Living in a House


Álvaro Siza



I have never been able to build a house, a real house. I don’t mean designing and building houses, a minor thing which I can still manage to do, although maybe not very well.

The idea I have of a house is the idea of a complicated machine, in which every day something breaks down: a lamp, a tap, a drain, a lock, a hinge, a socket, and then a cylinder, a stove, a fridge, a television or video; and the washing machine, or the fuses, the curtain springs, the security bolt.

The drawers jam, the carpets rip, as does the padding of the dining-room sofa. All the shirts, socks, sheets, handkerchiefs, napkins, table-cloths and kitchen-towels are lying torn beside the ironing-board, whose protective cover is in a parlous state. Water is also dripping from the ceiling (the neighbour’s pipes have burst or a roof-tile has fallen off, or the waterproofing has come loose). And the gutters are full of rotten brown leaves.

When there is a garden, the grass grows menacingly and whatever free time you have is not enough to deal with the madness of nature: fallen petals and legions of ants invade the thresholds of doors, there are always the dead bodies of birds, mice and cats. The chlorine of the swimming pool has run out, the robot is broken; there is no suction apparatus to restore the clarity of the water or suck up the legs of insects, fine as hair.

The granite flagstones or floors are getting covered with a perilous slime, the varnish is darkening, skins of paint are peeling off and revealing the knots of wood reduced to a facade. An old man’s finger could go through the frames, the panes of glass are cracked, the bitumen has fallen out, the silicone is coming off the surfaces, there is mould in the cupboards and in the drawers, beetles are becoming resistant to the insecticides. The polish has always run out even if you can find the tin you are looking for, the joints are coming apart, the tiles are falling off, first one, then the whole wall.

And that is the least of it.

Living in a house, in a real house, is a full-time job. The house owner is at the same time a fireman (houses are always burning down, or flooding, or gas escapes silently and usually explodes); a nurse (have you seen the splinters of wood from the bannisters getting stuck under your nails?); a lifeguard, he is in full command of all the arts and professions, he is a specialist in physics, in chemistry, he is a lawyer, or he does not survive. He is a telephonist and receptionist, he calls at all hours, getting hold of plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, and then he opens the front door to them, or the back door, goes along with them submissively. And then it is necessary to sharpen blades, buy accessories, to oil, to rearrange, to dehumidify; the dehumidifier immediately breaks down and after that the air conditioning and the heat pumps.

But there is nothing worse than the torture of books which move about mysteriously by themselves, muddling themselves up on purpose, attracting dust. The dust penetrates the upper edge of the pages, tiny creatures eat them with an indescribable noise; the pages stick together, the leather stains, drops of water trickle from vases of dying flowers onto engravings and spread through the cloths in a furious process of dissolution. The doormat is falling apart and there is a deep gash in the wood, the hairs of the brush are coming out, precious objects are cracking, the boards of tables and of furniture are coming apart in terrifying cracks, the cistern no longer flushes, the stove is filling with soot – any day now it will catch fire. Great-grandmother’s glasses are cracking in the glass cabinet, the bottles of vinho verde given life with the tiniest amount of sugar are bursting, the corks are popping out, or rotting, even the best vintage is going off.

When for the first time a fused light is not replaced immediately the whole house is in darkness, and this invariably happens on a Saturday, at the same time as one of the tyres of the only available car gets a puncture.

This is why I consider owning, maintaining and renovating a house to be a matter of heroism. In my opinion there should be an Order of the Guardians of Houses and every year the appropriate honour and a high financial award conferred.

But when all this effort of maintenance is not apparent, when the wholesome aroma of wax in a house, which is otherwise well-ventilated, is mingled with the perfume of flowers from the garden; and when in it, we, irresponsible visitors who are not particularly aware of moments of happiness, feel happy and forget our worries as barbarian nomads, then the only possible prize is one of gratitude, of silent applause – a moment of pause, looking around, losing ourselves in the golden atmosphere of an autumn interior at the end of the day. 



With thanks to Álvaro Siza.


March 1994
Originally published in: Kenneth Frampton, Álvaro Siza: Complete Works (London: Phaidon, 2000. p252)




FURNITURE AND THE ROOM by Edward Schroeder Prior