MANUEL VICENTE teaching and practice . part 1
It is with great pleasure that we have with us today the architect and teacher Manuel Vicente. Welcome…
Thank you, the pleasure is mine.
We would like to start by asking you about your academic background as a student, if you had any remarkable teachers and how the architecture course used to be…
More than 50 years have gone by. I must have started in Fine Arts in 53 or 54, I don’t remember very well.
I always studied in private schools because we lived in Parede. I had problems getting around and my parents didn’t want me to travel by train. There were better schools in Estoril, but as this one was close to home, I went there. It is a school without history and the first time I felt the pleasure of being a student was, in fact, in Fine Arts.
I liked to be in Fine Arts and liked what I did there. Not only did I like the environment, but also the work that was assigned to us. It was a school where we had no respect for the teachers. In that post-war generation, the conflict with the teachers was a type of school culture. There were teachers we didn’t like at all...
There was Luís Alexandre Cunha, I think I learned things with him that I still remember today, they weren’t specific things, or academic, but ways of looking at the world and interesting concerns. The first thing we did was cover the drawing board with paper, he (Cunha) wanted us to have a measurement, for the measurement to be a sensation, and not necessarily a tape measure and he would say: “Fold the paper, turn it over, and now I have the measure of the fingers! Fold it again and you don’t need to see how much the fold is...if it has 2 centimetres or not.” After that we needed to make the glue, then we would put the glue and stretch the paper, then we would wet it with a sponge and it would get soaked, and we would stretch and stretch, and when it dried out it would be an impeccable sketch board, covered with scenery paper! And that was his class, what we learned and what we did in his class: covering the drawing board. I haven’t used a drawing board covered this way in years, but I think I could still make one. Then throughout the course, our work was shown on boards, so we had to repeat this method of gluing paper on grids, it was the same technique we had leaned in our first year.
There was also Cristino da Silva who we felt very little esteem and consideration for. He made the Capitólio, but we weren’t aware of it at the time, he also made the Cinearte, in Santos. He first started out by having, let’s say, a more modern approach to drawing and architecture project. His exercise programme was always in an open space in the outskirts of the city. He wanted people to start from scratch, with freedom and without constraints. When I made my thesis, I was making a house for my brother and sister- in-law, and I spoke about their needs, how much money they had, that they were a young couple with two small children and he told me “Gentlemen, you come here, this is your last chance to dream, so why do you still have all these constraints? Listen! Make something you like and don’t worry about it!” He didn’t like constraints and he would say: “So how do you imagine it? You are going to leave here with your diploma, but you will never have the freedom to dream, so seize the opportunity now!”
He was this type of teacher, but we had a formal relationship. I think he wouldn’t like it to be so formal, but Lisbon at that time didn’t allow an inter-generational dialogue. The teacher was a teacher and didn’t talk to students. He would say something funny, however the student didn’t have to answer, and it was always a distant relationship.
He had an assistant we really liked, Alberto José Pessoa. Alberto Pessoa made those apartment buildings in Avenida Infante Santo. He had a partnership with João Abel Manta and Gandra, and made that project together. I think he was the main mentor of that project .We really liked Alberto Pessoa, he came from the Keil do Amaral group, everyone with their own sense of humour. He used to say things with a very serious look on his face, I remember a project that had a spiral staircase, and he came over with a pencil and said: “Then there is a fire and the fire fighters come and go down the stairs with the water hose, they trip and …die!”
He was like that, he was funny. Afterwards, he challenged me to work at his studio, and there he wasn’t the same person he was at school, so after a while I came up with an excuse, he understood, and I left.
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What did you do after university? You were in India, Macau, and then went to study in the United States…
Between the Fine Arts school which I finished in 1960/61, and my trip to the United States in 1968, some years went by. I was in Goa first, then one year in Macau, and then I came back to Lisbon for one year when I worked with Conceição Silva, after that I went to Funchal where I worked with Góis Ferreira. Then I had the urge to go to America and I went with a Fullbright scholarship… I put Berkley in first place, which was where everything was happening at that time in 1968. I had also put Columbia, because it was New York and I thought that interesting things were going on there, and in third I put Philadelphia because of Kahn. Let’s just say that I went because of social, and sociological reasons, I was interested in knowing what was going on, even though the academic choices were important, they were the least. I was accepted in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. When I went there I was 33 years old and had already done a lot ….
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In Macau, you made many projects in very little time …
I made many, in five years I made and built eight or nine buildings, they were all public contracts, and I only had two private clients. For one of them I made a few houses on a difficult street, it was my first work – I mean, I had already done some changes in my parents’ house – but truly my first new work was those four townhouse dwellings. I also designed a church for a missionary brotherhood, but it ended up not being built. I made a re-housing project of ninety apartments in a large area in Macau, which was full of displaced persons – after the big turmoil in china many people were displaced and immigrated to Macau. As Macau had many vacant lots, they built shantytowns. There were many peasants, in the middle of a city, who created urban habits. The children were very funny, in the morning they would all go to school, the girls with a black skirt and black socks, and the boys wore gray trousers and a blazer, and they would all leave from the shantytowns.
At some point, a project was made here in Lisbon when Adriano Moreira was Minister for Colonial Affairs. He requested from some colleagues of mine a neighbourhood project for that area near the border with China, and that was totally unreal and above all suspicious, because it was paid by the Americans, who couldn’t enter in China at that time. The people that wanted to apply for those houses in that neighbourhood had to fill out some forms that were then registered. The governor at that time didn’t like that idea, and neither did Adriano Moreira, so the project was discontinued and we, at the urban development office which was a part of the governor’s staff, were in charge of making a project there. We outlined a plan for housing units according to the members of the household. However, the distribution of those units was done differently; it started out with the larger families, but units that were for 2/3 people now had families with 16 people. Macau was always a city with a long history of population density, a density unbelievable and impossible to sustain in Europe.
Macauwasn’t a city of big conflicts, which is quite incredible and amazing, given the conditions of the dwellings in the city extremely difficult. The Cantonese lived in the streets and didn’t entertain in their homes, they would go to restaurants and hold their parties there, in public places, and they didn’t have the same concept of home as we did. It wasn’t their culture, they lived outside. Macau had an enormous and extraordinary vitality, all the public places were very busy, noisy, crowded, they had little stands where they sold food, cloths, anything and everything…it’s funny because afterwards, little by little, consumption was introduced and it changed the society, they began decorating their houses, and they would hire decorators to do their living rooms. The wealthier did that a lot, but that didn’t mean they lived more at home or ate there either.
I made a very big house for a wealthy man and one day he called me over because he wanted to extend the balcony and close it, because it was in that hidden corner that he and his wife spent their days, they had a big television screen, and the rest of the house was all furnished but uninhabited. There they were the both of them, they were quite old, and that’s where they played Mah-jongg, and ate…So I drew them the closed balcony, and they seemed to be very happy!
I remember once I was in Brussels, in 1989, and one time I was in a street and I felt something strange, something I couldn’t describe, then I realized what it was, the street was completely empty! I was alone in that street; it was a wide main street. I looked, turned around, looked again and saw that I was the only person in that street. And I thought: “that’s funny, in Macau you were never alone!”. And this happened around the clock! Macau was always busy, in movement, socially intense. It was nice living in a place like that where everything was always working.
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And when you arrived in the Unites States you already had a different experience, of living in several continents and with a professional background that gave you some maturity …
I was the oldest in the group. Two hundred people had applied, but they only selected twenty…and it was funny, because from those twenty candidates, fourteen were foreigners! There was a very amusing guy, a Jew, but from South Africa, there was a Lebanese, a Chinese, Japanese, Germans, a Swiss, and me, Portuguese. The Americans were not the majority. It was nice, we used to go to each other’s houses all the time; however there was a big difference in experiences and cultures.
They didn’t acquire knowledge; they were used to gathering information. We didn’t have computers at that time, so the library was a place we would go to, where we could take photocopies, it was a big deal. The Europeans, mainly the French, Italians and Spanish had a different relationship with the learning process. We read the books that we were interested in, we didn’t read the books because we had a meeting or needed to read them all…We would go to the library to read a book and discover another one by chance, and would read it instead of the first one because it was much more interesting than the one we should have read. We were freer, weren’t as surprised and weren’t focused on a specialization.
I attended a course – in the beginning of this ecological and environmental awareness – with a Scottish, Ian Mac Carg. His classes were very interesting because he would invite the world renowned specialists to talk. For those of us who weren’t Americans, we took great advantage of that because we would hear fabulous stories, experiences in academic areas that we didn’t know much about. I would listen to it all and was fascinated, and would go to the library to search for the books. It was probably the first time in my life that I had been to a library. In the Fine Arts School there was something hidden that must have been the library, but we never went there…The books we read were mentioned to one another. I read what everyone read, what an architecture student was suppose to read, I read Le Corbusier, but for additional training. And I wonder if Cristino da Silva ever read a book about architecture in his life; Alberto Pessoa probably never read a book about architecture or theory, either.
We learned a lot, it was like a handmade training, we learned a craft. We learned how to draw, how to create connections between the idea and the object; we created some skills to understand the proportion and dimension of things. We managed, somehow, to tailor space, we had that training, which was craft training, and the teachers were masters as in traditional crafts. And we also had art history and archaeology, but what we truly did there was project, in a camaraderie environment, we helped each other out – sometimes the older students would help the younger ones because they needed help to deliver a work and would recruit labour. It was an interesting group, and because the rooms were big there was a lot of space. We practically lived there, many times I would leave very late, and sometimes we finished our work using street lighting because the janitor, to send us away, would turn the lights off and we would take our sketch board close to the window. It was a distinction that Kahn made between the way of life and the way of living; that was our living, and from there we would radiate to life in a city…
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You were saying that in the United States you understood that investigation went beyond craft. That idea of architecture as a craft could expand knowledge over architecture …
I always thought as an architect, and this may seem a bit pretentious: I only clarified in books what I already knew, or what I already sensed. I never learned a thing with a book! I remember being happy and thinking: “That’s right, that’s it! This is exactly what I wanted to say!”. Not only related to architecture, with life in general. Books have always been enlightening; explaining the intuitions of my own way of working, from my relationship with the observer, from my observation of what was real, from my own interpretation that would be more clarified, explained, and better said than what I was able to say without that enlighten that books gave me.
I think that in architecture investigation is the project, investigation is the design. When I design a hotel I don’t have to buy all the books there are about hotels. I have been to several hotels in my life, I know what they are, and I know more things I don’t like about them then things I do like. If I don’t investigate for an application, if I only investigate for the sake of it, I think that I lose my imagination; I become overwhelmed by the flood of information. When someone gets all that information, they lose imagination, and become terrified, and can never distinguish the essential from the accessory, to create situations for things to happen.
When you ask if I understood the advantages of a certain support, let’s say, academic or technical, I think it was more a question of method – it’s also a question of culture, we don’t have an organizational culture, the Americans have that culture. But this doesn’t mean I came back from the States with American habits, I also didn’t come back from Macau with Chinese habits, I think that a person has their own structure. I didn’t come from America eating hot dogs and buying a barbecue for the back yard, however I ate barbecue, why not? I think we have a strong cultural structure, made of habits, traditions, of pleasures and displeasures, of sensitiveness, of observation. This is also true in rural areas, if a sixty year old woman moves into the city she will bring her certainties, her convictions and her hopes and ideas about the world. It is interesting to see a cultural landmark in people who don’t lose track of the things they may like or not knowing what they like. You see this in our current situation and with our governors; people lost that deep relationship with memory…