from paper to porto
You probably think you have Fala Atelier figured out; whether you do or don’t doesn’t really matter to founders Ahmed Belkhodja, Filipe Magalhães, and Ana Luisa Soares. Since establishing the Porto, Portugal, design studio in 2013, the trio has cultivated a house style that could be described as methodical or precious. Methodical because the several dozen or so projects found on Fala’s website—the exact count is hard to pin down, owing to an insistence on a numerical filing system whose purpose seems to have once been inflationary—draw from the same well of signifiers: a millennial color palette, rounded mirrors, marble flooring (or a convincing substitute), marble veneer (or a convincing substitute), soothing geometries, lilting sections, one-point perspectives, rooms the size of hallways, hallways the size of rooms. And precious, well, for all the reasons just elaborated.
But there’s no getting around the fact that even before they cracked their 30s, Belkhodja, Magalhães, and Soares had already built extensively, if mostly within Porto. If this counts as precious, then younger architects might hold their noses and take a page from the Fala playbook.
“The difference between us and our peers is there isn’t a brief or a budget that is beyond us,” said Magalhães. “We don’t have dream clients. What we have is a lot of people who have to solve very practical problems—building a house, renovating a house, stuff like this. The brief is an Excel sheet, the references come from Pinterest. Architecture is not a request. But we take up that challenge every time.”
Of course, a pragmatism framed in such unvarnished terms cannot help but conceal more—namely, in Fala’s case, ambition.
Besides, a client’s disavowal becomes a pretext for the private staging, and playing out, of games. On this matter Belkhodja acknowledges the legacy of Peter Eisenman—a recent house is centered on a single floating column—while also keeping the aging semiologist at bay. “Our work is process-oriented, but it is not a process as a [series of] steps that [following Eisenman] turn the Dom-Ino diagram into a parallelepiped,” he said. “Also, we don’t like buildings that feel like they’re going to collapse.”
The fact, or legend, that Fala’s process begins and ends with a digital collage has been reported in every article devoted to the studio’s work. Soares doesn’t deny the collage’s easy charm but downplays its generative role. “It’s a production tool that helps us understand our work together,” she said, pointing to another such tool—the wireframe drawing, looking very 1982 (the year TRON hit screens)—that accomplishes the same task. “The wireframe is the completed project only using lines. It communicates the idea for our project, and for us, that comes first. The materiality is a means to an end.”
One such end, all three partners hope, is America. Belkhodja workshops a pitch: “The thing with fakeness has prepared us to build there. An American architecture can never be as real as fake.”
Up until recently, urban infill and interior renovations have been Fala Atelier’s bread and butter. Which is to say, founders Ahmed Belkhodja, Filipe Magalhães, and Ana Luisa Soares have seen their fair share of challenging, awkward, and disadvantageous sites. On this particular lot, in Porto, Portugal, they were tasked with converting the ground floor and basement of a modest housing block into an apartment. The ground floor terminated in an illegal annex at the back that the trio promptly dismantled and reclaimed as an enclosed garden. They made a wedge between the patio and the building envelope to create an entrance to the lower level. Reflective glass and other sleights of hand give the impression that the rear facade is continuous, rather than split crosswise.
Like many of Fala’s projects, the Suspended House in Porto (the studio’s home base) began as an inventory of quotidian programmatic needs. “Many times, the client will give us an Excel sheet, and that was the case here,” said Magalhães. The house volume—narrow to a fault—had been predetermined by the municipal code, while the client made it clear that as little imagination should be paid to the interior organization as possible. “He said to us, ‘I don’t want architecture,’” Magalhães recalled. Thus commenced a game of subterfuge, with the designers dividing the four floors of the home into quadrants anchored by a central column. Of course, this single visible support is anchored from the top-down, never touching the ground-floor slab. “It makes it very clear that that column, that totem—and not the house—is indeed the project,” Magalhães explained.
An open-ended program can be a double-edged sword for an architect, as this conversion project proved. A trusted client of Fala’s approached the studio to convert an old warehouse into a large house, granting the trio carte blanche and asking only for a small bedroom and private bath at the rear in return. “We had a lot of architectural fun solving the banal practicalities of the project within an insanely big project,” Magalhães remembered. “But it’s essentially just a living room,” Belkhodja chimed in, “probably the largest one you’ll find [aside from] old royal palaces.”