In praise of Fernando Távora: the Post-Conference tours at the 14th Docomomo International Conference
19 Apr 2017 | Philip Boyle
Conference tours are an opportunity to experience and to catch up with interesting and usually inaccessible architecture. This was particularly true of the excellent tours organised for us by our Portuguese hosts at this conference. While the pre-conference visits focused on Lisbon, the post-conference three days took us to Porto to see work by Fernando Távora (1923- 2005), Álvaro Siza (1943 – ) and Eduardo Souto de Moura (1952 – ) amongst others. The close relationship and achievement of this trio has now been widely celebrated and this tour was an opportunity to explore seminal works by them from the late 1950s and after.
Távora, Siza and Souto de Moura at various times taught together, shared an office, shared work between each other and most importantly shared their different generational knowledge of Modern Movement history to great effect. Távora brought to the table a familiarity with both Frank Lloyd Wright and De Stijl, Siza brought the work of Loos and Aalto and Souto de Moura Mies van der Rohe. This happened within the post-war period, from CIAM to Team 10, at the same time that Le Corbusier was questioning and freeing up his work.
Távora as the oldest was involved with both these groups, attending the Hoddesdon CIAM 8 in 1951 and visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's work in North America followed by the Team 10 meeting in in Otterlo in 1959. He shared the concerns and preoccupations of those who attended these gatherings and perhaps more importantly was able to directly communicate much of this to his younger colleagues.
The fruit of this is apparent in his Municipal Market (1953-59), the first of the buildings we visited in the small town of Vila da Feira just south of Porto. The town market place in 1950s Portugal was clearly an area where it was possible to bring social engagement with formal architectural investigation together in built work. (As well as this market, subsequently Souto de Moura designed and built one – the Market in Braga, 1980 and 1997, only for it to be abandoned, become a ruin and then for that ruin to be the basis for him to redesign it as a "saved ruin" for another use, a process that became a theme for other work by him.)
Távora's market of Santa Maria da Feira occupies a perfect square footprint (50m x 50m) on the main street between two principal crossroads. On its evenly sloping hillside, the market is as significant an urban place in terms of scale and location as the nearby castle and church of this small town.
Távora's solution to the brief was to provide shade and shelter with maximum exposure for display and ease of access and movement of pedestrians and goods. It uses an inventive collection of then modern concrete construction techniques organised in a classical rhythm.
The square site forms a podium and is level with the contours on one side but rises away from the slope on the other three sides in the best Miesian and classical way with parallel steps for access at the corners. Once on the podium each of its four sides are lined with display counters of various sorts, but all are of concrete construction set out and dimensioned to a rigorous square grid. The counters and open circulation spaces around them are shaded by wide orthogonal concrete canopies, one for each of the four sides of the square. These canopies are supported on central columns with butterfly cantilevered tapering beams and a central gutter draining to large gargoyles at each end, all built in insitu concrete. The tour de force of these canopies are their fascias. Here all structural logic is subordinated to increase shade and to the control of light. The fascias are a metre deep, vertical and angled.
This achieves two magnificent architectural effects. On a large scale the formal ordering of the strong simple and unexpected shapes gives it a character beyond engineering: modern and functional, and as engaging as the battlements of the town castle and the spire of the town church visible nearby. On a smaller scale the shading achieved by the fascia device enhances the reflected light on the brightly painted soffits of the canopies and equally brightly tiled walls to magnificent effect.
The aggressive nature of the concrete canopies are subtly undercut by another engineering illogicality. The ends of the cantilever beams do not stop where they support the fascias, they are continued through the fascias and protrude out another 300mm. This has the effect, when standing close to the building, of introducing a rhetorical explanation of structure while not compromising the strength of the form when viewed from afar. All this is informed by Modern architectural history – De Stijl, the Vienna Post Office Savings Bank by Otto Wagner and the work of Aldo Van Eyck.
We went on to visit two famous early buildings by Álvaro Siza – the tea room Casa de Cha da Boa Nova (1958 -63) and the seawater swimming pool changing rooms Piscina das Mares (1961-66). Much has been published on both these small modest and immaculate masterpieces, each with dramatic and hostile coastal settings.
The tea room, now an up market restaurant, was originally Távora's project, but Siza's scheme for it so convinced him so much that he backed out and let Siza get on with it. The sea front exposure has meant that it has now almost entirely been rebuilt. It is an essay in elevating simple vernacular materials with beautiful detailing.
The strength of the spatial sequences of the tea room and the swimming pool changing rooms that celebrate the horizon of the sea, combined with the visceral materiality with which they are built, rightly justifies their fame.
The next day we visited the Tennis Pavilion in the park of Quinta da Conceição (1956-1960) by Távora. Seeing this in context was the most moving of experiences. The combination of delicate proportions, De Stijl balance, and expanding spatial generosity (made possible by reinforced concrete, tiles, timber and a little paint) is performed
with appropriate modesty and it is masterly.
It then becomes clear that the achievements of Siza and Souto de Moura, which are now widely recognised, could not have flourished without the impetus Távora provided, and that they are the result of a unique joint relationship for which we must all be grateful.
First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32