Singing in serralves / 151
Porto is famous for port wine and a historical city centre, but beyond the Romanesque and Baroque churches lies another world well worth visiting: Serralves. In actual fact, Serralves is three worlds in one: a hub of contemporary art and architecture, the mystery and grandeur of an abandoned Art Deco mansion and the tranquil vistas of its vast gardens.
2014 is an important year for Serralves, marking the 15th Anniversary of the museum and the 25th Anniversary of the foundation that supports it, but its history stretches back much further. In 1923, the estate was inherited by Carlos Alberto Cabral, 2nd Count of Vizela, a cultivated and well-travelled young industrialist. Two years later, he began work on a villa, influenced by the Art Deco and Modernist styles he had seen in France. In what would seem a flight of fancy, Cabral attempted to construct his new home as a shell around his family’s former summer residence.
Due to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, the building wasn’t finished until 1944 and, sadly, as a result of economic troubles, Cabral and his wife only lived there for a few brief years. His efforts, though, were not in vain. When he sold the estate to Delfim Ferreira, Count of Riba d’Ave, it was on the strict proviso that no alterations could be made to the property, and with good reason: the villa is considered to be the most notable example of Art Deco architecture in Portugal and the park, with its botanical gardens, is now home to an important educational programme.
Serralves remained closed off from the outside world until Ferreira’s heirs sold it to the state in 1986. Thus began a new era. A year later, the park was revealed to the public and, in 1989, the Serralves Foundation was established. One of the most significant moments in its history was the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in the late ’90s. The building was designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira – known locally as just ‘Siza’ – arguably Portugal’s most celebrated architect and the 1992 winner of architecture’s Holy Grail, the Pritzker Prize.
At 81, Siza is still an active architect and product designer. Less high profile than some of his more jet-setting contemporaries, he is, nonetheless, one of the most significant architects of his generation. Touring his buildings in and around Porto is like taking a masterclass in Modernism. The museum at Serralves, with its crisp, white exterior, provides a prime example of Siza’s play on scale and perspective. He decides how you see and experience the space at every turn. One is suddenly confronted by a surprisingly narrow staircase, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel: the descent reveals a vast window offering a glimpse of the gardens beyond. “Space in museums must be different heights, different dimensions, to open the possibilities,” explains Siza. “Also, in my opinion, part of the spaces must be really just rooms, because artists have great imaginations, so when they move in a space, they see new ways to use it.”
Thinking back to when he designed the museum, Siza reflects in his quiet, but resonating, voice, “It was a wonderful site to work with – the Deco house by the best architect in Porto at that moment, the gardens by the French landscape architect – so it was complicated, but very stimulating and exciting at the same time.” He was also tasked with overseeing the restoration of the Art Deco villa, but was not tempted to stamp his own brand of Modernism on it. “I didn’t want that,” he states. “Of course, if you work in an old building and encounter problems you cannot control, like degradation, you are obliged to introduce new things. That can be a dialogue with the old and very interesting, but here it was not the case. There were no functional reasons to change it. It is a modern building. All buildings with quality are modern.”
Ultimately, though, the architect is less concerned with the debate over tradition versus modernity, than with emotion. “You make it and you have to feel what you are doing and not be so rational,” he says. “The emotional part is very important. If you stop it, avoid it… something is missing… it will not sing. A building must sing.” It’s a sentiment one feels as strongly when wandering around the empty villa, first imagined by an enthusiastic young man nearly a century ago.