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A Modern Poet in Portugal

A Modern Poet in Portugal
© Quinta do Portal
The revered architect Álvaro Siza leaves his ever-so-light mark on the Douro. By Sam Eichblatt.

There’s nothing brash about the Quinta do Portal cellars. Located in the Douro region of Portugal on a 19th-century vineyard, the cellar building is a simple addition to the rolling landscape: long, low and restrained.

Where other architects have gone large with projects like this – see our report on the violet titanium ribbons adorning Frank Gehry’s vineyard hotel in Rioja, for example – Álvaro Siza has created a structure with the stillness of a de Chirico painting. The seamless facade in earthy orange is impassive, yet suggestive of events unfolding out of sight.

“Architecture,” Siza told the Guardian's architecture critic Jonathan Glancey, “should never be an arrogant transformation of landscape or space. My wish has long been that the buildings I design have somehow always been there. I want them to be necessary, never forced.”

The 2008 Quinta do Portal building shows no signs of allegiance to any particular era. The planes of the facade have a base of local slate that is clad in cork and painted with stucco, giving it a textured appearance.

This is a Siza’s hallmark. He often uses regional materials, or applies a traditional technique that has, in the case of stucco, been used for thousand of years, to create a building completely modern in look and function that doesn’t impose on the landscape.

(L-R) Exterior of the cellars; the entrance to one of the vaults; the auditorium
© Quinta do Portal | (L-R) Exterior of the cellars; the entrance to one of the vaults; the auditorium

Built from concrete slabs on a steel frame, the cellars are mostly underground and house two large vaults, the lower containing wine, the upper port, both cooled by a green roof. These windowless internal spaces are like the interior of a cave or a spaceship; something about their symmetry evokes both nature and the machine age.

Like similar contemporary projects, Siza's building was designed with the enophile tourist in mind – as much as a facility for winemaking. On one side, there are the public spaces, linked by internal stairs. A tasting area is on the entrance level, with a 74-seat auditorium the next floor up, topped with a roof terrace overlooking the vines. The interiors have concrete walls and contrasting polished wood floors.

In June, Siza was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, in the same week that he celebrated his 79th birthday. He took America’s top architectural prize in 1992 when he became a Pritzker Laureate, and Britain’s in 2009, when he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Though Siza’s hometown, Porto, where he still lives and works, is the center of the Brit-fueled port industry, he is yet to build anything in the British Isles, making the award even more impressive. Perhaps not surprisingly, his major European projects are concentrated in Portugal, with a recent smattering in Argentina and Brazil – places with a cultural affinity to his homeland.

The architect Álvaro Siza
© Quinta do Portal | The architect Álvaro Siza

While he is often described as a Modernist, and his formative years did take place in a time of post-war Modernist optimism, Siza reined in his experimental approach under the repressive, conservative Salazar regime that ruled until 1968, and which sought to impose a national architectural style.

Siza turned to Portugal’s vernacular architecture, which by virtue of the country’s trade route location had been shaped by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Arabs and the English, and developed his own form of “poetic Modernism”, using local materials and craftsmanship.

Quinta do Portal, a family estate that has been producing port since the late 19th century, engaged Siza for those qualities. The winery produces award-winning Denominación de Origen Controlada (DOC) Douro wines and moscatel alongside port.

The Douro’s long history of agriculture has molded the landscape, and, says Siza in his description of the project, shaped its beauty, within which the functional needs of space, humidity and temperature were accommodated.

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