The rise of modernism led to the polarisation of traditional architecture. And as a result, a lot got lost in the process, observes doctoral candidate Nelson Mota. He is looking for a middle way, a modern architecture that allows for growth and change. The work of the architect Álvaro Siza is an example of this.

After the Second World War, the modernist concept of building from a tabula rasa – from a clean slate, without looking at the past – prevailed throughout Europe. Large numbers of homes had to be built quickly. And this required a rational, modernist approach, without the ‘whimsical’ aspect of traditional building methods. “The problem is that if you completely ignore the past, you’ll design exclusive architecture that is not part of the urban environment,” says Mota.

In his dissertation “An Archaeology of the Ordinary. Rethinking the Architecture of Dwelling from CIAM to Siza” he retraces its roots. He even posits the idea that archaeology should be a component of architectural education. Architects who do not know the history of their profession – or who only know the architectural highlights – will never design homes that fit in to everyday life, he believes. This requires digging below the surface. He advocates the elimination of such polarities as individual and social, expert and masses, local and universal. The modern architect should not be afraid to borrow from vernacular buildings that have not been designed by architects. The result would benefit creativity. By listening to the man in the street, it is possible to design architecture that allows for growth and change, which is therefore sustainable and can withstand the test of time.

Mota pays special attention in his dissertation to architectural design and theory in Portugal. Between the late 1940s and early 1990s, Western Europe was in the grip of universal polarisation caused by the Cold War. The peripheral location of Portugal was also reflected in its architecture. Modernity and folklore were much more intertwined than elsewhere.

A number of case studies of the work of the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza show how this results in designs for residential buildings that are able to accommodate extraordinarily varied user groups. Examples of these include homes for Dutch and Arabic residents in the Schilderswijk in The Hague (1988) and for Turkish groups and squatters in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin (1984). These homes are adaptable to individual situations by means of simple interventions, such as a sliding door. Mota: “By abandoning black-and-white thinking and exploring the many shades of grey, it’s possible to design humane architecture which is inclusive and which fits in the real world.”

Published: September 2014