on joy in architecture

lütjens padmanabhan

a+u #637, 2023

Should architecture exude joy? We certainly think so. Architecture can express emotions. Architecture can be joyful or sad, reserved or exuberant; it can be relaxed or tense, generous or moralistic, sincere or hypocritical.

In the work of fala, architectural joy is everywhere. fala’s architectural joy is communicated visually. Its joy resides in the surface; in its colour, material and pattern; in the few centimetres that usually constitute the eggshell-thin skin of the contemporary layered façade or interior cladding. fala has a singular ability to activate and energise the surface of things. 

Their architectural elements acquire an unknown visual intensity and autonomy. Only after they have gained their autonomy do the elements of their architecture come together as one. It is an act of visual assemblage that happens not physically but in the eye of the beholder. Proportions, tonalities, textures and colours are aggregated and assembled by the person who sees the building. That perception can be either casual or intense, with the eye struck by novelty or habituated or sharpened by repetition.

fala’s projects often deal with the transformations of anonymous modern structures. The architects take mundane buildings that are part of Portugal’s post-war construction and metamorphose them into constructs of great intensity and precision. Typically, fala takes one element of a building, such as the main façade, and transfigures that element with great skill and a precise understanding of proportion, rhythm and visual depth. The same strategy is applied in the interiors. Through this act of transformation, fala ingeniously reconfigures the existing hierarchy among the architectural elements of the building. In doing so, fala uses graphic patterning with a pop-art sensibility, yet the compositional techniques that are employed feel surprisingly classical. Symmetry, seriality and repetition are juxtaposed with the bold singularity of circles, squares and triangles. Like a cheerful uncle showing up at an otherwise gloomy family dinner, fala’s impact is immediate, and it changes the atmosphere in the room. Commonplace structures and interiors are transformed into joyful expressions of architecture.

Collage imagery plays an important role in their design process. At the beginning of each project fala produces a series of strikingly beautiful collage renderings that stress the two-dimensional graphic quality of their buildings. There is a direct link between the idea of collage as a pictorial technique and the visual tectonics that are central to their buildings. The photographs of their newly completed projects show an uncanny similarity between the collages and the built work. In their unreal pristine glow, the buildings stand out against the background of the humble normality of their respective contexts. Like a fresh pair of trainers taken out of their box and worn for the first time, their clean newness appears as their defining quality against the grainy, weathered background of a modern Portuguese town or city.

What is the significance of the joyfulness in fala’s architecture? Is it the celebration of the human dignity inherent in the humanism of the modern vernacular? A neo-liberal way of dealing with the economic and artistic limits of our profession? An act of concealing the impossibility of real change? Or worse, an act of packaging? Or is it the long overdue break with the shadow of Alvaro Siza, the larger-then-life figure looming over Portugal’s architectural psyche? A remorseless kill-your-father strategy? Or does the graphic joyfulness of fala’s architecture constitute the final break with Portugal’s secret pact between modernism and the vernacular so that we can finally overcome the curse of Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalism?

All these questions address the meaning of surface in fala’s work. Does fala’s emphasis on surface over space or structure mean that their work lacks depth, both formally and metaphorically? Does anything lie behind the glossy surface? Is fala’s architecture merely a superficial veneer, or does its surface serve as conceptual entryway to an existential deep space that lies beyond? For a long time, Andy Warhol faced a similar mixed reception. In Warhol’s case, history has unanimously judged in the American artist’s favour. We hope that time will be as generous to his Portuguese cousins.