“Architecture is about life. It’s about all the possibilities of life. And everything about life could be connected to architecture.”

When Manuel Aires Mateus talks about architecture it sounds like poetry. He talks about memory, the senses, movement. Indeed, his structures look like poetry: at once universal and specific, familiar and completely new, striking the heart of human perception. It is no surprise, then, that he spends much of his time reading literature and studying art: “I’m always very interested in everything that is cultural. I read poetry...or I see movies...I like very much some sculptors or some painters that we, in fact, use to understand experience and emotions. And we like the way they translate emotions and the way they could make things going into a limit.”

Lisbon-based architects and brothers, Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus have won numerous awards for their work, including being shortlisted for the Mies van der Rohe Award several times. They have separate offices yet often consult one another on projects. As Manuel describes it, “Sometimes we do projects together, sometimes we share the first phases of a project, or sometimes we do different projects. We have a kind of common research so that is why we consider ourselves as a group.”

Taking a holistic approach to architecture that honours existing structures, land, and history, Aires Mateus work to sensitively manipulate, integrate or update. Their work is timeless: bold and innovative yet connected to the past. Playing with volume and void, light and shadow, they articulate space and movement, seclusion and connection. Interior and exterior spaces are linked through materiality and cleverly designed apertures without compromising on privacy. The surrounding landscape is seen as integral to the project: the topography may be manipulated to protect a building, create entrances at different levels, or increase privacy, yet this is so thoughtfully executed as to be invisible, creating the effect of having always been that way.

“What we like to think is that each project is unique. So we like to really start the project with a completely open mind, a completely free way,” Manuel explains. “Our central point in all of the projects is the way that people are going to live. It’s always about this idea of how people could feel in these spaces more than, let’s say, image. So it’s also the way you touch, the colour, the smell, the memories that you can achieve and the common memories that we all have about this material. We are interested in the way you can feel the spaces, not only in a direct way, as a reaction, but also as a kind of emotional way because we wanted to always establish a kind of relation where your memories became part of the way you see.” He continues, “We very often use very simple shapes where they have a way of communicating with everybody the same way. Or we use some details that everybody understand[s] but maybe we’ll use it in another way.”

Manuel says movement is essential to the life of a building: “The physical reality in architecture, they’re not perceived in three dimensions, [but] in four dimensions. And it’s very important to understand that you are never static in the space...when you design a project you have to understand that you are going to pass from one space to another so it means that you’re not going to only design each one of the spaces, but also the relationship between the spaces. And movement will make you perceive the spaces in different ways.”

Manuel has an ongoing relationship with hotelier João Rodrigues, which has given birth to a number of holiday homes that interact with the landscape, reflect the local vernacular, and provide unique, sensual experiences. “I have a very close relationship with João. It is very important to work with a client, this dialogue to establish with a client, and with them — it’s not only João but also his wife [Andreia] — we have these kind of dialogues where we really work on the problem until it is very clear what is necessary to do, and then we do. It is also because we design not for, let’s say, a permanent use, it’s always for this touristic use. There is a kind of freedom in a way in design that it is also nice to have an experience.”

De La Espada had the pleasure of photographing our furniture at two locations designed by Manuel Aires Mateus for João Rodrigues: Casa No Tempo, shown in the first volume of our lookbook; and Santa Clara 1728, featured in the 2nd.

Casa No Tempo
“In Casa No Tempo, it was about this idea to remake an archetype of a traditional house in the middle of the countryside, but more than that was to really...redesign their memories of the property. So our intention was really to make that project become very natural on the way they use it...but at the same [time] the way it belongs to the place, the natural way you see in that area. And the material became, of course, the traditional material already made, so we wanted to keep the memories of the time, of the building, so all the variety of the wall...we decided to keep this irregularity then just add the natural materials. And everything is real. It is something very important. It doesn’t look real, it is real. So when you look at a ceramic piece it is ceramic, and it doesn’t have 1cm, it has 10x10 so it’s real; or the stone, it’s not 2cm of stone, it’s always more than 9; and the wood is wood. So everything is very solid in that sense. So it’s always about try[ing] to give all the properties a material can give. Our idea is always using this reality and trying to bring atmosphere through this reality.”

Santa Clara 1728

The idea there is to really create the feeling of what could be a traditional Lisbon house even if all the elements that we use are not traditional at all. What was more important for us was not to design a common bathroom that we have in our memories from our grandmother’s, or traditional way of designing a bathroom, but...to use a kind of atmosphere that in a novel process the feeling of belonging to the situation, belonging to the scene. But then all the elements, the details are not necessarily traditional ones. But what is interesting is the feeling that you have there, you have the feeling it is a traditional house from Lisbon.”

Text by De La Espada
Photography by Yuki Sugiura