In America, it’s fairly easy to trace our cultural evolution. If we consider the American Civilization as an abstract machine, or a mode of production, we can trace it at least as far back as the founding of the first British colonies in the New World. As evidenced by competitive colonization and the fierce naval arms races between European nations and companies, capitalism on a global scale was already extant when the British founded their first American colony. The vast “wilderness” of North America provided a stage where capitalism could develop at the micro scale, relatively unhindered.
At first, American capitalism was agrarian, and not noticeably different from western Europe, but when unique conditions in Britain allowed the seeds of the industrial revolution to precipitate, a positive feedback loop was formed: Britain and America developed innovations that led to new technologies, the new technologies sped innovation, which led to new technologies… America and Britain secured a constantly accelerating technological advantage, followed by western Europe.
This technological lag had repercussions in the arts. Art Nouveau followed in the footsteps of the English Arts & Crafts movement and self-consciously reflected on the role of industrial production in the creation of utilitarian objects. Whether the practicioners of Art Nouveau embraced or abhorred the intrusion of mass-production into their craft, the forms of the movement were undoubtedly influenced by the sophistication of the technology. In France and Belgium, advancements in metallurgy allowed beautiful free-flowing ironwork, while countries such as Spain and Portugal, further from the epicenter of the revolution, lacked the complex supply chain and production technology. This is clearly evidenced by comparing the work of Gaudi to his contemporaries in France and Belgium.
Guimard and Horta had access to technology that allowed the wrought iron’s tensile strength to be expressed through complex vegetal forms. Gaudi was limited to stone and traditional Catalan brickwork techniques, due to the constricted flow of materials and methods from the heart of the continent down the Iberian peninsula. Spain and Portugal lacked the infastructure necessary for the rapid transmission of ideas. Of course, this disconnect may have been beneficial. Gaudi was forced to use the materials and techniques available and he forged a unique style. The biomorphism of Art Nouveau was expressed through the compressive properties of stone, rather than the tensile properties of iron, leading to stunning, skeletal forms.
This cultural and technological lag-time allowed Iberian modernism to evolve along a slightly different route than the International School. In a cursory examination of Alvaro Siza, we found a European high-modernist still working in the 1990s. We found work some would discount as dated, stoic and unchanging. I found Siza’s architecture fascinating. While Siza worked in the same formal language as the early modernists, his work seems much more connected to the sites, to nature, and to the possible effects of natural light and ventilation, attitudes which may have been innate, but may have been selectively learned from the failures of modernism. While whitewashed forms may be his trademark, these attitudes are best found in the tea house and swimming pool, in LeÃ§a da Palmeira, Portugal.
It seems the Portuguese especially may have benefited from the cultural time-gap I suggest. Like Siza, the Portuguese culture seems to have been exposed to the modern world, seen its successes and failures, and picked only the winners. In Porto (pictured at top), the streetscape was comprised of clotheslines and light rail lines. The roofs were traditional red tile, but dotted with satellite dishes. Clean electric trains ran over manicured grass one minute, over a 100-year old Eiffel bridge the next.
Port wine and WiFi.