Thursday, June 10, 2010

IBERÊ CAMARGO FOUNDATION, Alvaro Siza, Porto Alegre, Brasil (2008) [1]

In case you do not know this building well, I suggest you visit Fernando Guerra’s website at (building S-43) 

Figure 1

After four decades marked by a generally banal and at times vulgar architecture, for Porto Alegre the opening of the Iberê Camargo Foundation Building (henceforth FIC) was a very auspicious fact in many respects. Besides the already noticeable increase in the number of tourists – after all, the design’s author, Alvaro Siza Vieira, is one of the big names of the present architectural scene and the building houses the work of one of the main Brazilian painters of the 20th century – the city will benefit in other ways. An immediate and obvious gain is the fact that this new museum provides not only an adequate house for Iberê Camargo’s work but a place to host visiting exhibitions from the main museums of the world, which was impossible before because there was no place with the adequate technical and security conditions.

Not so obvious is the fact that a direct contact with an architecture built according to European standards may have as a consequence the raising of the standards we are used to. One hopes that such a building – visited by multitudes and commented upon by all who care for art and culture – may open some local minds to more sophisticated ways to practice architecture than the ones that define the essentially mediocre local production.

In my opinion, one of the important contributions of this building to the local culture has to do with time. In Brasil it is generally thought that an architectural design can be done in few weeks, at most in a pair of months. Few understand that for everything in life there is a proper maturation period. This is so for wine and rice, why would it be different for designs? More than four years separate the start of the design – 1998 – and the actual beginning of the construction – June 2003 –, a normal development period by European standards for buildings this size but almost unheard of in Brasil. One hopes that the final result is showing our hasty clients and developers the advantages of giving enough time to an architect to reflect upon what he does.

Another interesting theme raised by the construction of the FIC is the reception it has enjoyed among Porto Alegre’s inhabitants. An initial rejection of the building could be easily perceived even before its opening, most probably due to the fact that most of us are not used to this kind of architecture. It has been common to hear negative criticism about the material chosen for its exterior, about its introversion – many call it bunker because of that – and so on. Regardless of the truthfulness or not of these early appraisals, it is remarkable that nobody seems to care about the horrors usually built here by the building industry: the “neoclassical” buildings and the disjointed aggregations that constitute the majority of what is being built here in the last three or four decades. It reminds me of the aversion to classical music and jazz by people raised on massive amounts of music of low quality.

As Siza’s building appears as a uniform and unarticulated mass ­when seen from middle and long distances it brings to the fore some of the local layman’s architectural phobias, which makes them to get annoyed at each and every elementary solution. If any continuous and windowless wall is immediately despised, any building whose configuration resembles a parallelepiped becomes a “box”, then it comes as no surprise that a big concrete volume with just a few openings should be dubbed a “bunker” by my fellow townsmen.

However, all this has to do with a kind of mental laziness characteristic of the contemporary masses. Few invest any time in understanding what they have in front of them, resulting in hasty and generally superficial interpretations. As understanding any work of architecture implies a knowledge of the object as a whole – inside and outside, as a visual construction and a useful object – architecture is still an illustrious unknown for the majority of people.


There seems to be no point in merely describing this building, or any other building, for that matter: any trained person can understand it from drawings and photographs. What really interests me here is to reflect upon the way this project has been conceived and how it can contribute to the architectural education of the people of Porto Alegre as well as to our day-to-day practice. 

Figure 2 (Source: Arquitetura  e Urbanismo, 171)

The plot chosen for the FIC building was located at the site of an old quarry, and can be understood as the union of a rectangle and a trapeze or triangle whose tip has been cut off. The museum proper occupies the rectangular part – the largest in area – there remaining the trapeze for complementary activities like the cafeteria and the underground workshops. From the outside the museum reveals itself as being composed by two bodies corresponding to the plan distribution just mentioned: the 25 meters high museum block and the supporting wing, just one story high. 

I shall not dwell on the functional distribution of the building if not to say something which is an important feature of Siza’s architecture: he synthesizes program and site into form in such a way as to give his projects a character of inevitability, that is, that there would be no better solution in that specific situation.

What seems to me more consequential in terms of what we can learn from this work is to inquire into the modus operandi employed here by Siza. In my opinion, what he did was to establish as his starting point an orthogonal geometry that was adapted to the site and responded to the program, which was later distorted until he reached the final configuration. The organization of the main body is clear and logical: a sequence of exhibition spaces with both ends occupied by stairs, lifts, restrooms and the access to the ramps. The two arms or wings of this L-shaped configuration define a multi-story space, a void that is the true spatial focus of the building.

Although the preceding description indicates an organization that can be seen as clear and consequential, the final configuration of the building, that which is captured by attentive eyes, is not as easy to describe. The question “what is the building?” does not have in this case an immediate or easy answer. Perhaps in order to advance in this discussion it would be helpful to return to the old tectonic/stereotomic distinction: [2]

“For stereotomic architecture we understand that in which the force of gravity is transmitted in a continuous way, in a structural system where constructive continuity is complete. This is the architecture of stone, massive and heavy, as if it had sprung from the earth. It is the architecture of the podium and the platform. It is also the one that brings light in by making holes in the walls so that it may enter. In short, it is the architecture of the cave.

On the other hand, tectonic architecture is that in which the force of gravity is transmitted in a discontinuous way, through a structural system composed of nodes, in which the construction is syncopated. It is a bony architecture, lightweight, that touches the earth as if on tiptoes. It is the architecture that must protect its openings against the excess of light. In short, it is the architecture of the hut.” [3]

If we apply the above definitions to, on one hand, modern Brazilian architecture and, on the other, to the FIC building we will inevitably conclude that the first exemplifies the tectonic whereas the second is a clear case of the stereotomic. It is exactly for this reason that a clear understanding and explanation of the Siza building becomes very difficult.

All along the evolution of modern Brazilian architecture we became accustomed with buildings of articulated form, that is, consisting of a series of easily identifiable elements – slabs, columns, beams, continuous stretches of opaque wall, curtain walls, marquees, porticos, etc – combined into artifacts endowed with strong formal identity. This procedure is inherited from modern architecture’s procedure of formal construction, in which well defined elements are organized according to equally clear formal rules.

The same terms do not apply to the FIC building, as it is not composed by identifiable parts. Parts and whole, formal relationships and hierarchy are terms that do not make sense in this case as the main volume looks much more like something sculpted out of a giant rock than an object constructed from smaller parts – not an absurd interpretation considering the previous use of the site. We are dealing here with a different kind of architecture, one in which the compositional logic cannot be apprehended by way of observation.

Familiarity with an architecture that presents as salient features tectonicity and articulation coupled with an easily identifiable formal logic makes it difficult for one to understand, on one side, the building’s volumetric configuration and, on the other, the curves and other irregularities to be found in its plans. Perhaps it is there that one can find the “artistic” aspect of architecture, as something arbitrarily superimposed to the original logic of the design – without necessarily having a direct connection with it – and that ends up overshadowing it almost completely. Liking it or not, it is an indisputable fact that we have here an object endowed with a strong sculptural presence; this can be a virtue or a shortcoming, depending on the observer’s point of view.

The above amounts to an apparent lack of systematicity that prevents the FIC building from performing the same role carried out by most buildings of collective importance until a few decades ago, the role of model for simpler constructions. Whenever a building is designed in such a way that its formal and constructive subsystems can be visually identified – as is the case of two important Brazilian museums like the MAM (Rio) by Reidy and the MASP (São Paulo) by Lina Bardi – it allows anyone to learn from it and to apply those lessons in other designs. Although the FIC buildings has a lot to teach about construction, its sculptural form is an end in itself and will hardly generate any authentic descendants. The same comment could be made about several designs by architects as different as Gaudi, Gehry and Niemeyer. However, if it had been a more “didactic” building – that, is, one that could be more easily understood by its users – perhaps the FIC would lose that which seems to be fundamental for the promoters of public buildings: its impact value or the capacity to attract multitudes to it.

Perhaps the most criticized aspect of the building designed by Siza is its scant visual relationship with the Guaiba River [4], just across the road from it and the scene of memorable sunsets. In a city that lost a direct connection to river for more than fifty years [5] it is understandable that people would expect it to be reestablished by so emblematic a building. But this was not to be. As views to the outside are only possible from some tiny openings in the circulation spaces, it is not surprising that the visitors feel frustrated and not at ease in the role of voyeurs of their own city. Some of the explanations for this argue that more openings would harm the works of art and increase the air conditioning monthly bill. Those explanations hold some truth but are frankly lame as placing openings with double glazing and solar protection in places where there are no works of art would have no negative effects. While walking through the museum’s ramps – the three tubes that contribute so much to the buildings outside appearance but whose spatial attractive is minimal – what comes to mind is the Pompidou Center in Paris, where transparent escalators offer views of the city from different heights. Nobody can understand, me included, why Siza did not take more advantage of the views to the river; the openings provided on the tubes are too small and insufficient, as proven by the groups of people who gather around them all the time trying to get a glimpse of the outside scenery. 

Figure 3 (Source: digdol's flickr photostream - )
One of tubes that contain part of the circulation system.


There is another aspect of this design that has baffled more than one observer: while Siza has taken an almost obsessive care of the small details – as exemplified by the exquisite detailing of the marble surfaces and wooden elements – the same is not true for the way the larger elements meet each other, being the most noticeable the crude and uncontrolled way in which the internal ramps encounter each floor. In the same way, the gridded lit ceilings of the exhibition rooms that face the entrance are treated differently, the top one being limited to a plane while the two lower ones turn the corner and become strangely three-dimensional. Those two shortcomings take a lot away from a space that is almost spectacular in its Piranesian verticality and controlled luminosity. 

Figure 4
Detail of the marble facing one of the stairways.

Figure 5
The museum's atrium.

Notwithstanding the fact that the FIC building is in constructive terms by far the most advanced building ever constructed in Porto Alegre – and the fact that it was carried out successfully is due essentially to the strict administration by the local engineer José Luis Canal – it is striking that the final object does not present any of the elements that preserve the physical integrity of other buildings, like cappings, copings and so on. In order for it to keep its immaculate whiteness the FIC will have to be maintained constantly and obsessively, something almost impossible to guarantee in Brasil. I sincerely hope to be mistaken about this.

For all its polemical and intriguing aspects, it is hoped that the FIC building will have a positive impact on the architecture of this city, for its own qualities as well as for the discussions it has generated and will continue to generate. 

[1] Published originally in Arquitetura e Construção, 171, São Paulo, June, 2008.

The concepts of tectonicity and stereotomy were developed by Gottfried Semper in the 19th century. See Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, MIT Press, 2001.

Alberto Campo Baeza, Cajas, cajitas, cajones. Sobre lo estereotómico y lo tectónico, in La idea construida, Buenos Aires, 2000

It is actually a lake but the population of Porto Alegre resists calling it so.

After the famous 1941 flood a wall was built that separates the central part of Porto Alegre from the river to which it opened up since its creation. 

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