Pilgrimage: Leça tidal pools, Álvaro Siza

Simple pleasures – sun, sand and concrete

We didn’t set out to do a series of ‘design pilgrimages’, we were just trying to find somewhere to go on holiday. If we started with a building we both wanted to visit, there would be fewer decisions to make. Looking back in 2021, overwhelming choice was a nice problem to have.

2017, Piscina das Marés in Leça de Palmeira by Álvaro Siza, built in 1966.

The destination ended up shaping the journey. A visit to Peter Zumthor’s Vals spa, for instance, prompted a road trip across Europe; Tadao Ando’s galleries on Naoshima diverted our route around Japan, taking us to the gardens of Matsuyama and across the Seto Inland Sea. The Sainsbury Centre introduced us to Norwich’s golden triangle and the University of East Anglia campus. This was how, three years ago, we ended up in Portugal. We visited the tidal swimming pools, the Piscina das Marés in Leça de Palmeira by Álvaro Siza. A decision influenced by a single photograph and the fact we would be travelling with our three-year-old son, who seemed keen.

Our base was Porto, a beautiful city in the midst of a facelift, with a building site on every street. To get to the pools in Matosinhos from the centre, the journey takes you north, past Leixões, the country’s largest commercial port, past apartment blocks, sports facilities and wide promenades dotted with public art, including She Changes by Janet Echelman, a steel and fibre net tethered from a roundabout.

The entrance to the Piscina das Marés is understated: a black wooden door and a modest banner announcing a work by the local Pritzker Prize-winning architect. The pools are one of Alvaro Siza’s earliest projects, designed when he was in his twenties, and built in 1966 on the site of a former lobster nursery.

Walking down the ramp into the complex, the concrete walls become a barrier from the road. The discreet, low-lying structure contains changing rooms, toilets and a cafe. Its walls run parallel to the shore, except for one, which projects to shelter the café terrace from the wind. The architecture is a balance between order and disorder: smooth linear forms hold back the ocean swell, while rugged boulders are allowed to encroach on the pool and sunbathing area.

Inside the cool, dark structure, there is a row of simple timber cubicles on one side, lit by a clerestory on the other. Dark wooden doors echo the grain of the precast concrete panels. Stepping outside, you find yourself on a surprisingly high platform with steps at the end down to the beach. There are sand and concrete lounging areas and two filtered saltwater pools: a shallow children’s pool curving outward from the building, and a large adults’ pool on the shoreline. The large pool gives the sense of being part of the waves; you can hear and taste the ocean, just over the rocks. One of the most striking features was the colour. It was just like the picture – the most perfect blue.

Photographs of the pools don’t do justice to their atmosphere, the shock of passing between the sun-lit and interior spaces, or the happy, laid-back bathers. The pools were designed as a safe swimming area on the Atlantic coast. Regulations might have moved on since the sixties; there were new rules, areas where swimming wasn’t advised. For a parent, the combination of water and jagged rock didn’t feel entirely relaxing, but it turned out our son had no interest in going in the pool.

From the sand, you can sit and look out to the horizon, or down the coast toward the cranes of Leixões and its white, ribbon-like terminal at the southern edge of the ocean promenade. The neighbourhood reminded me of Valencia’s waterfront and the abandoned 2007 Americas Cup buildings – an interruption in the coastline, a sense of being in-between uses, the area’s future yet to be fully claimed by industry or tourism. Porto’s recent rebranding efforts would suggest the latter. For years, the Leça pool complex was allowed to decline, it eventually closed in 2004. Two years later, it was made a national monument, paving the way for its reopening. A further restoration project is ongoing, under the direction of Siza and the local authority.

At the northern end of the promenade is Siza’s Boa Nova Tea House, a project he completed in 1963 and returned to renovate in 2014. Made from concrete, red brick tile and wood and, like the Leça pools, set amidst the rocks, it is a manifesto for a carefully crafted Modern architecture. Now a smart seafood restaurant, it was incompatible with our clothing or child on that day.

As we were heading back into Porto, lost between an industrial and residential zone, I thought I saw Siza himself: a distinctive profile, about the right age, in a linen suit and thin-framed glasses. I read that he still lives in Porto, so it’s possible. It’s hard to get a sense of the man himself, interviews are often poor translations. But an early building, more than any project, is an expression of an architect’s values – this is a modest building, taking simple pleasure in the wild, rugged landscape, the ocean and the beach. If those are his values, I think I would like him.

In central Porto, we rented a studio in a renovated turn of the century townhouse: Malmerendas Boutique Lodging. In Minho province, we stayed in Quinta da Bouca d’Arques, a mix of contemporary and rustic accommodation in the countryside near Viana do Castelo. We also travelled north to Portugal’s oldest vila, Ponte de Lima and to a festival in the frontier town of Caminha.

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