wild juxtapositions by way of a confusing vocabulary

giovanna borasi

a+u #637, 2023

fala started as a practice some years ago in a brave way. In a city where the architecture has been assumed by default to always resemble the white and formally coherent work, and the spirit, of the main figures of the Escola do Porto, the members of fala have from the beginning been looking for a new language and for different ways to connect (or not) with the context. They began working towards a new language by building a new vocabulary; the latter being the pieces (like words), which each on their own might have a relatively stable meaning, the former being the way the pieces are put together (like phrases), in which one finds new meanings, individually and synthetically. Extracting its parts from various sources rather than starting from scratch, fala assembles a diction of pure, sharp gestures, whose primary continuity, it often seems, lies in its consistent discontinuity. This new language is often confusing, as it uses forms, geometries, materials, and colors in an unexpected way, creating wild juxtapositions with the existing. Their work—thus by turns eloquent or perplexing; delightful or unsettling; familiar or uncanny—stands out because of this language, and they are not shy about it.

This approach is certainly also connected to the fact that all of fala’s members studied and worked elsewhere before converging in Porto, and therefore they might not necessarily feel the need to fit in a Portuguese architectural lineage (also not all members of the team are Portuguese); and the references they bring into their work are mixed with those from many foreign experiences—often, for example, being more connected to their respective times in Japan than to anything else.

the plot, the ilha and working within to do something else

The majority of fala’s projects are residential developments in and around Porto. Porto is traditionally composed of long, narrow, parallel, and tightly packed plots, where buildings miss side façades and have mostly, if not only, a street façade. The back is often visible only from the inside of the island (ilha) (that is, from the garden, and to some extent the neighbouring gardens, onto which the back opens). This insularity typically gives privacy to the interiors, spaces of which are used for more informal functions of living. But it also generates a sentiment of a kind of careless communication of what is inside; it is common that the back is not thought out as a formal or meaningful presence in the building or in the building’s context. fala reverses this: as the street façade needs almost always to respect urban rules, fala, while making striking but more polite, reserved gestures in the front, takes the opportunity to work on the comparatively unsupervised back end with freedom and inventiveness; in other words, making it an actual façade. The result, for example in their house and atelier [067], is that an idea for new city core is articulated; and where a visual break occurs in the continuous urban façade you will discover this new urban core. This speaks to fala’s desire to add to the urban landscape with other vibrant opportunities. 

The absurdly long lots of Porto also give fala the opportunity to uniquely experiment with architectural, spatial, and tectonic elements: in the house along a wall [088],  the house is distributed along the long stretch of the plot as one continuous room open from the front to the back. A triangular terrazzo bicolored floor accompanies you through the space, while a gentle curved wall dynamizes the room and structures slightly different functions along the way, together preventing the sensation that you are inside a big funnel. Suddenly the constraints of the city’s existing structure are transformed into frameworks for a special experience of inhabitation. The gentle curve also gives the opportunity to create a space between the house and the neighbor’s wall, allowing a new window to bring natural light into a stretch of the house that would otherwise have remained shadowy. Again, a condition, carved out of a characteristic urban texture, that naturally works differently.

curved walls all over

If you look at fala’s plans, you will notice that the majority of them contain curved walls. 

A strategy similar to the one deployed in the house along a wall, discussed above, is used for the house called waves of glass and clouds of metal [097]. This time the curved wall does not open to the outside but, by being made of square glass bricks, creates a kind of ambiguous inside-outside division. The apartment was installed in what was previously an empty space with a commercial function, and somehow the use of the glass bricks along with various metal elements (materials evoking industrial environments of a certain era) lets the memory of the plot come to the surface in the new living condition. In a way, many of their housing projects upgrade or modify the idea of “loft” living. The apartments are often basically one large room where different functions belonging to the program are connected primarily to the furniture, proposed or designed by fala with this function-zone-indicating purpose in mind. Not being broken up by walls, in the long term these rooms can be repurposed over and over again, as they were in their commercial or industrial pasts

fala is not scared of large, empty, oddly shaped, and unplanned rooms. In the house of many faces [082], the immense room that was previously an industrial space stays as one room under a beautiful timber roof frame, which is lightened by the insertion of a flowing mint-blue tissue between the rafters and the sheathing. The only things present, almost levitating, in this expansive space are a fireplace and a kitchen island, which both impart a sense of distilled domesticity. Eventually the owner might buy a sofa. Again, a curve appears, as the end wall of the large room is a bowed volume that contains the bedrooms and further softens the atmosphere of the long industrial site.

But the curves exist not only in plan: often they manifest in ceilings too. It is as if the linear or perfectly circular forms so present on the outside get challenged inside. In fireworks in white [098], a tiny house (it gives you the impression of having entered a place used by Snow White’s seven dwarfs), the opportunity of constructing a second floor is instead used to build a complex ceiling volume with an inclined, rolling surface, immediately giving the house a surprising interior. It is quite impressive how easily fala seems to adapt these geometrical shapes (maybe an homage to Kazuo Shinohara) in the volumes of their interior spaces.

colored wireframes for intertwined spaces

When fala started their practice, collages were their privileged form of representation, becoming a recognizable signature of their work. Besides being a way of drawing very similar to many other European architects of their generation, they served them specifically with ways of colliding together all the surface treatments they were proposing and of communicating to their clients the imagined space in a frank and approachable way. But now that the volumetric complexity of their interiors has increased, fala’s representation has changed to something else, something necessarily more expressly tridimensional: colored wireframe perspectives on black backgrounds, which thematize the way an interior fills its envelope; and simple axonometric views, thematizing geometric motifs. Furthermore, while the previous manner of representation pointed to a desired juxtaposition with the context, these new ways of representing seem to more strongly support their projects’ internal formal geometries and structural aspects. As if the context does not exist really, or that they are not bothering with it. In the wireframes and axonometric drawings, the spatial and geometric complexity becomes more narratively prominent than the surface treatments of the exterior and interior elevations, but certainly these drawings are also a way to plainly understand the interrelations between the figures being employed. In a manner similar, yet also opposed, to the carving approach taken by Gordon Matta-Clark, whereby abutting spaces were tied together through the penetration of new voids, fala adds and connects spaces to each other by way of recurring, compounding, and contrasting geometries—triangles, circles, rectangles, and waves touch each other in sequences and yield complex and intertwined spaces. 

funky colors, colored marbles (preferably pink), black stripes and black squares

The work, and therefore the thinking and language, of fala started really from working in the inside, more than designing completely new buildings: basically, rethinking the interior space while adapting existing buildings to new life necessities. They did it for themselves in their house and atelier [067], and they did it for the many clients they have been commissioned by.

Furthermore, these interiors are not the opulent ones of historical palazzos, but rather sober and unnoticeable modern or postmodern buildings in the outskirts of the city. So, colored surfaces and different materials (often marble or paint) became the way to upgrade these ‘flat’ spaces to new uses and for new users. We need to say that many of their works also happened in a moment in which Portugal became ‘the place to move to” for many European and American people looking for an easy and good investment and often even with citizenship granted upon buying property. Somehow it is then understandable how the idea of the surface (with all its different colors, textures, and materialities) has been used to revise interior spaces, with practically uncomplicated but aesthetically potent gestures, and became the main element for building “the fala vocabulary”.

a future with new questions to take with caution

Now a new phase opens up before fala, and it is exciting. They are starting to get commissioned for new-build housing projects. No longer rethinking the existing. Some in Porto, and some in Lisbon, where they won competitions for large numbers of social housing units. So, it is not only an issue of jumping up in scale, but rather one of passing from being inside, with maybe a front and back exterior expression, to a full externalization of their ideas. I guess a new problem confronts them: could the new volumes still be resolved with the surface treatment as the fundamental medium of their articulation? Could the patterns, geometries, and materials used to design the interiors be used for the compositional language of the building shape, of the exteriors, of the positioning vis-à-vis the sites of these new buildings? Is this enough? Could this vocabulary become the way of mediating these volumes and façades in the existing city?

The housing with pink chimneys [102], in Porto, is one of the first of this new phase. A building built from scratch as an investment by a developer: he bought the land and asked fala to make a small housing building with three apartments for sale. For the inside of the apartments, fala’s proposed solution is characteristically elegant, while outside the volume is extremely simple (just a rectangular volume with a small recess at the top), so simple to the point of wanting to not add anything to the city. The volume is then treated with black and colored stripes and squares defining an outside recognizable and unifying pattern: in fact, as the volume is adjacent to a plot that will never be built on but that legally cannot have windows opening onto it, so fala’s strategy touches just three sides of the volume. There were certainly legal codes that determined they build this way, and I’m not arguing for a folly either, but I do wonder if fala will be interested in finding, in proper exterior volumetric terms, the same sense of cleverness that they find so easily in their interior volumes, or if they will continue to play the “surface treatment game” both inside and out.

This is indeed a new phase marking a turning point in the brave work of a young practice. We shall see where they will head.