- Fernando Guerra
To fit the bill as ambassadors of Portuguese architecture is no easy feat, as the country’s architects rise up the list of trendsetters, and as the destination proves worthy of many visits for seasoned travellers and novices alike. It is key that the right storm is happening creatively and aesthetically. To understand this cultural phenomenon, one must consider one of the most prolific studios the country has offered in the last 30 years: Aires Mateus.
Headed by siblings Manuel and Francisco, the duo masterfully blends traditional notions of what it means to build in Portugal, while pointing in exciting new directions that will certainly demand attention from foreign audiences as well. The cosmopolitan sensibility is achieved through the veil of Arquitetura Chã—a term coined for Portugal’s aesthetics on account of its austere lines. All the while, they are unafraid of breaking old-school rules in favour of unusual solutions and undercurrents to assist the daily lives of their clients. The juxtaposition of tradition and innovation comes through flawlessly, as the architects are careful never to prioritise one over the other.
The minimalism in the duo’s architecture is their flawless exploration of light and empty space. As each construction is faced with the challenge of answering bespoke questions for each client, the architects’ authorial force comes through in their guidance, favouring ample spaces, geometric lines and one reigning material. White is a recurring element, but with motivations that go beyond the usual path. This is where Aires Mateus’ expertise pays off twofold. Let us explore two projects in particular.
House in Leiria is a great example of the architects’ manipulation of the emblematic ‘house’ format, as they take the most basic representation of a household—very similar to a pictogram—and fearlessly adopt a windowless volume. The social area stands proud above ground, as a glowing presence basking in white. The unusual, but nonetheless clever, manoeuvre is to hide in plain sight the private area beneath the ground. The complex interplay of height and the notion of protection offers an attractive sense of dynamism to the resident.
Another interesting case study is their School in Vila Nova da Barquinha, as they bring a self-assured grip into the daily dynamics of a space made to greatly influence its users. Each student has the opportunity to enter a blank canvas; the educational system in place sets a stage perfectly tailored to their bidding. As the central courtyard becomes the heart of the school, the neighbouring blocks vary in height and width, making for a playful environment and achieving visual lightness. This is the kind of minimalism worth celebrating, as nimble and graceful as possible—even when the project demands some authority.
Without a doubt, Aires Mateus proclaims its place as a world-class architectural studio, as their projects achieve the rare feat of balancing local aesthetics on one side of the scale and unquestionable global appeal on the other. Minimalissimo is proud to have the opportunity to dig deeper into the process behind the work of an atelier that quintessentially stands for what we celebrate on a daily basis.
This article was originally published in Minimalissimo Nº2