Is Alvaro Siza one of the world’s great architects? If you ask him, he will tell you no. On the day of a recent lecture in Toronto, the 82-year-old was jet-lagged and soft of voice, a bit stooped in a baggy brown suit. Speaking softly in his rumbling basso, he dismissed with a wave the idea that his 50 years of work, including the high honour of the Pritzker Prize, adds up to any grand contribution.
Why such modesty? “It’s a question of temperament,” he said outside his hotel, between drags of a cigarette. “It is just the way I am as a person. I have no desire to speak grandly.”
That modesty is reflected in his work – and while his architecture speaks quietly, it has resonated powerfully around the globe. In the early- and mid-20th century, Europe’s Modernist architects burned to reinvent the world; Siza was part of one more modest faction that aimed to improve and repair the modern city without, first, tearing it all down. His work sets a strong example in 2015, blending caution and ambition, prose and poetry.
In the early 1960s, Siza began building in his hometown of Porto, Portugal. Here on the fringe of Europe, he created architecture’s version of slow food: subtle buildings that reveal themselves through gradual experience, rooted in place and respectful of history. His buildings resisted both the tabula-rasa logic of modernist “urban renewal” and then postmodernism’s scholarly games with historic forms.
Siza’s work is spare and beautiful but also local, deeply engaged with politics and with particular neighbourhoods and their residents. In the wake of Portugal’s 1974 revolution, Siza began building social housing, and it was that work that gave him an international reputation. […]