a creative mixture of existing things

Z: Your architecture is clearly neither a monumental nor spectacular one; it blends in, but in a non‐imitative and very refined manner. Let’s talk a bit about the context and about your “good banality” game.

F: At their start, our projects have every reason to become banal. The briefs are banal and repetitive, they usually ask for non ostentatious residential architecture, the budgets are low—therefore we build very cheaply, and we don’t see this as a problem, but just as a given condition. Most of the time, the clients are not very ambitious; they are not even asking for architecture, they rather need a service to be taken care of: basic drawings, permits and so on.

In a way, we could have a much easier life, with less work and pain and more money (they are all laughing). We could just have to draw the Pinterest image they are coming with and be a lot more relaxed. We are somehow building our enemy, in a way, by trying to mould the brief, remake the conditions, refine a bit the very banal and sometimes really boring scenarios and make the best out of them. But then we have fun.

We see the ordinary context as an asset. It’s not about building museums in China, but about houses in average suburbs in Portugal, and we found we can learn a lot from the urban vernacular and infuse a lot of energy in these very simple projects.

We accept to be ordinary. We are not trying to make something super‐interesting and different. Actually nobody asks us for it. We can speak about the physical context, which is, as we said, not extremely interesting for us, but, in a way, we are also building our own context. We understand the term in a much wider sense—it also comprises our professional background and the architecture we love. We are always designing with architecture in our minds, with precedents in our minds...

Z: I am quite surprised by some of the things you say. I imagined your clients as high‐brow people; clearly not rich persons, but maybe young intellectuals, artists, knowing about architecture and aesthetically‐minded.

F: Absolutely not! It’s quite the opposite, actually, with just a few exceptions. Most of our clients don’t come at us because they appreciate our work or want to be cool. They come to us because they heard that we are cheap, for instance; also, because we can manage low budgets. After a couple of days, they start to enjoy what we are proposing to them. In a way, we have to teach the clients about architecture. Some even don’t understand it today. Even close relatives believe that we are spending our office time playing computer games. My own mother refurbished her own apartment and only told me about it after it was done. We really have to convince people that we can achieve something bigger.

Z: If I understand you well, all these clients know nothing about you celebrity in the architectural world, the publications and conferences, the Instagram fame?

F: It’s completely schizophrenic. Our only “fame‐based” commission was through a student that attended a conference and recommended us to her parents. So, even that was an indirect effect. And it maybe shows the only the students really trust us (laughter). You know, when we tell our clients that we were invited to speak about their house far, far away or that it was published in that or that magazine, they couldn’t care less. There is almost no exchange between these two universes.

Z: That is actually quite significant not just for your work but also for our profession’s isolation. Let me ask you about another apparent clash between worlds: you are a young and edgy office, clearly up to date regarding architecture, but then you also seem to have quite a special relation with tradition. You already mentioned history and precedents; maybe we can come back to this.

F: Well, there are several aspects to this—for one, the built history in Portugal, to which we are clearly indebted. But then, actually, more than Portuguese tradition, it’s the general tradition of architecture that infuses our work.

We don’t really believe in creating something new, in our possibility to invent from scratch. Therefore, we tend to play all the time with the same fundamental tropes.The door, for instance: we aim to design the best possible door instead of creating a fundamentally new type of door. We do pick a lot of ideas from existing architecture and incorporate them in our works. And, you know, there still remains a lot to invent in a project, even (or especially) when working with banal contexts, programs and materials.

There are probably ten‐thousand great examples
of three‐bedroom‐houses. When someone asks us to design one, we just try to achieve the then‐thousand‐and‐first very good project—quality within a continuity. It would be extremely easy to copy an existing design and maybe change the image a bit, but we really don’t want that; we love to stretch things, pervert them a bit, reinvent elements and achieve something new. But it’s very important to always acknowledge that nothing comes out of the sky, and that every fresh result is mostly a creative mixture of existing things.

Z: I can also read this in connection with the previous topic about clients and the architecture audience: you keep your work within the frame of good sense and familiarity, while trying to achieve something more.... in the end, an architecture that addresses and pleases both an educated public and the users, the neighbors. Working on both these planes was what classical architecture achieved very well, modernism much less so, and post‐modernism tried to reinvent, but mostly only in a populist way.

F: Yes, we see absolutely no contradiction between these two tiers. If you look at the historical Portuguese city, for instance, it shows a wonderful continuity. It’s very hard to distinguish between “high” and “low” architecture.

The schizophrenia we talked about earlier between the local, practical and the international level somehow manifests itself also in the different discourses: sometimes our own collaborators get a bit confused about what we say about the projects in an international context: it seems a completely different language from the one we use in the office, or the one for the clients, or for the contractors. Some words that just work as hints for what we desire within the team become technical terms for the building site, they are refined for theoretical discourses or extremely romanticized when discussing with the client. We never use the word “beautiful” with anyone else than the client: but the clients deserve to hear this word, because this is something they strongly care about. Still, while the four languages, they also serve to emphasize different aspects, there still remains just one and sincere core message.

Z: How about repeatability? For one, would or does work in different contexts change a lot in the way you design? On the other hand, a successful practice like yours can’t avoid shaping a model: some people understand better what lies behind it, others just tend to copy forms and images. How do you live with this inescapable model value and what kind of a—maybe deeper—model would you like to represent?

F: As to the first question, we don’t see a huge problem there. Because we don’t strive for regional architecture, but for an architecture with strong and diverse references, the division between local and foreign projects doesn’t really exist; except, of course, for the technical and regulation problems, construction supervision and so on. It’s a fun fact: we don’t try to make “Portuguese architecture”; people here even don’t even perceive it like that; but it looks very Portuguese to the foreign public. We should also point out the fact that between the 10 people in our team there are 6 different nationalities, which makes for a very diverse background.

To answer your second question, creating a model would be a great achievement. One of today’s architecture’s great diseases is that a certain elite produces an architecture that you should not copy. They strive as much as possible for individuality and a personal and recognizable style, to compete with each other and to distance themselves from the general practice. The architects we most like are really the ones that tried to set models, a way of doing.

Obviously, we would never dream of comparing ourselves with the great masters, be it Shinohara, Märkli, Siza. But it’s legitimate to hope that, as we learned from so many sources, including anonymous architecture, someone could learn from what we do. We call it learning, even if they reject our designs and try to deny it in their work. All architecture becomes part of a shared ecosystem, one that everyone shares and learns from. And we were never ashamed to steal from others, in the good, craft‐wise sense of the word.

Of course, we are also conscious that some of our images became very trendy, especially in the student world. And it’s most often not the architecture, but the graphics, the artwork, sometimes just the first and powerful image. We can deal with that. We are annoyed, though, when presenting a lecture, the older audience asks about space, solutions, constructions, in one word, about architecture, while a younger audience will always ask about the collages. That’s disturbing, because we never invented the collage technique, so many other people use it, and we would hate for it to become a “student trap”. Especially because they have become so fashionable, that you start to see them even in promoters’ presentations. Probably the right thing to do now would be to run away from them.

Z: My final question, and maybe a nasty one, is about control, change and aging. The topic is especially interesting for the Romanian (and south‐East European) context, even less stable and controlled than the Portuguese one. Your architecture is a quite controlled one: a lot of restraint, no fireworks, a reliance on the refined treatment of space and details. On the other hand, you are working, taking inspiration and sometimes even celebrating a context of bricolage, additions, transformation. But the context goes both ways: as an inspiration but also as an active factor, after the building is finished. What happens once the people take over your projects and start “corrupting” the architecture?

F: We have to say that our clients don’t seem in the least limited by the architecture we gave them. Visiting those houses after they have been lived in, we see a lot of changes, sometimes enormously surprising ones. They range from new handrails or air conditioning on the facades to constructive additions but also to completely different ways of furnishing the common spaces. The changes are sometimes disturbing, but you can also learn things and extract joys from them. What most concerns us, given the small budget and the average materials and techniques we have to work with, is how these buildings will age.

A lot remains to be seen: we are still a very young practice, and that we have to wait a bit to see how our buildings age. But then, we also have to say that this seem a general problem nowadays: we were quite surprised to visit buildings we have admired and to see that the standard of construction (if we leave Switzerland out) is not that far away from the one here. They look so different in photographs!

We are conscious that we are producing “light architecture” in all respects. But we try to make things as good as possible within a specific moment in time and not mean our architecture to last forever. This becomes very obvious in renovation projects, where we consciously think in terms of a new layer atop the older ones, itself to be followed by future layers.

We like the principle of “open‐end architecture”, designing open‐ended spaces. That’s why, except for kitchen and bathrooms, we never place fixed furniture in our projects. You can move the objects everywhere, while the space in itself remains the important element. This brings us back to the collage not as a trendy feature, but as a real design tool: it indicates the idea of lightness of touch, of successive layers of occupation.

Z: Could this mean a kind of first‐degree flexibility, one that doesn’t need to constantly change the space itself?

F: Yes, it is about a flexibility of occupation. Achieving spaces that are not confined by an imposed use, that don’t become straightjackets is a common denominator of our projects. If you look at them, they all display these large white walls, which act as backgrounds for the ever‐changing objects in front.

Our architecture is mostly made of rooms. But it
is not stiff in terms of programs. Flexibility is not the right word, we prefer to talk about open‐function or non‐definition, the capacity of spaces to accommodate different definitions of life. We definitely don’t design moving walls. Well, we did it just once, to be honest. And we are not at all happy about it.

Z: The non‐moving walls make up a nice end to this conversation, I think. Thank you.

stefan ghenciulescu, 2019

- zeppelin magazine #153