LISBON | Interviews | José Mateus
We meet José Mateus – principal of ARX and founder of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale – in the office he shares with his brother and business partner Nuno. Stamped crates stacked on a back shelf in their boardroom are the only remnants of an impressive archival exhibition of the firm’s work that was recently on display at the Belem Cultural Center (curated by Luis Santiago Baptista), and is currently being packaged to send to venues around the globe.
On preparing for the Archive Exhibition: All of the firm’s process material was catalogued and compartmentalized into custom crates to create a so-called Cabinet of Curiosities. The sheer volume of models speaks to the necessity of endless experimentation that defines ARX’s work. During the interview, José explained that he is always working on multiple things at once (he is currently pursuing a PhD) so that he can bring a fresh perspective to both his practice and to his students at FAUTL.
“After 22 years of designing, it gets too easy to get trapped in the images and references that you know. It can become a ritual.”
On the theme of ‘Close, Closer’, this year’s Triennale, which “presents architecture not just as an object and idea to be mediated, but as the act of mediation itself”: Although José is clearly infatuated with the built object and with creating architecture that has not been seen before, he has also wholeheartedly embraced a Triennale theme that very much distances itself from buildings and tr adition. He explained that within the current climate, the definition of architecture is expanding, and that architects must expand with it.
“All of the students in schools of architecture think they are going to be producing fantastic buildings. They need to redefine their relationship to architecture and they may have to face . . . that there are many, many other ways of being an architect.”
On establishing the Triennale: After visiting the São Paolo Architecture Biennale, Jose asked “Why not here?” This simple question bolstered by a huge level of commitment and tenacity resulted in the first Triennale being held in Lisbon in 2007.
“People are not shy to complain, but they are shy when they have to do their efforts for their colleagues and the collective.”
On the creation of educational television programming about architecture: José shared a story with us about calling a friend who worked in television to complain about a program that had been made about Portuguese architecture. He felt the show was too much about construction and not about the qualitative aspects of buildings that the general public could appreciate. “Why don’t you make a show then?” his friend had replied. So he agreed to do it. They went on to make a 26 episode series about different modern buildings in the country and their architects that aired on public television.
On exporting Portuguese architecture in the wake of the economic crisis: José feels that some of the difficulty in getting work outside of the country comes from having politicians who are locally supportive but do not share the message that Portuguese architecture is great with the world. His suggestion – and something he’s been working on with local representatives – is to give the politicians material in order to market Portuguese architecture when they travel, similar to what the French did to increase the profile of their wines back in the 1960s.
The greatest message we took away from our meeting with José – and one that could and should be applied to any city or country striving to push its architecture culture forward – is that if you feel something is lacking, you need to take action to create the change you want to see. No one else is going to do it for you.