Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Portugal by Álvaro Siza.
Architectural Record, November 1999, pages 102 - 109.

A shorter article on this work appears in:
db - deutsche bauzeitung, September 1999, pages 96 - 103.

Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, with a busy harbor and important industries, stretches along the steep northern banks of the Douro River just before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Modern growth has largely bypassed the historic core, with its sleepy civic center and sadly decayed medieval quarter.  Instead, the city in its prosperity has gradually extended westward towards the ocean, overtaking winding rural tracks and suburban boulevards.  The verdant hills overlooking the river are covered by a crazy-quilt of development, in which dense new growth jostles for place among old villas, small industries and languishing vegetable plots.

The Serralves Museum, the latest work by Porto native Álvaro Siza, is set on the grounds of a 45 acre estate in the heart of this western extension.  With its Art Deco mansion, formal gardens, romantic lake, woods and fields, the Serralves Estate embodies the implicit aspirations of this confused but appealing landscape, which resembles nothing so much as a lush, neglected garden, with its labyrinthine paths, secret corners and surprising vistas.

This image is also a good metaphor for the work of Álvaro Siza, and especially for the 140,000 square foot compound he has built to house the Museum here.  Like the garden's walks, the visitor's path through the galleries is replete with branching routes, sudden turns, spatial clearings and pauses.  And at a deeper level, the relaxed idiosyncrasies of the local landscape, and its pastoral relation with nature, offer important clues to the shaping of Siza's unique sensibility, his playful, endlessly inventive approach to form, space and light.  As you explore the Serralves Museum, you are surprised and delighted at every turn by his spare, elegant geometries and off-balance symmetries, and by the way that natural light is reflected and re-reflected from walls and horizontal planes, creating an effect of expansive, luminous spatial containment.  

Other unmistakably Sizian qualities are the slightly quaint, dignified air of certain proportions and materials in an otherwise modernist vocabulary  --the polished marble wainscotting of lobbies and stairs, or the heavy custom windows, framed in wood and steel--  and the awkward, rustic grace of many details, such as the custom-designed furniture, the door pulls and balustrades.  When seen in Siza's buildings in Amsterdam or Barcelona, these details can seem to bristle with arbitrary individuality, but here in Porto they are perfectly at home.

The Serralves Museum is Portugal's first center dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. It was established by the Portuguese state in 1986, and is supported by a public-private foundation that includes over 90 of the nations' leading banks, corporations and public companies.  The Museum first opened its doors in the Serralves mansion, which was built in  1940 for a local mecenas by French architect Charles Sicilis, with the participation of leading French decorative designers such as Lalique and Rulhmann.  This patrician model of the museum as reconverted estate was taken from the famed Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, which was donated to the Portuguese government in 1955 by the late Armenian oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian.

In 1991, the Ministry of Culture asked Siza to add a new building to the grounds.  The state funded its $25 million cost, and provides an annual operating budget of $4 million.  The project is the main institutional investment in Porto's preparations to become European Cultural Capital in 2001, and is part of a state effort to de-centralize important cultural initiatives.  

As Portugal's most distinguished architect, winner of the Praemium Imperiale in 1998, the Pritzker Prize of 1992, and other honors, Siza was the undisputed choice for the job.  The museum is his most important commission to date in his native town, where he is the architect of the 1995 Porto School of Architecture as well as many smaller works, such as the seaside swimming pools and teahouse he built early in his career in nearby Matosinhos, where he was born in 1933.  

Despite the evident harmony between architect, site and problem, Siza faced a tough battle to build the Museum.  He had to overcome fierce opposition from local ecologists and preservationists, worried about maintaining the pristine character of the estate, who took their case as far as a European Community commission in Brussels.  As Siza sadly observes, "To be realistic, people today are afraid of contemporary architecture.  They don't like it.  And that brings up the themes of the defense of the patrimony and so on, which are used to make contemporary architecture almost impossible to build."  

Siza eventually produced four different designs for two different sites in the park over a six-year period - "Smaller, bigger, smaller, bigger again," he sighs.  The building was finally located at the edge of the estate in a former vegetable garden, and sunk into the slope to diminish its impact on the surroundings.  

Siza's museum thus forms an independent compound, out of sight of the main house and with a separate entry gate from the street.  It is contained between two nearly parallel walls, punctured by window openings and a moat-like bridge into the park, which enclose the separate volume of a 300-seat theater, the entry court and a patio off the main lobby.  The 50,000 square feet of galleries are organized within these walls in two wings around a central court.  The wings frame a visual axis that points towards the dense tree cover of the park's southern slopes, where a small path descends towards unseen fields and greenhouses -- a view in pointed contrast to the powerful axial machinery of the terraced gardens and fountains at the main house.  "I like this indirect relation with the house," Siza explains. "It is more a relation of memory, as you walk among the woods and paths.  And it opens a wider tour through the park."   

This visual axis runs through the building, from the lobby court and the handsome skylit vestibule to a large central gallery, where a window hung high on the wall offers an abstract view of the treetops ("like a picture," Siza suggests), and a switchback ramp descends to the gallery Floor.  Following a corridor that darts around a corner to our right, one wing ends in a beautiful knot of small galleries that turn us back on our steps.  The opposite wing ends in a magnificent large gallery, with a small opening at the opposite wall that leads, like a secret passage, to the lower floor exhibitions.  Each route takes us through spaces lit by central skylights, some baffled by the upside-down table soffits Siza first developed for his museum in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (see Record, October 1994).  The itinerary is interrupted by large windows overlooking the grounds, and small balconies, where Siza imagines himself slipping outside for a smoke.

These public spaces are only the visible superstructure of a formidable technical machine.  Below deck are two levels of staff, service and storage spaces, including a parking garage under the entry court, a truck dock, and the double-height library, one of the building's most beautiful spaces.   On top, trusses 6.5 feet deep span the largest galleries.  Siza and his team worked hard to minimize distracting details.  Air grilles are thin horizontal slots at floor level, and smoke detectors are pinpoint devices only a few millimeters long.  Electrical outlets in the galleries are located behind the finished gypsum board, which must be cut out for access and then replaced.

In the end, Siza manages to use to advantage the severe terms under which the building was admitted to the estate.  The Museum is, after all, too large to be treated as a pavilion or folly.  In Siza's hands, the building works more like one of the walled aristocratic gardens of Suzchou, China, in which a variety of spatial experiences are compressed into a small area, giving an inwardly-focused precinct the illusion of containing many worlds.  And when seen from the outside, the building's isolation from the rest of the estate, with its de-fused axis, treetop views and forbidding walls, gives one the impression that Siza is making a point about modernity, about a contemporary loss of center and focus, and re-considering that loss as the beginning of a new way of understanding spatial and contextual relations.  


David Cohn visited Alvaro Siza earlier this year at the architect's new studio,  located  on a steep hill near the Douro River, not far from his Serralves Museum and the Porto School of Architecture. The studio is in a building  designed by Siza, which  he shares with friends and colleagues, incuding son-in-law Eduardo Souto de Moura and Fernando Távora. Throughout the conversation, Siza  illustrated his points with thumbnail sketches and diagrams . Here are some of his comments:

On the visitor's experience approaching the Serralves:

There is a perpendicular axis from the street, a beautiful axis. Here you can see the house. And there is a tennis court. And then, to the right, there is a strip of thick brush and trees, which I maintained. You go off the axis, down some steps, through the trees. Zig, zig, zig. You almost don't see the Museum.

On the museum's auditorium seats:

I made them out of maple, like this. With velvet backs and leather trim, here and here. It is something I saw in the opera house in Naples. Side by side, like armchairs. Its very intimate. You feel more at home. You feel decadent.

On the problems of working with big contracting companies:

Now almost always when you go to the works you get angry. Because things are not well made. You say, "No, this is not correct." And there is a construction management team working for the owner, and they say, "No, no, it's okay." They don't care about quality at all. And they have tremendous power. It is a big
danger for architecture.

On  working conditions  early in his career:

It was always a pleasure. I must tell you, I could go to a work site and if something wasn't right, I didn't have to say anything. The builder was ashamed to have built something badly. And he would say to the workers, "This is wrong, take it down."