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Architect Alvaro Siza recently gave a lecture in Toronto about his work in Portugal during the 1990s.

CCA, Montreal

Is Alvaro Siza one of the world's great architects? If you ask him, he will tell you no. On the day of a recent lecture in Toronto, the 82-year-old was jet-lagged and soft of voice, a bit stooped in a baggy brown suit. Speaking softly in his rumbling basso, he dismissed with a wave the idea that his 50 years of work, including the high honour of the Pritzker Prize, adds up to any grand contribution.

Why such modesty? "It's a question of temperament," he said outside his hotel, between drags of a cigarette. "It is just the way I am as a person. I have no desire to speak grandly."

That modesty is reflected in his work – and while his architecture speaks quietly, it has resonated powerfully around the globe. In the early- and mid-20th century, Europe's Modernist architects burned to reinvent the world; Siza was part of one more modest faction that aimed to improve and repair the modern city without, first, tearing it all down. His work sets a strong example in 2015, blending caution and ambition, prose and poetry.

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In the early 1960s, Siza began building in his hometown of Porto, Portugal. Here on the fringe of Europe, he created architecture's version of slow food: subtle buildings that reveal themselves through gradual experience, rooted in place and respectful of history. His buildings resisted both the tabula-rasa logic of modernist "urban renewal" and then postmodernism's scholarly games with historic forms.

Siza's work is spare and beautiful but also local, deeply engaged with politics and with particular neighbourhoods and their residents. In the wake of Portugal's 1974 revolution, Siza began building social housing, and it was that work that gave him an international reputation.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, which organized his Toronto lecture together with the University of Toronto's John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, is committed to his legacy. "We believe that Siza is one of the great architects of the second half of the 20th century," said the CCA's director, Mirko Zardini. Siza recently donated a large group of his personal archive to the CCA's library. Bringing the architect himself to Toronto – where he spoke to a packed house of 1,700 people – was part of an ongoing effort to make the museum and its many resources more present in a national and global conversation.

"With Siza, there is a commitment to building being part of the city, in every sense," Zardini says, "and that is somehow radical in North America today."

This is the legacy that's now being explored in a show at the CCA in Montreal. Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities reveals two projects that Siza completed in Berlin and The Hague in the early 1980s. Each was a set of mid-rise buildings, informed by the scale, materials and form of the city that surrounded it and built to serve a marginalized population. (The CCA show is a sequel to a previous exhibition on SAAL, Portugal's postrevolutionary social housing program.)

His Berlin project went up in Kreuzberg. Then a rundown neighbourhood in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, it was a ghetto for predominantly Turkish "guest workers" who were pushed out of other neighbourhoods by xenophobic sentiment and deliberate policy. Siza was one of several internationally known architects who were hired, through the International Building Exhibition of 1987, to build in Berlin, providing quality housing and renewing Berlin's historic streetscape.

Siza's corner building is a seven-storey apartment block built around a courtyard, like many of its neighbours. But it is, subtly, different: Where the neighbouring buildings are richly detailed stone, Siza's building has a rhythm of square windows set into a smooth façade. And it hits the street corner not with a right angle but a gentle curve, as the front façade swerves upward into a slight flourish. This is a kind of subtle poetry that retains the metre of history.

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But equally important, from Siza's point of view, is the way it serves its residents; before building, he engaged in a long process of consultation with its future residents, a participatory model of design he had developed in Portugal. The physical results are subtle, but they are there: The building's courtyard is larger and more public, a place for gathering and not just a no-man's land. Each unit has an extra windowed space off the living room that can be used for any purpose the residents like – and in some cases has served as an extra, well-ventilated kitchen. This is thoughtful prose.

Looking back on this and on his The Hague project now, how does Siza see them? "I recognize that I gave the right answer to the problems," he said. "The answer was very connected to the context – not only physical, but the social context in that moment, the type of transformation in the city."

This is just the sort of language that almost every thoughtful architect uses today: They argue that their buildings are logical responses to the challenges of the job and to the context. Even those who make formally flashy buildings couch them in a language of pragmatism and civic responsibility. All that is in Siza's intellectual DNA.

"He is not about sound bites, but rather introspection, reflection and empathy for people and cities," says architect Bruce Kuwabara, who is chair of the CCA's board and a partner at the office KPMB. Kuwabara cites "the quiet durable beauty of Siza's lines and spaces" as formative. His architecture "is unostentatious yet plastic, serious yet pleasurable, urbane and, in a way," Kuwabara adds, "always open-ended."

Today, Siza continues to build, and occasionally in flashy form: He is, perhaps inevitably, now designing a luxury condo in New York. But when he spoke in Toronto, he did not talk about that or the stunning art museum he designed in Brazil eight years ago. Instead, he spoke about his work, in the 1990s, to reconstruct an 18th-century block in central Lisbon after a major fire. "Some people thought this was an opportunity to bring modernist architecture," he said. "Others, including me, disagreed."

Instead, Siza oversaw the rebuilding of these structures, to new purposes, but bringing back the façades to a state almost identical to how they had been before, with a new network of pedestrian passages and plazas. It's hard to imagine anything less flashy. And, Siza said, it was missing one thing: the patina of history. "But no architect can design that," he said. "For that, the great architect is time."

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Corner, Block, Neighbourhood, Cities runs at the CCA ( until Feb. 7.

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