The Valencian centre, Espai Alfaro, will open the exhibition “AlfaroSiza”, from May 24th until October 27th, presenting a duet between architect Álvaro Siza and sculptor Andreu Alfaro, co-curated by Fran Silvestre and António Choupina.
“None is closer to Architecture than Sculpture. Each plane is transition to another plane. Light wonders above them. It is not possible to sketch Sculpture, to represent it in two dimensions. Always what is represented – and how – are insufficient, because the surface of a sculpture has no beginning or end, nor does it fit on a sheet of paper…”
As we contemplated the vestibule of the Laurentian Library, I distinctly remember paraphrasing Giorgio Vasari: I thank God to have been born in the time Álvaro Siza’s alive and to be worthy of having him for a teacher on such friendly terms. In that moment, in Florence, the architect of sculpture and the sculptor of architecture were metaphysically face to face in the form of a staircase, one whose silhouette would live beyond time, transformed by the Baroque and reinterpreted by many authors – from Charles Garnier to Alvar Aalto – but perhaps most enthusiastically by none other than Álvaro Siza himself. The staircase of the International Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, in Santo Tirso, intersects the universes of sculpture and architecture in a single element, representing simultaneously the object–like qualities of a statue and the processional ascension of a mini-acropolis. It took roughly three months to design because of its paradoxical mannerisms: contact through detachment, weightlessness through heaviness, light through shadow, asymmetry through axiality and structural illusion through material truth.
In this sense Siza and Michelangelo – much like architecture and sculpture – belong to the same artistic family, where modern vocabularies can coexist with classical canons by continuity, contradiction and hybridization. Whether it be an extruding rock, a symbolic staircase, a revolutionary monument, a prismatic sculpture or a pyramid in Giza, the recurring palimpsest is that of obliquity in space, of forced perspective and dynamic reflection toward a different direction, encompassing the totalizing nature of an architectural promenade or an artistic narrative with the position of the work itself in regard to the arrival of its observer. For example, Siza designed a room for Michelangelo’s last masterpiece – the Pietá Rondanini – where the statue isn’t placed against a wall but rather slightly off-center, in a 45 degree angle, thus allowing visitors to rotate around it and admire it as a whole.
The unfinished abstraction of the Pietá is closer to that of contemporary sculpture, in which emotion trumps realism and breaking or dismembering is made even more poignant by the simple touch of a mother’s face. Limbs seem to furiously carve their way out of a stone block, like Álvaro Siza’s anthropomorphic figures seem to splinter their way out a tree trunk. I got better acquainted with these characters – these “Personaggi” – together with François and Linde Burkhardt, in Gaeta. Among their echoes of Constantin Brâncuși’s purity, Alberto Giacometti’s slenderness, Eduardo Chillida’s geometry and Mimmo Paladino’s acrobatics, it was Andreu Alfaro’s syntheses that stroke me the most.
However, one must confess that neither Siza nor I were very familiar with Alfaro’s oeuvre before his death, in 2012. Their combined bodies of work are an amazing duet, mutually similar and dissonant, humble and monumental, silent and full of stories, rhythms, jazz. Jazz is was what gave Alfaro’s heart so much joy after all, between the score and inspiration – as Siza would say –, improvising trees and towers out of syncopated trumpet buttons. These discs rise and fall with the melody, with the natural freedom of a garden or the danger levels of a fireman’s training. Siza had seen Gaudí’s buildings transfigure something as simple as a handrail, a chimney or a roof into undulating pieces of art, which – coupled with Aalto’s organic cover of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (1950) – firmly planted our young artist in architectural territory.
Architects with artistic identities and vice versa were an obvious byproduct of the parallel teaching of architecture, painting and sculpture, at Porto’s Superior School of Fine Arts (ESBAP). The headmaster – Carlos Ramos – was notably a Bauhausian, as was Andreu Alfaro, according to Around Sculpture. Writtings and Interviews (2015): “I was a connoisseur and a follower of the Bauhaus, so there was a certain affinity between what I thought and what architects thought and built.” I recently wrote about this technocratic separation of baukunst (architecture) and kunst (art) for the Nadir Afonso Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chaves. Álvaro Siza’s legacy here is a kinetic sequence of planes that flow under the museum, like a Tribute to Plato, a landscape of reverberations from Constructivism, Neoplasticism and Cubism that challenge the unprecedented scope of visual abstraction in Fifty Years of Modern Art (1958). The Portuguese Pavilion’s square is much less monolithic. It feels light, like one of Gaudí’s model catenaries, sustaining a 60 meter long concrete sheet. If conceptually insufflated by air, that sheet would become its vaulted opposite – the Gondomar Pavilion – and public space would turn into a symbolic gateway.
Both Siza and Alfaro are fascinated by doorways on an urban or domestic scale: the Door of Illustration, in Madrid, is a sort of double Arc de Triomphe that plays with directionality and elongated perspectives in the same way as Borromini’s Galleria Spada; Door V – akin to the darkness of Rodin’s Gates of Hell – is the essential gesture of human proportion behind the tridimensional angle of the Siza Promenade, linking Herzog’s VitraHaus to Hadid’s fire station; Frankfurt’s Door of the Universe faces the sky with a circle set on a square, sign of the philosopher’s stone and hence immortality, enlightenment, divinity. Andreu Alfaro’s monuments are Egyptians thresholds between life and eternity, translating the ethical subtext of a collective culture to society. Consequently, it isn’t a coincidence that Álvaro Siza chose a most ancient geometric equation – the squared circle – for the plan of his Anastasis Church.
In Rennes, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man converges with Machuca’s Palace of Charles V, because God is a circle with no beginning and no end, touched only by Men’s orthogonality. Architectural equivalency can be found in the artificial topography that is the Iberê Camargo Museum itself, and in the linear chiseling of Bilbao’s University Hall or Lagos’ Hill Chapel. At this juncture, Oteiza’s theories on open boxes will cross with ALFARO SIZA’s modular compositions, particularly in its abstract anthropomorphic possibilities: bended legs, torsos and masks. An allusion to movement was already latent in the outstretching feet of Ramses, something that lives on in the bowing welcome of Siza’s Asian figures or in the laying prayer of a Seated Scribe.
That which is good is often open to many interpretations; however trilogies allow referencing to happen on a multidimensional level, such was the case with Italy’s menhir-like characters or England’s ruin-like columns. In any case, the transversal properties of human expression render these pseudo-men faceless, bodies that run and fall separate from their skulls.
Decapitated busts then appear individually by means of masks and facades – in Palladio or Loos –, with the exception of a crucifix and the omniscient head of Christ, cornerstone of unseen faith. The Holy Spirit is ordinarily represented by a dove – its peace was engraved in Le Corbusier’s Open Hand Monument – and its flight was obsessively recorded by Da Vinci, Picasso, Eames and, evidently, Alfaro and Siza. More than the horse sketches, Birds will develop into iconographic statements of impermanence, conveying the critical motion of a generatrix with a plain feather.
From the standpoint of Siza’s product design, there are several iterations but none as pertinent as the Papal Egg of 2010, even though its ceramic dove was associated with Aphrodite, long before Christianity. An erotic, sensuous Greek goddess was exactly what Andreu Alfaro was trying to achieve by sectioning a Solomonic column with the polished supple skin of Bernini’s Abduction of Proserpina. Other metallic Aphrodites would emerge just like lines drawn in space, but the underlying helix composition could take the shape of minarets too, reconnecting architecture and sculpture over and over again. In New York, Álvaro Siza is not building a minaret but an elegantly vertical tower.
Its white marble evokes his latest sculpture for the Gramaxo Foundation, which reinforces a thesis of touch through cantilevering, like his signage for Le Thoronet Abbey. Stone is a friend – to paraphrase Le Corbusier’s 1953 visit to the abbey – and Siza’s marble arrow can be allegorically extruded into a white Korean chapel. Not far, at Saya Park, an Art Pavilion is almost completed; its origin as Madrid’s museum for two Picassos now forgotten. Siza assembled a bifurcated bridge-like structure, resembling Alfaro’s Other Love, where the curvilinear piece and its cantilevering are as effortless as they are indispensable. I believe this indirectly informed the organic layout of the Shihlien Chemical headquarters, in China, as did undoubtedly the hammer and sickle of the Communist symbol, on a subconscious level.
Beauty comes from passion, from the open arms of a loved one, a building or a statue. The extraordinary devotion of these two authors makes it impossible to write about everything in a single embrace, especially if the writer is prone to mythology. We could talk about zigzags, spirals, moons and books, but instead we will finish with my two favorite pieces. I found these 1980’s scale models together with Andrés Alfaro Hofmann, on the rainiest day in Valencia – according to my host: Fran Silvestre. Going through storage rooms that could fill Malraux’s imaginary museum, I was attracted by the deceiving simplicity of one study in particular, a Fragment, which was reminiscent of Álvaro Siza’s Chaise Longue. Source and images Courtesy of António Choupina.