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in collaboration with Marques da Silva Foundation.

Nowadays digital renderings and collages help sustain the work of the architect, while the ‘thinking hand’, as Fernando Távora suggested, or the act of drawing, is rapidly disappearing from architectural practices. Our thoughts end up as repetitive clicks rather than strokes and lines through the tip of a pencil. Offices now rely on computer-aided modelling techniques - such as Rhino, Revit, Grashopper just to name a few - in their creative process, merging and conflating the hand with the mouse. This paper will explore José Marques da Silva major works in Porto, Portugal to a time when design processes were not yet digitised but rather emphasised through the manual exercise of drawing, seeing and thinking.


Born in the bourgeois atmosphere of Porto in 1869 the young José Marques da Silva’s ability to drawing was quickly noticed and fostered. In 1882, he enrolled at the Porto Fine-Arts Academy, where he studied architecture. Upon graduating in 1889, he journeyed to Paris, to become a pupil at the famous École National Supérieur des Beaux- Arts, demonstrating a great affection for neoclassical studies.

José Marques da Silva, L’entrée d’un Musée-Bibliothèque, 1892.

[academic work Atelier Laloux], 54,5x95,5 cm, Chinese ink on paper.

Courtesy of Marques da Silva Foundation

Here, he mastered the language of designing complex public buildings such as, libraries, museums, and train stations. Scale, proportion, composition, detail all seemed to flow out naturally, through his hand and into his pencil, which were later translated into building structures. Upon graduating, he immediately began employment in the office of his former teacher and famous architect Victor Laloux, where Marques da Silva produced notable hand drawings.These experiences and lessons carried with him as he return to his hometown, Porto, which only bolstered his spirit to draw.

One of the first projects his office received in Porto, was the new São Bento Railway Station. Fuelled by the engine of industrialisation and the necessity to modernise cities and transport systems, this commission aimed to be create a new gateway to the city. As one can see from the architectural sketches carefully archived by the Marques da Silva Foundation, the design process was neither linear nor direct but rather laden with several ups and downs, comparisons, and interpretations, especially of the façades for which one finds countless studies. But upon closer inspection, all of the explorations have one thing in common, that is the lineage of the Parisian Beaux-Arts teachings.

José Marques da Silva, façade sketch for São Bento Railway Station.

Courtesy of Marques da Silva Foundation

This iterative and non-linear design process is not naive nor accidental. It is part of a process where thinking becomes drawing and Marques da Silva is one of the best at explaining ideas through lines, without forgetting his formation, making it its ground for interpretation of his projects. At that time in Porto, Marques da Silva stood out for his ability and courage to execute complex projects in the neoclassical style. By then, the São Bento station was one of two large-scale public projects in the city, with the other being the Santo António Hospital, designed by the English architect John Carr. As the Port Wine industry prospered, Dutch and British families began to establish themselves in Porto, bringing with them their own customs and architectural styles. Traces of the neoclassical style began to appear throughout the city, though the hard granite stone that Porto is built on is more diffcult to carve, mould, and shape. All the more, the Parisian beaux-art style that Marques da Silva had studied, fashioned Parisian buildings that look like living sculptures. This was a challenge in Porto, of how to adapt an architectural style to a city with different building conditions?

For Marques da Silva, the answer was found in exhaustive drawing. The project is one of constraint demonstrated in the countless sketches and drawings de Silva made throughout the process. One of the most impressive was the progressive depuration and the renunciation of non-structural elements. In fact, when the actual building is examined with previous sketched attempts, one could say that it looks like the station was drawn by hand, rather than chisel and hammer. Seemingly unaware of this, as winds of change began to take place in central Europe in the form of the Modern Movement, the transition also began in Porto, particularly evident in the drawing process in Marques da Silva’s office.

The Allen Mansion is another building that sustains the ideas of this change. Commissioned by the Allen Viscount, and built in the late 1920’s, this mansion embraced both the neoclassical principles in which the architect found his support and the bourgeois atmosphere of Porto, neighboured by other peripheral estate-mansions. It is a refinement of its contemporaries, combining order, proportion, and scale, with an increasing abstraction of decorative elements. The drawing simplified the overall concept, the porch is just noticeable, like the cornice, ribs and other elements of composition. Drawing is a dance of attempt and failure; in a process that often begins with a simple form, subsequently develops into more and more complex shapes, spaces and architectural elements, resulting in stereotomy of definition, detail, carving and millimetric specificity.

The Allen Mansion confuses us: on one hand, it clearly conveys neoclassical influence, on the other hand, one has the sense that something is missing. It appears to have come out of a subversive process. The simplicity of façade, regular spaces, clear composition and global harmony of proportions are evocative of a past complex drawing, to which the architect dedicated himself in reaching a more abstract work.

This abstraction clearly noticeable in one of his final relevant work, the Serralves Mansion, completed in 1944. At the time, a few architects including de Marques da Silva began to clear their minds for what was coming. Abstraction which meant no decoration, flatter façades, flat roofs and large spans – everything that we now take for granted – was in its embryonic stage, at least in Porto. It is interesting here, how the beginning of an architectural style is the end of a profound architectural career. But we see this trend in other well-known architect’s paths, such as Le Corbusier or Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose work also matured through abstraction and simplicity toward the end. More importantly, they used the same tools: a paper, pencil, physical models and rulers. As a result of several years of practice and endless testing in drawings, Marques da Silva had refined his architectural practice to an apparent abstraction. The cornices, porches and columns of yesterday were no more.

José Marques da Silva, Serralves Mansion 1925-1943.

Wikimedia commons

This architectural landmark, representing a change both in his office and also in the city of Porto, marks the ending of a brilliant career, where passage through time finely blends with drawing. And it is his drawings that we most clearly witness the journey of this brilliant, nearly 50 years of work. Marques da Silva’s design method had mesmerising influence beyond his office.

As a teacher at the Porto Academy of Fine Arts (now FAUP) he played a key role in establishing the role of hand drawing as a nuclear approach of the Academy, which were pivotal to his successors from Carlos Ramos, Fernando Távora to contemporary masters like Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura. These are the more direct traces we can find but there may be many more implicit, wide ranging and far-flung influences of the work and teachings of José Marques da Silva.

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