Exhibition Review: Siza at the Aga Khan Museum
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.