Text: Hans Ibelings
Hans Ibelings: But isn't it true that architects are inclined to compromise because it is inherent to building, where high ambitions and ideals inevitably come up against everyday reality?
Teresa Novais: Some people think that special architects operate under special conditions. But that's not what I've seen during all these years working with them.
Jorge Carvalho: Our ambition is not to design without restrictions, but rather to design within restrictions while thinking freely. Our fear is that while we think we don't compromise, in the end we do because we don't see it. You can’t close yourself off so that you don't compromise at all, and you can't take everything into consideration. It's necessary to be free from the beginning and to be attentive and not to lose focus. Probably the most important thing is to have a certain interest in what goes on beyond the discipline, so that you have anchors for your work.
HI: What are those anchors outside the discipline for you right now?
JC: It isn't completely outside the discipline, but we have concluded that it is relevant to look at design as much as possible from the position of an outsider. We tend to give a lot of importance to everyday life, embodying politics, arts, society, environment. Considering the complexity of daily life allows us to deal with the compromises inherent to construction, as you put it (for instance, contradictory demands and needs from different users), and at the same time to expand the boundaries that we set for our work.
HI: Is that what you describe as expressing the circumstances in architecture, or is it only a little part of it?
JC: It's a part of it.
TN: 'Expressing the circumstances' is important, because the circumstances are life itself, you know, the special life in that situation that we want to give expression to; we don't make buildings for dead people, but for people who are alive.
JC: The world is complex and one approach is to try to grasp the complexity of the world and to express it in a way that is like an a priori judgement of the world. For us the complexity is a particular combination of conditions in a specific situation. And by dealing with that particular complexity we believe that we can also comment on complexity in a more general way. At least that's what we hope. We are not prepared to explain such comments about our work objectively, we leave that to others, but as a method, it seems so far to be more productive for us than other ways of working.
HI: Is there a fundamental difference for you, then, between private life and public life when it comes to designing?
TN: As an architect you always try to achieve something positive, something better. To make a place where it's better to be than not to be, a better building, a better neighbourhood, a better city. And in this there is always a specific situation: if it is for the city and it's public, then your aims are different than when it is for a family, which requires something very intimate and private. It's a bit like trying to understand human nature, like Hercule Poirot used to say, 'If one has an opportunity to observe human nature, time is never wasted'. I think as architects we really like to understand the complexity of human nature, and design for this complexity.
HI: As an architect you cannot be a pessimist but with the economic crisis, and the rather gloomy prospects for Portugal and Europe, there is reason enough to be pessimistic.
TN: It is a very pessimistic time, so that's why we must be more optimistic. For us the economic crisis makes it very difficult to survive, we are no different from other people, but in spite of that we have to be more lucid, vigilant and to participate positively, don't you think?
JC: Architecture cannot be pessimistic because while other arts can be about perception, there is always a degree of action in architecture. And action has to have a degree of optimism. There's a parallel with environmentalism, which some people accuse of being apocalyptic. In fact, environmental activism is inherently optimistic, because if you weren't optimistic and keen to change something, you wouldn't act. So the environmental activists can rightly claim to be optimists, optimistic enough to think that it's worth acting.
HI: Tell me more about your desire to combine the expression of specific circumstances with offering a global answer.
JC: We hope we're doing that. It’s our ambition but I'm afraid we can't prove that we're achieving it.
TN: But that's really what we want to achieve. That's why we look for international experience, that's why we decided to go to London when we graduated. Portugal was still a very closed society then and not a full member of European Union. We just wanted to get acquainted with the world outside Portugal, so that our solutions would be more meaningful and global.
HI: Your idea of global answers intrigues me, because so often architects reinvent what already exits, and how often is an architect willing to reuse something from a previous project?
TN: That's true, and we tend to say to students that architects are not alone on any project, that they always reuse previous experiences. The goal is to find solutions that are comprehensive. Architects are not alone throughout the architectural process. But in order to survive, they must be the leaders of that process. That was something we could see, for instance, with Álvaro Siza or Eduardo Souto Moura. No one does architecture alone and even in a small building, loads of people are involved, even people who never knew they were involved, people working in the industry and for suppliers; so building involves a lot of people of whom architects are the natural leaders.
Architecture, Design, Interior, Theory