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Web Exclusive: Siza at the Aga Khan Museum

A Toronto exhibition pairs original sketches by Pritzker-prize winner Álvaro Siza and 14th century artifacts from the historic Alhambra.

July 22, 2016
by Elsa Lam

"Tower of the Princesses", sketch by Álvaro Siza. Álvaro Siza Archive.

“Tower of the Princesses”, sketch by Álvaro Siza. Álvaro Siza Archive.

Fans of architecture have a double-treat in store at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto this year: an exhibition that includes both original sketches by Pritzker-prize winner Álvaro Siza and 14th century artifacts from the historic Alhambra, rarely seen outside of Spain.

Álvaro Siza: Gateway to the Alhambra centres on Siza’s competition-winning design for the Alhambra visitor centre, scheduled for completion in 2020. The design was completed with local architect Juan Domingo Santos, whose grandfather was one of the architects involved in earlier restoration work for the palatial complex.

Installation view of the exhibition Álvaro Siza: Gateway to the Alhambra.

Installation view of the exhibition Álvaro Siza: Gateway to the Alhambra.

The exhibition was originally conceived for the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin, and is curated by Portuguese architect António Choupina, who was taught by Siza. Originally conceived for an architectural audience, the curation is meant to be evocative, more than pedagogical: descriptive texts are limited, and labeled plans and renderings are deliberately placed only at the very end of the exhibition.

This purist presentation will most appeal to trained designers, particularly those familiar with the Alhambra site. It is intended to allow the craft of Siza’s drawings and models to shine, free of distracting long-form labels.

The opening room features a large-scale model of the area, showing the importance of the overall cultural landscape to the palace complex.

The opening room features a large-scale model of the area, showing the importance of the overall cultural landscape to the palace complex.

The introductory room is filled with a large-scale model and sketch of the Alhambra, a walled palace complex that overlooks the old city of Granada. The popularity of the site as a tourist attraction—with some 8,500 visitors each day—has made preservation challenging.

“Site Model with Landscape Integration” Álvaro Siza, 2011. Collection of the Patronato of the Alhambra and Generalife. From the curator: Álvaro Siza enjoys paraphrasing Michelangelo by saying that the model is the most well spent money of any project. Having collaborated with the architect for years, expert model-maker Alvaro Negrello seems to agree, as he delivered perhaps the most important architectural mock-up of the exhibition. It makes a very clear case for the project’s intentions, with no room for misconceptions, presenting a discrete platform anchored by the topography outside of the monument’s wall. Gardens reclaim the existing parking lot, offering a new square to the city where vegetation and water lines soften Granada’s dry climate. Complex height systematizations reconnect the new museums with the street and allow for 8,500 daily visitors to comfortably cross the site, like one would in a miniature prototype of the full-scale Alhambra.

“Site Model with Landscape Integration.” Álvaro Siza, 2011. Collection of the Patronato of the Alhambra and Generalife.
From the curator: Álvaro Siza enjoys paraphrasing Michelangelo by saying that the model is the most well spent
money of any project. Having collaborated with the architect for years, expert model-maker Alvaro Negrello seems to agree, as he delivered perhaps the most important architectural mock-up of the exhibition. It makes a very clear case for the project’s intentions, with no room for misconceptions, presenting a discrete platform anchored by the topography outside of the monument’s wall. Gardens reclaim the existing parking lot, offering a new square to the city where vegetation and water lines soften Granada’s dry climate. Complex height systematizations reconnect the new museums with the street and allow for 8,500 daily visitors to comfortably cross the site, like one would in a miniature prototype of the full-scale Alhambra.

Since 1993, a new long-term plan has focused on expanding the attention (and foot traffic) of visitors over the larger landscape of the Alhambra. Instead of emphasizing well-known areas such as the Courtyard of the Lions, a broader understanding of the Alhambra as a cultural landscape is being encouraged—one that includes the hillside pools that supply the Alhambra’s fountains, for instance, and the Generalife, a set of royal farms and summer residence a short distance away.

"Elevated Platform", sketch by Juan Domingo Santos, 2010. Álvaro Siza Archive. From the curator: The working relationship between Álvaro Siza and Spanish architect Juan Domingo Santos was so symbiotic that Siza once signed this sketch as his own, a mistake which he later humbly corrected. It was Santos who had been the one to suggest breaking down the solid structure and opening it up to the Alhambra walls, creating a more permeable courtyard between the garden platforms and the entryway. This became a crucial turning point for the project. They worked together in order to formalize a sort of conceptual pylon (or gateway) toward the square, in the shape of a horseshoe, reminiscent of the Alhambra’s “Gate of the Seven Floors” — one that had long been sublimated into Siza’s volumetric and territorial representation. From a library (1988–95), to a church (1990–97), and now a visitors’ centre (2010–20), this modern-day fortress and its evolution served as entry gates to the architect’s knowledge, the divine, and the 21st century.

“Elevated Platform”, sketch by Juan Domingo Santos, 2010. Álvaro Siza Archive.
From the curator: The working relationship between Álvaro Siza and Spanish architect Juan Domingo Santos was so symbiotic that Siza once signed this sketch as his own, a mistake which he later humbly corrected. It was Santos who had been the one to suggest breaking down the solid structure and opening it up to the Alhambra walls, creating a more permeable courtyard between the garden platforms and the entryway. This became a crucial turning point for the project. They worked together in order to formalize a sort of conceptual pylon (or gateway) toward the square, in the shape of a horseshoe, reminiscent of the Alhambra’s “Gate of the Seven Floors” — one that had long been sublimated into Siza’s volumetric and territorial representation. From a library (1988–95), to a church (1990–97), and now a visitors’ centre (2010–20), this modern-day fortress and its evolution served as entry gates to the architect’s knowledge, the divine, and the 21st century.

Siza and Santos’ visitors’ centre is meant to consolidate this new plan. In their design, the 5,700-square-metre complex sits mostly underground, with strategically placed lightwells and courtyards illuminating a ticketing zone, auditorium, museum, and waiting areas. On the palace side, the volumes draw back from the palace walls to free up a new courtyard with vistas down a historic drive lined with cypress trees. The rooftop of the centre is conceived as a viewing platform, and fitted with low walls for seating.

As with many of Siza’s designs, carefulness with subtle details elevates the project beyond the ordinary—without pomp, flash or ego. The project’s main volumes incorporate a slight bend, turning towards the palace on one side, and the rather ordinary fabric of the new city of Granada on the other. The height of the roof-cum-viewing-platform is carefully aligned to a 7.96 metre elevation—the ground plane of the Generalife gardens.

“Study Model of the Interior Space.” Álvaro Siza, 2011. Álvaro Siza Archive. From the curator: The ramped descent into the interior space of Puerta Nueva prepares visitors for the profoundly lyrical experience to come, enabling light to become solid as it rips through the shadows. Here, the contraction and expansion of space is fuelled by a myriad of criss-crossed mezzanines, water pond reflections, and strategically placed wells of light. Light is, in fact, the central character in this architectural underworld, as it is the chief material of the Alhambra, the only substance that truly stands the test of time.

“Study Model of the Interior Space.” Álvaro Siza, 2011. Álvaro Siza Archive.
From the curator:
The ramped descent into the interior space of Puerta Nueva prepares visitors for the profoundly lyrical experience to come, enabling light to become solid as it rips through the shadows. Here, the contraction and expansion of space is fuelled by a myriad of criss-crossed mezzanines, water pond reflections, and strategically placed wells of light. Light is, in fact, the central character in this architectural underworld, as it is the chief material of the Alhambra, the only substance that truly stands the test of time.

Inside, light is treated as a building material. Curator António Choupina explains that Siza aimed to “solidify light” by bringing it through the space in controlled shafts that contrast with surrounding shadows. This approach is inspired by strategies in the Alhambra itself, which Siza first visited as 13-year-old. (It’s a way of using light that can also be seen in other buildings by Siza, who looked to the Alhambra as a source of inspiration long before winning the competition for its visitors’ centre).

Architects will delight in the half dozen models on display, which include an exquisitely crafted wood presentation model of the site, and a working model of the centre’s ceiling plane.

A ceiling fragment from the Alhambra.

A ceiling fragment from the Alhambra.

While the Aedes version of the exhibition focused solely on the design by Siza and Santos, over 30 artifacts from the Alhambra itself accompany the Aga Khan museum appearance. It’s a rare loan of this size for the institution. One of the key artifacts—a full-scale plaster cast of a wall—was damaged in transit, and returned for restoration. Nonetheless, the artifacts that do appear enrich the display immensely.

A 14th century mosaic fragment from the Alhambra.

A 14th century mosaic fragment from the Alhambra.

A 14th century skylight from the Alhambra.

A 14th century skylight from the Alhambra.

Wall texts help draw general connections between the original pieces and Siza’s sketches and models. There’s a Moorish skylight on display that is a precursor to modern versions. Wooden screens, mosaics and a fragment of a stalactite-like ceiling demonstrate a use of pattern and geometry that mirror similar motifs in Siza’s plans. Soundless documentary videos, displayed on adjacent iPads, show the context of each artifact within the palace.

Curator António Choupina alongside a sectional model of the Alhambra visitors' centre created for the exhibition.

Curator António Choupina alongside a sectional model of the Alhambra visitors’ centre created for the exhibition.

An additional layer of information would have distracted from the purity of the display, but on balance, it may have added to the experience. Even as a trained architectural historian, it was often hard to discern exactly what was being presented in a sketch— a plan or a detail? Which side was an elevation taken from, or which sectional problem was being worked through?

"Formal Synthesis." Álvaro Siza, 2010. Álvaro Siza Archive. From the curator: There’s an undeniable anthropomorphic quality to Álvaro Siza’s architecture. The drawings contort like bodies stretched out in the sun, trying to find their true proportion by weaving around the crevices on the pavement and retreating from its protrusions, like a dance. Siza himself retreated several times from the mighty Alhambra, afraid he would disturb the balance of this peaceful giant, but Juan Domingo Santos would encourage Siza by placing photographs all over his house, as a reminder of the Alhambra’s beauty. This particular sketch resembles a frozen flamenco move, elegantly tensioned in space. Its dynamics are undoubtedly reinforced by the organic flow of the artist’s left hand, as Siza had just broken his right arm a couple of months prior to the design’s development.

“Formal Synthesis.” Álvaro Siza, 2010. Álvaro Siza Archive.
From the curator: There’s an undeniable anthropomorphic quality to Álvaro Siza’s architecture. The drawings contort like bodies stretched out in the sun, trying to find their true proportion by weaving around the crevices on the pavement and retreating from its protrusions, like a dance. Siza himself retreated several times from the mighty Alhambra, afraid he would disturb the balance of this peaceful giant, but Juan Domingo Santos would encourage Siza by placing photographs all over his house, as a reminder of the Alhambra’s beauty. This particular sketch resembles a frozen flamenco move, elegantly tensioned in space. Its dynamics are undoubtedly reinforced by the organic flow of the artist’s left hand, as Siza had just broken his right arm a couple of months prior to the design’s development.

Guided tours will hopefully fill in some of the gaps. Regardless, if you’re not heading to Portugal or Spain this summer, simply basking in the aura of Siza’s masterful sketches and fragments of the majestic Alhambra is well worth a trip to the Aga Khan Museum.

The exhibition Álvaro Siza: Gateway to the Alhambra runs to January 8, 2017 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. For more information, click here.