A consequence of the international recognition of “Portuguese architecture,” mainly built around two Pritzker prizes and a School—the Porto School— was media attention over an extended consensus, structured on the idea of continuity, as if critiquing the ruptures promoted by the Modern Movement still made sense. While this laudatory consensus over “Portuguese architecture” presents itself as quite useful and, above all, exportable, it also represents an opportunistic simplification that seems to favor a deceptive moment of peace rather than the vigorous debate postmodern critique knew how to embrace (on behalf of eclecticism) and also, paradoxically, dispose of (by accepting relativism). We should probably begin by saying that fala can easily be seen in two different ways: abroad they are associated with a certain continuity within Portuguese architecture; in Portugal they are seen as disruptive, not to say unloved.
Even if we are still not sure of the end of the crisis in Portugal, the financial market and its ratings show that since 2015 there has been an economic recovery, a fact both pessimists and optimists concur with. A decrease in the rate of unemployment and an increase in exports are real proof of an economic upturn, but the emigration of well-qualified young people and an increase in strikes in the public sector reveal considerable social dissatisfaction, one that turns our crisis into our fado (fate)—a permanent condition, all but identity-defining. This is the pessimistic reading. The optimistic one is based on the increase in foreign investment motivated by the crisis, which left companies and assets in such a vulnerable situation that it made us question the real reason behind it. In addition, there is the exponential increase in tourism and the return of property speculation, motivated by a change in the Act on Rents, the golden visa project, and local housing’s quick profits.
If we are to accept that these measures have somehow reversed the neglect and ruin towards the built heritage in the center of our cities caused by an exodus to their outskirts in the 1980s, it is also true that tourism associated with property speculation (with house prices only accessible to foreigners) is the basis of gentrification in Porto or Lisbon, which has revived people’s claim to “the right to the city” theorized by Henri Lefebvre.
fala was to develop their activity, free from prejudice and with a high dose of optimism, in such an investment and speculation scenario.
But could they position themselves any differently? fala knew soon enough that if they were to open an architecture office they would have to adjust their service rendering to the contingency of the offer, by assuming that public contracts were scarce, and private ones, even though limited, were beginning to offer new opportunities, such as home renovation for local housing or property speculation. In most of these cases the client is a mere negotiator or mediator and not its user. Some of fala’s clients are anonymous investors who do not even get to visit the houses they buy, a few of which even change owner several times without ever being inhabited. The initial sense of distress of not knowing exactly who you are working for, of having an abstract client, gave fala the freedom to think through the project in their own way, thus accelerating the creation of a few identity traits we shall address further on. The type of contract associated with local housing almost always entails a commitment to low-cost construction. Buying property for speculation may involve other budgets but in both cases the funding made available by clients is always low, considering the added value generated. Even the House with a Curved Wall, which was destined for a final client, was sold for five times more than the work itself, and the realtor was paid six times more than the architects. Once they became aware of this reality, fala tried to participate in the speculation game by themselves investing in a few projects. But in most cases, and in order to keep their office and collaborators working, they had to review their work methodologies in order to monetize their procedures by saving time and getting enough projects to make the office sustainable. This corporate logic expresses a discipline and rigor unusual in an emerging atelier, but still could not be considered as pure commercial practice. fala do not relinquish their romantic way of thinking that all contracts are legitimate regardless of their basic budget. This romanticism does not preclude an awareness of the value they produce, without a proportional return, in the speculative market. Paradoxically, however, the restrictions imposed by the speculative market are the same as the ones that allow them to reach less wealthy clients and charge 350 €/m2. If, on the one hand we can say that fala’s architecture perfectly portrays the yearnings of capitalist speculation, we should also acknowledge that it is more comprehensive from a social point of view. fala have managed to get the type of contracts architecture’s star system tends to disregard—those within the middle and lower middle class.
They shamelessly agree to chop bourgeois houses of the 19th century up into one-bedroom houses, to transform garages into lofts, and ilhas (islands, typical Porto working-class housing) into student or tourist residences. What you cannot say, though, is that they do it only for the money: they do it, in the first instance, because they want to build and they see a rare opportunity to try out new housing typologies, which is evident in all their designs. That is also what distinguishes them from other anonymous commercial practices.
One could say that fala’s way of doing things upstages criticism of the city in the midst of neoliberal transformation, and in that sense they take an apolitical stance on the world. Their discourse does not seem to contain any hint of ideology or morality and remains a humble attitude when compared to the heroic responsibility claimed by modern architects. fala are fully aware of their limitations and choose to claim their disciplinary knowledge alone without falling into the traps of social rhetoric. Aware of the world’s complexity fala assume “a naïve architectural practice,” a possible architecture, or better yet, one beyond the realm of the possible because they get to build a whole new imaginary.
As Fernando Távora once said, and not in a derogatory way, “Portuguese architecture has got a certain character. Why? Because it is shyer, more ignorant, less modern.” All this was true—until the 1980s.
Even though they were too young to have lived through the euphoric years of the 80s, their practice still expresses, albeit inadvertently, a sort of throwback to a few theses we have identified as postmodern, either from a structural point of view, as a thought (an inevitability), or from a formal or stylistic point of view. It should be noted, however, that this return to postmodernism has nothing to do with nostalgia (you cannot feel nostalgic about something you did not experience): it results, rather, from a reaction to a certain “minimalist” architecture, with all its simplistic morality vis-à-vis austerity in design, which has become a form of architectural “political correctness.” On the other hand, fala’s experience abroad (Switzerland, Japan and the United States) has stimulated a cosmopolitan culture which opposes the more conservative theses of those who advocate a “Portuguese architecture”— itself associated with a kind of morality of “the simple.”
fala considered that a way to get around the laid-back view of what to expect and predict was to learn from the so-called “ugly ducklings”—an urban, anonymous, sometimes banal and at other times daring, yet always unsettling architecture. Following a methodology influenced by Learning from Las Vegas, fala have been developing several exercises which allow them to balance their references to high and low culture. This positioning, legitimated by the postmodern condition, allows them to use the most erudite of architects and at the same time any other reference, wherever it comes from. This lack of prejudice explains the level of experimentation and differentiation we recognize in many of fala’s projects, as well as a growing sense of irony (is the loose or dysfunctional pillar of the project House and Atelier a reference to Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Market in Braga or to the unfinished works resulting from the economic crisis?).
The incorporation of both high and low culture also has a physical dimension that legitimizes the use of materials and solutions deemed to be less noble. Akin to what happens with the “ugly ducklings,” we learn to do not what we want but rather what we can, without giving up on dignity and a certain joy. fala’s creativity is mostly based on this quest for dignity, by transforming “trash” into “luxury”.
If it is true that they use postmodern eclecticism to create a balance between high and low culture, from a stylistic point of view the process is equally as complex. Starting with the fact that fala themselves have declared a couple of years ago that they “do not have a building or graphic style.” This is a half-truth which can only be understood from two standpoints: the first is to think about style according to a wide set of references (a trend or fad) without assuming any particularity or specific place; the second is to consider these as the early stages of their work, a statement that will be betrayed by time and a wider range of buildings designed by them.
We are just starting to recognize fala’s building style via particular trademarks such as freestanding columns, circles on the façade, stripes or square patterns (which remind us of a certain 1980s postmodern architecture). The structure of postmodern thinking becomes pivotal once again to understanding a sense of style that falls between the complexity of a collective trend and the wish for a personal identity, which has gained ever greater importance. An aesthetic expression that hardly falls into the “Portuguese architecture” category (in a contemporary vision revamped in order to secure media attention), which is not a bad thing per se—we would go as far as to say that advocating a “Portuguese architecture” is as simplistic an idea as the nationalist ideology that Salazar’s dictatorship found in the casa portuguesa[Portuguese house] and português suave (a modern construction system combined with a nostalgic style).
One thing is for certain: postmodernism as a structure of thought had the virtue of encompassing all the apparent contradictions we are able to recognize in contemporary architecture (which allows us to mimic Álvaro Siza: “Functionalism in the morning and baroque in the afternoon.”)
The production of images in architecture has always had a multiplicity of goals, among which we may highlight the sense of representation. This representation can be seen in different ways, from the pragmatic representation of a project or building to the representation of an artistic or utopian idea. In any event, the image has become (mainly since the Renaissance) the first language of architecture and the architect has been recognized as an author. The rapport between the image and the idea of style is rather more complex. On the one hand the image was the determinant promotional vehicle of an architectonic style in a collective sense; on the other, and because it was conducive to the architect’s expression as an individual, it was to be a causal factor of the erosion or apparent erosion of the idea of style. It was also because modernist architects upheld, albeit demagogically, the idea that “form follows function” that we stopped talking about style in architecture. The irony is that in all its diversity the Modern Movement itself did not resist the simplistic label of the International Style and the paradox of the mystification of a few of its protagonists by acknowledging their differentiation.
The legitimation of the architect-author (in the complex relationship between image, language, form and style) in the 1960s and 70s was much questioned. Architects were often accused of producing isolated objects, closed in their aesthetic dimension and unable to deal with several political and social issues (see the Situationist critique of the Modern Movement, particularly Le Corbusier). Simultaneously, architecture’s disciplinary autonomy, its own knowledge related to the project and to its visual culture, was also questioned. Images should be able to stop being a thing in themselves (or simply disappear, legitimized by self-construction), or eventually the instrument of participatory processes.
Many architects at that time radically changed their disciplinary practice through their political activism, but others, without ever denying their convictions, knew how to balance their disciplinary autonomy (without excluding aesthetic issues and their identity as authors) through their response to social problems. Nowadays, this balance is symbolically recognized in projects such as SAAL’s Bouça neighborhood in Porto, designed by Álvaro Siza (and not by the people—their participation is a recurring mistake in the SAAL process). This particular case raises other questions because it was Siza’s international recognition as a “star architect” that allowed them to finish and renovate the neighborhood after decades of degradation.
Álvaro Siza still belongs to a generation of architects—Aldo Rossi, Giorgio Grassi, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Mario Botta, Frank O. Gehry, Steven Holl, etc.— who were granted the right to their own language, author-like, a fact which does not necessary exclude the interpretation of each work in a complex and phased way. This authorship was recognizable in many buildings (in their aesthetic choices), but also in images per se; that is to say, images not connected to the need to communicate a project. Pen sketches, watercolors, oil paintings or colored pencil drawings that represented imaginary landscapes, angels or horses obtained media attention in a way that went beyond the realm of architecture.
Nowadays one cannot say that the “star system” is nourished by the coherence that seemed to underlie the architect’s authorial language, partly because postmodern thought, with all its relativism, has freed architects from the necessity to be coherent and, on the other hand, because increasing visibility in the media associated with a marketing strategy calls for a permanent competition for distinction. Consequently, architecture evolved in the sense of feeding this show with ever more iconographic buildings, but also with the spectacularisation of the architects themselves, who were increasingly subjected to media pressure. In that sense architects are no longer just “authors” (a condition inherent in the image of their work) but also “personae” (a condition inherent in their self-image).
But the excess of images in circulation through the different media makes it easier to lose sight of their references, which may lead to diversion or détournement (according to the Situationists), instigating an unlimited appropriation legitimized by postmodern relativism. This absence of limits hinders an idea of style or at least fragments it in a fractal-like manner. At the same time the excess of images leads to an inevitable redundancy based in part on “coincidences” from which there emerges the will to understand a broader sense of style, such as, for instance, the idea of the post-digital, where fala could perfectly fit in.
fala’s postmodernism takes us to the post-digital as a representational practice, which brings us back to a pre-digital aesthetic influenced by Henri Rousseau or David Hockney’s paintings. The images produced by fala have something naïve and pop about them, as if they were trying to explain their architecture to children, even though the drawings are useful for conveying information about the execution of the work in communicating a minimum of data about the project to ill-prepared builders. Such images also try to demonstrate the simulated appropriation of everyday life by using common objects, plants, books on the floor, clothes hanging on doors. The habitability of these homes is almost always treated as something fleeting, with someone who has just arrived or is preparing to leave, but there is always time enough to portray a certain intimacy.
We recognize the language of the images together with the work developed by other studios but in fala’s case there is this persistence, which has two complementary yet opposed readings: one is related to the image per se; the other is its disquieting proximity to the built work.
We might say that fala gained recognition even before the revelation of their built work—which only recently began to get some exposure. Encouraged by social media, the primacy of the image is the only possible strategy for studios that have just embarked on their activities, even though in most cases the efficacy of the images is utterly ephemeral. Nevertheless, fala’s graphic persistence and coherence in terms of representation has granted them international visibility. In that respect, and judging by the success of their images, we may claim that fala have built their identity on the latter, in keeping with a tradition in which representation is an autonomous discourse (because it is independent of the work) and legitimizes authorship. Yet even though in the case of other architects this autonomy was used to free architectonic discourse from the work’s materiality (by exploring utopias and imaginary constructs), fala took it as a disquieting convergence of the images and the work or, better yet, of the work and the images—in a complete reversal of direction. If we say disquieting and not expected (this must be the direction of representation) it is because as far as fala are concerned they (the work and representation) blend almost irrepressibly. fala’s images are not coded designs, they are not vehicles that lead to the work’s materiality, they are a place of their own and it is the work that meets the images, it is the work that dematerializes in order to become image by imitating its lightness. In that sense the chance to annul the distance and time between image and work is evoked—the very representation of utopia.
We could name several other studios in which digital representation, or rendering plausibility, favor the same fusion between image and work, but they seldom consider the image as the endgame. The work becomes the image, in a naïve sort of way, as we were given the opportunity to see, which is also a critical positioning about an “idea of perfection” promoted by the exactness of digital technology and by the architectonic visual culture which comes from simple forms.
fala’s architecture gives the world back its poetry, with all its complexity and imperfection, an awareness only possible through its representation.