He is an architect who doesn’t feel the need to invent anything, writes Portuguese critic Jorge Figueira of Alvaro Siza. This is a statement that must be interpreted as genuine praise, as an acknowledgment of the consistency of a career spanning decades, which has developed under a commitment to itself, as proof of the strength of his creative attitude, his sticking to his artistic determination that has persisted underlying in his work throughout the years, which has allowed him to become immune to the interferences of the century.. In his latest buildings, Figueira notes, the experimental tension and compositional fluidity are enhanced, a factor that could possibly be understood as an expression of his absorbing the pathos of this zeitgeist and the enlivened fulfilment of his own architectural experience.
His building for the Adega Mayor Winery, completed in 2007, also stands out in an impeccable way as the corroboration of that attitude of Siza’s introspective concentration and serene individuality, which results in an architecture of consciousness: in a work where reality is welcomed and a balance is created between its own inner self and the outside surrounding it.
One very rarely encounters the opportunity to build in a beautiful, intact landscape, and when this does happen, it is a tremendous responsibility, said Alvaro Siza about this building, located in the Herdade das Argamassas estate, in the Portuguese town of Campo Maior.
When visiting the site, I encountered two fundamental elements that would orient the project and implantation of the building: a pre-existing road uniting the industrial complex (belonging to the client), and a dense clay outcrop, until recently used for depositing building rubble in a pit excavated specifically for this purpose. There is also a small, rocky outcrop in the middle of a wide expanse of gently rolling cultivated land. The integrity of the natural landscape is reinforced and structured by the maintenance of agricultural activities. These were the determining elements, complemented by knowledge of the region’s architecture, explains Siza.
The building stands in a zone that stands in stark contrast to the extensive plain and is not used as a cultivation zone. Re-utilizing the existing path, the impact of the intervention was kept to a minimum. The winery’s 40x120 m rectangular layout is based on the existing pit and constituted by 9-metre-high walls that are virtually windowless.
From a distance, the building marks its presence on the site by means of a gesture of essentiality that can be transported towards some poetical depth: the shining whiteness of this volume of clear geometry, of a subtle plasticity, that makes it wholly integrated in the landscape, silently but as an axis that enables the reconstruction of the beauty of the place, and makes it look untouched or, rather, better said, like something that has been erected out for the same conceptual reasons that make man farm and shape the earth, transforming and appropriating the landscape as expression of an indissoluble bond. And then, as the physical approximation to the building happens, it unveils another essentiality: that of its constructive rationality.
The building, mostly built in reinforced concrete, consists of two parts: the larger volume is horizontally developed and rectangular in its plan, with double-height spaces. The vertical volume, developed at the south-east end contains the main entrance and its importance is emphasized by means of the addition of a third floor.
Having placed it on a slight mound, the orientation of the building’s axis perpendicular to the contours provides access to the ground and first floors without the need to modify the existing land.
The ground floor contains the access, with a reception hall, reception balcony and vertical accesses, the storage and wine storehouse, where the grapes’ transformation project takes place: fermentation, vinification, vacuum pressing, storage in stainless steel containers, stabilization, storage in oak casks and bottling. A parking area has been located on this level, at the entry zone at the south-west, protected by a shed. The first floor contains the employees’ offices along with laboratories and other facilities for exclusive usage of the winery’s staff. The second floor is used as a visitors area, destined for tourist use and promotion of the wine, it includes a wine tasting room and a small shop; the fact this floor is aligned to the roof level of the horizontal volume has been used to create a green roof with a central reflecting pool, an area that creates an open space providing a panoramic view over the surrounding natural landscape but whose main function, it could be argued, is formulating a possible way for the individual to reconstruct again an image and concept of this site through the building.
The functional aspects of the buildings are resolved with careful attention to detail while simultaneously proving Siza’s capacity to avoid any superfluous gesture – probably because superfluous gestures are totally unnatural to his thought processes.
The spatial qualities and the plastic value of materials achieve their own expression in every area of the building, in a way that bestows the areas destined to staff and visitors with a specific character and the winery area unmistakably becomes an industrial space, yet creating a sense of unity and a coherent transition between them.
Siza bestows a sense of contemporariness to a typology, the winery, that other architects have approached from the parameters of objectualism and flashiness, to turn them into mere products and symbols of the era of show and hyperconsumption. The culture of wine has been redefining itself over the last decades and winery architecture has undergone transformations that have been a consequence of this evolution. The need to update old structures to improve production but also taking into account the additional value that a remarkable building can have for marketing and promotional purposes has led to the establishment of a relationship between architecture and wine, which has resulted into a proliferation of ‘signature’ wineries. In many of the well-known cases of the last decades, the union of a reputed architect and a viniculture firm has ended up in spectacular albeit disappointing buildings, because the disconnection with the landscape where they were asked to build and the lack of understanding of the most basic principles of the winery are concealed with the creation of an object that ignores the very essence of the landscape, only to superimpose itself over it. This consequence of this kind of approach has resulted in buildings primarily conceived as entertainment facilities for tourists rather than aiming to explore the possibility of creating an expression of communion between the building and the soul of the ancestral activity of wine producing, as a process of interaction between nature, man and architecture as the place providing a metaphorical womb to shelter the product during the passing of time required to obtain it.
This does not apply to Adega Mayor: a building where Siza, the reputed architect, somehow exerts a kind of return to the original spirit of his earliest works, located in his country, and which is a project he seems to have developed out of the strong emotional understanding of a landscape he feels to be entirely linked to his own self.
His attention to functionality is addressed from the most consistent objectivity and pragmatism, whereas the architecture manifests itself as the impossibility for Siza to make gratuitous loud gestures, conveying the idea that the power of his architecture should be more regarded as the intense freedom to construct a definition of reality as perceived from some inner mystery. Here, then, springs unavoidably this constant need to refer back to that specific idiosyncrasy of Portuguese nature, so often referred to when talking about some of the most prominent figures of its creative culture: contention, calmness, introspection … and the strength of a poetic attitude that derives out of this spirit that Siza’s architecture so fascinatingly and honestly embodies.