Singing in ser­ralves / 151

Schon! - - Contents - For more in­for­ma­tion, visit ser­ Words / Huma Hu­mayun Im­age / Cour­tesy of Egidio San­tos

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.

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