From designing houses before he graduated to crafting elegant watches, the 90-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning architect has consistently pushed his practice forward.
Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza’s office resembles a museum. Overlooking the Douro river in Porto, the room brims with paraphernalia collected over the course of decades of work: sketches and drawings, tiles, pieces of paper inscribed with pithy mottos and tacked to pinboards, paintings, bottles of port, boxes – and piles and piles of books.
Siza’s career spans almost 70 years and four continents. Born in 1933 and raised in Matosinhos, a small town near Porto, the 90-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning architect is known for his simple, sculptural designs. And while he made a name for himself in Portugal during the 1970s and early 1980s, Siza’s reach now extends far beyond his place of birth.
Today his buildings house paintings in South Korea and China, pupils in Spain and church-goers in France. But that wasn’t always the case. Growing up under Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship, Siza had little contact with the outside world. “I was 41 years old when I first left the Iberian peninsula,” he says. “At that time, it was very difficult for Portuguese people to leave the country.”
Nevertheless, Siza became interested in art. “I came across the classics,” he says. “Picasso, Matisse and many sculptors. I wanted to be a sculptor. But in Portugal, and particularly in Matosinhos, it was not something that most people saw as a good idea at that time. They saw it as a career path for bohemians because there wasn’t a lot of money in it.”
At his father’s request, Siza enrolled on a more general course at the University of Porto’s School of Fine Arts before he eventually found his way into architecture. “At the time, people started working very early on,” he says. “So when I began designing my first houses, I hadn’t even finished my degree.”
Decades later, Siza’s approach to making and designing still spans a wide range of disciplines. A recent foray outside the world of architecture was a collaboration with the watch brand Cauny. “At first, I thought to myself, ‘Why design a watch when there are already so many beautiful ones out there?’” says Siza. “But Cauny convinced me.”
Whether he is working on a timepiece, a museum or a school, Siza always designs with functionality and practicality in mind. “Communication is important,” he says of working on projects. “I always tell people, ‘Look, I like this, but I don’t know what the execution will be like – if it works well, if it’s safe, et cetera.’”
Even so, his attention to detail rarely detracts from the poetry in his work. It is often hard to distinguish Siza the artist (he still paints, sketches and sculpts) from Siza the architect. From the Iberê Camargo Foundation in Porto Alegre, Brazil – which, from certain angles, resembles arms embracing the building – to the coral façade of Porto’s Serralves Museum’s, his projects have a human quality that is clearly rooted in a deep commitment to artistry.
Despite turning 90 in June, Siza still enjoys working in the field but he often worries that doing so is losing prestige in Portugal. Future generations, he says, should remember that we all benefit from the work that architects do. “Architecture is related to comfort, it’s related to beauty, it’s related to the economy,” says Siza. “It affects all of us.”