The Limitations of a Project Assignment
(On the awarding of the 2019 National Prize for Architecture to Álvaro Siza)
Warning: In this article I’ll repeatedly refer to what a good architect Álvaro Siza is. And I’ll do that because that’s not the bone of contention when discussing the latest edition of the National Prize for Architecture. Neither do I wish to enter into thorny arguments about the prize’s scope. The key to the confusion it’s sown among many architects lies elsewhere.
Álvaro Siza’s thing with Portugal is the story of a life commitment that’s gradually changed during the course of the architect’s long career. In the mid-1970s we find Siza committed to the SAAL programme for rehousing 50,000 families in two years. From the 1990s, he staunchly supported the cultural definition of Portugal, devoting his energy to key projects like the Fundación Serralves and the remodelling of the National Congress. He’s now become an institution. He even appears on coins.
But outside Portugal, Siza represents something else. Project after project, he’s the architect who exports professionalism: the architect who’s more Italian than the Italians, more Dutch than the Dutch, more Spanish than the Spanish… Siza arrives and, if the brief is well defined, he builds the building, makes history and leaves. The merit of his career, of any of his buildings, is mind-blowing. It’s not about job commissions. It’s about the fact that you can only belong to one place. Siza is a kind of architectural genius who’s only there when he’s building. When he’s not building, there’s no sign of him. Except in Portugal.
Which brings us back to the confusion caused by his winning of the National Prize. Why Siza? The answer to that question brings us face to face with the whole narrative of Spanish architecture. Or rather with the absence of that narrative. Because Spanish architecture has no narrative.
Spanish architecture is a thousand bloody light years away from having a narrative!
At present, we need to realise, it’s expressed project by project, architect by architect. There’s no perspective, no framework, no context. Spanish architecture – a magnificent, healthy, diverse, prestigious architecture – has no-one to chronicle its progress. Hence the confusion. This year’s prize seems to be the result of a lobby, a covert initiative to exert pressure in order to mask the absence of any commitment that goes beyond the strictly professional fulfilment of a commissioned project. And that objective has been achieved by presenting an example of excellence. But this time the ploy hasn’t gone unnoticed, and Siza’s genius appears to have been used as a weapon with which to impose a fragmentary, circumstantial, incoherent way of looking at things. So that little statue representing the National Prize must really be a big, heavy one, because rather than awarding it they seem to have maliciously hit someone – I wonder who! – over the head with it.