Álvaro Siza Vieira: Design as experience

by Alvaro Siza

The following text is an extract taken from an interview published on Domus No. 746, February 1993 in which the the Portuguese Architect tells about his way of working.

“I see design as a very special kind of tool, because it make possible, first of all, extremely rapid communication and, secondly, a highly accurate analysis of what exists. In this way it allows us to perceive normally elusive elements, like the density or quality of an atmosphere. I remember a very fine short text by Alvar Aalto in which he talked about how he would drop a project when he found it difficult to make any progress and tart designing. The very freedom of designing could give rise to important ideas, a solution for the project.
As well as being a valuable tool of communication and analysis, design provides the possibility of capturing atmospheres with a potenti al to free us from preconceived ideas and open up unexpected areas of exploration. This doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to be a universal tool: an architect may very well exist who thinks but doesn’t design. Architecture is something mental. But for me it works fine; it helps me to open up new paths. This is so even if it’s not exactly design that gives rise to an idea: an idea grows out of observation and the way in which the mind puts thing back together. It’s rare for the first idea to be sound even though I start to think out a project at a stage in which the program’s specific aspects have still not been gone into very deeply. In any case, I need to work on an image, an initial form which, however elementary, can tie together the barrage of data that are becoming daily more complex, more open. This is the basis on which all those problems have a bearing that determine the final form, from what the technicians and engineers contribute to the changes in the program. It is an image that is flexible enough to stand up to successive transformations, but it does exist. Also, it’s a process that unfolds in an unsystematic way because my experiences in recent years have taught me not to exclude a priori any element from a project, because architecture has to do with everything. It’s a syncretic activity, which though it may seem vague at the beginning acquires density as problems come up. It’s then, while the project itself is proceeding, that a hierarchy is spontaneously established between the more or less important things, which are not necessarily the same in all projects.
[…] I think it’s very important to make an effort from the very beginning to find a physical, material dimension for ideas. In order to master the topographical indications, we start by making a model of the terrain. This serves to translate the data into a simpler form. If I worked on only one job, I perhaps wouldn’t need models or so many drawings; but working on several projects at the same time, I need things on paper to make it easier to handle the development of the form, to trace the various stages of the whole process by keeping a record of the problems and the solutions found. In this respect I must add that all worktools have their defects. The plasticity of a small model can make a study unbalanced if it’s not supplemented by other models, large-scale fragments. The various tools have to complement one another: the sketch for example, which I use a lot, can turn out to be completely illusory if it’s not accompanied by very accurate technical drawings, by details in another scale, which continually reopen the dialogue between volume and space. Ideally, one might put all this together in a handbook, say, for use in teaching. But I wouldn’t rely on it very much because there are too many elements that come into play and change according to piace and circumstance.” Álvaro Siza Vieira

Image: Project for the reconstruction of Chiado (Lisbon). This sketch was originally published on Domus No. 714, March 1990