Unit 2 in Conversation with Álvaro Siza
in The Second City: Studies on Porto & its Peripheries, Unit 2 2011

On the 10th of December 2010, Unit 2 met Álvaro Siza in his studio, a building he designed in the margins of the Douro River, in Porto. We arrived punctually, at 6.00pm, excited and slightly nervous. We entered his meeting room and asked for permission to record the conversation, to which Siza agreed. He welcomed us, lit a cigarette, and confessed he was extremely tired, after a troubled journey from South Korea. Here is an excerpt of the conversation:

(...)

Paulo Moreira (PM): Our topic this year grows out of a sentence you wrote. We called the project “The Second City: Porto’s Centres and Peripheries.” Your sentence said: ‘There is a second city. Unreal, imaginary, made of demolished houses and never realised projects and yet all of them present. The majority of an architect’s work has to do with this second city; and it is never wasted effort… Architecture is risk, and risk requires impersonal desire and anonymity, starting with the fusion of subjectivity and objectivity. After all, with progressive distancing the I.’

Álvaro Siza (ÁS): Where did I write that? (laughter) I don’t remember it. Where did you see it?

Elaine Radcliffe: Animal Vocation.

ÁS: Sorry?

Kieran Brash (KB): Animal Vocation is the name of the essay.

ÁS: But maybe I wrote that years ago, you have to write so many things! What do you comment about the phrase?

PM: We are looking at the problems of Porto, centre and periphery. How technology transformed the city, for instance the Avenida da Ponte became a problem when the bridge arrives and you have to cut through the fabric of the city. Or we are also studying the Quinta de Conceição, which was also changed when the port was built.

ÁS: Tavora worked in the Quinta de Conceição.

PM: Yes, and your swimming pool.

ÁS: Yes.

PM: Now we are also working close to São Victor, where you built social housing.

ÁS: That project is no more.

PM: They are still there!

ÁS: Well what is there is not my project…

PM: Another thing…

ÁS: Another thing, yes. That work was interrupted by political reasons... You know the story of the work, no?

PM: I do, but maybe you could tell a bit about it.

ÁS: That was in the programme after the revolution in ‘74, the new government organised a programme of support for people living in very poor areas in Lisbon, Algarve and so on. They organised teams that studied different areas, with the participation of local residents and organised the process of expropriation of land. The project is about recuperation. São Victor was one of these areas, but then it was a mess… The work was made with the collaboration of students, few architects were there because it was crossed by conflict, many problems, so I worked with a team of 6 students. One of them was Souto de Moura. We organised the expropriation process, we made the plans and begin this. (Paulo showing project in book) Yes, this is the area.

PM: Only this part was built. (pointing at the book)

ÁS: (Looking in book) Maybe there is a general plan here… or not. No. It is not very well organised this book. (Begins sketching the housing conditions of the residents, before his project was built) There is this area, then another big area in the back of the house, here we call it “ilha” (island). It is housing for 19th century workers, when the town and the country developed industries, in the beginning of the industrialisation. So, there was many people coming to the town, and stayed inside the blocks, where the garden should be. This is why the lots are deep, small houses usually standing back to back. (keeps sketching) This is another house, the main house, and in the inner plot, small houses normally 4 and a half meters by 4 and a half metres. Families of workers live there. They organised these small communities but with no connection. Here one and there another one but no communication. It was a hidden town and in the end of 19th Century half of the population of Porto lived like this. So the programme was, together with the families that lived here, to organise the projects and to build the new constructions, or recuperating parts, by addition. (keeps sketching) So, one house here, one house here. 4 and a half by maybe 4. And in another lot, another one. The sanitaries connected between those. The way to reorganise São Victor was putting together two houses or adding one floor to use this typology to better connect all of them by interior streets, so instead of being an island there was communication between buildings using the walls that connect two houses or three houses to give direct communication.

The centre is full of these things, perhaps you saw it a lot. Then what had happened in the demolitions to make houses for rich people or people who live better, it exposed to the periphery the population living in the centre. Real communities, organized, very dense and full of a special way of life. The space was very small, there was not much exterior area and they would eat and talk and make life, and work eventually.
This was the plan for São Victor, but also for other areas, different teams in different areas. There was an organisation like an association between different areas. The whole thing became complicated politically because that was inconvenient for the speculators that began already a different process.
So, in that period of conflict there was also a kind of fight for power. These people in the different areas supported the military, the revolution. You know the story?

PM: Yes. Every site we are working on is somehow related to an intervention you have done around the city, maybe some of you (looking at the students) would like to ask about Matosinhos, Avenida da Ponte and Quinta de Conceição?

ÁS: Let me tell something about this. What happened with this when the programme was finished. Personally I was completely fine with the other architects that were in this programme. For so many years we had no work in the town because we had to pay for the fact of having worked in these programmes. There was solidarity among those people. Then the first thing immediately made by some elements of the municipality, was to destroy this (pointing at up-to-date photos of São Victor housing). Have you seen photos of how it was? That I don’t see here.

PM: We went there yesterday.

ÁS: (keeps pointing to the book) These houses were built between the old walls. The municipality demolished all this so there was a cross between the old organisation of the block site and the new buildings. So they took all the windows very carefully to denigrate the area, to prove that it was a bad project. I believe it was the same with this (pointing at Bouça Social Housing, also in Porto). It was interrupted for 30 years and recently they decided to finish.

PM: Some of the students are staying there.

ÁS: In fact I think in 30 years they will make the opposite.

PM: Avenida da Ponte was exactly the same thing?

ÁS: In Avenida da Ponte I’ve done one project in ’68 that was not built, executed drawings for the project and so on. And I was invited in 2001 to make a new project. The time was different, everything had changed. I made it quickly because it had to be a finished for 2001 European Capital of Culture. So, when I finished the Avenida da Ponte project it was approved by the ex-commission but in that moment the municipality proposed another condition that didn’t approve my second project. I will not make a third.

PM: You will not?

ÁS: No, I promised myself. This is a disgrace of a town, that has been degregated, that is transformed in a stupid way, nothing to do. You see this area (starts sketching the topography of the Douro valey). This was a beautiful town, and still is. For a long time is really near the river. The borders of the river were almost all organised in terraces, until reaching Spain. The terraces were made with supporting walls. Do they know the topography and landscape?

PM: Yes they know, we have been walking...

ÁS: This was for the wine, the region of wine, port wine. But this organisation was coming until the sea, until Porto and there were gardens of wine, gardens and houses along the river and the centre. Beautiful houses of the 19th century bourgeois. In the centre the presence of the of bay trees, so the landscape along the river consisted on terraces and gardens with houses. On the other side, storage for the port wine, in Gaia. But now what has been made is a plan to build facades with 7 or 8 floors, closing all this. In the centre, it was built a terrible hotel, a disaster, a true disaster, this is the point, a complete disaster.

PM: We are also looking at the north of Porto, where the city meets the ocean, Parque da Cidade, and Matosinhos. We had a talk with António Madureira at FAUP, he was showing us the master plan of Matosinhos Sul . We are looking at the unsolved area of Parque da Cidade: the area of the “Queimódromo”, now also used as the Red Bull air race landing ground.

ÁS: No. We did not make a master plan in fact. What we did there was a plan for an area that didn’t work. (Paulo shows plan in the book, Siza looks at it and starts sketching) Yes, before our intervention, if someone wanted to rebuild a factory, he should make an agreement with all the owners within the block, and that didn’t work because some wanted to make a renewal and some didn’t want. So it was completely blocked. I was asked to make a revision of the plan. Basically the revision was to consider the way that this could be made plot by plot by plot. The result was that we had this built. So it was a way to make possible the needs of construction that existed. Matosinhos became a residential area for Porto. All of that is a part of the big mistakes. Porto began leaving the centre behind. Centre is dead. If you are there by night there is no one. The ideas for renewal were completely crazy. The idea is to make Friday and Saturday parties on the street with young people. So they go, they arrive there and the town is fantastic. But the few people that live there, they are leaving because they cannot sleep. Just hotels. On the second night, tourists go away because they cannot sleep. And Monday again everything is empty. The town began renovating because in periphery of town new urbanisation were approved. This was more appetising for speculators. And also cheaper. Because in the centre, even today, it is easier to buy one house than to renovate it. So they began building here and began building in Matosinhos next. The centre today has the same population than in the 30’s. Population decreased, very much.

So what we did was to create conditions there to develop, to build in the centre of Matosinhos. (sketches a typical block in Matosinhos Sul) In the interior of the block there are gardens. And there were regulations for parking, underground parking and the amount of land on it so that you can plant trees and gardens here. (He points to the book) And then we proposed to recuperate this diagonal.

PM: Yes, the ‘Broadway’.

ÁS: Before it was for a train, used to build the harbour in the end of 19th Century. And we designed the street profiles, which were not executed as they were designed.

PM: How do you see the border with Parque da Cidade, do you think it is somehow...

ÁS: Yes, what happened there was amazing. This building here (points to the book) was approved by the Municipality, with three times the volume of what is in the plan. We tried to reduce the possibility of negotiation so that wouldn’t occur.

PM: The relation with Porto is difficult...

ÁS: The relation with Porto is impossible. Because the town of Porto, as a good neighbour, always said that it would not spent money on a park for the benefict of Matosinhos. So never there was an agreement between the two towns. And then Porto made here this intervention. (points to the limit of Parque da Cidade, opposite from Matosinhos Sul) Souto de Moura made a very good one here. Which had many critics. A very good project that works. But then they called another architect. That I don’t understand, how they got a Spanish architect. And made a terrible building.

PM: The transparent building.

ÁS: Yes, the transparent building. And in the rotunda here, a car parking where nobody goes. Completely crazy thing. A historical town, Porto, is a complete disaster, a complete disaster. A step away from being destroyed. A town that was considered of world interest, I don’t know how UNESCO maintains the specification. Because step by step… Very bad process. So it’s good for you to visit Porto, because you learn a lot, you can see what not to do.

PM: Does anyone have a question?

Tim Burton: We have been researching the Quinta da Conceição and we presented our research to your former assistant Madureira yesterday and he was telling us that on the project, when you were working with Távora, you became so immersed in the swimming pool and took so much time over it that he eventually said ‘you take the project, take it on yourself.’ I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about working with Távora on that project?

ÁS: I begin working, Távora had made a plan, it included a swimming pool in that site, that was using the existing swimming pool...

PM: A water tank, for the watering of the vegetation, right?

ÁS: Yes. In that time, he invited me to work in his office, and one of the projects he decided I should work on was the swimming pool, that swimming pool. There was a previous project. And I began studying it. I was deeply engaged in it. I was young, without experience. But I was engaged with it. I thought I would never finish the project. Távora was an extremely generous person. I think he saw my interest and engagement in it. And decided to give me the opportunity. So he said “you’ll never finish it, you’re suffering. It’s better if you take it home and you develop the project”. And I did. This was possible in those times, today it would be impossible, because we had a contract with the Municipality and the Major – in a town – maybe two engineers and no architect, so I would be irrelevant, almost. So he told the major, who was a friend of his: “Siza will develop it. I accompanied the project”. So I made the project. Basically the organisation is exactly what Távora did in his previous project. (begins sketching) We have already this area, a small bar, and so on, this was existing, this pool. I began developing it more or less. More or less with intention of using the language of the tennis pavilion which you have seen. But by developing it, I realised that we needed space. This was the top of the hill. (keeps sketching) It was like this, so I realised that I needed to create spaces, then to create supporting walls. And step by step and by step this changed very much the project in terms of the language. It became more geometric and more organic than it was in the project of Távora. He supported the solution when I had talks with the Municipality. Also this change with the platforms, is only a reference to the previous work I had made, the restaurant (Casa de Chá da Boa Nova) and the swimming pool (Piscina das Marés). First, the restaurant – and the restaurant this publication has nothing to show. (flips though the book) Because in these photos what I want to say is not shown. First we made... it was a team, the story is that I and the other four, we were working in Távora’s office. He received a grant to be outside for one year to visit United States and Japan, a round trip to visit schools and visiting projects. It was wonderful. There are three sketchbooks that will be published soon, I hope with drawings of what he visited and texts of what he wrote... A wonderful document. Do you know?

PM: No, I didn’t know that.

ÁS: There is now the intention to publish the facsimile of his travel sketches. So, another thing that would be impossible, today: he told all the collaborators to enter the competition. And I entered because we were not yet architects, it was like this in the 50’s. Two or three days before travelling, he came with to the site, he said “the site must be here”. We were in panic! Because it was extremely difficult, with the rocks. He went away and arrived two or three days before the submission, and he wrote a wonderful text that I think was the reason why we won the competition. Because the work was not good. It was enclosed in two volumes.

PM: The competition project was different to the one that was built?

ÁS: Yes, yes, and we won. We worked during one year. The work was not going well. It was going bad, bad, bad. And one day I went home, every night I take drawing to my house, and I remember one night I said this is a mess, it cannot be like this. I made one roof and all is contained within this horizontal (starts flipping through the book) Of course there is no photo to show it! You visit it, on the other side there is a horizontal roof that contains the room and another that contains the reception and so on. My colleges were crazy, they were sure I was crazy, ‘You are crazy we are working for one year, have all the details, and now we change?’ We went to speak with Távora to show the problem. And he saw this solution. He said yes, it was much better. The other colleges accepted and we worked for another year. This was the result (pointing to photograph and sketching) Later we did the access, one of the problems we had not solved was how to align this and here we see the access is made with these big walls, geometric walls. So when I made the Quinta da Conceição, I was already in this way of illation of landscape. Not placing the building, putting it between the rocks and thinking of all the small adaptations. It is essential, the relation with landscape. (points to the swimming pool at Quinta da Conceição) And that is the reason why when I made this one, these are changing volumes, platforms and so. The swimming pool is already a result of my view of what had been done here before, the relation with the rocks and so is much more open as an approach than it is in the Quinta da Conceição. So, I changed my way of considering the relation with landscape. You can see here. (shows photograph) The relation with the essential lines of the landscape and not with the small. So in this time, to work in architecture was much more friendly, you know...

PM: How different is it?

ÁS: Completely different. But on the other hand, few things were built, the country was very closed, not moving, only a few were working and it was terrible. But the change, the healthy change for opening this country, organising people, quickly led to the constraints that exist today, in charge of bureaucracy. It is terrible, every week a new regulation, each week a new machine to monitor… cameras to see what we do, spying on our lives and so on.

PM: And the changes in politics. When you had the exhibition in Serralves Museum, you said that everytime a new minister of culture or director changed, there were major changes in the programmes...

ÁS: Yes, I had to deal with 3 ministers of culture. One wants it big, the next wants it smaller, the next wants it bigger again. It was your minister Churchill... they are English, no? Or some of them? (asks Paulo) They remember Churchill, you have an idea of Churchill. He said that democracy was a terrible, horrible thing, but it was the best horrible! The best of what we could achieve, that’s what he was saying. One thing that depends on governments… (sketches a scheme) A Mayor is there 4 years: he arrives, 2 years he has to study, what to do, then he charges an architect who has to do a competition which takes 6 months and then according to regulation or European community, the application for construction is 6 months, so in the last year... in one year you cannot build a museum, but you have to. So it’s a bad building.

And if by chance you convince that it must take more time, eventually, many times a new Major comes, because this one looses election, then this one does not do the same thing, this one must be different. So, 4 years is not enough to do a project. That is the basic thing. 4 years is not enough. Because at least 3 years are lost in the decision of making the thing possible. One year at least for the architectural competition. One year for the contractor competition. Time passes, speaking of polemics. Between the project and construction, when the project appears, it becomes a polemic. Working in democracy, what should be a wonderful thing, became a mess. (laughter)

Amy Bradley Smith: A few of us are working on the Avenida da Ponte and we have been looking at your masterplan for that and perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the relationship between the plan and the buildings that were demolished previously. There’s an interesting diagram where your masterplan is overlaid on the demolitions. Also maybe you could tell us a little bit about your plan’s relationship to Távora’s Casa dos Vinte e Quatro?

ÁS: (looks at Paulo) Hmm, can you translate? She speaks too well! (laughter) I can speak in English, no problem with German people, Dutch people, with English people… that’s the problem!

PM: I know what you mean, I have the same problem! (Laughter; translates the question into Portuguese)

ÁS: Right, you know what happened, in the end of the 19th Century, there was a bridge at the lower level. (begins sketching) First there was a bridge on boats. There was a big disaster in the Napoleon wars. So they made the first one like this. You find that in the centre of Porto, suspended. This was the centre of Porto, with banks, shops and so on, and the harbour was here, Ribeira. But the town began developing on the higher level. And to the interior. So, in a moment, what was necessary was a bridge at this level. And then, they built that wonderful bridge with the two levels and the town began developing. This movement had begun in the 18th Century and at the end of the 19th Century the centre was already here. (keeps sketching) So this entered into a process of dereliction and development. They decided, maybe here, they destroyed to make a connection to the centre, and this was a real problem for I don’t know how many years. When I was charged with this project by command of the urban planner Mr Robert Auzelle, the town had already forty projects, all not applicable. I began studying the different projects, the Sé cathedral here. (sketches) Auzelle organised this in different levels, with viaducts that collided with the view of the cathedral. This could be a new concept of the town, but every project had to go through the chamber for national monuments. They had much power, they didn’t approve any of them. So what I said to the Mayor, was that the problem here are the viaducts. So, ‘if you want to improve you have to organise the traffic’.

I study the system, in a way it still works, in one direction. I make here an office building, because at the time, 6os, there was a need of offices in the centre, as well as a need to solve traffic and bring tourism... So, the idea was to organise an easy way between the big difference of level. (keeps sketching) I tried to make the difference of levels easier. And this was connected to the recuperation of the interior of the18th century houses. So this project was approved, but the Mayor died in an accident and another one came... All finished. Later, came another Mayor and wanted to execute this project, but then came the revolution (1974) and then everything was stopped, and I had to go to court to receive my fees. In 2001 they asked me to study this and the time was different, it was not the solution to bring offices here.

PM: The site had changed, too, with Távora’s Casa dos Vinte e Quatro.

ÁS: Yes, Távora was commisioned to rebuild the Casa dos Vinte e Quatro. That was a previous public building where the bourgeoisie of Porto met, the commercial Porto. It was the centre of power, together with the Church and the Bishop’s Palace. Távora made an extra extraordinary project, almost by himself, he built a kind of tower here. That recreated Sé’s problem, together with church. It was also like a panorama, to contemplate this surface, so important in the town, this Baroque surface, so you understand the concept. Then, I was beginning this, Távora called me to say that he was making this project, and asking if I wanted to see it. And so we met together and I said that it was like a foundation stone for my project. It had the intention to surround the church, putting it in the right scale and give good dimension to the Nasoni side porch.

So, what I did was to study the base of old buildings, old plans and this land mark. To organise this area, (sketches), leaving a big space in the other side, leaving the rocks as they are as with time they became very beautiful, before was cut stone but with time it became really good place in centre of town.
Well, and I did this project, which was accompanied by a commission. I was executing drawings, and the Major nominated another commission, and they said no... finished. Second time!

PM: What about the intervention with the metro and the connection with Praça da Liberdade?

ÁS: I think you know the architect of the metro is Souto de Moura, and some of the stations he asked other architects to do, to work with him and I did this one. (São Bento Station) I used the detailing he used, he told the amount of things we have to do, I used the scheme he developed, because he made most of the stations so he was already experienced in this and the interesting thing was that I worked at same time as this (points at drawing of Avenida da Ponte). It was possible to relate the entrance of stations, the way to go easily (gestures to cathedral).

PM: You also worked together in the project for bringing the metro to Avenida da Boavista.

ÁS: That project is stopped. (sketches the project) Or better, Souto de Moura was already so disappointed that he left: bye-bye. There was also changes in the metropolitan, with elections and new government. There was also (signals a silencing movement) a cut. There was new administration, new technicians, engineers, and so all the work made during, I don’t know how many years, with Souto de Moura, was (signals a finalising movement). And the result was that now, the things we made together (points to plan in sketchbook) in Boavista, the metro at surface, were cut by the new team. It was a fundamental metropolitan line. They put all the people of the party, so in this case the socialist party. During these years, to make a project in Porto it was important, necessary, to be a protégé of the socialist party.

PM: Yesterday we also saw the new project for the Nun’Álvares Avenue, I think there is an intention to go ahead with that connection from Rua do Campo Alegre to Matosinhos, maybe the metro there will cross the city park?

ÁS: I don’t know. I know that this was a terrible mistake. That is no doubt because it’s the nature of the distribution. You know, the argument is that Boavista (sketches) is not a popular avenue, to make here the metro was not a solution because popular areas are here, and here is the university, so change here. (sketches) That is an impossible project. To be possible costs at least five times more, because it is to be underground. There is no space. And for the traffic it is a disaster... motorcars. So this metro line would have been fundamental to reinforce the connection to Matosinhos, where there is a big mass of population, and there’s another line that is already full, so this was fundamental. We made a small part near the sea. This part we made. (sketches) It was suspended... It would connect here with another station that comes like this. (keeps sketching) And would receive here a second connection with Gaia, I worked also in the bridge here.

PM: A new bridge between the FAUP and the Faculty of Languages.

ÁS: A new access to the University, between the Faculty of Languages and the Faculty of Architecture. And then, from here you go to the airport and so on, so this was a fundamental axis. They stopped everything... and now everything came to crisis... This could be done already... Finished. (speaks to collaborator in Portuguese, to postpone a meeting to the next day)

Anyway, another sad story! I only know sad stories (laughs). The reason I go to Korea, and to Taiwan, and some other countries... Europe is naked. The English, they have one foot in communities, one foot out. Smart. And about the Euro... we have the Euro (signals a falling movement). Ok, so now to finish in English without dramatic crying?

Let me tell about Korea, Seoul... Seoul is 10 or 12 million habitants. Good architecture, not like the Chinese, most of China. You go on the streets and you see that people are happy, well dressed, good motorcars, joy in the end. It’s completely different! They have crisis, they say ‘Ah yes we have crisis also, no?’, but it’s not same crisis. Taiwan, the same in Taiwan. I think there is two million people in Taipei. But they’re emerging countries. There is optimism, dynamism, because they build very well. The building is extremely, extremely well built. Maybe I was lucky with the client. I had already two... Here it’s stupid, really… Here, you are beginning this project and two days before you present it, there are already newspapers criticising it, the Mayor saying it’s a stupid project! And the polemics... and then maybe you are described as the socialist party. The problem is the socialists. The Socialist Party, the socialist part I am but not the socialist party!

PM: Me neither! (laughter)

KB: I have just one more question about the Avenida da Ponte. It was suggested to us that we should assume that your project would be built and that we would build our thesis projects around it. But today you said that it will never be built so how do we learn from what you have proposed?

AS: Translation? (laughs) He speaks also very well.

PM: (translates)

ÁS: The important thing in that project, in all projects, but in that project it’s very important I think, is the story, the history of that area. Even if both projects are very different in the changes that had happened, the way they match is based in the study of the old plans and the site even around the houses. The organisation, relation to topography, and so on. In the case of my project, I had a programme that I always thought it was a mistake because it was. It was interesting, the programme, but I never believed in it... I end up accepting it, but I was very sceptic of the programme because it was a big museum of the town and already we knew that it was almost impossible to be built. It was a very ambitious programme. And a good programme. But too ambitious for the possibilities. And one of the reasons the project was stopped was the poor funding. But also the fact that I was not a member of the socialist party. No doubt. And another programme should be decided.

PM: Which programme would you have suggested?

ÁS: A mixed programme. I believe there must be housing there. A Museum for the City is a programme that would not, with time, mobilise so many people. Was a dream, right? But whatever be the programme, the study of the old plans and also the plans that were executed is very interesting. There are more than 40 projects, most of them not very interesting, because they are based in the viaduct here. (sketches) There are many variations but all show the same thing. You can study my project but not as something to develop. I don’t think. It’s interesting to analyse with fresh eyes.

PM: This is a very interesting point. Perhaps you could finish with a positive message for our students, we don’t want them to leave the room feeling it’s such a mistreated profession! (laughs) Could you tell more about the importance of sketching in your thinking process? You constantly sketch, and it appears like there is a reciprocal relationship between your ideas and your hand.

ÁS: There is a beautiful text by Alvar Aalto, where he says that sometimes, if a project is not working, you must leave it and go drawing something else. You then come back and will realize that the problem will seem much easier to solve. That is what I do, and it works. Architecture can be a pleasure. Indeed, I feel less tired now than when we started the conversation.

The Second City from Paulo Moreira on Vimeo.