Maybe because we are naïve, we thought that what we had learned in a few years was enough to run a practice. Architecture, immediately. The beginning of a long-term commitment, an endless and daily production, as if taking any time to step back would seize up the machine. We threw ourselves in the ocean to learn how to swim, with no clients and little funds, but with enthusiasm and a bookshelf. Today our belief is that the most challenging and politically charged step an architect can take is to conceive a practice.
As sentimental as this may sound, it is a matter of overriding passion. fala is a combination of curiosity, ambitious youth, cynical naïveté, lack of seriousness, a simple fascination for architecture and our awkward humor. A humor that is used to say something serious.
A group of people, not exactly cohesive, that gather for a few hours every day in a small white building in Porto. Some of us actually live on the two floors above the atelier, blurring even further the boundaries between private life and work space. All of us, except Harry, use the same tools and work on all projects and phases. Harry has different responsibilities because he’s a cat. The atmosphere is both light and communal. We have crushes on rooms, façades and columns. We laugh at what we do, talk about buildings like people and sometimes give them surnames. There is the assumed freedom of an office that is still in its formative years.
All forms of gravity are despised but a few things are taken seriously: line thicknesses and tea-making. But also certain names that are repeated like mantras; heroes that we adore but never truly understand. They are most often architects and they come from all around the globe: Kazuo Shinohara, Erik Gunnar Asplund, Álvaro Siza, Peter Märkli, Ellsworth Kelly, Itsuko Hasegawa, Luigi Ghirri, Robert Venturi, Mario Botta... The list is long but not endless and sometimes a new name shyly emerges. To a certain extent the practice could be described as a rather cute cult devoted to them. We are geeks and architecture fans before being architects. We might spend months looking for one of their buildings on online maps, just for the raw satisfaction of knowing it still stands in its more or less original form. In a few lucky instances we might get to knock at the door one day. Sometimes that leads to a memorable visit but most often we get chased away by the owners. Irrational perhaps, but not entirely vain. The works of these heroes are our only wealth and compass. The belief is that anything from the past that is good to the eyes of today is good enough to work from and that adoration is a good antidote to hubris. As a matter of fact, most of these people were or are still looking at precedents themselves.
Our love is unrequited but it is still part of an eco-system: this might well be another aspect of our naïveté. We refuse to claim anything architectural as ours, and we value misunderstandings. The entire history of architecture could well be understood as a series of failed interpretations, productive mistakes in translation. Björk once said of a famous architect that he “felt oppressed by the oblivious people who are not part of the smart, sophisticated game where everything becomes a quotation from something else.” We feel nicely oppressed too, but perhaps this is the necessary discomfort of the architect. As architecture is a smart, sophisticated game where everything becomes a quotation from something else. We should underline here: “becomes,” not “is.” Because it is a form of knowledge that isn’t static. Architecture is a process.
The multiplicity of our guiding heroes translates into unexpected collisions and correspondences, dreamed matches, scenarios for which we act as conductors or vessels. How would a collaboration between Josef Frank and Hiromi Fujii turn out? What if it happened here and now? And what if it was the renovation of an ordinary Portuguese house? More importantly, how would it be perceived? How could one make sure that certain motifs are still relevant? Should one try to be sure of anything? We’re not.
Our only insurance is an incremental method in which ideas are tested one by one, project after project, almost as in scientific research. Each found answer opens an array of new questions. And as in the sciences, each new question might ultimately challenge the models one started from. Elements appear almost by accident. A plan principle, a structural principle, a certain type of stripe, a vibrant color, the exuberant shape of a kitchen hood, white walls, easy colors that emerge in slight disorder, wrong angles, curved walls and columns that hold nothing, grids of various kinds, frivolous or rigorous geometries... Each element might become an obsession in a series of projects, then evolve into one possibility among many in the following ones, while newer ones begin their process of digestion. Certain elements may also gradually disappear, or make a comeback. “We haven’t drawn a triangular bathroom in quite a while.” We look at these waves, study them, but avoid to force anything. To a certain extent the elements have a life of their own.
We are both spectators and taxonomists in a constant process of cataloguing and surveying each project like an archipelago and all the projects together like a bigger one. All the decisions in all the projects are connected; ideas and forms travel between different designs. The collection of strategies and elements, borrowed from precedents, becomes an architectural vocabulary, a landscape of tropes. They play the same game of order, symmetry and repetition, introduce shifts, mistakes and exceptions. Projects and tropes are seen at the same level, two dimensions of one cartography that helps us understand what we do. One of the most notable results is that each project is a fragmented intervention at heart. “Each of us is many things.” All projects are novelties to some degree; furthermore they are all mixtures of the exaggerated, the boring, the naïve, etc. In this context fragility is an existential necessity but also a matter of hope. Each project is the crystallization of a set of ideas at a given moment, but a fragile project welcomes whatever comes after its completion and doesn’t need to diminish what precedes it. In the strictest sense of the word, it is inclusive. Violently vivid, but inclusive. It looks outward.
All representation techniques are conscious attempts to flatten this variety, to make it controllable. Collages, single line drawings, exploded or unfolded axonometrics, sketches on top of sketches, collections of low-resolution renderings, photographs, execution drawings and partial drawings, drawings that don’t even have a name... The list is endless and they are all necessary, even if not all are meant to be shown. A vigorous visual discourse, images that are charged with meaning.
The practice of building and the practice of drawing run parallel to each other and their trajectories inform each other. A mode of representation that wouldn’t have an impact on the way one conceives and builds would be futile. The way we build is a consequence of the way we draw. Making all images in the same format isn’t only a sign of our manic obsessions. It is also a first step in shaping the freedom of the projects. In a more direct manner, the experiments carried out in the series of lost projects we started with directly fuel the projects we work on today. Even when the project is built the building only acts as a three-dimensional conclusion, a festive epilogue that both brings together and contradicts all these flat drawings. Each circle becomes a distorted ellipse, each color becomes a relative of itself, all references vanish for an instant.
Thus the project starts from the opposition of two canvases that challenge each other: the built context on the one hand and the white page on the other. The tension between the two is never fully resolved. Ideas coming from one might make little sense in the other, but their suppression would only sterilize the endeavor.
White walls are both a supremely affordable construction principle and the physical manifestation of the white canvas. They allow for everyday life and architectural elements to find their place and cohabit. They are spatial structure, but they are also light in every way.
Because it strategically dictates this division of space the floor plan is thus a crucial drawing. It sets the lines on which notes might take place. As many notes as the desired expression requires, not more, not less. As much patterned wood, mirrors and colored marble as the budget allows, no more, no less. And when even these aren’t affordable, paint always works. A narrow budget shouldn’t be a condemnation of romanticized frugality. Happy buildings have bones, but also full bellies and cheeky faces. An architecture of the minimum is an architecture of death.
So we search for a vitality of the present. Nostalgic prolonging of the context and pseudo-futuristic icons are equally stale to us. Still, these two paths are slowly becoming the only “acceptable” options in contemporary architectural production. The first one is valued for its innocuity, the second for symbolic exceptions which ultimately solidify the first. In these conditions we’ve been looking for safe havens of architectural expression. Interiors, suburbia, courtyards, etc. “B-sides” of the city where one can build in a relieving state of indifference towards past and future. Isn’t that being modern?
Following that pursuit, many of the façades we’ve designed so far are hidden behind renovations of ordinary townhouses. As street façades are controlled and protected by the authorities, kept as fossils for touristic scenography, they become the conceptual back of our projects. On the other hand, the new façades, facing the inner side of the urban blocks, become assumed paradoxes. Both celebratory and marginal, they are exotic to what surrounds them, they irritate the urban fabric and ask for a reaction. They refuse to shy away.
The vast majority of our clients are like the vast majority of people. They have no specific interest in architecture, sometimes even a radical skepticism towards the figure of the architect. That’s perfectly alright. In fact, most of our clients have never heard of “fala” and refer to us by our individual names alone. They reach us because they need paperwork with signatures and often come to us holding a catalogue of houses and point to the one they want. We could go down that road but we somehow enjoy the tougher life. We create our own windmills and each project ends up as a firework of stubborn desires, a fight in which everybody wins. Our architecture is unsolicited.
Being in a state of uninterrupted production, we are fast in many ways: energy and speed are vital. Our projects are generally modest in scale, so we run an economy of quantity. We have to think fast, submit, build, and move forward. A permanent state of emergency imposed by a precise economical context, limits and restraints that allows us to take advantage of challenging clients, imperfect contractors and small budgets.
Functional kitchens and a lot of built-in storage have to find a place within wider disciplinary intentions. A big percentage of our time and energy is dedicated to defending the bare existence of a project. The endless kitchen and the capricious column have to find a common ground, even if just for an instant. The only thing we cannot do is suppress the moment when ideas are thrown into a tangible future, searching for coherence. Furthermore, regulations, scale and a scarcity of financial means should never hinder the ambition of the project, nor be an excuse to normalize the proposal. Each bathroom renovation deserves as much intelligence, tenderness and freedom as the largest institution. Perhaps more. We once devoted two months of full-time work to the design of a birdhouse.
Of course, this method doesn’t always pay off and comes with a good deal of frustrating moments and necessary plot twists. Some clients are allergic to pink or want their white to be beige. Imperfections are celebrated, some mistakes are planned and some are pure improvisation. We learn and unlearn every day, decide to forget what we were taught in architecture school, but can one truly decide to forget anything? Projects we love are regularly thrown in the trash bin. But more often than not they leave place for even more lovable ones. In short, we have to be resilient and stubborn. Being optimistic is a burden and communication isn’t easy. It should never be easy. After all, we repeat words that aren’t ours. Here Alessandro Bosetti’s words come to mind: “I am repeating, gloriously repeating. As Beckett puts it: failing, trying again, failing better.”