The Obscure Modernist Masterpieces of Alvaro Siza, Venice Biennale Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Álvaro Siza
(© Stad en Architectuur via Flickr)

Despite the impressive list of accomplishments Álvaro Siza has collected during his six-decade-spanning career — taking the Pritzker Prize in 1992, designing the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2005, and now waiting to receive his Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Architecture Biennale in August, to name a few — the Portuguese architect's name isn't immediately recognizable outside of architectural circles. And it's unlikely that he would ever "enjoy the fame of say, a Rem Koolhaas or a Frank Gehry," the New York Times decided in 2007, suggesting that his obscurity is due to the limited geographical distribution of his work, which remains confined mostly to Europe. (He has an aversion to long flights, he says, because of his smoking habit and bad back.)

Unhindered by his relatively unknown status, his career has quietly earned the admiration of his peers, including this year's biennale curator David Chipperfield, the one who proposed that Siza take this year's honor.

"Siza has maintained a unique position in the architectural galaxy," said Chipperfield in a statement. "This position is full of paradox. Siza has upheld a consistent production of works at the highest level, yet without the slightest hint of the overt professionalism and promotion that has become part of the contemporary architect’s machinery. Apparently running in the opposite direction to the rest of the profession he always seems to be out in front." 

The announcement was made this week, two days after Siza's 79th birthday, more than 50 years into his career. His buildings have become known for being both spare and precise, demonstrating a poetic kind of modernism. One of his masterpieces is the Iberê Camargo Foundation (2002-2008) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a rare venture out of Europe that serves as a home to the austere and haunting works of the eponymous Brazilian artist. The building, which was awarded a Golden Lion in 2003, features a gently undulating surface behind a row of angular ramps, a juxtaposition of two geometric extremes. The unfinished, unpainted white concrete surfaces, uninterrupted by bricks or sealing elements, create a stark contrast with the lush green surroundings, giving the foundation a pristine, almost ethereal lightness so unlike the artwork inside.

Most of Siza's buildings don't fall far from his birthplace, Porto, Portugal. In the earlier days of his career, he worked in more diverse materials, like the red African Afizelia wood, terracotta, and copper of the beachside Boa Nova Tea House (1963). In 1966, he designed a public pool complex in the resort town Leça da Palmeira, just north of Porto, by cutting directly into the rocky landscape. But it's the stark whiteness and simple geometries of Porto's Faculty of Architecture (1987-93) and the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (1997) that make for two modernist marvels. Although his reluctance to stray far from home has largely kept him off the radar of the world at large, it hasn't lessened his achievements, according to Chipperfield: "Secured by his isolated location," he said, "[Siza] exudes worldly wisdom."

Siza will be officially honored during a ceremony on August 29, 2012. To see highlights from Álvaro Siza's career, click the slide show