Nuno Mateus . Practice . Part2

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You have students from different countries and simultaneously there is this idea of making Portuguese architecture stronger. What do you think of that? Is there a culture clash or you do not see that in the younger generations?


I was never into creating a supposed identity of Portuguese architecture.  Architecture exists and, in certain places, for a series of reasons, it acquires certain shapes and that is where I work: on the reasons, the bases, the literature on what architecture is in a certain place. And this is a universal phenomenon among people and specific among places and probably among programs. Even among colleagues, I see that some are more into that idea of a Portuguese architecture as a means of identity. This is a phenomenon that I firmly reject, I do not care for this branding in architecture (that is my critical perspective, they probably do not see it that way). I am a huge fan of several types of architecture as long as I see the reason for them, I see the relation, the cultural, geographic, material, economic and human relation. Our territory is incredible from that point of view, it is more open than the minds of many architects. Sometimes I travel through huge countries where there is incredible homogeneity in terms of architecture, of construction systems, of landscaping, etc. and we, in our small country, have a wide variety of terrains, agriculture, architecture, typology, it is amazing! From this plethora of shapes that is our culture I find it very easy to deal with specificity. That is perhaps why we, the Portuguese, have been so successful when we traveled to world and found ways to relate in the four corners of the world.


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Does that open perspective of the world have to do with the start of ARX Portugal?


First of all, ARX Portugal has Portugal in its name. When I came back to Portugal, I came because I wanted to, because my brother and I thought our greatest challenge was in Portugal though we would not restrict our work to the territory of our country. Still today, the biggest challenge for any Portuguese will be to stay in Portugal, where everything is increasingly difficult. At the time - after being abroad for so long - I thought "I want to express Portugal in everything I do". And I think that in Portugal we are kind of ashamed of being Portuguese, of our country, we do not have our flag in our front door like the Americans (I don't either). However, we have a country with extraordinary thinkers and doers who have inspired me tremendously - architects as well as writers, surgeons, engineers, doctors, musicians, etc. And we celebrate, foster and promote merit very little and promote the most absurd things (politicians, football commentators, soap operas, games...). It is not at all stimulating.


At the time we founded the office, architects and architecture always came first, there were the masters. I did not fully understand the idea of masters (I probably did not have the tools for it yet) but I realized architecture was in the hands of a large set of people and I did not want my activity to have our name, Nuno and Zé Mateus Arquitetos because I always considered the architect as the core of a network of knowledge focused on a given issue in a specific place. ARX was a play on words: Architecture, Texture and Text. Texture in the sense of network and Text in the sense that it was written and could be read - we were building something that conveyed information. Not necessarily an aesthetic object but one that could be coded and decoded and conveys knowledge and interaction.

Presently we are looking for work abroad and the name ARX linked to Portugal and we often realize that our country is viewed as a place of excellence in terms of architecture. The fact that it has the name Portugal associated adds it charm and eventually an asset. To sum up, our office's name represented the depersonalization of the company's name in a country we viewed as viable and, at least at the time, in need of our contribution, our individual participation and our responsibility to make the country more plural, more inhabitable...



Will you tell us some of your references?


In my everyday life at the school, all the lecturers, both those who were and those who are now at UAL, are people that stimulate me and who make me do better every day because of the way they teach and produce architecture.


I cannot mention references because I have too many. I do not have a doctrine. I can enjoy very different works for different reasons. I cannot agree with some colleagues, who I esteem and admire, that only the work of a specific architect is good or that only specific materials, certain shapes and angles are good... I do not care for that.


I enjoy a plethora of work. And the reason for it is not having a criteria but rather that I am not confined to a model. I could wear jackets of all shapes, fabrics, linings, with zippers, buttons... I would still use a criteria to choose. The same is true of design.



What about offices of younger architects?


Ours is a slow profession. I have been a lecturer for the past twelve years and I know the work of some of our most successful former students - Miguel Marcelino, for example, has received some media attention. I have also come across Andreia Salavessa, one of UAL's first graduates and who won the Secil Universidades Award, a joy to all of us, students and lecturers. One of the major advantages of our school is the closeness between the academic staff and the students. UAL is privileged in terms of teaching and learning. We are not contented people. The energy at UAL is very stimulating and I feel it as a lecturer. And those coming from the outside also feel it.


© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved

© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved


You mentioned atelierMOB (Andreia Salavessa's office) and your opinion of the fact that the work by young architects today is not what we traditionally associated to an architect...


An architect is a multifaceted person whose education is neither fully humanistic nor scientific but rather a combination of the two made manifest through art. This is a very complex educational model which reminds of the Renaissance. We are specialists in diverse trivialities, our action adapts to the context and the issues we are faced with... It is true that over two decades, in view of our accession to the EU, a lot of public construction has been requires: museums, libraries, schools... In the recent part - and I think the last edition of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale (2013) also gave that media attention - a lot has been said of the social aspect of architecture which I believe was never absent in the work strategies of the most interesting architects. Not only in architecture but in other fields as well, and as a consequence of the violence imposed by the economic readjustment we are facing, these issues arise also in architecture.

Doctors always have patients and architects as well because buildings become sick all the time and need refurbishing. Buildings are an asset that require intelligent, knowledgeable and more durable interventions that add value to them. An educated architect can understand buildings much better than builders or owners. The architect can see further, I have of no doubt, because he has other tools. I have friends who are great musicians or painters, influential worldwide, whose knowledge of their field is extraordinary but in terms of other fields, such as architecture, understand very little. We realize that knowledge is very specific. I dare to say that the architect uses different knowledge more. We are taught to know the limitations of our knowledge and the need to complement it by resorting to other fields or people. An architect, every time he or she submits a project to the municipality, has to submit another fifteen projects and gets used to that. You get used to the fact that you are not alone.


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Architecture thus processes knowledge and produces a synthesis. We can assume that, in terms of knowledge production on architecture, there is a crossroads...


Yes, there is a lack of self-examination. We are so focused on that complementariness of knowledge that we neglect self-examination. As an architect, I am an avid visitor of the works by colleagues I admire. And, fortunately, there are many of those. We realize thought those works, that there is an amassed knowledge in Portugal that is incredible - that is visible in the buildings. Yet it is not written and therefore not available for consultation when we are learning. Today lecturers are forced to focus on doing their PhDs so that the schools have the required ratios according to Bologna. This has widened the gap between the academic and the professional worlds. Architects are forced to leave architecture schools and be replaced by lecturers who are specialists in theory rather than in projects.


When faced with the pressure of writing a PhD thesis, I opted for developing research on my own design and thought process in the buildings I designed at ARX. I opted for closing the circle between practice and research. I used the model, a research tool I opt for at UAL and which is known in academia because of its methodological link with the physical object, i.e., the model as a place of thought and a conveyor of your reasoning. My first step was to collect, repair, and list them so as to analyze the type of model I made. Because it is one thing to be in your office, under pressure, designing project after project, and a completely different other to look at the models, realize you have over three thousand of them, have a wide perspective of them and analyze all that work to finally write about it.

The title of my PhD thesis is "Taxonomy and operation of architectural thought" and focuses on two issues: Taxonomy deals with the analytical perspective of the models and dividing them in group typologies - structure, context, detail models, diagrams, etc.; Operation in the sense of understanding the sequence of models and how they are connected and how reasoning evolved by means of a series of choices.


The second part of the title is "Model Design" and is based on the idea that design is not opposed to model but that the model itself is a design. A design in the sense that Siza Vieira refers as "wish for intelligence". It is a three dimensional design, not the model as representation but rather as shape, place and organization. It is also an object, and that is still important in my thesis - the fact that it is three dimensional, it is tactile, subject to gravity and made of joint materials in specific shapes - is related to a series of issues in making architecture, to other materials, to other scales but still subject to gravity, to three dimension, to habitability and exposure to light. 


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Doing your PhD this way is also a claim that research in architecture is more than research on the history of architecture or town planning or research towards a specific project. Are there other ways of doing it?


There has not been any but I believe that the change in paradigm that is taking place in architecture, together with the increasing number of architecture schools, will necessarily lead to new models arising that will increase critical thought, less closed and defensive and more open and less prejudiced. I have had the opportunity to participate in international academic seminars on research in architecture where I realized the world of research most participants were focused on where very interesting for me but rather disconnected from the world of building architecture, inhabited by people, part of cities and subject to extreme weather, part of the history of architecture which I devote my time to. That was what I needed to move forward.