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Key words: Alvaro Siza. Drawing. Looking. John Berger.


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The Breathing of the Regard.
by Josep Quetglas.

This is the first time I'm going to talk about Alvaro Siza's work. I haven't done this before and I wouldn't like to do it again, for two reasons I'm not sure of at which level they become confounded in me.

In the first place, I don't like to talk about people who are able to do this for themselves. I believe that, while they are alive, their loquacity as well as their silence is part of their work, it's their exclusive right, and we shouldn't interfere to alter this with our chatting. We should let them get to posterity by themselves, in the way they are choosing to arrive. They are not our property, and it doesn't correspond to us to comment on, or describe anything that implies making noise about how much they are willing to show about themselves. Respecting the work of the masters imposes silence --and of the others it's not worth talking.

That's why I think that one should prefer to talk about the ones, and for the ones, which are not able to do this for themselves anymore. Those that need an alien body to be able to continue looking, hearing, talking and existing in the world. One has to be willing to talk about and for the dead, lend them our eyes, our mouth and so make ourselves able to look, and talk as they looked and felt.

I remember a poem of Evtushenko in which he, in contradiction with Rimbaud's call for being "absolutely modern", recommended staying "a bit anachronical" so that, when the dead returned, they wouldn't end up feeling among complete strangers, and they would be able to recognize their family and friends and at least some of our habits.

The second reason that makes me hesitate to speak about Siza has something to do with an image I have had in my head for years, of such plastic force that I feel incapable to forget it and look at Siza anew. I am going to explain this image.

Someone told me once he had understood and discovered Siza. Siza was explaining him a journey, I think it was around India, and he described the oppression, the suffocation, the complete indisposition he felt while travelling in one of those crowded buses, packed with people, miscellany, animals, all clustered together crossing the continent at untimely hours. Or was this journey through Latin America perhaps? It was then, while Siza was explaining this feeling of suffocation and physical oppression while travelling there packed inside, when the person listening to him suddenly realized he understood Siza's architecture.

"There was something in his projects", this friend told me, "that I could feel without being able to name it, without understanding it consciously. I felt the intuition of a tense interior in his desire to flee into the open air, to slip between the curtains he was removing. He felt the urgency to break up an exit through a hermetical wrapping that weighed like a wet blanket. Now I understand the origin of this feeling: Siza feels space as a pressure against his lungs, to which he has to respond with his eyes searching for an exit, doubling and pushing walls, in an urgent need to let his eyes breath. The regard shouldn't be kept in an enclosed space, blindly bouncing from wall to wall, but has always to be able to slip aside, through some diagonal until feeling the open air. When one enters an interior, the first glance always has to check the existence of an exit. The anxiousness to leave takes over. Satisfaction is not felt for being in the open air, but for being able to escape the suffocation and get into the open air. What is going on is that Siza suffers claustrophobia."

The person telling me all this accompanied his story with an example that, to him, illustrated the way Siza felt space: It concerned the Bauhaus ballet where the dancer prolongs his arms with long wooden sticks that scatter into the space the movements of his body. Just like those diagonal traces of the dancer, was the regard in the eyes of Siza, pushing, separating, making way.

All Siza's projects that I afterwards got to know, made before or after that conversation, have confirmed me in that interpretation. It's such a precise image that makes me unable to get rid of it and perceive or understand Siza in a different way.

I am going to try to talk about Siza's drawings.

Drawing is an activity in which the eyes and the hand, the regard and the touch are joined together. None of our senses is an independent autonomous channel, but together they form a complete system. (1) When a person acquires the erect position to move (2), supported by that small and unstable base of the feet, the whole organization of the senses is changed and, with it, the world itself. The order of horizontal senses that allowed the person to move over the ground supported by the world, the unity smell, taste and hearing, is being replaced by an other hierarchy of senses, more precise but more distant from the world, where the imposition of the vision is being kept --together with an other sense, directly connected to it, which is the touch.

Eyes and hands are the two complementary instruments to perform the activity that makes the person's position in the world understandable, and that, inevitably, in the same gesture, adapts, modifies, uses and makes the world his own: work. But this new position of distant control over the scene, made possible by standing up, separating ourselves from the ground and distancing ourselves from the world, leads at the same time to the loss of contact, the loss of our continuity with the world and its things. How much the regard shows, is shown separated from us. The regard tells us our separation of what we see. That is precisely why we have to direct ourselves to the words with our hands, to try to substitute the lost umbilical cord.

In the introduction to his collection of travel drawings, Siza talks about a double way of travelling, which is a double way of seeing. He talks about a friend that suffers while he travels, because the world is big and he will never be able to repeat a visit: at each moment he sees everything for the last time. One travels around in an everlasting fright, nervous, tense, with eyes that jump out of their sockets, anxious to absorb everything of this world that is saying goodbye at each moment, trying to hold back so much spilling with his regard.

This is not the regard of Siza's own eyes (3). Before trying to understand it we ask through his friend: How is the regard of someone whose objective is to capture the world? The regard of someone trying to stop the fugacity, this slipping out of reach, towards the far, of someone who wants to make an inventory of this novelty that is slipping away, that flows from the things of the world. His eyes jump out of its sockets. He shoots the objects with his sight to deter their flight, trying to fix them in their positions. This weak, useless busy job is, paradoxically a regard that during the ages has been considered the canonical regard of "humanism": it is the regard of someone that sees in perspective, of someone that suggests for his own situation a privileged universal observatory from which he subordinates each thing to its position in space, from where he recognizes and establishes world order.

Someone seeing the world in such perspective is assigned to govern, to understand, to catch with his eyes, in the network of his regard, the things of the world. It's a watchman. His utopia is the immovable scene.

Which is, on the other hand, Siza's regard?

"I like", says Siza in the paragraph that follows his friend's, "I like to sacrifice many things and scarcely see the things attracting me, walk at random, without a map, with an absurd sense of discovery." In comparison to the guard, as opposed to the one trying to collect and understand, to paralyse and so perceive each object as the threat of something trying to slip away, Siza prefers to walk at random, to walk without a route, to let go, to walk like a discoverer, like someone inaugurating the route and with him the world, someone without an objective, for which each point of the route is at once objective and origin.

«De súbito o lápis ou a bic começam a fixar imagens, rostos em primeiro plano, perfis esbatidos ou luminosos pormenores, as mãos que os desenham. Riscos primeiro tímidos, presos, pouco precisos, logo obstinadamente analíticos, por instantes vertiginosamente definitivos, libertos até à embriaguez; depois fatigados e gradualmente irrelevantes. Num intervalo de verdadeira Viagem os olhos, e por eles a mente, ganham insuspeita capacidade. Apreendemos desmedidamente; o que aprendemos reaparece, dissolvido nos riscos que depois traçamos».

Suddenly the pencil or the bic (4) starts fixing images: faces in the foreground, vague profiles or bright details, the same hands as the ones drawing. Features, traces, traces-risks (5), first timid, rigid, not very precise, and then stubbornly analytical or occasionally, vertiginously defined, liberated till inebriation. Afterwards tired and gradually irrelevant. Pay attention to how, for Siza, regarding and touching, the eyes and the hand, are one and the same instrument, one and the same perceptive and active meaning. Pay attention to the zero immobility of the scene, to the temporality and oscillation that constitute the activity of regarding-thinking-tracing as well as the proper fragment of the world that is being considered: two journeys, at random, one on the paper and one in the world itself. Pay attention to the fugacity of the images, to the vulnerability of reality that doesn't impoverish the experience, in as much as experience isn't based on the desire to possess: in an interval of real Travelling (6), the eyes and through them the mind, win unsuspected capacity, we learn boundlessly, and what we learn reappears, dissolved in the traces we draw later on. Something appears, something disappears, we see something, we saw something, there was the experience, there is a drawing: the eye receives, the hand extracts. Thus, the trace of an oscillation is drawn up.

To be able to talk about these drawings I want to bring closer two personalities, that I think are similar in relation to sensibility and position in the world: Alvaro Siza and John Berger.

In his book, titled "And our faces, my heart, brief as photos" (7), a monologue with two reflexions, one about time and the other about space, Berger relates the visible in such terms that directly refer to Siza's regard.

"That which is visible is and has always been people's main source of information about the world. We orient ourselves thanks to the visible. Even the perception of other senses is often translated into visual impressions. (Dizziness is a pathological example of this: although one can find its origin in the hearing, we suffer it as a visual and spatial confusion)." We know that this centrality of the regard is proper to the modern, and that it has ended up embracing all our customs, until becoming something "natural": from the imposition of reading with the eyes and not aloud since the 17th century, through which the word is being transformed from an auditive phenomenon to a graphical figure, and from Kandisnsky's "yellow sound", to name someone on the threshold of avant-garde, who is also looking for translating sounds into visual terms. It is by virtue of the visible", Berger continues, "that we receive space as a previous condition of physical existence. The visible brings us to the universe. But, at the same time, it ceaselessly reminds us that we are in danger of losing ourselves in that universe. With its space, the visible also extracts us from the world. Nothing more ambivalent".

Vision as a mechanism of unsolvable ambiguity. It presents us with what is there, yes, but moving it away from us. We don't belong to the world anymore, we have lost our continuity with it: now, our vision gives us the escaping image of the things, and we being displaced, and withdrawing from the world. What we see imposes what we don't see and where we are not.

Berger continues: "The visible presumes an eye. It gives its substance to the relationship established between what is seen and the one that sees. But, concerning a human being, the one who sees is conscious of everything his eye can't see and never will see, because of time and distance. The visible simultaneously includes it (for the fact of seeing) and excludes it (for the fact of never being able to see everything, for not possessing the gift of ubiquity). For the human being, the visible is composed by the seen that, although threatening, confirms his existence, and by the not seen, which he challenges. The thirst of having seen (the ocean, the desert, the northern light) entails a profound ontological base. To this ambiguity of the visible for humankind, one has to add the visible experience of absence, according to which we stop seeing something that we had been seeing before. We thus confront ourselves with a disappearance. So, one tries to avoid that the disappeared, the thing that has become invisible, falls in the denial of the seen, which would challenge our existence. From there the consequence that the visible creates trust in the reality of the invisible and stimulates the development of an interior eye that retains, reunites and makes things available (just like pieces of furniture), with the hope to extract from absence, that trap laid out by space, a part of what has been seen.

This far, Berger. I think Siza's drawings are showing the same coming and going between the seen and the disappeared, between the trace that comes form the regard and the risk of the thing seen dispelling, in the eternal movement of the tides, with something marine if one wants, of things that come closer and things that dissolve, of regards that go to the seen world and that come back to the drawing, by the window or the cloud, there, far away, and to the hands with the pencil right here. Sometimes Siza's drawings have been explained in terms of superposition of memory strata. I don't think this is completely true. Siza is not just anyone among the architects of memory, among the melancholic passers-by of the transparent strata of the ruins. It is also there, for sure, but to me it seems neither sufficient nor determinant. One has to pay attention to the breathing that runs on the paper, to that which moves, which accompanies the regard of someone looking at the drawing, reproducing the temporality in what one was looking at and drawing: one has to pay attention to this "almost nothing", to this "light torsion", so often materialized in the drawing (8).

I think that in Siza's work there is always a temporal dimension, a coming and going, something like a succession of inhalations and exhalations, a coming closer to move away again, in which the paralysed traces never get mingled or superimposed. The superimposition of the strata, on the other hand, can only occur when one thinks that everything has finished, each temporality paralysed and each unit frozen like in a photo finish.

I am going to try to explain this, indicating it on some of the drawings that are being shown.

Siza's regard as a kind of respiration, as if the eyes were the exit of the lungs, as if the lungs, authentic space organisers in our bodies, pushed this space to the exterior by means of the regard, as if this exterior space were the product of the breathing of our regard.

Before that, I will read some of Siza's phrases. The first phrase refers to the initial gesture of a project, which almost always implies a look at the site.

The first paragraph says: "I start a project when I visit the building site (imprecise programme and conditions, as usual). Other times I even start earlier, from the idea I have of a site (a description, a photograph, something I read, an indiscretion) I don't want to say that there is much left of a first sketch, but everything starts there. A site is worth what it is and for what it can or desires to be, perhaps contradictory things but never without a mutual relation. Much of what I drew earlier (much of what others drew) fluctuates in the interior of the first drawing. Without order. So much so, that very little is left from the site that evokes it all. There is no barren site. I can always be one of its inhabitants. Order is the approximation of the opposites" (9).

And this other paragraph that says: "I keep in memory the frustration of my first years of school and profession, when after a supposed exhaustive (static) analysis of a problem, followed the lonely encounter with the white paper. From then on, I have always tried to "see the site" and make a drawing, before calculating the square metres of the area to be built. From the first confrontation, between one and another gesture, the process of designing begins"(10). Are you aware of the anti static accent, and the identification with this movement, coming and going from gesture to gesture, oscillating?

In a short piece which Siza titles "About the difficulty of designing furniture", divided into four points, the last two are the following. He describes the aura of the random trembling of the drawing process, and the unfinished, the absence of closure of the project, the drawing, the never finished regard. "3. It is necessary to saturate the design with intimate security, serenity, of something incomplete, of something unstable to receive this by its surroundings Cthis way it will transform itself. To not to undo itself nor anything else, suddenly. Overflowing the space and afterwards becoming anonymous. 4. The perfect object would be a mirror without frame nor cut Cthe piece of a mirrorC on the floor or on the wall. In this mirror a myope observes shapes, shadows and movement, reflexes of reflexes. This is how a drawing is nurtured." (11) One also cannot leave out the typical anti-perspective condition of Siza's "perfect object": a fragment of a mirror, an unlocalizable image with the spatial coordinates, coordinated and started up, besides, for a myope, because of his imagination.

We could continue. It would be difficult to find Siza's description looking, drawing or projecting, where, in some term or other, this succession between condensations and evaporations is not present.

This other text by Siza is called "To build" although it is published as "The first sketch". "Constructing a house became an adventure. One needs patience, courage and enthusiasm. The project for a house comes out in ways. Sometimes at once, sometimes slowly and troublesome. Everything depends on the possibility and capacity of finding stimuli --a difficult and definite support for an architect. The project of a house is almost the same as any other: walls, windows, doors, a roof. However, it is unique. Each element, while relating to the others transfoms itself. At a certain point the project starts a life of its own. It transforms itself into a voluble animal, with restless legs and unsteady eyes. If its transfigurations are not understood, or if its desires are too much satisfied, it becomes a monster. If everything in it that seems evident and beautiful becomes fixed, it then turns ridiculous. If it is too restrained, it stops breathing and dies". (12)

Let's look at the drawings.

One scene repeats: close objects in front of us among which we are, sometimes as much within reach of our hands as our own hand, but simultaneously fast escapes to the far away, gaps that will never be covered, and that permit our eyes to move like a bellows.

Besides, I think it's worth feeling something in Siza's drawings that also exists on the locations he has built his own work, which is the following: no matter how dense and overloaded a drawing may be, through the traces, the complete image of a sheet of white paper always remains, as it was and as it will continue to be. The paper is not being substituted by the drawing, it is always possible to recognize, giving it back its former shape, not remembering but ...... and witness that original white background, where the drawing now circulates, in a route that not only never occults the paper, but, on the contrary, becomes conscious, it gives it its presence. As if the drawing were the measuring condition --i.e. looking and understanding-- the white sheet of paper. As if construction were precisely the condition for looking and understanding, for interpreting a site. As if, while constructing the building, the strength line, the invisible magnetic field that before would run along and sustain the territory, in the act of materializing, becomes visible. The house is not built on the site. Before the house there was no site --we didn't know its shape. The house is the trace of the regard that understands: O desenho é o desejo de inteligência. (The design is the desire of intelligence).

Notice how the paper persists. Siza manages it by relying on asymmetries, leaving big empty white paper areas, or crossing it with long vertical and horizontal lines which separate a chiaroscuro background from another, totally white background, or with other technical procedures that I think we could identify without excessive difficulty.

A third component I think I perceive in his drawings, especially if we imagine the moment of their creation, attending to the circulation of the tip, the pencil or bic in their route scratching the paper, delineating in segments, falling downwards, following the arch of the moving fingers, looking at them very closely, renouncing to a general overview, it seems a liquid, water-like dissolved presence, a sort of spilled linearity, as when steam condenses on a glass and a drop draws a trace.

Let's look at the drawings again, keeping in mind some of these themes.

(and so they continued, for a while...)

"And the action of learning starts by learning to see,
Something that never ends".

Josep Quetglas


1. «O corpo --mão e mente e tudo-- não cabe no corpo de cada um. E nenhuma parte é autónoma». All quoted texts by Siza can be found at: Carles MURO ed., Alvaro Siza. Escrits, ed. UPC, Barcelona 1994, in their original Portuguese language and translated into Catalan. There you can also find Siza's complete bibliography, including different versions and editions.

2. I refer to the double experience, or is it only one, mythologically repeated?, of the quadruped humanizing itself by freeing its upper extremities, and to the child that stops crawling to learn to walk.

3. «Um bom amigo sofre verdadeiramente porque o mundo é grande. Jamais poderá permitir-se --diz-- repetir uma visita; abala nervoso, crispado, olhos a saltar das órbitas. Por mim gosto de sacrificar muita coisa, de ver apenas o que imediatamente me atrai, de passear ao acaso, sem mapa e com uma absurda sensaçao de descobridor».

4. "Bic" is a well-known, cheap pen brand. Siza uses it here as a generic word for biro.

5. The Portuguese word "riscos" is a beautiful word, although I can not speak Portuguese and I am not sure if the resonance it creates for us Spanish/Catalan speakers also works for Portuguese people. "Riscos" can be translated into Spanish as "rasgos" (features) or "trazos" (traces). But, outside Portuguese, in another semantic field it can also be associated with (in Spanish, French and Catalan) "riesgos", "risques" and "riscs", "risks" in English. Adjoining "trace" with "risk", assuming that the feature that is tracing traces with pencil or bic concerns a risk, not knowing where the route of the hand is going to stop, advancing the trace discovering along the way... If I am wrong in my associations, don't let the Portuguese people present in the hall to wake me up. I prefer to continue within this illusion.

6. Capitalization used here is Siza's.

7. I haven't been able to find the book in its original English text. I read it in a Spanish translation. I apologize I am giving English translations from the Spanish translation only.

8. «Nessa progressiva visualização, numa imagem provisoriamente final, se vai estruturando o quase nada tão importante para além do pré-existente, a ligeira torsão, tantas vezes materializada no desenho».

9. «Começo um projecto quando visito um sítio (programa e condicionalismos vagos, como quase sempre acontece). Outras vezes começo antes, a partir da ideia que tenho de um sítio (uma descrição, uma fotografia, alguma coisa que li, uma imdiscrição). Não quer dizer que muito fique de um primeiro esquisso. Mas tudo começa. Um sítio vale pelo que é, e pelo que pode ou deseja ser --coisas talvez opostas, mas nunca sem relação. Muito do que antes desenhei (muito do que outros desenharam) flutua no interior do primeiro esquisso. Sem ordem. Tanto que pouco aparece do sítio que tudo invoca. Nenhum sítio é deserto. Posso sempre ser um dos habitantes. A ordem é a aproximação dos opostos».

10. «Continua presente na minha memória a frustração dos primeiros anos de Escola e de profissão, quando à análise supostamente exaustiva (estática) de um problema se seguia o encontro desamparado com uma folha de papel em branco. A patir de então tive sempre o cuidado de "olhar o sítio" e fazer um desenho antes de calcular os metros quadrados de área a construir. A partir da primeira confrontação de um e outro gesto se inicia o processo de projectar».

11. «3. É preciso saturar o desenho de íntima segurança, serenidade, alguma coisa do incompleto que é, alguma instabilidade, para que algo receba do que o rodeia --assim se transformando. Para que não se desfaça e nada desfaça, súbitamente. inundando o espaço, logo tornando ao anonimato. 4. O objecto perfeito será um espelho sem moldura nem laipdado --o fragmento de um espelho-- poisado no chão ou encostado a um muro. Nele um míope observa formas, sombras em movimento, reflexos de reflexos. Assim se alimenta o desenho».

12. «Costruir uma casa tornou-se uma aventura. É preciso paciência, coragem e entusiasmo. O projeto de uma casa surge de formas diferentes. Subitamente, por vezes, às vezes lenta e penosamente. Tudo depende da possibilidade e da capacidade de encontrar estímulos --bengala difícil e definitiva do arquitecto. O projecto de uma casa é quase igual ao de qualquer outra: paredes, janelas, portas, telhado. E contudo é único. Cada elemento se vai transformando, ao relacionar-se. Em certos momentos, o projecto ganha vida pròpia. Transforma-se então num animal volúvel, de patas inquietas e de olhos inseguros. Se as suas transfigurações não são compreendidas, ou dos seus desejos é satisfeito mais do que o essencial, torna-se um monstro. se tudo quanto nele parece evidente e belo se fixa, torna-se ridículo. Se é demasiadamente contido, deixa de respirar e morre. O projeto está para o arquitecto como o personagem de um romance está para o autor: ultrapassa-o constantemente. É preciso não o perder. O desenho persegue-o. Mas o projecto é um personagem com muitos autores e faz-se inteligente apenas quando assim é assumido, e obsessivo e impertinente em caso contrário. O desenho é o desejo de inteligência».

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