“The idea was to understand what the place was asking for and try to learn from the pre-existing conditions to design.”

São Mamede House is rich with the history of its location in Lisbon’s old town, utilising original stone work stretching back to Roman times. It also teems with the history of its occupants, architects Manuel Aires Mateus and Sofia Pinto Basto, who together restored the house 20 years ago to create their married home. Coming fairly early in their careers, the development of the project played a key role in shaping them as architects. We sat down with Manuel to discuss the evolution of São Mamede House and how it has impacted his approach to architecture.

The couple’s connection to the property stretches much further back than 20 years. As a child, Manuel would visit the nearby cathedral for mass at Christmas time, and clearly remembers observing the wall demarcating the edge of the property. Sofia also had an early connection to the building, as it was once owned by a member of her family. Though the area was not luxurious when the two were looking to buy, these connections made the choice feel natural, and they were drawn to the property’s features: “It had a possibility of having a garden and facing the river, and it was nice to have a house close to the castle and close to the nature, the cathedral also.”

The restoration took time, both due to the history of the property, and the architects’ desire to design by way of discovery: “It took us 5 or 6 years to restore the house because it is a preserved area...In fact, we have some Roman stone in the middle of the living room that we found in the garden. And we dig in the garden until 5 ½ metres down the actual level of the garden, and we have there the Roman street, the actual Roman road.  We had to do a lot of work of archeology, and the building is preserved so everything had been taking slow progress. And at the same time we decided to make it very slow because the idea was to accept that more than trying to impose a project was to try to understand what the place was asking for and try to learn from the pre-existing conditions to design.”

By working with the materials present in the property, the architects at once preserved its history and breathed new life into it: “We found a lot of these...large pieces of stone, 20 to 30cm large...and most of them were ancient infrastructure of the building. And we just remove it and we made a pattern of the floors in the garden and then inside the house. And even, if you see, all the stairs of the house are blocks of stone. Blocks of stone that were also buried in the ground. You see, this stone also allows you a lot of freedom because you can cut, adapt...and we just removed the stones and put it again. Everything was done in pieces. If you think about the dining room...we build the new wall that exists there and fits exactly; you have the feeling that the wall has always been there because you use that old’s like a puzzle. All this movement we make with the stones allows us to understand first this feeling of time that is so important but the feeling...that you don’t have to preserve in a direct sense; it’s also good that you can, let’s say, remould or recreate the time in a true way.”

The couple made weekly visits to the site to increase their understanding of the property, and to intuit the next steps of the renovation. This led to the discovery of an entirely new level: “We decide to operate on the house with freedom of discovery, the project step by step. We used to go there at the weekends to look at the situation and try to move another step on the project, and then every day you have a kind of new surprise. One day we had this cistern, that we now use as a playground for the kids, let’s say. And it was a well to the facade and it was full of water, so for me it was a well, but the archeologists, they say ‘Can we take the water out of the well?’ So they take the water out, and we visit with the stairs a wonderful cistern...and we start to dig to make a connection to a cistern to then use it as a space, and we start to dig and then we decide to make a small tunnel just to see the situation...the bricks that were around the small tunnel just fell and there was already an arch there. And we said, ok we have this arch, the arch of the cistern. And it was done, and we just have to finish it. And it was so impressive this idea that we are all trying to conduce the process and not impose on it.”

The experience of designing his own home gave Manuel an understanding of the importance of time in architecture.

“It was the first time that we saw the influence of time in what you do. I was 35; we don’t think about our building get old when you are less than 35. I mean, you don’t think of anything at all when you are under 35, so it’s a possibility that you don’t face. And it was first time that, in fact, we had a kind of reaction, started to learn that a building have to get old, have to resist, and it was something that we learned exactly in that project. So when I think about that...we have to understand where this can go and why time can [add value] to this, a project like that. Also helped us a lot that we found Gothic stones, Roman stone, and, of course, 19th century or 18th century stone in the ground. So we learned a lot about this idea of time and...changing this process of time in manipulating the layer and not transforming completely the reality. But at the same time, it was the idea of understanding how time could influence this process and how time is going to be part of the process of the house. And it is very clear. I mean, the first things that we designed, I remember our big concern was the day it was ready, and our concern now is completely different because we know the day it’s going to be ready it’s the first day of the life of a building. So it was in that sense a great lesson and now I am absolutely sure that it was an important moment of our [evolution of] work.”

Of course, interwoven with the passage of time, are the realities of day-to-day life. And, Manuel explains, architecture revolves around life:

“And one of the things that you also learn is that you don’t design. You deal with life. That’s architecture. Design is a very small word [for] what you do when you are trying to propose a support for life. Because a house is a support for life. So we are interested in the way we are going to live, or the feelings that we are going to provide, or the way we are going to move around the house, things that are connected to life; our friends are going to come, kids. I mean, this is always talking about really real things about life and then start from that we give a forum; we design in that sense. But we don’t think of this idea of design, because the word design, in our moment today, is very connected to image. And we don’t accept the image as a starting point.”

São Mamede House, renovated with elements of the Roman ruins that stood in its ground, reflects the passage of time as well as daily life. The ruins bind these concepts together:

“One of the things that we like very much is this idea of the ruins. Of course, 20 years ago, it was this romantic approach [to] the ruin, but probably the most important is that the ruin is always an open possibility. And I feel that good architecture is exactly the same as a ruin; we have the feeling that good architecture will become always a good ruin. And when you visit the ruins... in Greece and Rome and places like that... when we look at these ruins we always think about possibilities. Our mission was to design a house as a ruin. The people that are going to live there are going to use the house [with a] freedom of possibilities...also the feeling that they are going to finish the process. Because architecture is an art but it is an unfinished art. So if you think of a painting or a sculpture, it is already finished. So it is what it is. In architecture you need to add a layer of life to finish a project. always project yourself on a ruin in a clear way. And our mission is to design in the way that we feel that we could project ourselves on the house and we have the feeling of being part of the project.”

Text by De La Espada
Photography by Yuki Sugiura
Sketches by Manuel Aires Mateus