WEEKENDS IN THE COUNTRY
Quinta Santo Ovidio, Douro Region, Portugal, by Álvaro Siza.
World Architecture 105, April 2002, pages 26 - 33 & cover.

(I published another article on this work in:
Architectural Record, "Record Houses 2003", April 2003, pages 160 - 165.)


The Quinta Santo Ovidio is an 18th century farm estate that has been restored and adapted for modern living by Alvaro Siza. It is situated in the countryside of the Douro region, about 40 minutes east by car from Siza’s native Oporto, in a setting rich in the special qualities of the northern Portuguese landscape: fertile, moist, topographically varied, and intensely settled and cultivated over the centuries with small plots, vineyards and houses set amid winding lanes, moss-covered stone walls, streams, rivulets and groves of trees, under a sky that mixes mists and showers with quick-moving bursts of sunlight that spotlight a distant hill or a nearby garden.

This paradisial landscape is an ideal setting for Siza’s work. His unique approach to architecture was born from his response to this land, and to the need to adapt the vocabulary and techniques of modern architecture to its special character. As a result, Siza has become its best interpreter, one of the few architects capable of bridging the gap between Portugal’s rich past, as recorded in its landscape, and the necessary but corrosive impact of its rapid modernization and development.

In the Quinta, this meeting of past and present is carried out at an intimately domestic scale. Siza has worked on the badly-deteriorated estate over a period of nine years in a piecemeal fashion. He rarely has time now for such small-scale projects, but in this case the client was an old friend, and Siza was drawn into the project, as he recalls, by the prospect of working closely with good local craftsmen --stone masons, carpenters, cabinetmakers, metal workers-- and the chance “to make something with pleasure.” Visits to the site became his Saturday afternoon past time, an escape from the headaches of his big public projects. When the original client ran out of funds after six years of stop-and-go work and was forced to sell the Quinta, the new owner was more than pleased to take on Siza as part of the deal, and worked closely with him over the following three years to bring the project to fruition.

The Quinta retains the core of what was once a large working farm: the main house; an elaborate entry sequence including a Baroque gate and fountain; dependencies adapted as a residence for the owners’ daughter, with the addition of a covered pool and a barbeque pit; a chapel, in this case added by Siza for the daughter’s wedding; and a pleasure garden on a roughly-leveled upper terrace behind the house. The complex overlooks vineyards and a small bodega where the owner bottles his own wine.

As restored by Siza, the main elements of the compound are arranged like fragments of a collage over the sloping and terraced terrain, mixing Baroque grandeur and rustic informality. The forceful axis of the wide entry allée, lined with new and mature lime trees and culminating in the Baroque entry gate, is deflected by the displaced setting of the L-shaped main house beyond it. The two wings of the house flank a rough paved entry court, whose main feature is the Baroque fountain, with an enormous and elaborately-carved granite back-piece; it is fed by its original underground granite pipes from a hillside spring a few kilometers away. Siza has discretely tucked an underground garage into the slope beyond the fountain, with a forecourt whose granite portal faces the entry court. As is typical on many such estates, a few towering palm trees brought back by a colonial adventurer from Brazil add a touch of exotic tropical grandeur to the setting.

Behind the house, the ornamental garden is organized into quadrants by cross-shaped paths that meet at a restored central fountain surrounded by ancient camellia trees. Siza added a pergola for climbing flowers along one border of the garden, beside a tank for tame ducks. He uncovered granite channels that carry rivulets of water across the garden, which empty into another small granite tank. Also restored were a granite belvedere with “conversation seats” looking out over the lower fields, and the original laundry tanks behind the house, once fed by a natural stream.

The granite-walled main house originally had animal stalls on its ground floor and the living quarters above. Siza had to  largely reconstruct the house, reproducing the original windows and rebuilding interior floors, walls and roof. He located three bedrooms on the ground floor and added an interior stair between the levels. The upper floor features a grand sequence of rooms arranged enfilade, from the large entry hall at the head of the exterior flight of stairs, through a living room, library and dining room to the granite-walled kitchen with its original fireplace, as large as a room itself. In the kitchen, Siza installed a floating service island with a counter top of white sculptural marble from Portugal, lit by three lamps that project on slender stems from the counter. He also designed the kitchen’s dining table and chairs. Other Siza designs in the house include the bedroom armoires, a silver chest made from a dark, warmly-colored Riga fir, and other chests and cabinets.

Siza´s intimate restoration work continues in the house for the owner’s daughter, created from stone-walled agricultural dependencies located on the northern lot line of the site. Notable here is the fine woodwork, including the intricately folding interior window shutters of American yellow pine, or the Siza-designed door pulls, old-fashioned round bulbs of Riga fir that convey the characteristic, slightly awkward gentility of Siza´s interior detailing.  

The chapel is a playfully solemn miniature, one of those magical compositions that Siza seems to produce effortlessly, like a quick sketch. The Quinta originally had a chapel with a revered image of Saint Ovidio, according to Siza. A previous owner, tired of the constant intrusions of local worshipers, demolished the chapel, an act that cost him a Papal excommunication. The new chapel is oriented to the west, on the slope above the entry allée at the western extreme of the site, a situation that allowed Siza to create an elaborate approach to the chapel: we pass under the projecting volume of the sacristy, climb a stair to a raised platform, and turn 180 degrees to enter the chapel’s granite-framed doors. (When the owner disputed this arrangement, Siza recalls with amusement, he responded, “My client is God, not you.”)

The chapel follows the four by six meter dimensions typical of those at other estates. A high semicircular window over the altar offers a quick sketch of an apse, with the transepts sketched by the sacristy on one side, unusually lit by a window in the floor, and a cross-shaped window of translucent alabaster on the opposite side, in a play of indirect side lighting often found in the sumptuous Baroque churches of Oporto. Other details include rustic wall benches, a granite altar, a pair of chairs designed by Siza for the church of Santa María in Marco de Canavezes and made from Japanese sycamore, and a 17th century Ivory figure of Christ from Portuguese Goa, mounted on a silver stand designed by Siza.

Finally, the pool house with its zinc facade and wide interior spans brings the Quinta entirely into the present. Siza again creates a masterful yet simple composition through the lighting and approach to the space. We enter the pool area via a wide corridor and descending steps, after passing through semi-transparent glass doors etched with Siza´s line drawings of horses. A window wall at eye level with the ground outside and a trench skylight over the pool (with a retractable roof for summertime use) illuminate the vividly-contrasting wall planes in blue and yellow tile, with sketches of human figures by Siza, and the white marble deck and basin.  José Luis Gomes, Siza’s project architect, explains that the sensual colors and drawings, unusual in Siza´s work, were inspired in part by a visit to Mexico.

The Quinta Santo Ovidio reveals the surprising connections between Siza’s highly personal formal language, Portugal’s rural Baroque architecture, and its surviving craft traditions. Siza himself describes much of the workmanship on the estate as “not precious, but fresh,” by which he seems to mean that some of the unexpected spark of rustic grace in details such as the curved edges of the marble bathroom vanities or the rough granite arch over the garage entrance are not simply a reflection of Siza’s characteristic mock innocence of line. At a larger scale, the fragmentary Baroque elements of the Quinta bear the same relation to the grand axes of Rome or Versailles that Siza´s quirky modernism has to the canonical works of Le Corbusier or Mies. Siza, who is considered one of the pioneers in introducing modern architecture to Portugal, transforms it from a universalizing formal language into a language of particularity and fragmentation: he passes Modernism through the historic, rumpled, genteel hillside gardens of northern Portugal.