Designing the void. Manuel Aires Mateus speaks

From the concept of space and its limit to the pursuit of eternity in architecture. Archiproducts interviews the Portuguese architect who pays a tribute to empathy and resistance – in life and in architecture

“An ancient Chinese saying states that “we shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. It is the same for architecture. In fact, everything originates from a void, in architecture and in our lives.”

This is how the Portuguese architect Manuel Aires Mateus, exceptional juror for the ADA 2022, describes how he sees the genesis of making architecture, and more.
In a new interview by the Archiproducts editorial staff, Aires Mateus goes beyond the concept of architecture to speak of the relationship between real human needs and inhabited space because “architecture has to do with everyday life, with real needs”.
His point of view embraces minimalism and patience, but also empathy and resistance – in architecture and in everyday life.

Manuel Aires Mateus was born in Lisbon in 1963 where he graduated from the Facultad de Arquitectura de la Universidade Tecnica in 1986. In 1983, he began collaborating with architect Gonçalo Byrne, an experience that proved crucial for his future. 
In 1988, he founded the Aires Mateus & Associados studio with his brother Francisco. Public and private commissions, numerous prizes and international competitions, works published in journals all over the world make the Aires Mateus brothers central figures in European architecture. Their work is characterised by an absolute, silent, minimalist and strongly sculptural spatiality. 

The architecture of the Mateus brothers is based on the act of excavation, the removal of matter, the subtraction of volumes from a previously defined form. This design approach is visible in a wide range of works from houses, museums, and urban architecture to landscape projects.

The use of a few significant materials borrowed from tradition reaffirms the ‘centrality of the void’ and conveys the idea of timelessness and spatial authenticity. One of the studio’s best-known projects embodies these values. Casa No Tempo, a low white parallelepiped, camouflaged in the Portuguese countryside, is a residence where time really seems to stand still.

Among the firm’s most famous works are: House in Alenquer (1998-2000), Cultural and Artistic Centre in Sines (2001-05), Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum in Cascais (2003-07), House in Comporta (2009-10), Research Centre in Furnas (2010), Headquarters EDP (2015), Grândola Meeting Center (2016), Faculty of Architecture in Tornai (2017) and the recent photography centre in Lausanne (2021).

Interview with Manuel Aires Mateus

Tell us about the cultural context you grew up in? What conditioned your choice – and your brother’s – to become architects? Were there other architects in your family?
MAM: I am the son of an architect and a painter. There is a direct influence from my father, but thanks to my mother, we always lived surrounded by painters, sculptors, poets and writers. We’ve always lived in an artistic context. So, in fact, our path towards architecture was quite linear and it did not represent any break with our upbringing. My father had made this break before; he came from a more traditional family, in which most people studied law. We followed his break, in an environment completely surrounded by intellectuals and artists.  

Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus Ph. © FG+SG  2

Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus Ph. © FG+SG

You are Portuguese. How have your roots and your birthplace, Lisbon, influenced your way of thinking about and making architecture?
MAM: I think it’s more of a general vision. The tradition of Portuguese architecture is related to simple architecture. This very small country that expanded across the world had to take with it a very elementary architecture to be able to penetrate the deepest lands of Africa, Brazil and the Far East. I think this led us to a kind of architecture made up of rationally arranged means, and in a way, with a formal and material economy. I think we followed that tradition in a way, that line of thought… Always looking to do more with less, and to provide a base to be then complete with life.  

School in Vila Nova da Barquinha. Ph. © FG+SG 3

School in Vila Nova da Barquinha. Ph. © FG+SG

There is a recurrence of simple, almost archetypal forms in your work. Is this an instinctive choice or a refinement process? What is it about geometric figures that attracts you?
MAM: Archetypal forms attract us because of their ability to generate empathy in relationships with people who use this architecture. The need to create this empathy is due to the need to create a bridge that, once established, develops towards a more general understanding of architecture. 

House in Leiria. Ph. © FG+SG 4

House in Leiria. Ph. © FG+SG

Once, during a lecture, you said that ‘The centre of architecture is the void. That we can live in or inhabit’. How does the void materialise?
MAM: The Chinese saying about pottery states that we create the pot with clay but the void inside holds what we want. With architecture it’s the same. In fact, everything is a void in architecture and in our lives. If we are on a street, if we are in a square, in an interior space, the void is what surrounds us. What matters is how we confine this void, how we draw this limit. It may be deeper, richer, but deep down, that is the work of an architect. We always draw the void; even when we are thinking about interior domestic spaces, or when we are thinking about the volume of a house. Therefore, the exercise must be to put ourselves in the place of the observer – either from the inside or from the outside. We put ourselves in the place of a person who, in a void, observes the limit of that same void.  

House in Monsaraz Ph. © João Guimarâes 5

House in Monsaraz Ph. © João Guimarâes

You also stated that ‘Architecture has to do with life’. How does architecture, on any scale – residential or urban – influence everyday life?
MAM: I think the most important thing architecture ought to do is to make life possible. The projects we design should be spaces that allow for freedom of appropriation. That interests us on the scale of a city, a courtyard, or an interior room. Enabling people to appropriate a space and vary their appropriation. In fact, this is also a relationship with the resistance we need in buildings, so that they endure beyond the primary function for which they were built.  

Meeting Center in Grândola Ph. © Nelson Garrido 6

Meeting Center in Grândola Ph. © Nelson Garrido

What is the role of nature in architecture today?
MAM: Nature has always completed and dialogued with architecture. Today we feel more even more of a need for nature; and since architecture always reacts to the conditions of a place, of a time, of a situation, today we introduce more references to nature in each project. It is a necessity of our era.  

Fábrica de Água de Alcântara Ph. © FG+SG 7

Fábrica de Água de Alcântara Ph. © FG+SG

What is the role of the architect in terms of their social and cultural presence? What is their civic role and mission? 
MAM: The architect must have a civic and cultural role as a Human Being. As an architect, you must produce quality works that allow people to use them freely. The goal is to convey the idea that each person completes the finished work.  

Mudac et Photo Elysée, Lausanne Ph. © Juan Rodriguez 8

Mudac et Photo Elysée, Lausanne Ph. © Juan Rodriguez

You have taught in leading architecture schools all over the world, holding courses in Lisbon and Mendrisio. What is your personal advice for a young architect entering the profession today?
MAM: I think the most important thing for a young architect is resistance. This is a profession in which results are achieved over a long time period. And today that is difficult to reconcile with a life that is used to obtaining very fast results. Hence, resistance and resilience. 

Which three words would you choose to describe your work?
MAM: Systematic, because we work in a very organized way. Insistent, because we are able to redo a project many times until we get the result we want. Dialogue, because we believe in questioning ourselves and dialoguing with every participant in the project to obtain results. 

Manuel Aires Mateus in his studio Atelier Cecílio de Sousa. Ph. © Matilde Travassos 9

Manuel Aires Mateus in his studio Atelier Cecílio de Sousa. Ph. © Matilde Travassos® is a registered trademark of S.p.A
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