Whitman, Koolhaas and Siza – The Beauty in Contradiction

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”*

It’s 4:04PM and I just got inside a library designed by architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. It’s my first time in this city, just one hour away from Porto (Portugal). “You should try the berliners at Natário‘s; there’s a hot batch at 4:30 and it’s not far from the library”. Tempting as it is, I think I won’t probably make it. And there is a good reason for that: I don’t want to leave this building now.

In architecture – as with people, Peter Zumthor would say – there is always a first impression that you get – frequently through imagery – that might not live up to the reality of when you visit it. I remember as a student to hear someone apparently quote Siza on windows. He allegedly said something along the lines of “there is nothing more stupid than an open window towards the landscape”. I agreed – and still agree – with that but at the same time I was very confused knowing that he had just built this library in Viana do Castelo (2008).

Eight years have passed and two things happened. On the one hand I came to realize that it was not totally fair to assume that the architect was saying something and doing another; after all, the wide windows in this library are not even close to the floor-ceiling openness of Miesian glass wall. On the other hand, in this exact moment I feel totally happy that he had been contradictory, no matter what the level of contradiction was.

I believe that rather than a handicap, contradiction is a fundamental quality for creativity and its development. Very few would disagree that Rem Koolhaas is the most influential architectural theorists of our time. Nonetheless, he is consistent in his contradictions since the very beginning of his career. The poems written by Walt Whitman – the most innovative American poet of his time – were very paradoxical and contradictory. Just like with Koolhaas or Siza or any other respected artist, there is an elegant dichotomization in Whitman’s work that enriches the reality he observed and transcribed.

As a society we have evolved from being obsessed with universal propositions into valuing more and more the understanding of variability.** We now enthusiastically accept diversity. But we are still skeptical in accepting our own diversity and the contradictions of our thoughts. We should embrace them and celebrate them and not restrict our creativity for the mere sake of intellectual consistency which does not nourish us whatsoever.

* Whitman, Walt. Songs of myself, and other poems by Walt Whitman. Berkely: Counterpoint. 2010.

** see Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce. TED. 2004. https://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce