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How has contemporary Portuguese architecture, from its relative obscurity of two decades ago, come to provoke such interest today? In particular the work of one Portuguese architect, Álvaro Siza Vieira, began a chain reaction of events.
As knowledge of his work trickled into the U.S., a quiet cult of curiosity grew up among students around this master from the most unfamiliar of European countries. His projects for pools and banks suggested relationships to landscape and urban sites that reminded us that context was the deposit of time to which the interventions of successive generations each added a mark. Site, any site, emerged as an archaeological context into which the new needed to be laid carefully. Yet the architecture was stridently new; its smooth abstract surfaces standing out against the rock of beach or masonry of neighboring buildings made no concessions to the mimetic impulse. What was recalled in the look of this architecture, if clearly not the historical character of its immediate neighbors, were the luminous white volumes and extended spaces of the 1920s. Such architecture awoke memories of the poignant photomontages of that earlier decade in the century, yet now without the suggestion of that imminent destruction of the historical city encouraged by those antique photographs. The Portuguese works are poised delicately amidst the materials of their context, insinuating the sensuous pellucid modernist spaces amidst somber granite backgrounds. Reciprocation - between intervention and site - took the place of an earlier desire for erasure of context. The "reality" of the work, its apparently simple construction and physical continuity with the everyday terrain of the city, seemed a remedy to both the hermetic intellectualism and virtuosic picturesque that had come to characterize much work by the more erudite protagonists of contemporary American modernism.
Such are the impressions remembered from a decade ago when I first came to know of Siza and to talk about his work with classmates. Since then, Siza has emerged from the limits of cult status. More importantly, what started as curiosity about one man has taken an inevitable turn toward a general interest in modern Portuguese architecture. Thus, considering that even an exceptional individual's imagination is formed in some crucible not entirely of his or her own making, it seems appropriate to consider the wider experiences that played upon the architectural culture of Portugal. What was it that gave Portuguese architecture its particular charge and peculiar modernity?
History does not always unfold uniformly; similar historical forces such as industrialization and urbanization play out differently and at different times in different places. Which is to say, modernism arrived in Portugal late and, arriving late, it therefore emerged in a transfigured form. The great optimism about technology, and particularly about a future improved by an urbanism of radical revision that crystallized in the thoughts of so many architects of the first third of this century, found no easy reception in Portugal.
Portugal was only briefly hospitable towards the first wave of European modernism of the 1920s and 30s. The establishment of the Estado Novo (Salazaar's authoritarian regime in 1930) and its rather rapid move towards the imposition of an official state architectural style in the form of a stripped-down monumental classicism put an end to any significant sponsorship of modernist experiment. At the same time that the culture of modernism was repressed, the reality of modernization was delayed in Portugal. The Estado Novo built infrastructure in its colonies and encouraged investment there while limiting such changes in Portugal. The state thus more easily maintained hegemonic political control over an economically backward populace "protected" from the transforming effects of modernity. Political repression and economic injustice promoted historical isolation; however, one inadvertently fortunate consequence of this isolation was that Portuguese architects could observe the ill effects of modern urban planning elsewhere in Europe.
In contradistinction to the Estado Novo's program of purportedly Portuguese architecture, the architects of the Sindicato Nacional dos Arquitectos under Keil Amaral's leadership proposed to investigate the historical morphology of Portuguese architecture and cities. They sought, on the one hand, to counter what they perceived as the pseudo-historical claims used to legitimize the Estado Novo's program of architecture, and on the other, to build a body of knowledge about the forms of their cities and towns that would offer a basis of logic for any future process of intervention. The implication was that a process of modernization that could draw upon a deep knowledge of the historical circumstances of built life could raise the new upon a foundation of deeply rooted principles of order.
In their investigations and descriptions of the vernacular environments of Portugal, the architects of Sindicato Nacional dos Arquitectos were greatly interested in certain themes, including: the characteristic lack of imposed geometries in the shaping of towns and buildings so that contingent conditions such as topography and pre-existing elements could order new interventions; the conformity of form to material and technical means; and finally, the evolutionary growth of the built environment wherein accretion, a form of historical accumulation, is the rule rather than modernity's cycles of destruction and rebuilding - a quality that is in the end characteristic of a pre-modern condition.
At the same time that such considerations of the vernacular were studied, the implicit goals of a modernist program were not forgotten. The inventions of modernist architects still promised the possibility of reconciling architecture with contemporary technologies - and the symbolic charge of such architecture, its look, its sensuous spatial syntax, and its erasure of the tainted associations of the monumental classical all joined together in its ongoing appeal. As Portugal was drawn inevitably more and more into the orbit of modernizing forces and the regime of the Estado Novo slowly weakened until its final collapse in 1974 in a bloodless revolution, architects were able to experiment with such mixtures of ideas and to offer eventually that version of modernism which is so unexpectedly yet sympathetically embedded within the complexities of actual sites and histories.
With these thoughts in mind it is interesting to have the opportunity to survey the diverse work assembled in this exhibition. Eduardo Souto de Moura, a former collaborator of Siza's and graduate of the Faculty of Architecture in Oporto, combines in his work the characteristic sensitivity to site of which we have spoken, with refined explorations of a Miesian syntax of steel. The attenuated proportions of rolled sections are juxtaposed in his work against the rude surfaces and weight of granite. In his project for the conversion of a convent into a hotel, the influence of Siza's own teacher Fernando Távora echoes across generations. João Carrilho da Graça, a Lisbon architect, with his long horizontal slots and dashed windows (Éscola Superior de Comunicação Social, Lisbon) introduces a level of syntactical abstraction that seems absent from either Souta da Moura's mute vertical surfaces, or from the anthropomorphic wit flitting across the facades of Siza's work. It may be that Carrilho da Graça's work reflects an aspect of Lisbon's culture: the more self-conscious desire to bring cosmopolitan concerns to the fore.
The work of many more architects is collected together in this exhibition. These architects have emerged from different intellectual circles within Portugal and have worked throughout the world, from Macau to Brazil. In the context of thinking about the vicissitudes of the modernist experiment in architecture as it unfolds in very different environments and circumstances, and as it is transformed by the critical reappraisals made available by this diversity, it is a great pleasure to see and consider the work of this varied collection.
Robert Levit is a faculty member in Architecture at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. His writing on the work of Alvaro Siza has appeared in the journal Appendix and will be in the next issue of the Journal of Architecture . He apprenticed with Alvaro Siza from 1988 to 1990 and is now in independent practice in Ann Arbor. This essay was written for the exhibition Portugal of Sea, Stone and Cities, which included works by Alvaro Siza Vieira, Eduardo Souto de Moura, Joao Carrilho da Graca, at the Slu sser Gallery, February 1-15, 1997.