrete blocks, wood and the roof had to be initially in asbestos cement - not yet known to be a carcinogen -, then at a later stage it was concrete slabs; then I wanted to make the piping in plain view. So I did it at my house - in steel and stainless steel - and people saw and liked it. When I went there I slept at home.

Do you still have this house?
I still have it, but now it’s rented out to an English historian architect, who ended up with the Malagueira files. He has been trying for years to convince the council to make a central hub.

What is view of architecture in the future?
Dark.

Why?
In the past, we would say: «This wouldn’t happen in Europe», but now there isn’t even this ‘consolation’, because, abroad, in many countries, it is much worse, there is the habit of the architect who only does a beautiful drawing, an image, usually it will have to be a virtual image and then goes away. Who wants an architect on the construction site?! No one. Then they go away. Just like I received a letter about a work I did in France that said: «What we want is your talent, forget this idea of doing ​​details, leave that to the experts» - in this case the experts are the builders. So afterwards, these are the ones who decide on the details.

And do you smoke out of habit, for inspiration, or is it simply good?
No. At my age there are many doctors who say that stopping smoking is dangerous because it is a shock to the body. I now have justification for carrying on smoking (he laughs).

That’s justification for not quitting smoking?
This is real. In fact, I have to say that three of my colleagues, who quit smoking at different times, but relatively late in life, have had heart problems. I’m 85 years old. Is there any reason to quit smoking to make it until you’re 150 years old?!

How long have you been smoking?
I started smoking late. I think I was 20 years old. At the time, people would take up smoking at the age of 12. But there is one thing. I don’t inhale. I’m a third class smoker (he laughs).

«I am much more scared about becoming useless and not dying»

You always have little time and you are always in a hurry. Do you like this race against time?
I wish I could race about (he laughs). I cannot. So I walk nice and slowly. When it comes to time, a person always loses. There’s no point in running about. I keep as active as I can, although I’ve cut out a lot of travel and so on. Although today we have other ways of getting to know the site. I have a lot of work in China, Korea, and I’ve been there ten times. I work with Castanheira, an architect with whom I have worked in the Netherlands and Italy, who is much younger, a very good architect, and very energetic, and he goes there every month and a half or so. We have been fortunate that all the projects we have had there are by people who wanted quality and supported good working conditions. They respected the plans, etc. This is already very difficult in Europe. That’s why I don’t see ‘dark’ architecture in China, and in Europe I do see it.

Does there have to be an exchange of ideas between the architect and the construction team?
Yes. There has to be coordination. The quality of a building comes from how it is built. The work is team work. You need engineers and architects. An architect does not work alone. Now a law has come out, which has been passed, in which teams must have an coordinating engineer. This means that the architect is already practically removed from being present at the construction, because there are also management teams, and an expert cannot be a coordinator by nature. If you are a specialist, there is no one who specializes in everything, so how can you be a coordinator?!

Álvaro Siza is an icon. You have won a whole host of prizes. You are extremely well known. What do you think they will say about you in many years?
Nothing (he laughs). I am taking the words from Saramago there, who said: «100 years from now nobody will remember me». Well, as I’m not Saramago, I have to reduce the number of years; I wouldn’t say 100 anymore, rather somewhere more around the 20-year mark (he laughs). What can be left, of any of us, is what has been communicated, and that, those have been communicated to, communicate. Because what they communicate is not only what comes from themselves, but rather what comes from many.

Are you referring to the passing on of knowledge?
The passing on, the absorption, the contacts, the team ... then some lines remain in the stories of architecture.

«An architect wanting to do sculpture is not very well regarded»

Álvaro Siza will be like Gaudí or Alvar Aalto, who also went down in history.
There will be some lines left about me. The career that someone of my age has had in a country like Portugal, in light of other careers, obviously cannot have the same importance. I’m being a realist, not modest. In fact, it really doesn’t matter to me, this is the truth (he laughs).

Do you make many mistakes?
I don’t have much confidence. I am aware that everyone else is the same. The way I design stems from doubt, with relation to concrete things, and doubt with relation to my own decisions. There will be mistakes, of course. But at least they don’t last, like when I did the Berlin building, which showed up in the Architects Association newspaper, in the 1980s, with a photograph of the building I had done and the caption reading: «The stupidest building in Berlin». I don’t think it is. And I thought, «Well, it might have major flaws, but it’s not stupid».

What was the most unusual thing you have been asked to include in a project?
Many things I do not agree with come up. A project also comes about from this kind of conflict, something with which I have no problem, in that there are these mismatches. On the contrary. These mismatches allow them to mature through dialogue. Sometimes dialogue is impossible, but this happens very rarely. For example, speaking of a project that is intensely lived, subjectively, which is the house: no client, for whom I have done a house, and sometimes with very relative disagreements, has become upset, they all became friends. I have none that have not become friends, and there have often been arguments. Now, when there is no possibility of dialogue, this usually reveals itself from the outset. It is not a battle of which you would say «this is a losing battle» because anyone who comes to ask an architect to design a house goes to that architect because he wants to, and because he already knows the ideas of his works. Sometimes funny things happen too, for example, I remember a client who, after 30 years with my projects, tells me: «what I like is that house that you did...»

Drawing: This is Leça da Palmeira

How do you deal with fear?
When they give me a project, yes, I’m afraid. First of all, projects are all difficult and I am afraid of not getting engaged in them and, as a result, of having deadlines, and, therefore, what I know...

You get anxious?
Yes, a bit anxious. I make a real effort and concentrate. Concentration is fundamental and is the response to fear.

How do you deal with death?
By waiting for it (he laughs). I don’t think about it much. If you think about it a lot, it’s unpleasant while you’re living. I am much more scared about becoming useless and not dying. That’s awful. I would like to die suddenly, I think that’s a good way to go, it would be the most pleasant death (he laughs). It is very unpleasant for families, friends, it is terrible, but for the person themselves, it is the best. Losing your faculties and living for years is not the best, not least because when that happens, you never really know, not even doctors, whether the person who can no longer speak, is aware of it or not. This is what I am scared of.

«WHAT ANNOYS ME THE MOST IS TO GETTING BORED (HE LAUGHS), THAT’S WHY ON SATURDAYS AND SUNDAYS I COME HERE (THE STUDIO

If you were not an architect what would you be?
I wanted to be a sculptor.

A sculptor?
I started a Fine Arts course because my family, especially my father, was very worried when I told them I wanted to do sculpture. At that time! This is not the case today; then it was associated with bohemian lifestyles and poverty. My father was worried. At the fine arts school they did sculpture, architecture, painting. I ended up going to the school and ended up taking an interest [in architecture].

And sculpture?
I still do it, but it is an almost clandestine activity. It doesn't have much to do with architecture, because it’s another of these specialisation foibles. Sculpture is sculpture, painting is painting, architecture is architecture. An architect wanting to do sculpture is not very well regarded. But I do it. I recently did an exhibition in Spain.

Of your sculptures?
My sculptures and those of another sculptor. It is a foundation of a great Spanish sculptor, Alfaro, now deceased. It’s funny because they put Alfaro and Siza in the catalogue. People would pick up the catalogue and say, «these guys are crazy, they write ‘Alfaro’ instead of Álvaro», they thought it was a mistake.

What makes you laugh?
A good film. Conversations with friends, which often lead to laughter. When I am in a bad mood about something I also laugh at myself. It is a very healthy thing. And television shows and films.

And what makes you cry?
Ah, that I won’t say.

And what annoys you the most?
What annoys me the most is to getting bored (he laughs), that’s why on Saturdays and Sundays I come here (the studio). Firstly, to take stock of everything, a chart of the work, because you need to have connection between them and, then, because if I don’t do anything, I end up, as I can no longer run, sitting in a chair watching TV, and that is very depressing. It annoys me, of course. Not least because there are many bad programmes, but there are also many good programmes.

Do you still have dreams?
I do.

What do you dream about?
Sometimes about projects I’m doing, and I dream of the right solution, and the next day, when I wake up all excited, I can see it was tremendous nonsense. I often dream of people I have never seen and who appear in the dream very clear and real. A dream that I’ll never forget was one that was so incredibly real and in colour. I was driving north with friends (Távora was one of them), past the old bridge of Vila do Conde, and, suddenly we noticed a gigantic wave on the coastline and began to flee; and a yellow bus went across the road. And when I was about to die drowning, I woke up in great distress.

You made it out of that one...
That dream had a reason. Some have no reason. But this one did. When a tanker ran aground, in the Port of Leixões, before entering the port, it ended up at Castelo do Queijo, and I was coming down the rampa, in this case Avenida da Boavista, and suddenly I saw the sky ablaze with red. It was an impressive thing. The tanker burned. It was certainly the origin of my dream.

What is your favourite colour?
The favourite colour for an architect depends on the colours he will use in his project. There is no favourite colour, there is a colour you’re searching for.

Any music you like to listen to?
I like to listen to music. Again, there are some very interesting, collective periods. The music came collectively, not in large recitals. I remember the time when Brazilian music turned up in strength, Maria Betânia, Gilberto Gil...many an evening passed listening to music. Then there was a time when it was the Beatles. I bought all their records. The White Album was my favourite. Then came the phase of political influence, Paco Ibáñez, Zeca Afonso, José Mário Branco... I recall that, on the night of April 24, I was at home, with a group of friends, and I had bought Paco Ibáñez's album in Barcelona, which features songs with very revolutionary Spanish poetry, and we were listening to Paco Ibáñez until two in the morning. And around 5 in the morning one of my friends calls me and says, «turn on the radio». I thought, «this guy is crazy». I turned on the radio. They were announcing the first reports of the April 25th Revolution, when I turned it on, it was about the military marches. I soon realised what it was. Everyone understood, just because, just before, there had been a major military coup. It was imminent. 

Has any film left its mark on you?
Many. At the time, when I started at university, there was the phase of neo-realistic films. They had a huge impact. Then, throughout my life, Hitchcock. The French never impressed me. I liked Aniki Bobó. And the film about Oporto, The Artist and the City, by Manuel de Oliveira. Very good.

And now a challenge.
A challenge?

With regard to what we talked about here: your memories. What would you draw on paper?
There was so much.

Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
P. Daniel Camacho