a song of ice and fire

filipe magalhães

oase #114, 2023

Fala started without a plan, clients, or any idea of what was lying ahead. Our ambition was solely to produce architecture, to build something ours. Me, Ana Luisa, Ahmed, Lera, Tita and Joana have been together nearly from the start. Others joined along the way. Today, nearly ten years later, we remain small, struggling to pay the bills and salaries. A relative international recognition hides many fragilities.

We never truly had an agenda, political or otherwise, and for several years, our atelier's economy was one of quantity: briefs were repetitive, clients choose us usually for our lower price, architecture was not something we were asked for. For those who commissioned us, we were, and remain, service providers, makers, not thinkers. The speculative environment we found ourselves in played a role for some time, where dry excel sheets predetermined the projects long before we were involved. Still today, commissions occur in comparable conditions, where real-estate catalogues and cable TV shows define the real expectations of our clients (the ones we expected to care). Disciplinary and political debates are irrelevant when confronted with very beige pinterest accounts or that one renovation a sister-in-law did last year. Topics such as 'sustainability' (whatever that is), symmetry, composition, or a concept are only addressed if economically advantageous or marketable. Most of the people we work for don’t know our atelier’s name, some don’t even know our individual names, the same way we don’t know the name of the bakery nor the baker who sells us bread every morning. Someone once said that ‘the secret for a happy life are low expectations’. Within fala's topology, it became a motto.

Yet, for reasons that we are yet to fully understand, the fight against the quixotic windmill remains necessary to us. The weapons we use are everywhere: curves that cross squares, columns that appear uninvited, vivid colours that detach doors from white walls, and strong patterns when desired. A good plan, a certain conflicting system, rules and exceptions that we can later proudly explain, represent a second language concealed inside the apparently pragmatic and cheap responses we provide to the questions asked by the clients, municipalities, and contractors. It is indeed an architecture that was not asked for, but blooms anyway, due to their indifference and lack of attention. Fala became a schizophrenic condition where a certain disciplinary autonomy and the real world move apart within the singular objects we propose, as if the two were never meant to touch or even co-exist. [1]

Single line plans, collages and wireframes constitute a universe of experimentation never truly experienced by those who ask for the projects they refer to, but fundamental to our micro-cosmos in the atelier, the bunker that shields us from the real world. As such, we find joy and the necessary motivation in spatial, visual, and conceptual compositions, allowing us to forget our low salaries and the endless hours spent in lost (and unsolicited) battles that were never appreciated or even understood. That is our real work, the in between the lines hidden message, the ‘second language with many meanings’ Koji Taki wrote about and that we keep trying to find. [2] Providing a service is not what we signed up for, just a necessary means to an end, something we must do in a parallel plane to exist as authors in the other, to be able to see our work as art. Our true intentions are normally outlined openly among us but hidden from those who, unaware, end up sponsoring their construction. We have to show up disguised in every meeting, hiding behind practical and absurd justifications, afraid to be exposed.

We often find ourselves ignoring the site, the program, the use the building will have, and the clients’ wishes and expectations. Those are just excuses that allow us to do what we really want to achieve as authors: our projects as disciplinarily autonomous entities. That doesn’t mean our houses are bad to live in, or that our clients are unhappy. It just means we don’t care about those aspects. Even if some read our work that way, we are not in the phenomenological side of the spectrum. The intellectual aspects of our production, the beautifully choreographed fictions Shinohara referred to, are to us way more important than any practical aspect, being what we look forward to produce and expect to find, our true raison d’être. [3]

Close to the end, with the priceless support of photographic lenses and critical perspectives, properly framed and carefully edited, we document the soon to be ruin. Side by side with the eccentric drawings and process images the client never truly understood, often in an event thousands of kilometres away from the building and all the involved agents, the narrative exists and is shared, finding its goal. We build to communicate our work, to prove it. Yet at home, physically, the narrative vanishes quickly, breathing just for a few days, until the occupant moves in and (legitimately) distorts what we left behind. Like in Calvino’s Thekla, although we live quite intensely the construction phase, we don’t return to our buildings after we have documented them photographically. [4]

We believe that the spoils of war, our representations of the project, persist and are more important than the buildings they caused and that caused them. Inside the discipline, and specifically inside our bunker, the drawings, images, and words will be revisited, shared, and analysed for the years to come, becoming a fertile humus, while the building won’t be visited anymore, becoming someone else’s puppet. Those drawings, images, and photographs remain ours and alive long after the building disappears to us or to the world.

We understand today that the building doesn't really matter, being just a necessary 1:1 model to be photographed and discarded, allowing a few more images to exist and illustrate that discourse we care about even if no one asked for it. We understand all this might sound cynical for some, but it is the 'methodic optimism' we created to survive.

1. Jean Baudrillard & Jean Nouvel, The Singular Objects of Architecture (Minneapolis (Minn.) : University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
2. Tamami Iinuma (ed.), Searching for the Language of a House: Architectural Photography
of Koji Taki
(Tokyo: House of Architecture, 2020).
3. Kazuo Shinohara, ‘The Autonomy of House Design’, Kenchiku, April 1964, pages 64-72.
4. Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili (Torino : Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1972).