Jonathan Sergison's article on Álvaro Siza at the Venice Biennale appears in July-August 2016 issue of Domus

The Biennale is the most important international event dealing with architecture and the opening is always a wonderfully intense occasion for architects to come together in this incredible city. There are moments of sharing and debate, and often profound discourse on aspects of contemporary architecture. There are rival international events – the Triennale in Milan, the Lisbon Biennale, the São Paulo Biennale – but Venice retains a special status. It was built on a foundation established by the Art Biennale, using the existing infrastructure as a campus for hosting the different national pavilions and the Padiglione Italia and Corderie at the Arsenale housing the contributions dealing more specifically with the overall thematic investigation proposed by the Director. As a city, Venice is itself an architectural museum, and this always provides one more reason for wanting to go there.

Talking more specifically about this year’s Biennale, I’ve known Alejandro Aravena for many years, and I thought it was a bold move to invite him to direct this year’s edition. Some spaces inevitably feel a bit like an end-of-year student show: there are rooms where exhibitors seem to be trying to put every good intention into one space, and there’s far too much to read. Often, the best exhibits take into account the fact that many of the visitors inevitably form an impression that is based on a sort of “drive-by” viewing. 

For me there is one absolute highlight: travelling by vaporetto to Giudecca to view Álvaro Siza’s contribution. It benefits from the choice of location, housed as it is in an incomplete project of his, away from the circus of the Biennale itself. Showing a collection of films is risky, especially if they are as long as they are, but seeing them is absolutely compelling. I sat down and watched one after another. There is the particularly sensitive and beautiful account of four housing projects that shows how they can be understood in terms of their architectural intentions and relevance as ideas of social housing. I spent two hours there and left feeling rewarded. It involved an investment, but it was time well spent for being a very special moment. 

The videos in the Siza exhibition are all equally good. He talks about the project in Venice, an interesting story in itself. This was a competition he won with a masterplan, and he later involved Aldo Rossi. Siza is very careful in the way he explains how Rossi was a little bit upset for not winning the masterplan, but he felt that he was rewarding him in some way by asking him to make a building. It’s always interesting to hear the opinions and the personal accounts of the residents. The way Siza talks to people is so lovely; he has a kind of wonderful humility and gentleness in the way he engages with them. 

I remember becoming fascinated by Siza’s work when I was a student at the AA. I remember a lecture by Yehuda Safran, where he explained that he’d had an appointment with Alvaro Siza in Porto, to which Siza arrived quite late. The reason he gave as an apology was that he’d been visiting a house he had completed 20 years before. He wanted to see what it was like 20 years later. This anecdote reveals a level of investment in architecture and the sense that you can learn from your own production throughout your working life. I think this is important to acknowledge, because most architects lose interest in their projects even before they’re actually finished; they’re already on to the next thing. With Siza there is a sense of openness to the lessons that the physical, built work can hold in the way it performs, its social intentions, but especially its physical, material and constructional aspects. This is a lesson many would benefit from learning.

In the films, it’s wonderful to see how Siza deals with the criticism that the residents sometimes bring up. Someone who lives in an apartment on the top floor in the Venice project asks, “Why didn’t you put a window here?” And he answers, “But that would have been a sin.” He goes on to explain that it would have destroyed some aspects of the composition of the facade. But then he says, “You know, I would have done it now.” And that's fantastic.