The lowest real estate prices in Europe, fantastic weather and great food: Portugal emerged out of a century of slumber to become an over-popular holiday destination. With the oldest defined European borders and no territorial disputes, Portugal had been proudly isolated in the south-west corner of Europe, and pretty much nothing had happened there. The country took part in no world war, no natural disaster ever ‘graced’ its shore and modern architecture was denied by a soft dictatorship. As a result, a certain consensus on ‘everything remaining the same’, an almost pre-defined fate condition, became one of the country’s social and cultural comfort zones.
Still hungover from joining the European Union, a series of strategic public investments attempted to reshape the country’s international presence, from the 1998 World Expo to the 2004 European Football Championship. New highways and improved airports closed the circle, concrete and asphalt bloomed and something was forming on the horizon for the new millennium: Ryanair, Airbnb, Starbucks. An internet revolution supported by a badly structured local golden visa programme, a series of public incentives and tax reductions to private investment, and the lowest property prices in Europe. Portugal, a European safe haven of traditional values, was perfect prey for international investors: low prices, sun, food fresh from the sea. Why not?
First in Lisbon and later in Porto, private foreign investors (and later local ones) started an insane investment circle. Buying, renovating, re-selling, buying again, ringing friends, selling with no renovation, buying bigger, investing more, getting a visa, buying even more, selling higher, speculating, profiting. Real estate became a currency. Apartments, and soon entire buildings, switched hands over and over, with no one ever living in them. Prices per square metre went up by 1,000 per cent, the same for rents, and architects became secondary actors whose only function was to aid the speculative bubble. ‘Architects add value’, became a motto. ‘Make it nice’, ‘Instagrammable’ or ‘Pinterest-compatible’ became the only brief, and Excel sheets the measurable goals for the architects who got themselves in the loop. Yet, from a very cynical perspective, it was fundamental to understand that architecture was not the point at all. It was happening, and architects could either be part of it somehow or get out of the way.
It all started in Lisbon. Initially, the apartments had the right number of square metres and a manageable scale for a first investment. Later, the amount of money increased and small buildings were deemed more suitable. Studio apartments quickly became the best seller, due to their highly profitable selling prices. Eventually, Lisbon started getting too expensive and Porto was starting to be mildly popular, like an agreeable plan B. Small investors in Lisbon could be bigger ones in Porto, due to the price differences, and so the much smaller city was taken at once and ‘those local narrow houses’, a prevalent common typology reminiscent of how plots were divided in the late 18th-century were just too good not to be used and abused.
With a new metro and its title of European Capital of Culture in 2001, the city centre of Porto had been transforming – public space welcomed public life. Nevertheless, such transformation was only visible ‘outside’ since the city’s interiors were completely private and, to a large extent, in very bad condition. The public interventions had created the ideal scenario for the private sector to play its part, but in 2008 the global economy collapsed and Portugal was caught in its jaws. Foreign private investors came to the rescue with their spreadsheets, and local ones followed in their footsteps.
Inside the buildings, everything was new: structure, walls, typologies users, glass lifts and jacuzzis. But outside, ‘old is good’. And tourists liked it that way (or at least that seemed to be the common agreement, never discussed but assumed without hesitation). The city was valued by its ‘UNESCOness’, apparently untouched, simply reframed. All actors imposed an immense nostalgia through the fetishisation of history. It was not about what it was but about what it could feel like. Old facades were preserved, and new ones were built looking old. Rebranding the city, making it into a theme park, a perfect background for taking catchy pictures, was the ultimate blow and every investor tagged along with it, as did the public entities. It was easier to digest and honestly no one was that much interested in a wider, deeper discussio of what this opportunity could have been.
As a practice starting in the centre of a tornado, we embraced the challenge with methodic optimism, in a combination of pleasure and desperation. The joy came from being young, both geeky and enthusiastic, wanting to try it all. The desperation came from having to work with tedious buildings, small budgets and difficult investors with repetitive autistic briefs. Still, quickly we understood that having no actual client would give us freedom and we too it as a chance to try things out, experimenting with generic living spaces, banal elements, and cheap materials. We found and helped define our own playground. Those tiny apartments and hidden back facades were our first opportunities to define the ‘vocabulary’ of the office, its recurring themes and obsessions. As is often the case, our first love was not perfect, but we enjoyed it and it taught us a thing or two.
The existing condition always had something to be corrected. Refurbishments force one to choose which pre-existing rules to break and which to follow, what to keep and what to remove. Like an ongoing exquisite corpse, we got good at lying and hiding certain aspects of projects from the soul-crushing municipality when necessary. Every building became a small autonomous victory, a fragment of the city that was reclaimed and glorified. We were profoundly interested in gestures that disturbed but also revealed the rhetorical and compositional power conceived by disruption, discontinuity and disorder. Our buildings were arrangements of multiple fragments, manoeuvres, turns and masks, like ugly ducklings. As a reaction to all the ‘rules’ and dull contexts, they aimed at a strong language, a character, a proud personality.
We learned to take advantage of the many limitations: narrow plots and defined perimeters, street facades we were forced to preserve, material and colours to keep, alignments to follow, annexes and extensions to (not?) demolish, the same brief over and over and so on and so forth. As a result, curvy lines, kinks and unexpected geometries appeared within a given framework. Back facades became main facades. Mandatory kitchens, cabinets and bathrooms turned into proud objects. Patterns found their way in. Simple elements were carefully introduced (or violently juxtaposed) to redefine elevations and inner spaces. Certain tropes became projects of their own, crossing diagonally throughout the built works.
The very same typology, the same narrow houses in the city centre, the same set of apartments, the same absence of any architectural intention from the client – but the programme was there to be manipulated and the context was there to be challenged since no one cared. Every project reacted to the one preceding it, and all projects became one bigger project. We did the unchanging exercise of designing a living space, a house, reinventing its architectural expression, its composition, its meaning even. The continuous reinvention within the repetition created a discourse. For a young office, it is mostly about being in the right place at the right time and making the best of it. We had to gloriously repeat ourselves and enjoy the echo.
To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, ‘architecture found a way’. Today, we have moved to something else: ‘normal commissions’ and ‘bigger buildings’ built ‘from scratch’. Nevertheless, in retrospect we had a great time regardless of the sad conditions that defined the early commissions. We managed to have fun and produce a couple of less conventional living spaces that we are proud of. Fala emerged somehow in that scenario and we can’t, shouldn’t and won’t deny it.
Maybe tourism, Airbnb and real estate investors were just an excuse. We are very much aware of the real estate bubble and all that comes with it, but we prefer to avoid any political involvement and to focus on a pure architectural approach, a compositional answer to a non-compositional problem. We were, and are, apolitical, and that saved our souls. Our motivations and references as a practice are purely disciplinary and on a daily basis we look for nothing else. Those commissions and the necessary distance we created from their context also helped us define ourselves as such. It was our critical decision from early on to be apolitical.
Today, taking an EasyJet flight anywhere gives us a constant feeling of déjà vu: the same brands, coffee shops, Pinterest interiors, the same furniture and ornament. The internet flattened the West and it seems we are all tourists these days, long before being inhabitants. Lisbon and Porto were not the first nor the only examples and, sooner or later, it felt like every major European city went through the same kind of transformation, this unsustainable process of touristification that helps out the economy but makes it nearly impossible for locals to adjust. Four- and five-star hotels and Airbnbs continue to appear here and there, always with the same generic and autistic branding techniques, yet the majority of the people don’t live in the centre any more. Porto has changed radically in five years and today it is clear that, although the Airbnb machine is still running, it is slowing down. Now we need another decad to understand what is next.