a shorter letter

At the risk of stating what is already widely known, the activity of building that was once the creation of a single edifice by the ‘architect builder’ is now the bringing together of component parts by a multi-faceted team.  One creative ambition in this context is, as in many things, the reduction of those parts to a minimum and the distillation of the interfaces to a subtle and elegant composition that speaks succinctly, with precision and with clear purpose. Above all this is, or should be, the art of the architect.

If I had more time I’d write a shorter letter. 

The environment in which these buildings are composed goes some way to defining the form that the parts and the whole might take. The light and climate of Porto is not that of London, the modelling of simple mass that is so effective on the exposed edge of southern Europe is made bland by our damp grey blue environment and so begets northern Europe’s more textured architectural approach.  But, while they can grace buildings, complexity and texture are not of benefit to the design of our infrastructure, particularly when it lies underground. To look further south at the purist modernism of Alvaro Siza is to engage with an architecture that is more appropriate to the need.

Alvaro Siza is acknowledged as one of the best in this reductive art, and a trip around his works in and about his home-town of Porto is a study in considered simplicity. His art is applied to churches, wineries, high end hotels and affordable housing. There are numerous private houses and there are occasional public squares. And you will not be surprised to learn that there is also an underground station.

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As a typology the station is, in Porto and the world over, ripe for the refinement of detail, the minimal number of components and materials, the simplicity of form and the clarity of route, and Siza is in his element.  If it weren’t for the pace of the people in Sao Bento you may on occasions forget you are in a station, such is the ecclesiastical reverence to space and detail.  The strength of light in which Siza is playing penetrates deep down the escalators, the staircase may lead to an altar, the elements of equipment are exhibits in their own right.

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And yet it also seems that there is some additional agreement here, an agreement that, if you are to employ a much-admired architect with strongly held beliefs, ‘though shalt not foul my station with your secondary revenue’. For where Eduardo de Moura’s stations at Aliados and Trinidade seek a similar simplicity, his unquestionable skills struggle to rise above the usual plethora of posters and sales points. Meanwhile, at Sao Bento, there are very few such trappings – the signs that are required are precisely arranged, Siza is allowed to scribble on the walls in the manner of Le Corbusier, the walls and fittings are unencumbered by self-promoting tat, and so the station becomes less a source of side income for the railway company and more an exhibition of the thoughts, talents and desires of the architect.

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And why not?  For railways should run trains, not sell other people’s product.  To do that against the competition from the automobile they must make the experience – their infrastructure – as attractive, comfortable, enjoyable, safe and clear as practical.  The near-constant bombardment with promotional messages from other parties from which stations usually suffer surely detracts from these primary purposes, adding confusion and detail that is quite opposite to the intent.  The result is usually a compromise, a low quality commercial offering, a disrupted wayfinding experience, and a lesser spatial experience with an increased maintenance load.

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So let us have more Sao Bento’s, let the station architect provide an infrastructure that pleases the senses and of which we are worthy, and let us have a transport system that we all want to use and so be able to fund it from tickets.

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