The greatest buildings by Álvaro Siza achieve extraordinary balance: between “statement” and discretion, between surprise and comprehensibility, between architecture as freestanding sculpture and architecture as contiguous fabric, between overt Modernity and a respect for history that includes a poetic incorporation of architectural history itself. The Iberê Camargo Foundation, recently completed in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, makes this spatial and cultural equilibrium, so characteristic of Siza’s work, literally concrete. It is also of critical significance for Latin America being a rare new work, in that vast continent, by an international architect of this caliber.
The site might have intimidated lesser talents, or lulled them into a simplistic solution. There’s an escarpment, with feral trees on top; a flat sliver below of cleared terrain; a busy road with traffic departing Porto Alegre; and a vast surface of water, Lake Guaíba, more lagoon than estuary as several rivers make their way to the Atlantic in the far distance. There is here a simultaneous sense - caught by Siza - of compression between cliff-face and roadway and of expansion to the north and west across the great, grey body of water that is not yet sea. In this Southern Hemisphere location, the sun moves across the facade of the Camargo Foundation to melt in astonishing sunsets.
Siza’s parti is like a fortified letter L, four stories high yet dissipating, dropping suddenly, into a tail of outhouse pavilions alongside the road. This primal architectural move is attenuated parallel to the road such that a service lane is eked out between the building and hill behind and such that a chasm of space is implied in the elbow of the L overlooking the lake. This is where Siza threads the Camargo Foundation’s most memorable and curious element, a stack of enclosed ramps zigzagging back-and-forth between ends of the L. There are almost no windows. One is drawn instead to the complex weave of light and shadow, to the play of solid and void.
This play of volumes in light immediately evokes the spirit of Le Corbusier, and the ramps with their limited fenestration recall that master’s wonderful circulation machines at Chandigarh. As this is Siza’s first work in Brazil, one imagines also a filtering of Brazilian precedent: the willfully brilliant gestures of Oscar Niemeyer, for instance, and the more specific constructions of Italian émigré Lina Bo Bardi (her SESC Pompéia precinct in São Paulo features ramped bridges linking raw concrete towers). However, seeing the Camargo Foundation for the first time, your response may well be emotional, a thrill at its white concrete bulk and the ramps projecting like a ribcage.
Standing on the raised forecourt, at the base of the complex void between ramps and host building, you see the interior through an expanse of glass. Somewhat surprisingly, the public entrance is via a single door to your left. After this momentary compression, you proceed into the building proper, into the white belly of the beast, a soaring hall with opaque ceiling, open galleries on three levels to east and south (parallel to the hill), and a few seemingly unconnected ramps that curve against the concave hypotenuse of the L-form. You’re conscious of visitors peering across the parapets on upper floors and notice other folk appear and disappear to either end of the visible ramps. Here at the nexus of Siza’s volume, in the eye of his panopticon with its strangely extramural circulation, another reference comes to mind: the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim Museum completed fifty years ago in New York. In 1980, for a German competition proposal, Siza tilted Wright’s diagram so as to ring offices about a canted and cylindrical void. In Porto Alegre, the parti is more tuned to promenade and to the framing of views. The ramps mutate from exposed, serpentine ledges within the foyer to enclosed, angular bridges hovering above the forecourt. As you explore, you discover a few select windows, punched quadrilaterals with semi-circular jambs or sides.
The realization of the Camargo Foundation, and the resolution of its many material details, must in part be due to its project manager, the engineer José Luiz Canal. The external ramps, Canal explains, were constructed by first laying the skinny floor slabs spanning out into open space; later, their walls and roofs were poured such that walls cover the sides of floor slabs, thus negating any seam on the vertical surface. Furthermore, gaps in the concrete formwork have left a perfect grid of vertical and horizontal lines against the diagonal ramp walls. Canal was also engaged in the complicated matter of building a linear garage beneath the public road below.
If the exterior whiteness was achieved by closely tracking the potential of self-consolidating concrete, the interior whiteness results from a smooth lining of plasterboard and from the selection of a Greek marble, Pighes, for stairwells and for the coping of gallery and ramp balustrades. Ceilings, conversely, are illuminated by boxed translucent trays, using artificial light for the lower galleries but mixing-in natural light on the upper level. Floors are laid with the light brown wood of an indigenous tree, perobinha. As this is a Siza building, the Camargo Foundation utilizes his customary skinny frames and ironmongery. Many light fixtures and pieces of furniture are also by the architect.
Other key personalities for the project are Iberê Camargo (1914-1994), the painter and printmaker, and his widow, Maria Coussirat Camargo. The Foundation displays many of his works but must also, to maintain pertinence, engage emerging artists and art practice. Thus extending through the basement are not only storage and documentation areas but an auditorium, airy classroom, and a double-height print studio in the first of the low, fractured houses alongside the road. These boulder-like pavilions, including a subtly recessed café next to the forecourt, overlook private patios. One window and a set of pivoting interior screens offer passers-by diagonal glimpses through the studios.
The Camargo Foundation has, to its benefit, taken several years to build. As with Siza’s best work, it indeed achieves a remarkable balance: formal and informal, introverted and extroverted, normative and idiosyncratic. Among the finds to remember is the single south-facing gallery window - a pure rectangle of vibrant green vegetation that helps the visitor notice our world in an engaging and unexpected way.