Canadian Architect

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Editorial: Siza’s Social Vision

Architects rarely have the influence to affect housing policy. However, given the opportunity, their role in conscientiously consulting with marginalized clients and designing the right kinds of places is crucial.

November 1, 2015
by Elsa Lam

Álvaro Siza speaks to residents in a 1:1 mock-up of an apartment to be built in The Hague. (Photo: Fred van der Burg, courtesy of Adri Duivesteijn/Stroom Den Haag)

Álvaro Siza speaks to residents in a 1:1 mock-up of an apartment to be built in The Hague. (Photo: Fred van der Burg, courtesy of Adri Duivesteijn/Stroom Den Haag)

Among this autumn’s most anticipated lectures was a pair of talks given by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza in Montreal and Toronto this September. The lectures marked a rare Canadian appearance for the Pritzker Prize winner, whose work is mostly situated in Europe.

Siza’s talks coincided with the opening of a small exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) entitled Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities: Álvaro Siza in Berlin and The Hague. The exhibition  resents two social housing commissions from the 1980s—Siza’s first built projects outside of Portugal. It draws on models, photos and drawings from Siza’s archive, a large part of which was recently donated to the CCA.

The projects in The Netherlands and Germany, along with Siza’s talk in Montreal, touch on a basic question: what does it mean to design for marginalized groups? “In Holland, the program was for an area where 50% of the population were immigrants,” recalls Siza. “There was a shock of cultures. My work was to avoid the first instruction, which was ‘Siza, you must make houses for the Islamic people and houses for the Dutch people.’ I said, ‘That makes for a second marginalization. We must study a house that is accepted by everybody.’”

The resulting pair of buildings, known as Punt en Komma (1986-1989), refer to the local context, maintaining a typical street cross-section and generous courtyards on the interiors of the blocks. “I used a traditional system in Holland with a big portico on the street and a stairway that gives direct access to the doors,” says Siza. Rather than directly replicating existing forms, the project uses a refined modern language, carefully detailed in every aspect.

Inside, floor plans are practical and straightforward, with a small twist. “I attended to the remark of one of the Islamic people that said, ‘If I invite my friends, I do not want them to see my wife and my daughters,’” says Siza. As a result, he included sliding doors to partition off the apartments into a social area and
a more intimate living area. This allowed a separation of spaces that respected the immigrants’ traditions, while resulting in a few extra square metres of floor space that was appreciated by Dutch households.

Asked about the influence of Portuguese style in his work abroad, Siza says: “When I go to make a small social housing project in Holland or Germany, I don’t want to put something related to the Portuguese experience—but something related to what is happening there.” He adds, “I don’t want to put exotic things in a town—it does not succeed when it is a personal caprice.”

The lecture and exhibition’s subject matter resonates with the current refugee crisis in Europe, which has re-sparked anxiety about immigration. But it also an object lesson for Canada, whose major cities struggle to provide adequate affordable housing, particularly for newcomers.

According to the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, some 138,000 Canadians are on social housing wait lists, and 12.5% of Canadian families spend half of their after tax income on housing—well over the recommended 30% threshold. Punt en Komma reminds us that social housing can—and should—be designed in a way that not only puts a roof over people’s heads, but that also accommodates difference and provides dignity to inhabitants.

Architects rarely have the influence to affect housing policy. However, given the opportunity, their role in conscientiously consulting with marginalized clients and designing the right kinds of places is crucial. “Architects do not have the power themselves [to change the affordable housing situation],” says Siza. “But
if they are allowed with freedom to develop their ideas, it is important to be involved.”

Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities: Álvaro Siza in Berlin and The Hague is on display at the CCA until February 7, 2016.

UPDATE: The exhibition Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities: Álvaro Siza in Berlin and The Hague has been extended until 22 May. Beginning 2 March, the exhibition will feature additional material from the Siza archives, including the architect’s sketchbooks.