This coming June, Álvaro Siza celebrates his 90th birthday in Porto and yet continues to actively participate in the international discourse and design of our shared built environment. One specific typology appeared to have eluded his seventy-year-long career: the tower.
Through Siza’s expressive sketches as well as photographs and models, this exhibition showcases the duality of two recently completed towers, which could not be more different despite their strikingly elegant simplicity: the deluxe residential tower of 611 West 56th Street, in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, and the eco-friendly watchtower of Proença-a-Nova, in the evergreen forest of Portugal.
Each one works as a lookout into the wonderful and endless landscapes of New York and Naturtejo, a UNESCO Geopark between Lisbon and Porto. After all, Álvaro Siza’s towers are less about height and more about foresight. Siza has designed several towers since 1979, yet most are unbuilt or unspoken projects.
Perhaps because towers are a kind of taboo in his home country Portugal, so much so that they are considered illegal by nearly all city ordinances, or maybe because southern topography and climate favour a more telluric approach, which emphasizes horizontal lines. New York, on the other hand, is like a dream where everything is vertical and thrusts from the ground like trees.
That is how Álvaro Siza describes it since his initial trip to the United States, roughly half a century ago. His newest tower in Manhattan (2014-22), standing at 137 meters tall, may seem modest in comparison to New York’s ever-growing skyline, but it’s enough to “caress the sky rather than scrape it”, according to Siza.
His towers are hence instruments for renewing and restructuring territories, such as the neighbourhood of 611W56 , expanding vertically to make room for public spaces that allows for the social engagement of communities – on the corner of 11th avenue – and the implementation of garden areas – on the 2nd floor courtyard.
The tower bears a vague resemblance to an anthropomorphic sculpture, its long neck and cantilevered head clad in limestone, with a double herringbone pattern. The watchtower in Proença-a-Nova (2018-21) is powered by solar panels and rises at the summit of a mountain range called Serra das Talhadas.
It might only be 16 meters tall but it sits 616 meters above sea level, overlooking the 50-million-year-old quarzitic crests of the surrounding geopark. This tower is meant to prevent the spread of wildfires, besides also working as a belvedere at the summit of an ambitious rock climbing trail.
Álvaro Siza composed the watchtower with squared overhanging slabs and rounded corners. The floorplan distils the structure to its most essential shape: a cross grid, not unlike the neighbouring crucifix.
An identical logic had been applied to 611 West 56th Street, where the Hippodamian grid of New York was translated onto the façade: avenues become pillars and blocks become windows. Both towers are strategically placed on the edge, perching above the entrance and opening their corners to shift whole panoramas inward, framed by glass in Manhattan or defying gravity in Proença-a-Nova.
Sketches, 3D-mockups, models, and photos illuminate Álvaro Siza’s passion for towers and his fascination with reaching for the sun, while simultaneously focusing on two case studies and their diverging traits: one is taller and the other is shorter, one is private and the other is public, one is for dwelling and the other is for protection, one is urban and the other is rural, one is in reinforced concrete and the other in lightweight steel frame.
The multimedia exhibition also includes interviews and objects designed by Siza in different contexts, like a set of rattan woven chairs designed for Camerich, an Aedes Cooperation Partner. The exhibition is curated by architect António Choupina.
Location: Aedes Architecture Forum, Christinenstraße 18–19, 10119 Berlin, Germany
Architect: Álvaro Siza
Curator: António Choupina
Speaking at the opening: Dr. Kristin Feireiss Aedes, Berlin, H.E.Francisco Ribeiro de Menezes Ambassador of Portugal to Germany, João Lobo Mayor, Proença-a-Nova, António Choupina Architect and Curator, Porto, Henrique Siza, Architect and Álvaro Siza’s grandson, Porto, Álvaro Siza Architect, Porto (video message)
Exhibition: 27 May – 5 July 2023