Àlvaro Siza Vieira, an Architect’s Architect, Comes to Town

Siza’s tower, under construction at 611 West 56th. Rendering: The Boundary

Meeting the great Portuguese architect Àlvaro Siza Vieira in the blinding white sales office of an apartment tower he designed is a bit like spotting Abraham Lincoln on Dancing With the Stars. Revered by architects and largely unknown to everyone else, the 86-year-old Pritzker Prize winner presents himself as old-fashioned sage, an artist and intellectual uncomfortable in the high-gloss world of real estate and marketing. His work clusters around his home city of Porto, with outliers in Brazil, South Korea, and Germany, and it consists mostly of the kind of virtuous public projects that only the very fortunate can specialize in: museums, social-housing complexes, university buildings. And yet here he is, making a late-career New York debut by adding one more luxury tower to a flagging market: 611 West 56th Street, a limestone-skinned stele developed by Sumaida & Khurana and LENY, which has just reached its 450-foot height and is still about a year away from completion.

Siza’s English is hesitant and he has a translator at the ready, but he almost smiles when we settle on Spanish instead, and the sentences, softened by a strong Portuguese accent, roll out in a gravely basso murmur. He never thought he would have the opportunity to build in Manhattan, and now he has, so he didn’t think twice about saying yes. After a lifetime spent stitching a modernist aesthetic into the ancient urban fabric of Mediterranean, he’s happy to work in a place that strikes him as young. “In New York, I feel enormous freedom,” he says. “Buildings spring from the ground like plants in a garden. Each building is very autonomous, but the result is a very architecturally integrated city.”

A few years ago, I made a Siza pilgrimage around northern Portugal and Spain, starting in Santiago de Compostela, where his Galician Center for Contemporary Art sits unassumingly in a garden on the edge of downtown. The low-slung building, clad in the same thundercloud-gray granite that gives the city its somber dignity, is easy to miss. Inside, though, galleries unfurl in a progression that seems at once surprising and exquisitely choreographed. Soft daylight sneaks in through skylights and clerestory windows, curling down stairwells, springing off marble floors, and stopping short of deeply shadowed doorways.

The Galician Center for Contemporary Art. Photo: Fernando Guerra/Universal Images Group via Getty

In Portugal, I paid a visit to the project that made him modestly famous, the 1958 Boa Nova Teahouse along the rocky coast just outside Porto. Its shingled roof slopes gently into deep canopies that shade the pale-skinned building like a Stetson’s brim. From even a few hundred feet away, it practically vanishes into the jagged cliffs. Once again, the design reveals itself only on the inside, where a low, dark-wood ceiling pushes the eye out toward the ship-chewing shoals and the Atlantic’s endless glare. Every detail remains evocatively intact: low leather stools, seaworthy millwork, wooden slats suspended from the ceiling like stalactites. Even the bathrooms are miniature masterpieces, with shafts of sunlight dropping through the ceiling and coating a wall of sea-blue tiles. Siza later claimed to regret what he called “excessive detailing,” but to me it feels like one of those rare wonders of continuity. I have often wished that his first building in the United States could be a new Boa Nova — say, a café on Governors Island.

Inside the Boa Nova Teahouse. Photo: View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty

I ask Siza how an architect of such intimate narratives approaches the job of designing a developer tower, in which the trajectory through the building consists mostly of an elevator ride, and floor plans are dictated by what brokers believe they can sell. “The movement through space always exists, though sometimes it’s more or less powerful. Here, we have a twisting path from the front door to the elevator, and an almost cinematic progression through spaces that narrow and open up.” Later, when I visit the construction site, I find that description hard to square with the four-second walk from the front door to the elevator.

As we talk, he keeps returning to a sense of how restricted the role of the architect has become in recent years, and how much control he has sacrificed for that New York–style sense of freedom. Zoning rules define the bulk and shape of the tower, engineers and contractors block out the concrete structure, the market suggests the mix of layouts, and convention dictates that a different architect design the apartments themselves. The arrangement tests Siza’s belief in fruitful collaboration. “I am accustomed, though decreasingly, to design both interiors and exterior, because it’s the same thing! The positioning of a window is about the exterior appearance but also the way light comes in and shapes the space. So when I was told that another firm, Gabellini Sheppard Associates, would be designing the interiors, I had a moment of pause. But as soon as we started talking, we found we had an instant rapport and openness.”

Maybe it’s the jet lag or fatigue talking, but I feel a note of melancholy creeping into the conversation, even though he frames each obstacle as a benefit. New York’s codes are “restrictive but clear, and they provide a very platform from which to find the best expression.” The lot is small and narrow, and hemmed in by a forest of dark gray glass, which inspired him to make the building white. (Almost all his buildings are white.) The mix of apartments keeps changing, which prompted him to figure out a way to keep the window pattern consistent even if the placement of interior walls is not. The developer rejected his proposal for a white marble façade as expensive and impractical, and instead substituted prefabricated panels with a veneer of sugar-white limestone glued onto an aluminum backing. “The results are unpredictable. It looks like something new and brilliant but I am doubtful — no, I am merely ignorant — about how well it will stand up over time.” Even a man of his experience can still learn, he tells me, sounding only half convinced. Maybe, he reflects, it doesn’t matter that much how well a Manhattan high-rise ages, since it’s not expected to last for centuries. New York’s culture of disposable buildings “comes close to the ideas of the futurists, who said that a building should last no longer than a generation, and each generation should have its own architecture — they had no interest in history. Of course, they were fascists, so …”

I ask him about the church of Santa Maria Canaveses, one of the stops on my Siza tour of northern Portugal. An apparently windowless vertical hulk, it harbors a luminous, consoling space where the curves and planes all have a handmade quality: the great wooden doors that shoot up like a Manhattan skyscraper, the poignantly simple baptismal, the pale square tiles on the walls. Construction has become an increasingly global, industrialized process, with façade components, for example, manufactured on one continent, assembled in another, and then craned into place. Can an architect still get close to the labor of the building itself?

The Church of Santa Maria Canaveses. Photo: Susana Luzir/Getty Images

His answer is worth quoting at length, because it helps to explain how talent, authority, and experience can get so badly beaten up by cynical reality: “One tragedy of contemporary architecture is that gradually we’ve lost the direct contact between mind and hand. I used to be able to talk to workers and learn their methods and abilities, which vary from country to country. Working with artisans in different regions gives architects an understanding of the relationship between the detail and the form of the building.

“One of the first times I was working in Germany in the early ’80s, a workman was laying mosaic tiles on the floor, and the buildings had irregular curves, so I told him it’s easier to lay the mosaic diagonally because it’s more forgiving. Later I got a call from the general contractor who screamed at me: You can’t talk to the workers! If you have something to say, you tell me and I’ll pass on your message.

“This obsession with specialization is tragic — a great loss. I’ve been told: ‘What we need from you is your talent. Leave the details to the specialists.’ Architects are asked to provide an image, that’s all. And then it’s bye-bye, architect, we’re not interested any more.”

Àlvaro Siza Vieira, an Architect’s Architect, Comes to Town