Manuel e Francisco Aires Mateus . part2

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EP - We would like you to describe your career path. In our talk, you mentioned that you had both worked in the office of architect Gonçalo Byrne and that you felt the need to have your own office...


FM –That was a very natural process and it was natural because Gonçalo was very generous. We started having some projects, very simple ones, which became larger and larger and Gonçalo, in fact, supported us (we had a room in Gonçalo's office, a kind of satellite room) and we collaborated with other architects. At a certain point in time, some of Gonçalo's colleagues were already in our office too. And eventually the work we were doing no longer could be done there (even in terms of ethics). So we moved. We moved to a building across the street. We were still connected. You could see the other office!


This is such a natural process that we do not feel that "there was a time when we worked in the office of Gonçalo Byrne and then we stopped." It was a rather continuous process. And even after we left, we still collaborated for competition purposes, it was a very straightforward and peaceful process.


MM –This all happened at a very peculiar time. We were fortunate to work for Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Grândola and that was the beginning of our relation with this institution. We also entered several competitions. In two of them, we were invited to participate as youth representatives (they would select a number of architects and then included the "young architects") - in the competition for the Engineer Association and for the Rector's Building at Universidade Nova. This change - from small scale projects, Santa Casa of Grândola, small competitions (in the one for the Canteen at the University of Aveiro we were still in Gonçalo's office) to large scale ones, such as that for the Engineer Association - that forced us to leave his office because we needed more architects working with us. When the competition for the Rector's building took place, we already had our office. In fact, it took a long time for the decision to be public (we got second place at that competition).


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EP - When you left, did you feel your energy renewed, were your ideas different, did you feel you were cutting the umbilical cord?


MM –No. We felt like Oedipus, we had killed our father, but that was a good thing.


FM –Leaving always provides you with an extra boost of energy, doesn't it? The same happens when you leave your parents' house.


MM –You just need to move, there's always so much to pack! At that time we were especially energized by the fact that we had a lot of projects, huge projects. There are no such projects today! State-financed and huge!


FM –Thousands of square meters huge! But that was just normal then. Every day you would find four new competitions opening.


MM –And we took advantage of that moment to learn the trade: how buildings are constructed, what is the building site like ... as we are at the other end of the process.


MM –And we took advantage of that moment to learn the trade: how buildings are constructed, what is the building site like ... as we are at the other end of the process.


Then, suddenly, we have no work - I cannot even recall why that happened - and we realized our money would last for three or four months. And what we did was... forget everything. And start redesigning everything. And truly think about what we had been doing. This ends with Casa de Alenquer, which we consider our first project. That was the first project that we felt as we could control everything we were doing. We stopped to consider and redesign everything we had done so far as if Casa de Alenquer were our first project.


And we resumed our career with small projects - Casa de Azeitão, a small house in Melides - and only after some time did we begin to work on larger scale projects. Yet, at this time, we felt in control, which was something we had not felt before. Funnily enough, we consider this was when we laid the foundations of what we are now, which would not have been possible if we had not experienced designing and building extensively as well as participating in so many competitions.


FM -The attention that we now pay to designing the project coincided with the stage in our lives when we had to think about what we were doing.


MM – It's not a question of spending more time making the project but rather paying a more conscious attention!


FM –Yes. But when you are making a 10,000-square-metre building, you have to be fast and that sometimes prevents you from thinking and fully understanding what you are doing. This fills the senses and is fascinating! The most interesting is that it was the smaller projects which made it evident.


MM –It's funny because, at that time, we used to say that "the simple fact of building makes it feel it is architecture!" The first time you walk into a building site and see your building grow, see the retaining walls... you feel that you have conquered the world! And then you realize you haven't and that, in fact, you have to see this from a different perspective because it has other meanings.


There is another fascinating factor: when some time has gone by after your first buildings have been made, time makes you critical of your own work; that is a rather tough but enlightening learning process.


FM –Time allows you to see these things at a distance…


MM –You cannot change what you have made. They are just there. And it's not always easy to accept that... you learn a lot from that critical view. Our crisis was good for us because it allowed us that distance and we were able to opt for a different attitude towards our work.



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EP - In that process and even nowadays, do you feel that research in architecture helps you in any way?


FM –I believe it does, as a good book or film dos, as an extraordinary painting does or as travelling does... it helps because it is part of culture.


MM –I partially agree with him... it helps because architecture has to do with life. So, anything and everything can influence architecture. All human activity is connected with architecture. In fact, architecture is a kind of principle of culture, in that it corrects Mother Nature who was not adjusted to our needs, or architecture as a profession would not exist.


Besides, there is a side to the theory of architecture that I think helps us because it allows us to look at things from the perspective of the other. It is like observing a landscape or seeing that landscape from the perspective of a photographer that admires it. Sometimes the landscape is richer, other times there is a critical eye on the landscape that makes it richer than it is in reality. Sometimes critics have that ability. Because critics are like architects, right? There are many architects but we find only a few of them interesting. I like that vision of architecture, of criticism or of thinking architecture - when it is ground breaking. The most important texts we have read were written by architects. Not by academics but by architects: books by Tainha or Siza (in Portuguese) Zumthor and Herzog.


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EP - And what about references in terms of built work?


MM -I'll start by mentioning those who are already dead: Palladio, Borromini; the great modern: Mies, Corbusier, who must always be included... can we skip to the contemporary?


FM –I am looking at our books. In architecture offices you can see who are the most influential by checking the books that have been most read!


MM –I once heard a German academic saying: "history is written in the future", which I found really funny. In the past months we have been looking at projects by (Sigurd) Lewerentz because we are designing visible mortar joints and he has made experiments with that. An influence from the past into the future.


Now, if you asked me: "Who would I stop eating my lunch for to go and see?" These can no longer make new things (laughter)... Among the living, Zumthor and Siza are two that I obviously admire. Among the younger architects, I would visit works by Sejima, Kerez, Olgiati….


FM –There are many others. Some things you revisit any time, architecture or architects you did not pay attention to for some reason become more evident and more interesting.


MM –In terms of countries, there are three you should go to: Japan, Switzerland and Portugal. These are three countries to go and see!


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EP - What about the most recent ones? What do you think of the new experiments that have cropped up, architects that work with the community or those who themselves build?


FM –An interesting fact, though not in the most recent architect category is that José Adrião won the AICA award. The focus given by the jury regarding it his work was saving or refurbishing a building based on a critical perspective. I know that was not your question but it is equally interesting to realize that the world that is emerging, namely with young architects, is also possible now. As we are in a crisis. And there is no construction. You have to look around and see the potential.


And I think there are really interesting experiments. I am sorry that those experiments - because of lack of money or ideological reasons or otherwise - often become something that is in the edge of (being or not) architecture. Because helping a community have a sewage system is a noble attitude but it is not architecture but I consider this an interesting possibility and I believe that is partially the future, at least our immediate future - understand what exists and how it can be transformed. I find it fascinating that the younger generation is attentive because this is only the beginning. Huge opportunities will arise!


MM –The younger generations are much better prepared than the older! There is no comparison in terms of knowledge and abilities between a student today and a student from our time. The difference is huge! The younger generations are more ready to move forward and discover non-classic architecture. They cannot wait for the labor market, either, like other generations! They must create their labor market and find their way.


Just the other day I was reading a book by Niemeyer, one that is being published by Edições 70. He talks about love and passion for architecture, but also says that: "I am politically engaged, that is what I am." Because people are at the core of our lives, people are at the core of our concerns, these should be the real values.


Many times, in architecture, we tend to mix things. To provide support to the community seems architecture but it is not. This does not mean that these new experiments are no unworthy or uninteresting and they point towards a new direction that has always been part of architecture and which is now very visible. In a certain way, this is what great architecture has always been.


That was the passion we felt when Studio Mombai appeared, a feeling that everything is given to the project. You realize that you have full control, you are aware of the craft implied the design and the production. And that gives time to project and to research, which is very interesting for architecture. On the other hand, there is the actual value, which is a person being socially or politically engaged. I do not consider that architecture should be only that, though. I think architecture must experiment in many fields. That is a concept that younger generations have grasped - the close relation between project and reality. I think that is positive.


FM –This is not unique. In Portugal there were SAAL operations which were constructions - now it is less clear - but involved working for the community and were strongly engaged in ideological and social terms. You just have to watch the films of the meeting and plenaries to see it... those were truly extraordinary times.


In fact, after that only social buildings evidenced good architectural work. Siza did not design a residential building for years... nor did Vitor Figueiredo or Gonçalo Byrne ... they only designed council housing. Private housing was either non-existent or not designed by architects.


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EP - When you look back to your career, do you feel that your current critical perspective compensates not being "young" anymore?


MM –Yes and no, it depends. I think experience is valuable. And when we say that we are able to reflect on what we have done because it was a long time ago... that compensates, yes, but only if we manage to keep the disquiet of youth. Architects are no longer interesting when they settle and most of them do settle at a point in their lives and become uninteresting! That usually happens when they become well-known and had larger offices. Yet, in terms of architecture, they are uninteresting. They will produce a lot, though! I think that we will only remain interesting as long as we manage not to settle and to keep on questioning.


FM – This is a problem of creation. I usually think that something will tell me when it is best to leave things as they are and not be bothered anymore. There is that moment, in fact, and it has nothing to do with age, it has to do with you not feeling that disquiet and settling.


MM –That is the gravest danger: Experience is good but routine isn’t!