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Ritual modification.

Poised on a hillside in the Portuguese town of Marco de Canaves, Alvaro Siza's new church is an extreme, geometrical abstraction of traditional forms.

Rising up several kilometres along a winding route from the Douro river valley, the road into the Portuguese town of Marco de Canaves momentarily straightens out before plunging into the town's centre. Alvaro Siza's new church appears at the head of this brief straight run, at the last gentle bend before town; beyond, the tumble of banked hills and disparate buildings merge in a continuous fabric. On top of a granite revetted escarpment, the white volume of the new church looms. It is nearly a double cube in length, and with its uniform parapet and infrequent windows, its singular mass is an enigmatic presence. The absence of detail in its rendered surface and the uncertain size of the few visible openings lend it an uncanny ambiguity of scale, while the flat horizontal profile of the building withholds clues as to the nature of its interior. Nevertheless, out of the singular effect of this boxy, pale vessel, certain telling figurative events take shape.

At the rear of building the facade is divided vertically into three bays. The outer ones form re-entrant quarter circles, suggesting certain affiliations with the in-curving corners of Baroque churches Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, or Guarini's San Lorenzo, for example. The front facade, which is hidden from view regardless of the direction of approach, reveals, upon arrival, a similar vertical division into three. Here, the flanking bays project forward suggesting the twin towers of Gothic cathedrals and Portugal's Baroque churches.

Although Siza's church seems to submit readily to the use of historical form, it is also elaborated in ways that make clear the equivocal sentiments that the forms inspire. Even though the oblong shape of the church as a whole, the towers at its front, and the apses flanking the altar all bring to mind traditional models of church architecture, their extreme geometrical abstraction, their minimalism and the absence of any scale-giving detail unhinge their familiar effect. The building's distillation of historic forms increases the impression that they belong to some remote repertoire removed from the more immediate circumstances of the human world.

The new church angles into the rising topography of the site. Traditionally, the monumentally paired towers would have contributed to a formal Portuguese urban ensemble - facing down a principal boulevard or into a monumental square. Here, the rotation of the church, the hidden position of the principal facade (and the purposeful geometrical misalignment with the projected siting of the future parochial school and priest's house), engender a contrast between the informal topographical structure of the surrounding city, and the more established patterns of an inherited monumental and symbolic language.

After ascending the steps to the square in front of the church, you discover a pair of colossal wooden doors 10 metres tall and three across. Facing into the church's elevated forecourt between the flanking towers of the front facade, the doors are hidden from street view. They are clearly enormous, but given the indefinite scale of the overall church volume, they have a somewhat unexpected effect: their enlargement beyond all familiar expectations makes the rest of the church seem small like some oversized toy. As in a child's drawing where eyes are too large for the face, or windows and doors occupy much of the surface of a house, things are simplified and reduced to their symbolic essence.

Yet while the conventionally familiar figure of the church appears to exist at some humanly incommensurate scale, evidence of human actions, of entry, of movement and of vision all work their way into the building as a kind of exceptional order. The actual primary door into the church is of ordinary height and placed at the foot of the right-hand tower's inside face. Along with the indirect approach through the site to the front of the church, the eccentric placement of this door establishes a distinction between the powerful symmetrical order of church tradition and the individual's promenade. The effects of this distinction are several. By virtue of the contrast between monumental figure and promenade, the path through the building is thrown into greater visible relief than it would have been if it had been otherwise more naturally integrated.

This further accentuates the disparity between the impersonal customary forms of the church and the marks of actual human dwelling within such forms. A similar observation might be made of the great horizontal window that slices along the length of the long street-side wall. This window, alien to the adopted church form and certainly tectonically mysterious as a consequence of its long visually unsupported span, opens a sweeping view from the congregation's eye level out to the rolling landscape beyond the town. Within the body of the church, the window marks the gaze of congregants as they occasionally look out and away from service and prayers.

The placement of the cross further develops the play between dominant historical form and the countervailing marks of actual human presence. Like the long lateral window which inscribes a human gaze into the side church's side, the location of the ritual cross requires a surgical modification of the church form. The cross is cut-out from the base of one of the re-entrant corners flanking the altar and its siting diagonally opposite the corner entrance emphasizes the act of seeing the cross as something quite distinct from the church's predominant symmetry.

The site itself seems to have one last eccentric consequence upon the regular form of the church. A great curving wall leans into the nave of the church along the length of uphill wall. Both the scale and shape of this wall refer more to external topography than to internal logic, so introducing the effects of physical context into the fixed ideal of the church form. At Marco de Canaves, although historical form plays a seemingly inevitable role, the suspicion persists that we are no longer quite at home in convention's shelter.

Architect Alvaro Siza, Oporto

Project team Alvaro Siza, Edite Rosa, Miguel Nery, Miguel Falcao, Rui Castro, Chiara Porcu, Paul Scott

Structural engineers Costa Pereira, Manuel Castro

Photographs Duccio Malagamba
COPYRIGHT 1998 EMAP Architecture
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:church in Marco de Canaves, Portugal
Author:Levitt, Robert
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Previous Article:Poetic pragmatism.
Next Article:Apotheosis of a brand.

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