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Fala Atelier: ‘It is vaguely revolting to be working in Portugal’

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AR_EA Portugal: Fala Atelier

The endless hours of discussion required before committing line to paper inspired Filipe Magalhães and Ana Luisa Soares to call themselves Fala – ‘informal conversation’ in Portuguese – when founding their practice in 2012, before being joined by Ahmed Belkhodja a year later.

While they claim they became architects ‘for fun’, Fala admits it is ‘vaguely revolting’ to be practising in Portugal. The impact of the crisis has been heartfelt, and the market runs almost exclusively on commercial refurbishments. The recent boom in tourism has triggered the conversion of many decrepit mansions, and Airbnb listings now hold sway in both Lisbon and Porto’s historic centres.

From the architects’ point of view, it is ‘devastating’ – in only two years, 150 out of the 450 classified buildings in Porto have been completely gutted and done up – but also an important, if bittersweet, source of work. While they survived solely from these projects in their first year, today refurbishments constitute just under half of their commissions. Small in scale, these interventions can often be understood with a simple yet bold move: a semi-circular wall in a Chiado apartment, sliding mirrored and glass doors in another Lisbon flat, marble divisions in an estate agent’s office.

Fala likes to open volumes up and liberate a large living space, which is then subdivided into smaller areas by a subtle play of techniques and languages, rather than with hard boundaries. In the Chiado apartment’s living area, a geometrical floor pattern marks the beginning of the kitchen while a slightly raised plinth and lower ceiling distinguish the dining area. Bright white interiors act as a canvas, brought to life by sparse but vivid shades of greens and blues – their favourite colour is RAL5009.

‘We are always stealing from the internet so it is only fair for us to be copied, and actually quite nice – it’s an ecosystem after all’

Although the simplicity of their spaces suggests relatively uncluttered interiors, the carefully composed illustrations of their projects bring traces of occupation and inhabitants into the picture – a pair of trousers has been forgotten on an armrest, breakfast is ready on a kitchen counter and someone is still lying in bed. Rather than being purely representational, these images are an essential component of their process – ‘they happen on day two’ and are constantly reworked throughout the design development – bringing together numerous artistic references, from Douanier Rousseau to Malevich to Hockney. If Magalhães was at first upset to see their images copied, he admits ‘we are always stealing from the internet so it is only fair, and actually quite nice – it’s an ecosystem after all’.

Since there are hardly any public buildings being commissioned in Portugal, they enter architectural competitions, particularly Swiss ones. The young trio likes to juggle the reality of built projects with the freedom of competitions, where they can propose more radical solutions – which often, in turn, inform their residential commissions.

For now, the project they are most proud of is, without hesitation, their first house – ‘because it is our first house’. Currently under construction, Fala spent close to two years working on its design and, ‘probably because we are young and naive’, they are ‘convinced it will be a masterpiece’. They are still waiting for someone to walk through the door of their Porto studio and offer them their dream commission: a kōban, a small Japanese police station – and they’ve confessed they would be willing to do (almost) anything to secure this privilege.

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