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Skrei: ‘Architecture can delve into territories where most disciplines don’t dare to’

Skrei soil

AR_EA Portugal: Skrei

The story begins in 2009, after a failed business venture left Pedro Jervell and Francisco Adão da Fonseca with countless bags of materials that they were unable to sell – ‘it all went wrong from the very start’, they admit, ‘there was no market for clay building materials’. But the creative endeavour grew from there. Skrei, a creative studio integrating material concoction, design development and building delivery, was born. Selling compressed earth bricks is one of the many things they do today. They analyse regional soil composition and plant their own trees while they engage in the regeneration of Porto’s old city and attempt to bridge the gap between regulation from on high and cultural conjuncture.

The two Portuguese architects, graduates of the Architectural Association and Delft University respectively, were initially attracted to the built environment because of  ‘the plain physiognomy of things’ and the ‘naïve appeal of form’. Rapidly, they realised that it is all the ‘invisible dynamics’ shaping forms that are much more fascinating – politics and economics, technology and the environment, education and power. They traded things for processes. In today’s context of cultural homogenisation and ecological devastation, topped up by the uncertain future of European institutions, Skrei worries Portugal could have a lot to lose and feels that it is everyone’s responsibility to attempt to find solutions, even if the challenges can seem overwhelming. The partners accuse the profession of being too passive, allowing other disciplines to take over and creating ‘an expertise void that weakens strategic planning, governance and ultimately social cohesion’.

038 039 ar 02 area skrei

Material samples made out of local soil

By nature, ‘architecture has the capacity to delve into territories where most disciplines don’t dare to’, Fonseca argues. ‘As design shapes and negotiates human beings’ relationships to the physical world, it can innovate methods for the harvest of energy and the fertilisation of soils, and rethink water supply systems and food production networks.’ Skrei deeply believes in the need to redefine what construction is, and how it is done. While engineering is a vital component to tackle these questions – half the team were trained as civil engineers – the work of the practice is by no means dry. Instead, there is a raw beauty that emanates from it, something organic and powerful. When looking at images of their projects, you are almost always left wondering what some of the pieces are made out of. Sheep wool and horse manure, cork and beeswax, timber and cork, anything suggestive of durability goes in the workshop. 

So far, work ranges from private refurbishments and wineries to artistic installations and exhibition models. In Skrei’s portfolio, the boundary between a mock-up and a full-size piece of architecture dissolves. Scale seems secondary – and that opens up possibilities. Any prototype the practice creates encapsulates a real potential for application. Materials come with a lifecycle. They have completed two buildings where the bricks were ‘100 per cent made by them’ and they ‘don’t see other architects or builders doing this’.

Now, the architects are able to dream much further –  self-sufficient housing units are high up on the list. Hands-on idealists, as they like to think of themselves, are probably the only kind of idealists likely to trigger real changes in the world.