Manuel Aires Mateus: architecture as a form of persistence

The Aires Mateus brothers believe that an architectural project must express the persistence of an idea, using limits and space to write history while looking to the future

by Alessandra Coppa

The Mateus brothers create buildings centred around human beings and their senses. They reject the randomness of immaterial boundaries. Rather than thin two-dimensional partitions, walls are conceived as volumes that contain living spaces, large voids modelled by light and emptiness free from the rigidity of rules. However, these boundaries never succumb to introjection because they are created in synergy with the existing context, with interior and exterior spaces.
This profound sense of architectural space derives from the consistency of the method, from an approach to design and construction that seeks to cancel out the weight of the mass, opting instead for forms of expression that are a far cry from the formal excesses of contemporary architectural idioms. A project takes a very long time to reach completion and above all must be rethought many times. Given the length of time it takes to determine the core issue that serves as the starting point of a project, the Mateus brothers see time as the architect’s closest ally.

Francisco and Manue Aires Mateus

Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus

An innate sense of observation is also required as part of a slow cognitive process that gradually reveals clues for determining the key elements of the project.
It is perfectly natural then that materials should play a vital role in this meticulous orchestration of voids and solids. They must be chosen from those that best express those specific tectonics, in the hope of one day being able to create a building made from a single material.
In the words of Manuel Aires Mateus, whom we met at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio where he teaches, “Unlike fashion, architecture is an art that endures and is characterised by this persistence. It is the art of permanence. It must persist not only from a physical standpoint, but also conceptually – which involves yet another aspect of “time”. An idea lasts longer than its physical manifestation. We see this sense of permanence as the relationship with eternal time, a concept that architecture has always pursued through construction. Today it can be achieved as a result of the overall consistency of a project.”

What do you mean by “eternal time” as opposed to the fleeting nature of contemporary architecture?
For us architects the concept of time has various meanings. One is the persistence of a physical object over its lifetime. The other is that architecture is bound up with life, meaning not just function and image but also the idea of truth. Architecture represents a precise viewpoint. It assumes a position because it is not indifferent to life. However, architecture must be able to adapt to changes in usage, in the way that classical buildings that are highly flexible in terms of function and typology. This reflects a relationship with time. Architecture becomes a container that supports life, it is adaptable and can be reconfigured over time.

Santa Marta Lighthouse and Museum in Cascais

Santa Marta Lighthouse and Museum in Cascais (2003-2007)

What role do history, the cognitive process, traces, clues and memory play in an architectural project?
The aspect of history that we find most interesting is the way it flows into the future. History is a cognitive process that is part of our working practice: we are constantly rewriting it. It does not exist as a material fact but as potential for transformation. In an architectural project, history must be rewritten.

So would you say it is the project that chooses its own reality?
An architect works with two realities: one is a physical reality involving things like the budget and the functional programme, the other is a cultural reality that is rewritten in each project. The context is also rewritten in the project because architecture is a transformation of reality that must also highlight the existing context. However, the most important thing is to achieve a good project that is capable of enhancing the existing context while at the same time allowing the context to enhance the project. Carrying through a project means replacing one reality with another, so the architect must be aware that his reality is better than the one that came before it. If our work achieves this balance then we can be certain there will be no conflict between the new building and the existing context.

Rectory of the Universidade Nova in Lisbon (1998-2002)

Rectory of the Universidade Nova in Lisbon (1998-2002)

The concept of place has always had an important role in Portuguese architecture. As Siza said,  “The project is always in the place”…
We believe that a project does not lie so much in the “place” but in the “transformation” of place. The physical condition of a place suggests different forms according to the type of construction. The first thing we do is to envisage a project as a tool for understanding the problem in terms of the need for transformation. Whenever we start on a new project we look at a number of possibilities. Then when we get to the end we start afresh, rethinking everything in an attempt to get closer to the solution. The problem today is that of measuring one’s own work. For this reason the context is very important as we need to set ourselves a limit that allows us to understand what needs to be done.

What do you mean by “limit”? Is it a kind of wall that determines the complexity of the relationship between interior and exterior?
If we accept that the focal point of architecture is life, we must consider first and foremost the concept of space, which is something that cannot be drawn. Space is perceived in terms of a limit, which implies materiality. Between interior and exterior there is a wall, a limit.
The concept of undifferentiated space espoused by the Modern Movement has been superseded. We must construct this limit and assign a materiality to it. This materiality incorporates another scale, a dimension. I believe that the condition of the wall or the condition of the limit is a condition of life itself. In this respect, the wall becomes a kind of field to be explored through the project. The wall embodies another level of space.
In your projects, materials play an essential role in defining space. There is a strong predominance of white and a trend towards the use of a single material.
We are very interested in the idea of using a single material as this approach intensifies and strengthens the concept of void, of space. It defines the condition of waiting, of possibilities, of a varied use of space and multi-functionality: spaces that are waiting and will allow you to do anything you like in the future. For the first time we are building a stone pavilion. I think stone is a splendid material, but we have also worked on brick and wood buildings and use ceramic tile as a floor covering. Ceramic is a material that has depth, a relationship with light that we find fascinating.

The experience of spatial perception in your projects is often achieved by pushing elements beyond their normal boundaries.
Almost all our projects are “outside the law” in the sense that they do not comply with regulations. Although the house we designed in Alenquer has very interesting spaces, the rooms have non-standard dimensions. The bedrooms are too small, the ceilings too low, the corridors are just 75 cm wide instead of a metre and a half, and the stairs are too steep.
Everything was designed in terms of spatial perception. Architecture must relate to a human dimension, whereas regulations are by definition not human but standard constructs. What we want to do is recreate a sensorial dimension together with spatiality.
The relationship between the human body and space is essential in architecture.
An architect must be more than just a writer, he must also be a poet.

Manuel Aires Mateus (Lisbon, 1963) graduated in architecture at FA/UTL of Lisbon, Portugal in 1986. He began collaborating with architect Gonçalo Byrne in 1983 and started up a practice in Lisbon with his brother Francisco in 1988. He combines his architectural work with teaching. Like Francisco, he has been a professor at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio since 2001 and at the Universidade Autónoma, Lisbon since 1998.
He has also been invited to numerous seminars and conferences on architecture.
He was visiting professor at the Oslo School of Architecture in 2009 and at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2002 and 2005. Some of his less recent projects include the house in Azeitão (2003), the house in Alenquer (2002), the rectory of the Universidade Nova in Lisbon (Portugal, 2001) and student housing at the University of Coimbra (1999). More recent buildings include the Santa Marta Lighthouse and Museum in Cascais (2007), the Sines cultural centre (2005), a house in Coruche (2007-2011), a house in Monsaraz (2007-2011), a house in Aroeira (2008-2011), Hotel Aquapura in Monsaraz (2007-2011), the Museum of the Parque de los Cuentos in Malaga (2007-2011), the new Energias De Portugal headquarters in Lisbon (2008-2011), and the remodelling of Parque Mayer and Jardim botânico in Lisbon (2007-2011.
In 2010 the Mateus brothers were invited by Kazuyo Sejima, curator of the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, to take part in the exhibition People meet in Architecture, where they presented an installation called Voids.