Architectural harmony in urban fabric

One of the sights in Oporto, Portugal, is the Casa de Cha, a small cafe-restaurant. Regulars love it because it offers a superb view of the Atlantic where huge waves endlessly crash over the huge rocks. Not only does Casa de Cha not strike a false note in those beautiful surroundings, but it seems to be there as naturally as a cat basking in the sun. The same goes for all the buildings created by Alvaro Siza, the greatest living Portuguese architect, whose work is presently the subject of an exhibition at the Benaki Museum. Spare and tasteful, with low-key power, his works take after their creator. Kathimerini met up with Siza – a Pritzker laureate (the architecture equivalent of a Nobel) – in Athens and spoke to him about some of the major issues in modern architecture today. Harmony and beauty Do you agree with the opinion that many of the creations of great architects are no longer made to serve a particular purpose in society, but to make an impression? There is certainly a good deal of pressure on internationally renowned architects to make buildings as impressive as possible. Museums, for example, the shining stars of any city, especially in the age of globalization, are not buildings housing art works, but a lure for tourists. I am against this idea. Buildings are an intrinsic part of the urban fabric. They should be harmonized, have a discourse with the landscape that surrounds them, not have a self-centered, arrogant character. This does not mean that there should be no architectural interventions in a city. Time and the public’s acceptance show which of these are successful after all. What happens when a beautiful building is surrounded by zoning chaos? Casa de Cha was my first project, in 1958. It was a virgin area with a view of the Atlantic. In the time since, buildings have mushroomed up all around it; even an oil refinery has appeared. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. The problem is that because of this, architecture cannot train the human eye to appreciate beauty. This is certainly not just the architect’s duty, but also that of the parent, the teacher and even the politician. The harmony of your architecture is on a completely different wavelength to that of Daniel Libeskind or Frank Gehry. Their structures bring out a sense of unease in the visitor. Do you like their work? Both of the architects you mention are very significant figures. If you feel any discomfort when visiting the Jewish Museum in Berlin, it is because this was clearly the architect’s intention. Often, however, the manner in which a building is advertised does great injustice to the architect because it is taken out of context. When I saw the location where Gehry was to build the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao [northern Spain], I didn’t think he’d make it. Yet he did. He performed a small miracle, and not just with the shell of the building, but also with the manner in which he incorporated it into the landscape: a city cut in two by a river with hills on the banks. Gehry gave the area meaning with his structure. Do you like Barcelona’s new look? It looks like a huge park of contemporary architecture that attracts thousands of tourists a day. Barcelona had the good fortune to experience a good period with wonderful works by young Spanish architects just before the [1992] Olympic Games. Later, though, it appeared to succumb to a period of blind euphoria with continuous architectural competitions for impressive projects. What is happening there today we have seen happen to all great cities since antiquity: The powers-that-be, who know they will not be in a position of authority for ever, want to leave their mark on a city. To do this, they put a great deal of pressure on architects to create flashy structures. We are bound by politicians. The greatest problem of contemporary architecture is that buildings have to be completed fast and have an impressive shell. At the age of 74, I believe that this pace does not suit me one bit. I suppose it never did. What do you think of Athens? It is a legend for architects because of the Acropolis. I like it because it is a city very full of life. Oporto is prettier but the center has become dead. Here, everything seems to pulsate with energy. People are outdoors enjoying themselves, eating, drinking. Yes, it is chaotic. But that happens wherever laws are either non-existent or aren’t enforced. The first time I came to Greece, in 1977, I was impressed by the addition of new stories to existing buildings. I had never seen that sort of thing before. Why does every large-scale architecture project usually split public opinion? The burden of responsibility lies with the politicians. Every work that dominated city life usually attracts the fire of the opposition, justifiably or not. At first they hate it. Then, when they are in government, they love it. That’s just how it is in democracies. In Portugal, we, as in Greece, who have experienced the yoke of a dictatorship in the recent past, remember that under a totalitarian regime everything was built fast and without any trouble at all. Democracy Democracy is the greatest political good. But, when you haven’t got an unchallenged central authority, everyone has an opinion or a disagreement to express, while political opportunism finds fertile ground in which to blossom. What do you think of Spain’s success in gaining a reputation for its architecture? On the one hand, it is very good. On the other, however, this sudden development has destroyed many areas around the country, while there are still a few mayors from the south serving jail terms for corruption. The good thing about Spain, compared to Greece and Portugal, is what you see when you are flying over the country in an airplane. You can see the small towns and villages, which are well defined in their boundaries. There are no clusters of anarchic construction and homes are located in areas of great natural beauty or in wooded areas.

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