A conversation with Arch. José Neves


A conversation with Arch. José Neves

‘One of the few certainties I have about architecture is that we should only destroy or replace what we can do better.’

What is the definition of architecture that you seek to put into practice?

I have no definition of architecture ready to “pull out of the hat”, nor do I make any effort to do so. It seems to me that attempts to define architecture must be incomplete and more or less vague.
But I know that what stimulates me above all in this work is the evidence that when we add anything to the world – whatever it is called: pre-existence, context, site – it becomes something else that integrates what we have added to it. In other words, the limits of architectural design are never the physical limits of the object we design. That is why, when I design, whatever the situation is, I always feel that I am doing an extension or rehabilitation. Because there is always a very complex set of things, natural or artificial, that were already there before and that we have to decipher and make our own to deal with – I like to say “continue”. The work of architects, to make sense, can only be work – I want to say a fight – against fragmentation.

Do you travel to see architecture?

It is precisely because the experience of architecture does not only pass through the sense of sight, but through all the other senses and the encounter – or the confrontation – between our body, its dimensions and its gestures, and architecture, that it is very important to meet it, in order to it experience it.
And also because it is only in this way that it is possible to realize that this “continuity” of which I talk about can be one of the most determining aspects of architecture. To give some examples that occur to me at this moment: no matter how well we know the respective projects, we will never be able to understand the reach of the seminal building of Perret on Franklin Street, without knowing closely the uniform front of that street and the break that it means in it; or the withdrawal and distanciation of Asplund’s cemetery, without having walked along its walls and its forests; or the correctness of the differences in the configuration, treatment and scale between the side and back buildings of Miguel Ângelo’s Capitol, in Rome, without having climbed that ramp ladder, preferably in the late afternoon.

Today, in Portugal, architects have to do the same job, in half the time and with half the budget. Does this situation require a new approach?

The work of architecture, due to its material and specific aspects and its direct connection with society, is always done with what’s possible, determined by things as different as physics, construction, materials, climate, budget, use, etc…  To take these possibilities, not as work constraints but as data and, at best, as motivation, is one of the most important things for us architects. But these possibilities became much tighter than they were when I started working.  Budgets, nowadays, are not always half of what they were – not least because the cost of buildings has risen – fees are the ones that are now less than half of what they were, half a dozen years ago. The lack of time to work is what is truly terrible. The design of a thing is, by nature, a process, in many ways, very far from the final realization of that thing, and it is therefore a difficult process of trial and error that requires a lot of time. We move forward with hypotheses, in the face of a reality that is never simple, that needs time to be weighed and tested, so that they can be as accurate as possible. Reducing project deadlines (not to mention those of the construction works!), from a certain point on, only allows nonsense or, at most, trying to repeat recipes, which either does not usually work.  With scientists or poets it shouldn’t be much different.

You said in an interview that: “ Francisco de Arruda school is part of the collective memory of Lisbon, and that is why we did everything to save the buildings in their original integrity”. Can adapting spaces to new times without changing them be more difficult than doing a work from scratch?

One of the few certainties I have about the work of architecture is that we should only destroy or replace what we can do better. Innovation, as a systematic and absolute principle, has always seemed to me a barbaric device, also regarding the built world. The collective memory you refer has a lot to do with the quality of the school we found, projected in the 50s, today unfortunately rare, in its formal and constructive pragmatism, present both in the buildings and in their implantation on the hillside of the Tapada. We found a work that is halfway, as Daciano Costa liked to say, “between the broom and the cathedral”, and perfectly suited to present day. So we did everything in our power to save – turn alive – this memory, which is in fact increasingly difficult in the face of, for instance, the array of facilities that current regulations require and which are often completely inappropriate to our reality. It must be said, for example, that a large part of the mechanical air conditioning installations are currently not working because users do not consider them necessary or do not have the money to pay for their consumption and maintenance.

“Crisis” is not a word that can be applied to your current moment, since you won the Secil award with that school’s project. It is inevitable to ask: what does this recognition mean to you?

The “crisis” that I think you are referring to is a collective crisis that each of us is a part of, and that is far beyond just an economic crisis, contrary to what we are wanted to believe. It seems wrong and very dangerous to think of this crisis as a sum of individual crises that can be resolved one by one, depending on the greater or lesser luck of each one, or their “entrepreneurship” level, as it is said nowadays. Before we are architects, or anything else, we are citizens, right? The Secil Award is a wonderful prize, which gives me immense pleasure, pride and encouragement to continue working and trying to do it better and better but, as important as it is, it cannot, unfortunately, end with any crisis.

This interview is part of the Artes & Letras Magazine # 45, September 2013
Partially automatic translation from portuguese: some expressions may differ from their actual meaning.

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