My friend Paulo Teixeira asks me to send him an interview with myself. This is an idea that I have had for sometime, coming from the frustration of never having been asked to speak about what I would like to talk about. I am now caught on my own trap as, given this opportunity, I must prove that I have something to say.
Let us then imagine that an interested interviewer questions me as follows:
- You are an architect and you say that you like to be one.
What sense does this passion have to you?
This passion is not an emotional dimension acquired and static but a form of discovering, permanently, new directions of interest in what I make and how I make it.
In our office we take care of the organization of human society in the space: at the scale of the building and of its equipment and furnishing, at the urban scale and at regional scale.
Within such a diversified activity we are constantly asked to perform different forms of creative work, some compensating others from the inevitable frustrations that are the rule in a profession that depends on a number of decisions making systems, not always that better informed.
Later we will come back to this question with more personal and emotional terms.
- The present panorama of world architecture mirrors a great diversity of opinion, attitudes, philosophic choice and ethical choice.
How do you situate yourself vis a vis those positions?
For the architects and urban planners there should be, as there is for the medical doctors, an oath of Hippocrates. Within our faculties there is no more discussion on ethics, or maybe there never was. There is talk, when there is, on deontology and, mostly, in the sense of securing the protection of corporative privileges. The exercise of our profession affects and touch peoples lives as much as, or even more than the effects on it from the exercise of medicine.
I could say that that this influence is even bigger in our case as if the doctor cares for the individual our activity affects human groups more or less extensive and even the living conditions of all the urban community.
In this sense I see no room for the present hedonistic irresponsibility, paid with very high environmental costs and demonstrates our sold out to the most mediocre values of the consuming society.
More than three-quarter parts of humanity do not have, to this day, minimally acceptable habitation conditions. This huge sector of humanity keeps growing and is becoming more and more conscious of the unjust huge differences between rich and poor. I could give dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of the monstrous asymmetry in the distribution of the factors that affect the life and human habitat’s quality.
We could ask ourselves if this is not a political problem to be framed and resolved by ideological channels, government and political global systems. This seems evident but habitable space is, also a political category and, as such it demands from the professionals, who work within such a system, an enlightened and active political stance.
The state of disorder and of degradation of our cities is another reflex of the progressive alienation of professionals that stopped asking themselves if technical choices have or does not have a political signal, that pactuate systematically with the most reactionary forces of the society and with the wilder speculators that are quickly destroying our cities; it is a reflex of the carelessness with which are treated themes of environmental importance within our projects, on the social costs of the waste of space and of natural resources that are the consequence of the formal effects of our aesthetic “refined” masturbations… I am not sure of even having started to answer the question… but there is here a sketched position.
- You work as an architect in Africa and in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. It was your choice.
In all choices one must always give due importance to circumstantial elements. I came to Africa in a very important moment of my life, entering adolescence, and also in a very important moment for decolonization. This coincidence force on me opinions confrontations, even at family level, that profoundly influenced my life and my choices for the future. My return to Europe, as a young adult, to study architecture, happened also in a crucial changing moment of the political life in Portugal when the colonial-fascist regime could not any longer hide its profoundly inhuman and corrupt nature. More choices had to be made and better tempered had to be the character to refuse the class privileges that enticed us to a life of easy success. The great migrations that us, the “overseas” people in a regularly performed cultural and social transhumance, progressively liberated us from emotional and cultural, from which much later we would suffer the nostalgia, The participation in the colonial war and the moral duty of intellectual coherence, the first hand contact with the miserable condition of the African people. The shame of belonging, even against our will, to the side of the colonial exploiters, forced us irreversible choices, without any other compensation than the peace of mind. The chain of circumstances followed. To any demand for new and ever deeper levels of participation in the adventure of building a country from the spoils of the liberation war and for the creation of a “ liberated zone of humanity” took us to a, ever deeper moral commitment and, consequently. Emotional that transformed my choice in the natural way of being chosen for a mission that justifies and transcended myself. I cannot have said it in fewer words.
- In your daily life you must attend to diverse activities and diverse fields from teaching to the practice of your art and profession, to the participation in reflection’s for a and consultancies, to delivering international conferences, to the participation in the elaboration of legislation pertaining to territorial planning and to work in the field of furniture and daily use objects design …
How do you integrate all those activities and what problems does the management of so many diverse interests create?
There is, in fact, a great continuity, and even contiguity, of values and aspects in all this productive activity.
It may even be true that, I do not make anything well…but, at least, I try and, specially, and do not evade challenges and demands.
All gets explained because I do not accept easily the concept of specialist that knows more and on less and less.
Within our range of interests, in the field of construction of the physical real of human life, nothing is left out. From optics to anthropology, from economics to public administration, from aesthetics to manual dexterity, from ecology to psychology, from history to geography all has its own interest and specific relevancy.
Here, where I am needed, there are not many that know what must be known to integrate our 21stcentury society in the physical space.
From that our first duty: to teach the little we know.
It is a part of the world still in a process of cultural transformation that renders, every day more irrelevant, all traditional material culture, at least within the real of the human habitat.
Urban environment demands knowledge, practices and technologies, administrative, sociologic and of building construction that do not take easily roots in the ways of living and life management of the traditional society.
The brutality of the conflicts of interest at the urban level do not allow us the alienation from the battle for a more just human society, where our technical knowledge have an indispensible relevance.
From that derives an inevitable involvement with the problems of the organization of the urban space, of the eradication of the slums, of the rehabilitation of informal neighbourhoods and the dignification of the persons through the improvement of their housing conditions.
But architect was the first instinct, the motivation that allowed the progressive discovery of all those other, wider, levels of our utility.
That explains why I renew permanently the pretexts for that old and inescapable passion that is, mostly the one that gives me credibility as a contributing element for the improvement of the urban environment where we live.
With the practice of the project comes, by extension and necessity, in an environment where the choices are extremely limited, the stimulus and the pleasure of working the form and of renewing the fulfilment that comes from the manipulation of the materials and the tools with which the objects and the furniture that people use everyday, are made. With the practice of all those activities comes some experience about the human dimensions, the technologies and the politics of this universe so rich in problems to be solved. The transmission of this experience and its use as a basis for other theoretical elaborations, on one side, and more structuring, on the other, allows me to speak about it to more distant audiences and to collaborate in the elaboration of the rules that form the legal basis for a more just and correct occupation of the territory.
From that comes my involvement in the definition of the legal aspects of the use of space.
It has an irresistible fascination to start my day in the carpenter’s workshop or the steel workshop to discuss a table or a chair construction detail, proceed to a building site to discuss the colours to be used or the texture of a wall, back to the office to decide on the functional distribution of an university campus, to meet the Public Works Minister on the Problems of Mozambique’s housing strategy, follow the team involved with the rehabilitation of one of the biggest Maputo slums, to discuss with my staff the thematic intentions of the project laboratories for the new semester, to work with my assistants in the structural solution of a new project, define the general guidelines for the terms of reference for a public-private partnership project to be implemented by the municipality and finally, back at home at the end of the day and without further interruptions concentrate in the invention of a anew project for a school or a residence.
I cannot see, in fact, any discontinuity or contradiction in this dispersal of activities. On the contrary I think that they all lead for a better understanding of the social, technical and cultural environment where I live and for which development I want and must contribute.
I could not live my day in any other form.
- Your working and living environment is certainly very different from that of your colleagues in technologically and economically developed countries.
How do you see this situation and how do you solve it in your architecture?
I remember having put the same question, maybe in slightly different wording, to Lucio Costa when he visited our Fine Arts School of Porto, when I was a student and I also remember that he answered me in a letter published in the first (and last issue) of our journal. With all honesty his answer did not satisfy me as much as the fact that he gave himself the bother to answer me.
In actual fact his advice was precious but difficult to understand at 23 years old. Patience was his prescription. Difficult to accept in those open fighting times.
Now I can see better to what long patience he was referring to.
What is really the matter is to understand that the cultural revolution of the African third world is done as much by the sublimation of the traditional as by the refusal of its meaning.
To explore this would need, by itself, another interview surely longer than this one…
However what matters here is to understand that who defines the architecture of a cultural-geographic context is the client, not the architect; it is the “owner” of the land, not the urban planner; it is the businessman, not the creator.
Our architecture must be resolved at the level of very elementary technologies. Our worker is illiterate or very that. …and is hungry; our building enterprises can not risk meaningful investments in equipment and materials as they do not have minimal assurance
of its return.
Our clients have no notion about what is an architectural project and, consequently, search and accept the lower offer without any notion about what that may mean in terms of the lowering of quality and real costs; the technical support that we can get for the different engineering specialties is, generally, of very low quality; almost all structural and finishes materials are imported…and incorrectly imported as the importers impose us third rate and rejected materials, paid at first quality rates; the few materials with quality that we could produce are being devastated by countries like China, and others, that will finish our forest within a few years.
To keep this litany would a long suffering but I must still add that, in the middle of this situation, few are the clients that understand that we cannot demand here the same standards as in Europe… or Brazil.
We build less in the whole of Mozambique than in any medium size city in Brazil and, most probably, much less than in any São Paulo neighbourhood.
Our daily battle is for survival at the lowest levels of the basic necessities of humankind. The drama of hunger and lack of education, medical assistance, transportation and information, the shortening of life expectancy at birth, lack of proper dressing garments, and shoes, the deterioration of conditions for social intercourse are the realities with which we live everyday of our lives.
It is then easy to understand that our sense of self responsibility may be different from our colleagues in Europe ou America or Japan or Australia, where those very basic problems have already been resolved.
I can’t, however cease to be amazed by the manifest lack of conscientiousness of an entire professional sector of our profession that seems unable to frame its creative production on the basis of more universal values than those of the creation of short lived formal fashions and the use of the new technical instruments of design as a deus ex maquina and not as a means for a more human architecture, more rational and economic in the widest sense, searching for formal effects empty of any meaning, with a short life and disastrous consequences for the environment.
In this sense I think that in this third world where I place myself there is still, but difficultly, a healthier and more correct attitude, maybe because it is inevitable… in what regards the essential values and the meaning of our work.
But the infection of the fashions in the consumers architecture is already present even here and our investors are subjected to the same irresponsible attraction, promoted by a professional literature sold to its own sensationalism.
It will not be us, the “damned of the earth”, that will make the change or will have, with distant irrelevancy, the necessary impact but our battle is placed exactly there – in the struggle for an architecture more intelligent and enlightened, better integrated in a more just city, built with less aggression to the environment and more aesthetically responsible. That means: more aesthetical with more ethics.
- At seventy-three what is your impression on what you managed to get done? How do you qualify or place the difficulties you find in your work?
How do you see the future?
The future belongs to the historians that know now to extrapolate it from the past and the interpretation of the present.
We, that build the tangible, we are people of everyday that passes. We are interested and we worry about what we do and make every day. We believe that the future will still need what we realize in the present.
My future is tomorrow. Morning
Even being so short it is so difficult to realize.
There is nothing more that I can say on the future.
One stone over another are enough for us…c if they may have a deeper sense than simply to satisfy us.
On the past even less to say. It went.
What remains is elation and frustration. It was not so bad…but it could have been better.
It was done. That is in itself a virtue.
Of the difficulties I have already spoken.
Difficulty. Searching for the right words.
All difficulties are difficult, or else they aren’t.
The easy difficulties are the technical ones, the formal ones, those that depend on our limitations and on our ignorance. For those there is always the solution of more study and meditative concentration.
Difficult difficulties are the ones that depend on other person’s limitations, on their unpredictable behaviour, on their dishonesty or on their bad will.
Against those we have no more than sympathy and understanding as our arms.
May I be able to use it.
- Finally: after fifty working years and of dedication to architecture what do you value best as the tool to make architecture?
Dedication and work.
Experience helps…it is necessary, but not sufficient.
- Would you like to add anything to our conversation?
Maybe one aspect not enough clear on what was said above: architecture speaks for itself, without rhetoric’s.
It does not need explanations.
The best literary essays are not enough to validate a wrong choice of materials, a defective functional scheme, a light control without poetic impact, a failed proportion, a stupid urban integration or an insensitive relationship with the landscape and with the natural elements and a detailing theory without a direct relationship with the spatial intentions of the project.
The work speaks by itself and, if it speaks clearly, the language of the humanized and beautiful space is always understood. By everybody.
To build is necessary. To live is not…