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The New Architecture

1.

There is a new pilgrimage point in Santiago de Compostela, the near perfect city in the far northwest corner of Spain that has drawn supplicants and scholars for centuries to its great cathedral and extraordinary architecture. Although a modern intervention seems almost unthinkable in a city of such intimate scale and splendid historical style, the recently completed Museum of Contemporary Art of Galicia by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza slips gracefully into its sacrosanct surroundings. It took a brave architect to accept the challenge, and a very good one to pull it off. The building is at once radical, beautiful, and timeless.

The Santiago museum does much to define the state of architecture today. It clearly puts the theme-park world of postmodernism behind us. Nor is there any pretense to a false historical humility. The building’s sharply angled forms and almost unbroken horizontal planes make a strong case for the enduring validity of modernism. And yet the building is as respectful and “contextual,” if one may use that overworked and misused term, as it is modern, another word that has come to beg all meaning and definition, although it can still be understood in its historical sense as something distinctly of its own time. Siza’s modernism contains bold departures and subtle complexities that highlight a shift in concept and style—a new way of seeing and building that signals a significant change in the philosophy and practice of architecture. This is the work of a master who has left almost everyone else behind.

The Santiago project is referred to in Siza’s office as a work of “preservation/transformation”—an interesting dualism that collapses past and future together. Intended as the catalyst for the restoration of a neighborhood on the edge of the city’s historic center, the museum occupies a roughly triangular site that narrows to a twenty-one-degree angle at its tightest corner for a striking, wedge-shaped plan: two L-shaped sections converge and interpenetrate at their closest point. But the new building does not so much occupy the site as it is skillfully inserted into it; from a distance one does not see it at all. What is most remarkable as one approaches is its quality of extreme horizontality, the easy way it seems to fit into the urban landscape. Yet the long, low, granite façade is neither passive nor recessive; it possesses a dynamism that prefigures the surprises awaiting within the bold exterior forms.

Nothing is conventional about this building—not even the way one enters up a short flight of steps that leads to an angled portico at the structure’s small, sharp end. Nor is this entrance as understated or inconspicuous as its size and location might indicate; there is an almost reverse high drama in the subtle precision with which the stair meets and stops the long portico that sweeps along the building’s main façade. Inside, the reception area with its sleek, serpentine counter is an oasis of cool white marble. Where the structure’s two sections merge, they form a triangular atrium sky-lit at the top, placed slightly to one side—rarely is anything straight ahead in this building—flanked by temporary exhibition galleries and an auditorium. Three shallow corner steps rotate the visitor diagonally down from the reception area into the first of a series of irregularly shaped temporary exhibition spaces. A central spine of stairs, ramps, and corridors slashes straight across the angled plan.

The stairs lead up to three large, handsomely proportioned permanent exhibition galleries. But these are not the formal, monumental stairs of the Beaux-Arts tradition evoked by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for their museums in London and Seattle; as you go up Siza’s stairs you are offered views of low-walled balconies with partially glimpsed galleries behind them; these shifting planes and suggestive spaces—neither quite open nor closed—are constantly modified by variations in natural and artificial light. Vistas appear that Dr. Caligari might have envied, although there is nothing sinister here, only delight.

At the top of the stairs one is confronted by the point of a double corridor that divides diagonally for public galleries and private offices. To merely describe this scissors-like split can hardly convey the effect of its knife-sharp diverging paths. We become very conscious of how the radical rearrangement of the familiar revises our expectations and revolutionizes our vision. Siza’s rigorously and artfully conceived forms and dimensions—for example, the way one emerges from a long, low gallery to a sudden explosion of height and light—make us respond to our surroundings with an intensified awareness. We are immersed in a powerful and profound experience of architectural space.

All of Siza’s buildings are full of revelations that seduce with their visual and poetic force. Since the camera records these views as pure abstraction, the architect’s office carefully labels photographs “top” and “bottom.” In the Santiago museum one has constant surprises: a sharply angled room or gently curving passage, an elegantly sculptured stair, a dramatic wash of light from a suddenly revealed source; each discovery becomes a palpable aesthetic encounter.

Siza’s style has been defined by the Italian architect and critic Vittorio Gregotti as “radical minimalism,” but that does not begin to explain the complex interrelationships that are smoothly combined into a deceptively simple whole. Rooted in modernism, Siza transcends it. His departures from received doctrine have coincided with the liberating forces of postmodernism. But he heartily dislikes the postmodernist style of cribbed classical fragments, of skyscrapers with broken pediments at the top or stretch columns at the base, their machinery dressed in historical drag. He uses the clean, bare, reductive vocabulary established by the modern movement for a minimalism that expands, rather than restricts, architectural possibilities. Siza starts where the modernists left off.

Although he is clearly indebted to the rich local tradition of simple geometric forms and eloquently expressive masonry of his native Portugal, his remarkable walls also draw on twentieth-century architecture. All of his work pays homage to Le Corbusier—once having seen the magical union of space and light of the church at Ronchamps, who could avoid it?—but he explores possibilities in his own way. Siza’s buildings are a fugue of orchestrated views and events. His strict geometry is the expressive vehicle for a much more fluid, plastic, and kinetic approach than modernism ever achieved, with enormous dramatic effect. Space has not been handled so theatrically since Mannerism. Façades have not been composed so surprisingly since Hawksmoor.

2.

Alvaro Siza is not alone in pushing the boundaries of conventional practice. Among today’s established architects are two practitioners of particularly strong personal styles equally dedicated to the exploration of new directions: Frank Gehry in the United States and Christian de Portzamparc in France are pursuing similar goals in distinctly different ways. Siza makes his headquarters in Porto, Portugal, Portzamparc practices in Paris, and the peripatetic Gehry, who is by far the best known of the three, is based in Los Angeles. Gehry has already achieved the kind of popular recognition that has made his dramatic compositions a familiar trademark. Siza seems to be an acquired taste still restricted to the cognoscenti. Portzamparc has been less well known outside of France until his selection for the Pritzker Architecture Prize last year brought a deluge of publicity. Their buildings are international events.

What is common to all is the process of design which begins inside, breaking the building down into its component parts for a searching analysis of their functional rationale. Architecture is no longer conceived as the making of a formal “container,” as it has developed over centuries of stylistic evolution. These architects think first of the interior space and second of the enclosure; they handle space not as finite form, but as fluid and open-ended; for the user, it becomes a serial rather than a static event. The significance of this approach is that the building’s interior space and other elements can be redesigned and reassembled in a variety of unconventional configurations, with a greater awareness, and sometimes radical reinterpretation, of the relationship of use and form.

The paths people take through a building make movement an essential part of its design. The connections between places are now as important as the places to which they lead. Frank Gehry’s recently completed building for the Vitra Furniture Company in Basel offers a striking example. The connection between the two parts of the structure—the sales offices and administration headquarters—is a series of bridges crossing an open atrium at different floor levels. In a conventional building one would simply get off an elevator on separate floors. Here the passage from one section to the other is a calculated transition that is not only notable in itself, but also serves to characterize the transfer between two areas that are totally unlike in use, look, and feel. The process of getting there has great drama and its own rewards.

Conceiving the exterior enclosure of these new spatial relationships becomes a free exercise in style, a matter of personal preference in this time of pluralistic taste and expression. This fact, rather than chaos in the profession or competing claims of correctness, explains much of the diversity of architecture today. Far more important is the expansion of the art of architecture itself. To its conventional definition as a three-dimensional, spatial art a fourth dimension has been added: an aesthetic of experiences in time, of responses dependent on the passage from one part of the building to another. Interlocking, layered views are seen simultaneously and sequentially. The eye and the body are invited, and required, to register perceptions and sensations of an actual and aesthetic complexity rarely encountered before. It is creative change of this magnitude that defines the history of art.

These buildings must be visited personally. Photographs are more than usually misleading; what one sees in pictures are the strange shapes and stylistic mannerisms that merely hint at the strategies beneath. Gehry’s eccentric piles of richly colored sculptural shapes may seem arbitrary or about to tumble over, oblivious to the laws of gravity and order; but this is a precisely calibrated disorder, sedulously studied and arranged. An unrepentant modernist, he is pursuing a fundamental inquiry into the art of building and the expanded forms this may take. Portzamparc, also based in modernism, turns the modernist aesthetic into a much more evocative, romantic, and referential idiom, invoking the shapes, images, and colors of the 1950s with unabashed élan. His roofs soar, swoop, and hover with a lively retro wit; his affectionately reconstituted details in aluminum, tile, and concrete recall Morris Lapidus’s “architecture of joy,” the showy style of the Fontainebleau and Americana Hotels in Miami in the 1960s. Although Portzamparc was an active participant in the student protests in Paris in the 1960s, when Miami architecture would have been considered the ultimate frivolous irrelevance, he sees nothing odd or anachronistic about combining this flamboyant hedonism with his continuing sociological concerns. Both a sophisticated stylist and sensitive urbanist—qualities usually considered antithetical in modernist practice—he is a skilled planner with an acute understanding of the nature of public and private places. Siza’s work, which depends on the exacting organization of its minimal components, is the most abstract of the three and has immense poetic rigor. It is also the hardest to imitate; great talent is required to resolve complex needs while using forms of such absolute, elemental purity.

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