2g #80, 2019
Rice and octopus
There are voices in Portugal saying that fala’s position is too far from that of the Escola do Porto. True. The work of the young atelier does seem to represent the opposite of the architectures that have emerged around personalities like Fernando Távora, Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, and that was apostrophized as representing a culture of “rice and octopus”: simple but well-done, folk architecture at the highest level. Maybe the aforementioned voices are right: the conditions under which fala’s works are created and perceived are completely different. Although Filipe Magalhães and Ana Luisa Soares have studied in Porto, and Ahmed Belkhodja has decided to live there, fala’s network of good contacts, clients and friends is spread over all the world. And this also holds for the references fala is working with.
A stack of old Japanese magazines
On the occasion of a visit to fala’s atelier, Filipe placed a stack of old Japanese magazines on the table, magazines that Ahmed had brought back from a kind of safari through Japan. With Filipe and Ana Luisa, he shares an interest in the arrière-garde pupils of Kenzo Tange and Kiyonori Kikutake who won international attention with their experimental projects in the 1980s. Together with the early works of Toyo Ito, Kazunari Sakamoto, Takefumi Aida and Hiromi Fujii, they discovered the works of Itsuko Hasegawa, with whom Ahmed had a conversation not long ago. Hasegawa is a pupil of Kazuo Shinohara’s, an architect whose name will be of some importance later on in this essay.
Against manual reason
Two floors above the atelier where Japanese magazines are flicked through one can find a “faulty corner” in a room next to the kitchen. It seems that in the apartment shared by Filipe and Ana Luisa, the contractor, while placing the formwork for the concrete of a slab, must have slightly mis-interpreted the position of a beam. A small prism of blank concrete now occupies one of the upper corners between the white plastered walls. For the fault to still be visible is the result of a veritable quixotism. The moment the wall below was finished and the fault became apparent, the builder proceeded to do everything he could to hide the blip with plaster—despite the architect’s instructions to the contrary. And after the architects had tenaciously removed all the plaster, a painter again prudently covered up the “fault.” Once again the architects had to remove everything... The faulty corner symbolizes the opposite of what a Central European might consider as incompetence: it was the result of perfection, of manual reason, typical for Portugal. Filipe knows how to tell many more stories like this: for the positioning of a pillar in front of a beam for spatial reasons, and not under it, regularly leads to disobedience if not revolt on the construction site. The same holds true for the positioning of drainpipes.
Against the client
Other windmills are tilted at in the relations with clients. In Portugal it is quite difficult to convince a client of the need for architecture because in building it is still common for most things to be done by the individual builder. An architect is only needed to sign the building application, meaning that architecture becomes a kind of martial art where the result is arrived at in a bout of speed, agility and deception. Working this way seemed at first sight to be unusual or even disconcerting for me and my Alemannic understanding of collaboration and professionalism, which includes a more or less close relationship with the client. But given the usual architect’s fees in Portugal, a client cannot really expect more than a basic service. And an architect must not expect the client to understand his sophisticated language. Seen thus, expectations balance out.
In Portugal the business of architecture keeps to clear-cut role models and lifestyles. A column placed in the middle of a room would be interpreted as a design error and not as an architectural aim. fala is operating in a still homogenous social context. Hence their designs mostly keep to similar themes, spatially as well as in relation to the chosen material and the architectural elements that are used. And they also keep to an explicitly practiced thriftiness that reminds one of Adolf Loos. While the central hall in Filipe and Ana Luisa’s apartment is in its own way a Shinoharesque exaggeration in size and symbolism, and even though the functions of the adjacent rooms are not really specified, the apartment follows a conventional plan.
Building without a design brief
Nevertheless, fala’s projects may be characterized by a strong tendency towards autonomy. Or better yet, towards the emerging independence of architectural language. The development of a personal style—I think the term is correct here—is connected with another typical kind of commission. Many of the refurbishment projects in Porto were initiated by private investors trying to make a fortune through real estate speculation. After the economic crisis of 2008 the downtowns of Porto and Lisbon were confronted with a rampant boom in tourism. Speculation was propelled by special governmental measures such as the rescinding of far-reaching protection against dismissal or the easy availability of golden visas. In this context a client’s brief is of only minor importance. A somehow generic tasking of basic domestic functions becomes even more generic when the project is considered by the client to be sold after completion. This may be the reason why some of fala’s projects come across as topical declinations of the same program: the separation of auxiliary functions from the main space, the zoning of the plan, the opening and staging of the view onto a small courtyard.
Beyond zero tolerance
The protection of the city of Porto by UNESCO’s world-heritage label led, within its expanded perimeter, to almost zero tolerance for any visible intervention. Design restrictions are so tight that even colors are prescribed. fala’s handling of such constraints is quite creative and sometimes even tricky. In the Broken House, the architects simply interpreted the prescribed RAL-color with the NCS-system that delivered the finding that two different tones are possible within the given range. The two colors then became the base of the stripe pattern of the façade. Another norm in terms of fala’s practice can be found in the way it treats the main façades of the many projects within Porto’s first ring. The impossibility of contemporary expression is commented on by Filipe, who jokingly asserts that “the real main façades of our times are the ones towards the courtyard.” Nowhere else does the remarkable theoretical volte-face become so clear as in the House in Paraíso, whose stripes on the courtyard façade made the office famous.
Square, circle, line
fala seemed to be an example of a current trend in architecture where geometric forms play a prominent role. One of the phenomena I wanted to investigate during my short visit to Porto was the circle that appears in most of the images that fala have created so far. Of course, I had in mind the circle in the gable end of the small enigmatic Tenmei House that Shinohara built in 1988. If in contemporary architecture the circle appears in many different correlations and contexts, in the works of fala it keeps to a certain history and purpose. This became evident with a glance at the court façade of House in Paraíso, the one with the green, black and white stripes of natural stone. It needed a decisive hint from Ahmed for me to understand why the marble circle hovered above the roofline slightly to the right of the central axis: it was there to guide the observer’s gaze towards the upper right of the façade and to pull it away from the incidental and unhappy asymmetry caused by the neighbor’s chimney. As a matter of fact the circle triggers a dynamic perceptual process like the one described at length by Rudolf Arnheim. Diversion, centering and releasing of the gaze is also provided by other “graphic” elements, such as the rectangular marble sheet on the upper right side of the garden façade of the Broken House. Its grid reminds one of the works of Peter Märkli and hints at the direction Shinohara could have gone in if he’d been more interested in the rules of perception.
fala has created a personal universe of forms and architectonic elements. Restrictions by a dearth of design briefs, tight budgets and the limited time available have meant that the three architects were forced to constrain, and in a certain sense to standardize, their design themes. Many of the architectural elements act like furniture staged in space, and this holds for cooking islands as well as for tiled surfaces or columns and dividing walls. Ana Luisa calls the resulting method of combining and recombining their own elementary and spatial vocabulary a “work with tropes.” It finds a dazzling but also appealing expression in their new website, which is organized by themes rather than clear-cut projects: “main back façades, meaningful spaces, monochromes, pretentious kitchens, light-hearted pavements, careful mistakes.”
A logical consequence or merely the starting point of this working attitude is that the singular project loses its significant position within the oeuvre. Filipe, Ana Luisa and Ahmed see their work as a constantly ongoing and evolving project in which a non-realized idea can find immediate implementation in another commission—really in the manner of OMA/Rem Koolhaas: Copy and Paste: How to turn a Dutch house into a Portuguese concert hall in under 2 weeks.
Given the importance of tropes, one could argue for an interesting difference with the work of Shinohara. Unlike the Japanese architect’s aim of differentiating distinct projects by iconic names, the interior structure of fala’s oeuvre is more rhizomic in kind, with like things appearing in different constellations on the surfaces of their designs. (Of course, such transverse relations can also be found in the oeuvre of Shinohara; but the Japanese architect tried to emphasize discreteness by the somewhat arbitrary marking of four styles). By playing down the differences between their projects, fala by no means follows the zeitgeist. And here the most significant difference with Shinohara becomes apparent. Seen from the perspective of today, the almost cult worship of the Japanese’s oeuvre and person seems to be bound to a kind of feudal and patriarchal system of architecture, whereas Filipe, Ana Luisa and Ahmed see their practice as an open system in which they are just actors alongside their collaborators, clients, construction workers and others involved into their projects. In the language of network theory, they represent the nodal points where most of the connections converge. The flat hierarchy and organization are mirrored in the atelier, where everyone is sitting at the same table regardless of their function and position. The Japanese architecture critic Taro Igarashi once defined the works of such contemporary Japanese architects as Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Atelier Bow-Wow and others as “superflat”— an attribute that also fits fala rather well. Although at first glance their works have next to nothing in common with the Japanese, they not only share with them a certain “surfaceness,” but also the rejection of an accentuated hierarchy in expression.
Many of fala’s projects are refurbishments and for now only a few of them go beyond setting new spatial constraints within a given structure. To keep costs down, new walls are often plasterboard balloon-frame-like constructions or made of non-load-bearing brickwork. The architects make no secret of these “superficial” techniques. But the eye takes these stagings of space for real and trusts the spatial tension that is built up between the animated elements. The play of surfaces makes for strong perceptual reactions, a kind of “spatial effect” that can be experienced corporeally via the eye: bulging and receding surfaces repel and attract. I use the expression “spatial effect” in reference to Roland Barthes’s “reality effect” or to Gilles Deleuze’s “effect of a literary machine”—and of course, I am also thinking of Shinohara’s concept of the “wild space machine.” Unlike the Japanese architect’s designs, color plays a decisive role in fala’s architectural compositions. Important parts are often lacquered, shining monochromes. The two-dimensional picture in space thus finds an equivalent in the collage-like images generated on computers; and as in space and on screen or paper, spatial effects emerge: for example, in the way wooden or stone elements are arranged economically (as in Álvaro Siza’s works) as thin sheets, performing a kind of spatial mark-making. The nature of space becomes concrete when simple but elaborate processes of cutting and joining meet with more remote architectural elements—as on paper, performed with scissors and glue.
At first sight fala’s works look like beautiful tableaux projected into space. Their spaces are designed in a pictorial manner, proceeding from surface effects, including pictorial composition and gaze-tracking, and ending by a call for the eye’s active participation rather than the mere recognition of atmosphere. As in painting, compositions are primed with a geometric framework that sometimes becomes intelligible via observation and cognition. In many projects this framework is projected vertically over all the stories, defining a virtual roster that permeates the whole design. It becomes visible as a pattern in the flooring, embedding the different architectural and design elements in a united allover composition. It is this Eisenmanian structure that gives the designs a syntactic and profound raison d’être that goes beyond the perceivable effects of the surfaces. Although this structure is neither present as a literal spatial grid nor obliquely there through spatial transformation (as in the works of Peter Eisenman), it is capable of gathering the heterogenous elements in the composition as a syntax connecting pragmatic and semantic expressions.
In this way fala’s architecture is decisively different to the typical older and younger “vernacular” architecture in the streets of Porto: it runs counter to the innumerable, samey, anonymous houses that were built in the 19th and the 20th century; the latter ones properly constructed and decorated with appealing tile patterns that emanate a happy Modernism. The difference holds because most of the façades speak with a reduced architectural language, being either pragmatic, as in the case of the older ones up to the 1930s, or with an emphasis on syntactic relations, as with buildings erected from the 1960s onwards (semantics was reserved for public buildings and buildings for the nobility). Walking through the streets of Porto with Filipe, Ana Luisa and Ahmed sharpens one’s view of the constantly recurring details: a wooden lath on the top of a handrail or the canopy that conceals a saddle roof on the top of even the most modernistic building. Seen through the filter of these details, fala’s architecture begins to look like an ennobled version of these graphic, colorful and playful façades: an anonymous Porto School...
It is quite probable that this affinity with the popular may have misled this or that critic to take fala’s architecture to be “naïve”—a quality the three architects certainly flirt with when they speak of their work as a system of recurring elements or when they produce their Hockneyesque collages. But behind the great similarity of their projects a singular, complex network of relations, concepts and skills lies concealed. With that, a “Reminder to Architects” has to be made: Do not copy.