Manuel Rocha de Aires Mateus and Francisco Aires Mateus began their architecture career, after the graduation at Facultade de Arquitectura UT of Lisbon, Portugal, respectively in 1986 and 1987, in the studio of Gonçalo Byrne. During that period they learned from their master a new way to approach the projects and a passionate attention to every technical detail, from the very start of the design process until the construction of a finished artifact. Furthermore, they learned to enrich their projects more and more with references from any possible source, even if distant from the architecture field. They fully embraced the lesson of Gonçalo Byrne, by which Architecture is a choral work between many distant fields of knowledge, fused together to generate something unique and highly specific.
The Aires Mateus brothers began to design their independent projects directly in the Byrne’s studio, with his advice and supervision. We can find a house in Grândola, a house in Sintra and a house for their mother. Since these three astounding early projects, it is possible to distinguish three main aspects of their architecture.
Primarily, there is the memory of the site with all the elements which pre-existed before the new project. At the Byrne’s studio they were used to make precise drawings of the site, before starting to design, to understand the place, the programme, the environment and it ideally took at least two or three weeks of work; nowadays they continue this tradition but instead of using their drawing skills, they make a physical model because of the shorter times required by a project nowadays. Secondly, the knowledge of the organizational, rational and constructive conditions, in order to make a building possible and coherent with time, money and site. And thirdly, the connection between history and people.
This aspect can be seen as a research of historical roots of the place where they intervene and also as a way to find out what is the question or the real issues they need to solve, or more, an attempt to generally understand the possibilities of the space. They think about it as a question to the place and comment about it:
“The idea of always working up from the question was something else we learned from Gonçalo. That’s why we work like the Greeks, like the classical period, trying to dissect the question in every case, looking at it from every angle to discover its possibilities. The important thing is the question and how to tackle it. The outcome will generate different answers.”
As time goes by, the Aires Mateus architecture, in every project, defines precisely the relationship between time and space. This kind of investigation is timeless and a human fascination since the birth of memory, because “it reminds […] of the finite nature of our existence”.
Time is fundamental in their work, it is the element which divides good and bad architecture. The design process is always aimed to understand what a building will be after many years or how it could become a ruin.
Instead, for what concerns the transformation of a ruin and how to make it livable again, we can take as an example Casa en Alenquer as a first essay of the Aires Mateus’ idea of the contrast between new and pre-existing.
Here they designed an independent building detached from the old one, connected with secret threads. And what makes it a piece of contemporary architecture is what is left amidst this matter: air, emptiness, silence. It is born a new different relationship between empty and full, the first to host life, the second to protect life.
As Emilio Tuñon says:
“Aires Mateus blend the set of constraints of each specific situation with their own obsession. The result is a sort of magic that oscillates between subjective and systematic. Their architecture is made of poetry and void.[…]
The project is the optimistic expectation of permanence in the course of this future and the passage of time is a true test of the project’s options, the validity of its principles and the quality of the author’s initiative. Aires Mateus design spaces that are permeable to change without losing a hypothetically timeless essence. They make buildings ready to become beautiful ruins.”
Going through the project the most important difficulty the Aires Mateus brothers admit isn’t adding, but “choosing”, more precisely how to make choices on what to relinquish, referring to the Mies Van der Rohe principle “less is more” as a value. Reducing more and more, their architecture could be seen as sculptural. They are interested in the phenomenon of absence, or better the phenomenon of subtraction, the meaning of the void, which they define as it follows:
“The void is the place where architecture outlines the space where people can stay and live. It’s the center where life begins, where humanity exists.”
It’s a way to reduce the values of architecture to their essence, with the intention to complete a building not only with their vision but also through the eyes of the people who will use it.
There is an important connection with the work of Alvaro Siza in this way, because as well as one of the Portuguese masters do, they try to figure out architecture considering also the fourth dimension of time.
For what concerns the choice of materials they do like and insist on whiteness and plaster as a topcoat.
According to them, the whiteness permits a dematerialization of the planes which drives directly to a spacial essentiality and purity. There are two main reasons, one practical and one poetic. The practical reason is that the use of a single material as white plaster permits to reduce costs and to speed up the construction process, the poetic reason is that a full mono-materiality allows getting more easily a designed essentiality, which is focused on the fundamental aspects of space and it is also connected with the tradition.
“White is possibility, essentiality” in the words of Aires Mateus.
In conclusion, their architecture has key elements such as the void, the history, the deep belonging with the place, the whiteness and the essentiality of forms, which establish a different approach to the design process and to the life in a space.
The subtractive process they elaborate and refine, opens new possibilities to life and permits a strong connection between life and form, time and space. They have reached a way to comprehend and build something that can host life in equilibrium and simplicity at first glance, but also leaves a profound sense of belonging of the building itself within the place in which it is designed. The Aires Mateur architecture is thought to remain as a significant landmark, wherever it is.
– Aires Mateus 2011-2016, El Croquis no. 186;
– Aires Mateus 2002-2011, El Croquis no. 154;
– C. Tonon, F. Cacciatore, L’architettura di Aires Mateus, Mondadori Electa, 2011, pp. 215
– Aires Mateus – Private Works, a.mag no. 08, February 2016