Nuno Mateus . Learning . Part1

© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved


We are very pleased to have architect and university lecturer Nuno Mateus as our guest. Welcome. First, we would like you to tell us a little bit about your education, your teachers, and exercises you remember...


I attended the Faculty of Architecture but mine was a degree in Fine Arts, classes took place in the old facility, in Convento de São Francisco (Saint Francis Convent). It was an impressive space, really interesting with its long and wide corridors and not so interesting inside the classrooms. For someone out of boarding school, an extremely organized space, it was a rather vague location where I felt especially lost. I entered university in 1979 and left in 1984; at that time the university was not a very exciting place, I found it rather uninteresting.


I did not choose architecture though I was aware that was the degree I wanted to do. We are pressured too early to choose a degree and so I eventually chose. I chose what I believed was more similar to what I enjoyed doing: working with my hands, drawing. In truth, I felt that everything interested me, that I could have chosen any other degree; moreover, throughout the years I attended the degree I did not find any especially exciting academic stimulus. This was just my daily destination, an activity I had included in a serious of other activities that I was interested in. I had just left boarding school - full of rules, where people's individual personality is shaped by the interested of the collective. I was looking forward to doing other things but I felt taking a degree was one of my responsibilities. I believe that the time that followed somehow met my search for individuality, which boarding school had prevented from blooming, and for the things that really interested me. Among those the degree in Architecture was partially filling a gap. What I was actually into was sports and I did competitive sports. My story in terms of education is not very interesting or motivating.

The most important professor for me was Daciano Costa, he lectured Drawing to second year students. More than the subject itself, I was fascinated by the ethics of his relation with the students: he tried to understand them in their relation with themselves, he sort of deconstructed their reality through drawing. Drawing became, from then onwards, a more straightforward and structuring tool in my relation with the degree, a relation that was, up to that moment, very vague.


When I was in the second year, I started working in architect Costa Pecegueiro's office, I started having work routines and that made and a student who, either more or less interested in the subjects at university, did hos projects rather easily. My relation with architecture became much more evident. My relation with the degree became closer and more confident because I felt I gradually mastered the tools. At that time, I started to work on the office's projects, which was very important for me because I really understood what I was learning, how what I learned was applied in real life and how it affected others. That was a very motivating experience.


© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved

© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved


Why did you decide to look for work while you were studying?


Basically for economic reasons but not only. I was born in a middle-class family that struggled to put four children through school and I was always very independent. For many years I worked in grape picking, in Portugal and later on in France. The degree widened my cultural horizons, but I had no money to travel or buy books. For me, work was a very practical way to have access to other things but it obviously became an asset in terms of learning.


There's a funny story that you told me and that had to do with your first salary and a special book...


Yes, the first book I bought was Arquitetura Popular em Portugal (Popular Architecture in Portugal), which I bought in installments. It cost 20 thousand escudos, the equivalent to 100 euro today. It was a huge amount of money for me at the time and it took me a year to pay it. There was another special book, which I bought in Berlin, with my first salary at Daniel Liebskind. He paid me cash at the end of the month and I went into a bookstore and on sale was Complete Works by Le Corbousier, a set of symbolic books for any architect, whose price is usually so high that you never buy it. I walked into the store with the money in my pocket and I could not resist, I left almost all my money there and I left with the set under my arm ... really struggling because it is so heavy! I was never the same...


© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved

© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved


Did your experience as a working student influence in any way your work as one of the founding members of the Architecture team at UAL?


After I graduates, I continued to work in the same office - Costa Pecegueiro's - for two years, in which many houses were designed but whose working model, after some time, became rather monotonous for me At that time I was also lecturing at the Faculty of Architecture as a 4th-year trainee assistant, I worked with architect Guedes de Amorim. After two years I felt this was not fulfilling me. In economic terms my life was OK but I realized this was not what I wanted. I traveled a lot (that was where most of my money went), I read, viewed architecture at a level I knew I had not been prepared to practice and which I looked for. I went to Columbia University to do a Master’s and then I worked with Eisenman in New York and then Libeskind in Berlin. Shortly after I returned to Portugal, the group of architects that would found the Department of Architecture at UAL - João Luís Carrilho da Graça, Manuel Graça Dias and José Manuel Fernandes - contacted me; they aimed at creating a different school of Architecture, focused on professional practice by some authors. At that time, my office was getting to be known due to my professional experience and that of my brother José Mateus.


It was really interesting to watch this project being created and, after 14 years, it is very interesting to see how the project is now established and realize that it maintains the same type of objectives and ambitions; see students and lecturers still committed, despite the context of weaknesses we are living in, and that are still present.


© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved

© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved


As a lecturer, do you aim at providing students with what you felt was lacking in your degree?


Above all I aim to understand the students as people. I cannot think of the architect as a person who does things. An architect, for me, is an ethical mediator between physical reality and reciprocity in terms of behavior and use. I aim to work from an ethical perspective because I am preparing the students to intervene in a rather uncertain future. I do not work focused on the past or based on the models I was educated in. I believe those models have become a part of me and translate in the way my relationship with the students evolves. I do not aim to teach fixed models besides raising awareness to the responsibility of our work. I aim to build something that belongs to each students, belongs to both of us, which promotes student's acceptance and real progress. I do not lecture in the sense that I do not teach tested and fixed thinking. I do not see myself as a person that has more information than the student but rather as someone with a focus, a perspective that allows me to learn and that I want to pass on. I learn a lot through teaching because it pushes me to constantly assess my perspective and brings to the conscious what was unconscious or intuitive so that I can work on the student's progress.


I see many lecturers who use different methodologies and I find that also very stimulating. It makes me doubt, makes me choose specific strategies, often in the search of complementariness that allows me to find new learning possibilities.


© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved

© João Carmo Simões .com - All Rights Reserved


Will you give an example of an exercise you have made with students? For example, what are you doing this year?


The fourth year, which is the class I am teaching to at the moment, is the first year in the second studies cycle, it is the penultimate year - it is when students design their big project which includes a written part, a designed part, similar to a professional model. In the fourth year we prepare students the best way we can, and within the constraints, for their future profession, always keeping in mind the conceptual and cultural elements. We want there to be a close relation between school and professional world, and that students view the profession as a place to dream. Many of UAL lecturers have their offices and design very exciting projects and that is a very demanding but necessary activity, as you know well.


At this moment, several fourth-year course units are focused on a common theme: the city. As the fifth-year project is usually on the city of Lisbon or on Portugal, in the fourth year we have decided to do projects on several European cities and through them understand our city better as well as our role in the world. Last year we were in Barcelona, this year we are in Amsterdam... The projects takes the two semesters and includes different approaches. We know our work is global - we may work in any place in the world. We must develop learning strategies for places we dot necessary know. This year we started analyzing Amsterdam using concrete scale models. The students use and learn about concrete in terms of model design, plastic capacity, need of armature and weight. The room is a physics and chemistry lab, where students experiment.


In the second semester, the exercise focuses on housing, which is probably the theme we all think we master and, because of that, it is a theme that is revealing once we focus on it and research the models that fit the progress of contemporary systems. Each city is built by specific housing models. Knowing the house helps us understand the city. And in a 1940s house in Lisbon everything was separated and socially segregated. Today the kitchen is the core of vernacular houses, yet within a new social model. Cooking is nowadays at the center of family life, the kitchen is gourmet, it is chic and it no longer is a place apart where those invited into the house never go into but rather it is a place to mingle and share. We aim to understand what the house is like today in terms of other hierarchies and models.


The exercises you describe are very contemporary and relate to the current state of the profession.


These experiences on the European cities have been very interesting because both of the discovery they imply as well as the fact that they show and relativize the specificity of our territory. The idea that we will work for our city is completely untrue. Today we all know that it is cheaper to travel to Barcelona than to Oporto, for example. And that is a pity, because I like Oporto very much. Working in another city prepares the students to become familiar with what would be foreign some time ago. We get to these cities, we have classes in one of the local architecture schools and we try that these lecturers continue to communicate with us throughout the year. The students are citizens of the world and they will have different needs at different times in different places and they should be prepared for that. This feeling at ease in a world wider than our city or country or Europe leads to a very appealing, optimistic and hopeful feeling of freedom. We must not let ourselves be dragged by the psychological drama of the crisis that permeated our activity; it is extremely limiting and I try to not bring it to the classroom.


The idea that the world is here is something you always sought for. When you graduated you started an interesting professional experience in different countries.


What I did is what all kids do today, right? They go to other universities on Erasmus, more than two thirds of my students are foreigners, and they come to UAL to do the 2nd studies cycle. Today we are European citizens - world citizens. I believe many borders will crumble, many have already informally disappeared. At many levels, we are not closed to the world and I certainly will not contribute to be. My students already think that way, they very easily travel to other countries where I was very afraid to go. The world has changed as far as that is concerned.