AIRES MATEUS STUDIO
AIRES MATEUS STUDIO
It is easy to delve into the world of Aires Mateus architecture studio and become fascinated with every single detail that goes into a long-lasting array of projects, spanning over 30 years of practice. The studio, where almost everything happens, takes us back to the 18th century through decorative stucco ceilings, cornices and some stonework while bringing us back in the blink of an eye with minimal and quasi-monolithic features.
We spoke to Manuel Aires Mateus, a central figure to the studio, about his take on the meaning of place and home, the search for uniqueness and art as the ultimate surrender for the architect.
AM: Let me start by saying I’m thrilled there’s a project like Fantastic Frank to shed light on architecture and give it the cultural and social significance it deserves.
FF: Thank you so much. Let’s get to it then: what keeps you afloat and inspired today?
AM: I think it’s not possible to hierarchise our influences. If we’re perceivable to architecture as a practise, we’re therefore influenced by everything. It’s one of the key qualities of architecture: it’s not affected by this or that subject matter.
FF: Or this and that person.
AM: We are continuously aware of what might move us, though we all have a depository of memories and things we learn along the way. An archive. And this archive is formed by connections that aren’t crystal-clear, like a web of sorts we can refer to. I usually say we’re rewriting a story in a particular project. We reorganise the theory to get there.
The greatest influence we can use in architecture is life itself. Architecture is a sort of suspension in time waiting for life to begin. Life as we know it and everything it brings with it ends up getting all possibilities together. Of course, many things are, in some way, already translated and conveyed, which is one of the most significant interests in artistic representation. When a sculptor, a painter, a writer or a filmmaker work on a particular subject, there is a somewhat mediated reality already.
On the other hand, not all influences come from mediated realities. What is interesting about architecture is keeping our eyes peeled for the possibility of discovering a new link with the people we come in contact with, which is vital. It is perhaps the richest asset we have when working on a project, the relationship we develop with people — though there are many things involved in a project, whether it’s cultural suggestions or legal conditions. Art is also a determining factor. Art is everything. When we were working in Dublin, I remember trying to comprehend the city, and I found it so hard to do it. I decided to look for clues through photographers and writers who could open a door into it.
FF: Photographers who came before you and captured the city?
AM: Yes, exactly. When I realised I would not be able to perceive its reality, which was perhaps unfathomable to me at the time, I started looking for artists who had already translated Dublin into something tangible. Holding the key to something immeasurable, as art is, allows us to seek what is behind it. There was another time when we felt tremendously swayed towards [Eduardo] Chillida. We visited his exhibitions in Bilbao and Madrid because we felt deeply engrossed by his ideas about the freedom of emptiness. We wanted to understand that freedom.
FF: But it’s still an interpretation.
AM: Sure! And they’re already mediated, too. When we realise the influence someone like Gerhard Richter has on us when he says things like, “Art is the highest form of hope”, it’s beautiful — if we translate it into architecture, of course. But this comes from someone who already paved the way for us. In that sense, the work of artists is powerful to us, which doesn’t mean we don’t have other influences.
FF: Can you tell us about a recent project connected to how you perceive memory and reality?
AM: Last year, we had a large installation planned for Milan Design Week at Palazzo Litta. We designed it in 2019 to open in 2020, and it was called “Silence”. It was a big water mirror reflecting the palace, which purpose was to criticise the excess of noise that is usually felt during those weeks — and the world in general.
FF: But does it still make sense today?
AM: That was the problem. That idea of silence made sense to us in 2020. Although I realise that perhaps this is not the time to address it, it still makes sense to me. I look at it as something crucial to creating. We need all kind of silence. Today, every empty corner has something filling that emptiness. That lack of silence makes it hard to capture the creative distance we need, so I think silence is nonetheless relevant. However, we changed our proposal for the installation and turned it around to design something about the idea of gathering. To achieve that, I travelled back 40 years to one of the most surprising sights I experienced, which was in Paris, a club with the floor covered in sand, a pool with a windsurf board. Everything happened there, and we’re talking about 40 years ago. It was very clear to me I had to go back to that memory. The archive is the starting point, and I immediately thought of it when the concept of celebrating getting together came to mind. If we’re open to it, if we’re awake to it, we’ll find it.
Photo: Fransisco Nogueira
FF: As you said, one needs to be open to that.
AM: I believe architecture is the art of the unique. There is nothing serial about it. We are producing something one time only, unreproducible. We don’t work with the same individuals twice, nor with the same places. The state of uniqueness is decisive in architecture. To keep it as is, we must create the perfect conditions to go wholly bare into a new project, regardless of what we know, completely awaken to a new possibility. The way I see it, this is what defines architecture. One needs to take a risk to be authentic. We can always learn with every project. If we do something according to what we know, there is no room for discovery, and a project needs that. That is why I think we must go back as further as we can to build something excellent.
FF: With today’s overwhelming amount of visual noise, how easy or hard is it to disconnect from it and not follow any existing evidence?
AM: Ideally, we must not get ourselves wrapped in images or references. We may embody some things, but not someone else’s work. In some way, we take in possibilities. We’re aware of what happens outside our spectrum, as we do with art. Everything has a very close relationship to art. So, of course, we are conscious of what happens around us.
FF: Is the architect looking for uniqueness?
AM: Yes, absolutely. The architect searches for the confirmation of what is unrepeatable. That’s what we do. We aim to answer a question, to figure out a problem. This path of discovery is what makes architecture such an involving subject. There is no delight in saying what I know in academic terms. In fact, what I know academically is incredibly low compared to what I know as a person. If I picture the number of doors I’ve designed, it’s lower than the number of doors I’ve opened. I’ve probably designed hundreds of doors, but I’ve gone through millions. So, the most important thing is what I can absorb, not what I know academically.
FF: And it probably helps you to recognise the importance of that knowledge.
AM: That’s precisely it. To recognise that importance, I always resort to methods that are harder for me. For many years, I loved to draw, even if I wasn’t that good — we live in a country where we have people like Siza [Vieira], who can draw like a god. As a mere mortal, I make myself draw because it’s hard for me. Lately, what I do, and am also doing with my students, since it is getting easier and easier for me to draw, is trying to recognise things through writing. It’s extremely painful to me! But since I find it hard to do, it’s what I keep on doing.
FF: But is there satisfaction in doing so?
AM: There’s this idea that the architectonical process is a happy one. I don’t think it is. It’s something much more complex. Today, I’m confident that it pains me and, at the same time, it’s entirely inevitable. I love to work, and the possibility of not working doesn’t exist to me. And my work is to think; it’s what I do. To think about problems and how to solve them. I depict those problems by drawing them, writing them. We create animated images; we make small and big scale models, where you can even fit your head inside. We depict that reality to understand it.
FF: Is there any difference between thinking and projecting in Portugal or other countries?
AM: Knowing the world is everyone’s desire. And we can only know the world by thinking about it. If I go on holiday to a particular place and then revisit it for a project, the place changes. I think we learn a lot when we leave a place, as others do when they visit ours. We learn, and the places learn with us. That exchange is manifestly precious — and necessary. And there’s something we all know today, which is the condition of being global. We are global, obviously. What happens in other parts of the world can easily reach us; information runs fast.
At the same time, I think we must keep our integrity and our sense of place. We are global as we are local. In fact, the only relevance in architects being international is that it happens by understanding their place in the world. Of course, we can be closer to some places than others, but we must acknowledge the world as a whole. Carrying our condition as individuals in the world is a fundamental value.
FF: What does place mean?
AM: Place can be many things. A place is always the combination of emotional relationships we develop with something specific.
FF: And how does a project relate to a place? Is the place important?
AM: The place is a defining factor. I recall a quote that said, “projects are in places”, which is profoundly untrue. Projects are in the possibilities of transformation of a place, which is something completely different. I often have projects in Lisbon, places I’ve passed by a million times, and the day I’m told, “you have to create something here”, the places become different. The project was not within the place but in my need to change it. Our work as architects is to grasp how a place can be transformed. A good project sees value in the pre-existence. It’s not a case of being concerned about the place itself but its context. If we look at new cities and recent constructions, many are built as self-references, independent of place or context. We work towards the value of a place, and our purpose is to emphasise a place. There is a fantastic example that clearly shows the importance of architecture, Casa Malaparte, in Capri. And it’s easy to understand why: Casa Malaparte was built in an extraordinary place with promontories jutting out into the sea. When during a dialogue with a German general, Malaparte says, “the house was already there. I only projected the landscape”. This is absolutely astounding: what is so impressive about Casa Malaparte is that its presence redesigns the entire landscape.
And all of a sudden the promontories are much more beautiful than they were before. And that is what architecture does and strives for. We must not be afraid of perfection because we will never attain it. And this gives us a lot of freedom. We can die trying because we will never get there.
FF: And why are homes such a preference for you?
AM: Well, it happens for many reasons, but we enjoy doing them the most. First of all, the idea of home is the closest we have to our own lives. Then, our personal experiences are founded on them, and then usually sparks our interest. But a home is only a home when it’s filled with life. The House in Monsaraz is a great example. The process was extremely lengthy. After several financial problems, the promoter asked us for help, and we ended up buying the land and building our office. We particularly loved that project and could not bear letting it go. All in all, it took us twelve years to make it happen. And though it never held a purpose, it started gaining shape as a home after my wife stepped in and turned it into one. It stopped being just something we built and became a home. Life is, thus, the most extraordinary thing we can add to a home. And that is how we know it is done.
Web: Aires Mateus
Photo: Joao Guimaraes
Interview by: Soraia Martins at FF Lisbon