Charles Siclis may have sketched the image of the façades, Jacques Émile Ruhlmann may have suggested the scale and the nature of the main rooms in the house, Alfred Porteneuve may have detailed the design, Jacques Gréber may have defined the form of the gardens, but the decisive character that brought everything together was Carlos Alberto Cabral, the client of Marques da Silva. Cabral had the vision, the taste, the desire and the necessary resources to conceive his house. The archive documents in this exhibition illustrate the adventure of realizing this dream, under Cabral’s command and the patient and efficient coordination of architect Marques da Silva.
The history of the Villa’s construction
In 1925, Carlos Alberto Cabral inherited a house with a chapel and gardens at Serralves, a rural hamlet midway between the centre of Porto and Matosinhos. With the constant support of his architect, José Marques da Silva, he engaged in the gradual transformation of the place, hiring Parisian architects and decorators, such as Jacques Émile Ruhlmann, Charles Siclis and Jacques Gréber, who contributed to the design of this singular work completed around 1943. Cabral inherited the title of Count of Vizela, which his father had earned for developing the textile industry in the valley of the Ave, in Vizela, where he owned an important cotton processing factory. He also inherited Serralves from his grandmother and started by doing minor remodelling works on a house attached to the chapel. At the time Cabral was a regular in Biarritz, where he also owned a villa. In his frequent trips to Paris, together with Blanche Daubin, his lifelong companion, Cabral systematically bought furniture in some of the shops of reference at a moment when Paris witnessed an intense debate about French decorative arts and the paths of industrial production for the domestic space.
Edgar Brandt, Jules Leleu, Da Silva Bruhns and Jacques Émile Ruhlmann were some of his suppliers when he started to conceive a first extension of the Serralves house together with Marques da Silva in 1927. Marques da Silva’s early drawings show how quickly ambition flourished. To begin with, a pergola was built, with a first room that organized the space of a garden up to the house. There are sketches showing a room attached to the house, then a larger room, then a new entrance hall added to this room together with a few annexes.
The room grew and along with the the pergola, new additions were made. Still at the project stage, the house continued to grow, translating the client’s ambition. In December 1929, Cabral contacted architect Charles Siclis – known in Paris for his cafes and movie theatres – who had just opened Théâtre Pigalle, amidst much fanfare. To Porto, Siclis sent a set of elevation drawings that gave a body and an image to Marques da Silva’s sketches. Once the project was consolidated, by the summer of 1930, Cabral consulted Ruhlmann for the decoration of the interiors, particularly the entrance hall. From Paris, Ruhlmann mailed refined drawings with several solutions, all of which corresponded to a scale relatively unseen in Porto. Marques da Silva continued to integrate those suggestions in coherent drawings, linking the old house and chapel to what was already a building much larger than the original house.
In the summer of 1931, Marques da Silva submitted the project to the Municipal Council for approval. The work started before the end of that year. This project continued until 1935 and is represented in the first model made for this exhibition. The model shows how the old house and chapel were camouflaged, and how different architectural elements, such as a portico, the chapel belfry, the balconies, formed a complex volumetric ensemble in unison with the spaces of the house. On the other hand, the correspondence shows how Cabral skillfully managed the relationship between the various participants in the project, giving contradictory information to the Parisian architects and deciding himself which construction strategies to apply (Ruhlmann wanted a construction system which collided with Marques da Silva’s solution).
In 1932, the Villa project extended to the gardens. After some initial sketches by Marques da Silva, Jacques Gréber – a renowned French urban architect – made a set of rigorous and detailed drawings for Cabral’s property. Unlike with the villa, correspondence on the matter of the gardens is sparse, which may explain the efficiency with which Marques da Silva executed the design of the French landscape architect. Meanwhile, the pergola did not make sense anymore, as the ambitious relationship between the Villa and the Park surpassed the small scale of the direct visual relation to embrace the long perspectives of French garden tradition.
As the works slowly progressed, Cabral’s ambitions also changed. Ruhlmann, whose participation had gradually increased, died in 1933. The Serralves Villa Project was taken over by his nephew, Alfred Porteneuve, who visited Porto and the construction site in January 1935. His visit was followed by the most traumatic moment in the project: the demolition of the original house and the change in the position of the staircases leading to the upper floor. A drawing by Marques da Silva shows how the eraser was a witness to the act of demolition, with pencil hesitations illustrating signs of doubt. The second model made for this exhibition was based on the final project submitted to the Municipal Council in 1943 and shows the differences and similarities between the two moments of the work. The transformation had been radical and simplified many aspects of the project, giving it the unity that is seen today. The years that followed saw a refinement of detail. Cabral wrote to window-frame and accessory suppliers (such as switches, doorknobs, etc.), as well as to heating system specialists; Porteneuve sent details for the construction of the bathrooms, wooden floors and plaster ornaments; Marques da Silva ensured the execution of the work as well as the coherence of the constructive solutions and the project’s myriad details. The Spanish Civil War rendered the communications with Paris slower, and the Second World War disrupted the French productive system, which compromised and further delayed the completion of the Villa. Once it was built, Alvão produced a photographic album recording Carlos Alberto Cabral’s achievement for posterity: to build in Porto, at Serralves, a cohesive and powerful ensemble capable of representing the aristocratic ambitions of the new industrial bourgeoisie, which had been shattered by the massive destruction of the Second World War.
If architecture symbolizes the ambition of those who built it, the documents in the Serralves Library show the succession of steps of the process that shaped the Serralves Villa and Park, and the extent to which the client was responsible for decisive moments in their conception. Step by step, amid drawings, correspondence, photographs and models, it is possible to understand the circumstances of architectural creation.
The different origins and nature of the archival documents in the exhibition testify to the places where the architecture was produced: Carlos Alberto Cabral’s work table, Marques da Silva’s studio, the Parisian decoration shops or Alvão’s photographic camera. The different actors in the construction process dialogued with each other and what is shown here are the traces of that dialogue. On two tables are shown, Cabral’s correspondence – now in the collection of the Serralves Library– and Marques da Silva’s drawings side by side. Using the project’s record in Porto’s Municipal Archive it was possible to reconstruct a model of the starting point of the work – the 1931 project – and of its conclusion– the final drawings of the Villa completed in 1943.
On one of the walls are the drawings produced in Paris during the different stages of the project. The exhibition ends with a photographic sequence by Alvão that immortalizes the realization of Carlos Alberto Cabral’s dream. These five exhibition moments synthesize a process that lasted almost fifteen years. In Cabral’s correspondence, first with Jules Leleu and Edgar Brandt, and then with Ruhlmann, Siclis, Porteneuve and others, it is possible to see how he carefully managed expenses and desires. The letters show his intentions and the way in which he conveyed them to the Parisian architects, either stimulating their interest, or hiding precious information so as to ensure they would not interfere in the work of their partners. It is possible, for instance, to read how he told Siclis that the work did not yet allow for interior design decisions on the very same date as he set up a meeting with Ruhlmann precisely to deal with that matter. His correspondence also shows the variations proposed by the French architects, as well as the construction progress and the problems with furniture commissions, which form the most substantial part of the collection. The photographs illustrate the rural nature of the house and the chapel that preceded Serralves, as well as the gradual transformation of the site up until the final result.
The nearly five hundred drawings in Marques da Silva’s archive are almost all work drawings. Serving as project concept guidelines, rather than final blueprints, this set is displayed on the table of drawings. A first section shows the initial studies, from the house attached to the chapel to the scheme that served as the basis for the project. The development of the project, submitted to council approval and including the decisive contribution of Siclis and Ruhlmann, led to the solution that was applied after 1931. This solution was painstakingly studied, both in terms of interior space distribution and in terms of elevations and volumes. In 1932, the gardens became a crucial aspect of the project, with Marques da Silva creating a set of sketches that constituted the basis for Gréber’s design. Subsequently, the demolition of the original house caused a profound alteration in the Villa’s design, giving it the character and volumes seen today.
All these aspects were accompanied by drawings that ensured the coherence of the project. The selection shown here is a synthesis of those steps and demonstrates Marques da Silva’s crucial role in fulfilling the vision of Carlos Alberto Cabral. Unlike the systematic character of Marques da Silva’s drawings, the contributions arriving from Paris translated into seductive pieces with a great visual impact. Despite all the changes, the illustrations submitted by Siclis in 1929 guided theexpression of the project up until its conclusion, the same can be said for Porteneuve’s drawings, which guided the execution of the refined upstairs wooden floors. Of all these contributions, the most assertive was Jacques Gréber’s, whose set of drawings for the Park did not raise any questions and were readily executed.
The two models made from the drawings submitted by Marques da Silva to the Municipal Council in 1931 and 1943 synthesize the whole process. Aspects that are less apparent in the documents can be clearly observed in thesethree-dimensional elements. The original house, camouflaged and extended in the first version, was finally demolished midway through the process at an advanced stage of the work. The violence and importance of the demolition demonstrates how decisive the client was in conceiving and refining the architectural creation. The profusion of elements, together with a certain degree of complication of forms, which resulted in the accumulation of decisions in the first years of construction, was resolved and the Villa gained its clarity. The two models allow for a sort of ‘spot the difference’ game and show how constructing architecture is not always a peaceful process.
The exhibition “Serralves Villa: The Client as an Architect” is curated by Architect André Tavares. Exhibition coordination: Sónia Oliveira, assisted by Isabel Koehler.
“Serralves Villa: The client as architect”
Location: Serralves Library
Days: 23 MAY 2015 – 06 SEP 2015
Rua Dom João de Castro,210, 4150-417
News source and text: Serralves Foundation