words Johanna Agerman
The Portuguese architect came to London to receive the Royal Gold Medal for architecture from the Queen in February. We met him in between cigarette breaks.
Are you nervous about meeting the Queen tomorrow?
Nervous isn’t really the right word, but I have to ask some questions of how to behave. I’m just not so sure about how it’s all done. Apparently, I have to call her Mum [Ma’am], which is strange. I don’t want to mistake her name because mum to me is mother – I thought you should say your royal highness. And you know what? RIBA said I can only bring one person but not a woman [RIBA denies this was said]. So I take Souto de Moura [the Portuguese architect]. But it’s strange that I can’t invite a woman.
And if you could bring a woman who would it be?
My daughter. I have a son as well, who’s also an architect, but I would bring my daughter.
You have received so many prizes in your career – how does it feel to receive the Royal Gold Medal?
It’s a great honour. It’s the most prestigious medal in all of architecture. I didn’t expect to have this. The first time I came here – long ago, when I was less than 40 – I was very impressed looking at the wall of names, and I remember saying, “This is not for me.”
Although you have worked on many international projects, you prefer to focus on Portugal. Why is that?
Well, I was born in Portugal, I have my family and friends there. I began working very young – my first project was built at 21 – so I got more small work. In those times Portugal was very closed, but wonderful work was developed by artisans. I began making travels rather late, maybe at 35 or more, to look at architecture and to make holidays. There was a moment when I had a crisis of work, not like the crisis now, but it was after the revolution.
In the 1970s?
Yes, in 1974. The people that were working on the housing programmes before the revolution were put aside afterwards. Then came political transformation and I had no work, and I began doing some competitions outside of Portugal. Later I had invitations to teach and lecture for schools of architecture, and at that moment I had also invitations for work. I recently made a work in Brazil [the Iberê Camargo Foundation] which went really, really well.
In what way did the Iberê Camargo Foundation go well?
It’s a charitable foundation and they were very keen for the museum to be built. They did everything in their power to get the planning permission and the funding we needed. Now when I do normal work I’m nervous because I’m so used to this special treatment. Other projects don’t go as well. For example, I recently worked in Spain and almost finished it when the builder collapsed. So experience is many times bad, but when you have a good experience you get full compensation because then we feel pleasure and joy. An architecture without pleasure is a terrible thing.
Are you thinking of retiring?
I think I will get retired by other reasons [points to the ceiling], but I won’t retire unless I am sick. To retire is to become sick.
As an architect with more than 50 years experience, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing young architects today?
Probably the amount of information that we can access. The amount of information and the complexity of transformations now is so strong that it is difficult, I think, to stop for a moment to think and concentrate. The demand is for everything to be so very quick, in my opinion. I know that I come from other times but it is becoming without control. And at the moment the consumption is becoming too quick and intense – it’s revealed in the economic situation. I think this moment, not only for architects but everyone, is very difficult and also very stimulating. Universally, so many things will change.
How do you think it will affect the way our cities look?
It depends on the nature of the work. There is no monument if there is not a context from which it emerges. There used to be a very clear relation of power in a town, but today we have towns that are just skyscrapers and each one is in competition with the other. I can see that I’m an old man but really I’m not so interested in everything being emergent and special because I think it’s too much for our comfort. Anyway, it’s a complex point this because New York is beautiful and it’s made up of many skyscrapers with real identity. It is a direct answer to increasing population and money so it’s very natural. In other places, such as Dubai, it’s not natural, and now comes the problem of energy and pollution. The ecologists have put us in panic. I think this will influence the future.
The human scale is a prominent element in your work. Do you prefer smaller projects over large ones?
I need to make both. You have to practice one to be competent in the other because they are in relation. I don’t think it’s possible to make a big building if you haven’t made a small house.
Your work is often referred to as minimalist, how do you feel about that?
I don’t like the word “minimalism”, maybe it’s more like maximalism because it’s to consider the maximal condition. Many times minimalism is the result of much work and much search and conquest. It’s expressive economy, not a result of reducing the problems. You get the density in space through hard work and putting things together properly, with the result that you look and say it’s so simple. But the real simple is very complex.
How do you master making the complex look simple?
The simple and the comfortable, you apply the same line of research to both. So to give you an example, whether it’s more comfortable to pass the hand over wood than metal on a handrail. To make it properly deals with both how it looks and the aspect of maintenance. If things aren’t well connected they don’t last. So the research puts all this together. If you look at Arab houses, you arrive in a court full of sand, then you pass through a portico where the light is controlled, and then you pass to another room where it is very quiet and much darker. This is comfort because according to your mood and what you are going to do you have different qualities of space. But simplicity is a result of complex research over a long time.
Your friend Vittorio Gregetto said of you, “Siza’s work springs from archaeological foundations known
only to him.” You seem to read the places in a way that isn’t always obvious.
Any site has in it indications for a project. I think it was [James] Stirling who wrote that when you work somewhere, many times you find the foundations for a new thing impregnated in what was already there asking for continuity. So innovation is tradition, they are complementary things, not opposite things.