Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities Álvaro Siza in Berlin and The Hague

“It’s a question of temperament,” he said outside his hotel, between drags of a cigarette. “It is just the way I am as a person. I have no desire to speak grandly.”

That modesty is reflected in his work – and while his architecture speaks quietly, it has resonated powerfully around the globe. In the early- and mid-20th century, Europe’s Modernist architects burned to reinvent the world; Siza was part of one more modest faction that aimed to improve and repair the modern city without, first, tearing it all down. His work sets a strong example in 2015, blending caution and ambition, prose and poetry.

In the early 1960s, Siza began building in his hometown of Porto, Portugal. Here on the fringe of Europe, he created architecture’s version of slow food: subtle buildings that reveal themselves through gradual experience, rooted in place and respectful of history. His buildings resisted both the tabula-rasa logic of modernist “urban renewal” and then postmodernism’s scholarly games with historic forms.

Siza’s work is spare and beautiful but also local, deeply engaged with politics and with particular neighbourhoods and their residents. In the wake of Portugal’s 1974 revolution, Siza began building social housing, and it was that work that gave him an international reputation.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, which organized his Toronto lecture together with the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, is committed to his legacy. “We believe that Siza is one of the great architects of the second half of the 20th century,” said the CCA’s director, Mirko Zardini. Siza recently donated a large group of his personal archive to the CCA’s library. Bringing the architect himself to Toronto – where he spoke to a packed house of 1,700 people – was part of an ongoing effort to make the museum and its many resources more present in a national and global conversation.

“With Siza, there is a commitment to building being part of the city, in every sense,” Zardini says, “and that is somehow radical in North America today.”