Friday, May 13, 1994

Siza in Granite

(c) Luisa Lambri

Álvaro Siza
Galician Center for Contemporary Art
Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Published in:
Bauwelt 19
, May 13, 1994, pages 1038 - 1045 and cover.
© Bauwelt, David Cohn 1994. All rights reserved.

Alvaro Siza's Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo, completed last September, is the best of a number of works of architecture commissioned by the regional government of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate the Año Xacobeo, the 1993 Pilgrimage Year. It is arguably Siza's most important completed work outside Portugal, his first museum, and, together with the recently completed Architecture Faculty in Porto, his most significant public building to date.

As is often the case with politically-motivated public projects in Spain, Siza's 7.000 m2 building was erected, at a cost of 2,200 million pesetas (about 27.5 million DM), before the institution that it will house was even established - the museum still has no director, no program, no collection and no budget. Opened with a retrospective of local artist Maruja Mallo just before the regional elections of October 17, the building was closed a month later, at the end of the show, still without much of Siza's custom-designed furnishings. It will still be a year or more before the Museum is organized and in full operation, although a series of architecture shows may be organized there this summer.

Galicia is the northern neighbor of Siza's Porto, with a similar language and culture, a slightly harsher climate, and a similar historic isolation from the rest of the peninsula. Siza himself speaks eloquently of the experience of working in Galicia: "You feel at home, but everything is slightly, or even very, different. There are different seafoods -- you can still find oysters. There are tapas and strollers; the streets are full of people. The language has the same origin and the same words, but its music and expression are unmistakable: it is at once harsher and yet more tender."

He speaks of Galicia's granite walls covered with lichens and moss from the constant rain, and of the intimate outdoor spaces it conceals: "When we abandon the main road, magical places begin to appear: margins of streams or ancient granite waterways, innumerable branches of the pilgrimage route to Santiago, threshing floors, granite granaries..."

For Siza, the site of the Museum is one such space, situated at the foot of the baroque Convento de Santo Domingo de Bonaval, one of a ring of monasteries surrounding the old city. The Museum occupies a small triangular plot that once formed part of the monastery's gardens, a series of terraces facing a small street, the Rúa de Valle-Inclán, and a row of modest houses.

The site was, in fact, quite difficult. The monastery, like a fortress, is focused inward on its cloister, presenting a hard shell to the exterior. Siza's building had to be subordinate to the massing of the adjacent structure, like a flanking dependency, but at the same time turn its back on it, opening to the street. The modest street, in turn, hardly offered the building the public presence that its character would seem to demand. In response, Siza designed the building like a raised terrace or mirador, overlooking the street, and with views and passageways to its rear gardens, creating an awkward new space between the monastery and the Museum that is expressive of all the difficulties of the situation.

Initially, Siza wished to finish the building in exposed concrete, to make it stand out from the granite of the monastery and Santiago's other public buildings, and to express the modern character of its long-span construction. He was persuaded instead to face the building in granite, although he uses a thin modern veneer instead of solid blocks, an abstraction of the material which will change in time as moss and lichens grow.

The monastery stands on the upper slopes of the steep hill which Santiago straddles; its upper windows (and the sculpture terrace of Siza's museum) claim privileged views of the city's spires and the profile of the Obradoiro or Cathedral. Its entrance, raised behind shallow flights of steps and set well back from the street, fascinated Siza: a curious double facade on the two faces of an inside corner, opening to the cloister and church respectively, placed exactly on the most accessible part of the slope, where the high point of the street meets the low point of the hill, with the church bell tower perfectly aligned behind it. Siza placed the entrance to his museum here too, inverting the monastery's corner facade in the two overlapping angled volumes of his design, reinforcing the shallow cascade of stairs with a long ramp across the length of the Museum's facade.

In the former gardens, reports Siza, "granite channels, the remains of rusted pipes, currents of water, mines, springs, a long-buried staircase, capitals from some demolished convent" were found and excavated. The front of the building seems to span over the site, like a shelter over an archeological dig, scarcely touching the ground, in an extraordinarily long horizontal opening that points us towards the entry with its curious angled soffit. The end wall of this opening stops just above the ground, leaving a narrow horizontal slot with a fragmented view of the monastery's doorway. From the exterior, the building directs all of its formal energy to this point, before we enter the vestibule looking back at the street and the rear wing with the Museum's galleries.

In Siza's poetic approach to architecture, his regard for the site is transformed into a peculiar personal formal geometry. Siza uses regulating lines in plan to lay out, from the point of entry, the two intersecting volumes of the design. These regulating lines fan out from their point of origin as if from the viewing point of a perspectival construction, producing strange intersections, collisions and incongruities deep in the body of the building. The access ramp and tilted horizontal soffit of the facade reflect these same visual lines in the vertical plane. When seen from other points in the building, it is as if Siza had scrambled the rules of perspective and the abstract geometry it was designed to portray, returning us to a more immediate, anarchic register of perception, a mannerist retake on modernism which complements the eccentric baroque monastery next door.

Behind the vestibule, a small triangular atrium with a clerestory window occupies the space between the two angled volumes of the design and leads to the galleries for temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. The galleries for the future permanent collection above these are reached via a wide staircase overlooking the atrium. The galleries are arranged en filade, with a parallel access corridor which allows Siza to play spatial games along the route, the most dramatic of which is a two-story gallery, crossed by an inaccessible bridge (for mounting the lights, he says), which we miss on the ground floor, but which opens suddenly below us from the upper galleries. The long central corridors open on their other side to a ground floor auditorium and first floor library, which are also accessible directly from the vestibule.

Light from the skylights over the upper galleries is directed towards the walls via a large suspended floating soffit in the center of each gallery, a typically original and effective Sizian device. In many other incidents, such as the library's angled clerestory, the stair's sculpted window overlooking the atrium, or the atrium itself, defined by a wall on one side and a floating soffit on the other, meeting in a single implausible point, Siza demonstrates his delightful genius for shaping space and light.

Surprisingly, there is much in Siza's design which recalls I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington of the 1970s. Like Pei, Siza here is enamored of seemingly impossible long spans and cantilevers -- when I saw the building under construction, the improvised space trusses of welded bits of I-beams under the concrete slabs belied the ease with which the ceilings seem to fly from point to point. Like Pei, Siza uses his stone facing abstractly, as a purely planar finish, without visible weight or articulation. With his Barcelona Weather Station of 1992, this is Siza's first work in many years that is not finished in stucco, an indifference to material reflecting the low budgets he is accustomed to work with. The mortarless granite is supported on metal studs held away from the waterproofed structural concrete walls, a permeable skin with sufficient space behind it to conceal the downspouts (a stratagem which explains Siza's sparse use of openings). And like Pei, Siza uses here an elaborate triangular geometry.

As a development of Pei's late, high modernism, Siza's fractured geometry reminds me of a passage in Theodor Adorno's "Critique of Logical Absolutism", in his book Against Epistemology, in which he attacks certain aspects of the scientific spirit which have been well represented in postwar art and architecture, in the cult of formalism:

"But the more hermetically the unconscious of the mathematician seals his propositions against any inkling of involvements, the more perfectly pure forms of thought, from which memory is expunged in abstraction, come to appear as the sole "reality". Their reification is the equivalent for the fact that they were broken from that objecthood without which the issue of "form" would not even arise. Unconscious objecthood returns us to the false consciousness of pure forms. It produces a naïve realism of logic".
Adorno's criticism is applicable not only to Pei's geometric formalism but also to the reductive, memory-based Platonism of Aldo Rossi.

Siza's form making, on the other hand, full of accidental encounters and revelations, opens the closed process of logical, mathematical determinism to new, uncharted terrain, where the circumstances of program, site, chance and vision can play a new, unscripted role. According to Kenneth Frampton,

Siza "makes us see that building is, to a large degree, contingent, that any construction is both topographically and temporally determined, and that all we can do is to modify the fabric as it passes in a moment of transition between one historical moment and the next."
In Siza's words, "Architects don't invent anything, they transform reality."

  1. Álvaro Siza, De granito eterno: Viaje al otro lado del Miño, A & V Monografías de Arquitectura y Vivienda 41, Galicia Jacobeo, 1993, page 4.
  2. Theodor W. Adorno, Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, English edition, The MIT Press, 1983, page 55.
  3. Kenneth Frampton, The Architecture of Álvaro Siza, A + U, June 1989, Special Edition, ÁLVARO SIZA: 1954 - 1988, page 178.
  4. Siza, Ibid, page 177.