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Architects rarely have the influence to affect housing policy. However, given the opportunity, their role in conscientiously consulting with marginalized clients and designing the right kinds of places is crucial.
Among this autumn’s most anticipated lectures was a pair of talks given by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza in Montreal and Toronto this September. The lectures marked a rare Canadian appearance for the Pritzker Prize winner, whose work is mostly situated in Europe.
Siza’s talks coincided with the opening of a small exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) entitled Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities: Álvaro Siza in Berlin and The Hague . The exhibition resents two social housing commissions from the 1980s—Siza’s first built projects outside of Portugal. It draws on models, photos and drawings from Siza’s archive, a large part of which was recently donated to the CCA.
The projects in The Netherlands and Germany, along with Siza’s talk in Montreal, touch on a basic question: what does it mean to design for marginalized groups? “In Holland, the program was for an area where 50% of the population were immigrants,” recalls Siza. “There was a shock of cultures. My work was to avoid the first instruction, which was ‘Siza, you must make houses for the Islamic people and houses for the Dutch people.’ I said, ‘That makes for a second marginalization. We must study a house that is accepted by everybody.’”
The resulting pair of buildings, known as Punt en Komma (1986-1989), refer to the local context, maintaining a typical street cross-section and generous courtyards on the interiors of the blocks. “I used a traditional system in Holland with a big portico on the street and a stairway that gives direct access to the doors,” says Siza. Rather than directly replicating existing forms, the project uses a refined modern language, carefully detailed in every aspect. […]