aiming for personality

Fala atelier is a naive architecture practice based in Porto. The office is many things, and it has many sides – a Postmodernist side, a Deconstructivist side, an occasional Baroque side, a Mannerist one even. Then there are some unavoidable classicist moments: order, hierarchy and symmetry still count. We are able to lightly shift back and forth in between those. It is not a paradigm shift, but rather an extension of our compositional abilities. Those languages and strategies work again today, but for different reasons. Postmodernism in this case is not an opposition or denial of Modernism, but rather a joyful manipulation of the selected grammar and syntax.

The practice is, in a way, a sum of parts. First of all is the ‘brain’ – geeky, enthusiastic, full of exotic yet conflicting references. Then there is its context of Porto and Portugal, which is, as every context, both dull and exciting, difficult and specific in its own way. The clients are usually a bit torturous, the project briefs are repetitive, the municipalities are simply morbid. Too many pieces to put together. Therefore, every project turns into an intricate adventure of packing those ambitions, obsessions and references into a narrow plot, a two-level building with two facades and three bedrooms, following all the height limits, many rules and regulations. The result of such a game is usually a peculiar animal. Architecture happens at the intersection of our ambitions and limitations – cheerfully making the most of the things that do come our way.

There was no actual Postmodernism in Porto, but there are what we call ‘ugly ducks’, those beautifully banal and awkward buildings built between the 1960s and 1980s. Fala goes against the immense nostalgia and ‘fetishisation’ of history that dominates the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto (FAUP) and the ‘Oporto school’, which consistently supports the purist ideas of the Modern Movement. Here, the only acceptable architecture is that of Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, for example their International Contemporary Sculpture Museum (MIEC) and Abade Pedrosa Municipal Museum (MMAP) project in Santo Tirso, completed in 2012. Fala has instead developed an attitude of questioning the accepted order of things, rejecting the expected minimalism maybe, the vague ‘Portuguese-ness’.

In many ways we are completely ignorant of the context. However historical continuity is a concern. A long list of favourite architects, rooms, plans, facades and buildings is a common ground of the office, its basic language. We collect traces, fragments and elements from all over the world to reassemble back here, using whatever is at hand and recombining it to create something new in an attempt to be constantly updating our vocabulary. We understand each other through references, most of which are from the last 60 or 70 years. There is not much fascination for Palladio or even Louis Sullivan. There is always a Japanese gang: Kazuo Shinohara, early Toyo Ito, Kazunari Sakamoto and Itsuko Hasegawa. There is Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Peter Märkli. The occasional Mario Botta. Sometimes Konstantin Melnikov will appear, sometimes Lina Bo Bardi.

As a reaction to sad backgrounds composed of many banal buildings (and as a consequence of those wild, mainly Japanese, references from the 1970s), fala’s work aims at a strong language, a personality. Every project is a place of formal experiment, trying to stand out among uneventful buildings. Our House in Paraíso in Porto (2017) is a good example of such a mismatch, an overly glorified facade amongst shabby backyards and annexes. Perhaps we protest too much, deliberately making life difficult for ourselves. And there is no fascination for technology or sustainability – just an aspiration for architecture whose main concern is form and space. Not politics, ecology or any kind of social agenda.

Assimilating Fragments and References The result of this thick web of references is fala’s recent (and very postmodern) preoccupation with the definition of architecture as a language. Our architecture can be described as divided and fragmented, with an emphasis on its elements. But not the Deconstructivist kind. Our buildings still stand on their feet. Their parts are separate element of a structure that sums up the whole. They attract or repel one another like objects in space. They clash to generate uncanny linguistic mistakes and accidents. Systems and isolated elements are also a consequence of working on small-scale projects, which offer the chance to control it all. We want this language to be both a stable structure and to have lots of play, to be fluid and ambiguous. Fala’s work is moving towards a pluralistic language, an arrangement of multiple rhetorical manoeuvres, metaphors, tropes, turns and masks, as evident in our House along a Wall (Porto, 2018).

We are immensely interested in form and composition. Playful geometries happen as a reaction to defined perimeters. The complexity is almost forced upon a project, as in the abundant spaces in Uneven House (Porto, 2019). The excess and the extreme poverty of every building. A balanced combination of exhaustion and exuberance. And to quote the ‘godfather of Postmodernism’, Charles Jencks: ‘Post-Modern architecture is obviously concerned with more than pluralism and complexity, although these two key words begin to locate its centre.’

The various forms and elements of our projects use colour in a compositional way to distinguish between them, such as in House in Fontaínhas (Porto, 2019). When it comes to paint, we are decisive, but still afraid of purple and orange, and we certainly cannot handle clients asking for beige and brown. This has been a gradual appropriation; fala’s early projects are mostly white, and even now there is always a white background. Splashes of colourful elements against a perfectly neutral base, as in Six Houses and a Garden (Porto, 2019) with some heart-warming wood and chilly marble, millennial pink and its ambivalent girliness.

There is an intense concern for patterns and ornaments. There is no architecture without decoration. Buildings are complex canvases and systems, or simple boxes with elaborate ornaments.The office quickly got bored with the minimalist surfaces of white plaster. And we like Daniel Buren, the French conceptual artist, and therefore stripes, dots and chequerboard patterns. Fala’s patterns are still very shy in a way – too geometrically correct. Small and big boxes with pictures on them, as in House and Atelier (Porto, 2018). Facades become abundant masks and billboards.

Taking Things Seriously Is fala postmodern? Yes, and no. Ultimately, ours is a circumstantial Postmodernism – a softer, more acceptable version of it. No neon signs, Doric columns or flower patterns. No swans on top of buildings. Postmodernism that is less ironic, less blunt and a bit more serious. Postmodernism that is based on grids, projections and orders. It does not go too far. It becomes one of the ingredients of a larger flamboyant cocktail. Any attempt at defining the language of the office does not yet seem precise or completely right. There is our deliberately systematic thinking on one side, and a slightly confusing linguistic behaviour on the other. To borrow another definition from Jencks: ‘Architecture could again be based on context, mood, culture, ornament, or almost whatever mattered to the architect and client.’ The most sublime things result from precisely a confluence of opposites, a more playful and sophisticated use of unfriendly tropes. Fala’s architecture is a continually renewed improvisation on themes coming from every possible direction.