A conversation with Arch. Wolfgang and Arch. Amelie Zichy


A conversation with Arch. Wolfgang and Arch. Amelie Zichy

'On-site, to explain how to apply the tiles, we made a rectangle on the floor with the complete composition of what we wanted. We do everything, from A to Z. ’

Wolfgang and Amélie know two different realities, the Belgian and the Portuguese. What are the biggest differences in the way of working in the two countries?

W.: We have focused on rehabilitation. Belgium has a lot of history and there is a lot of rehabilitation there. New construction was always more common. Five years ago, we came to Portugal because we like Lisbon very much and we wanted to do rehabilitation in the historic center. There is now a greater interest in this subject. The growth of tourism may have helped because foreigners want to see the old city. Another difference is that, 15 years ago, in Portugal, the rehabilitation was deeper and today is lighter, maintaining what can be maintained. Before, one of the only things left standing was the façade, now everything in good condition is maintained.

A.: What is also good about Portugal is that there is a lot of good quality labor that still works by hand, both in terms of carpentry and metalwork. You get beautiful final products because of them. The fact that we come from another country also gives us another perspective. When we arrived, we found incredible properties that nobody wanted. We would say: “we bought a fantastic property in Alfama” and our Portuguese friends were amazed: “you are crazy, nobody lives there”. But we took a chance and it was good for everyone.

W.: Another difference that occurs to me is that in Belgium we have many notions of structures, in the course, we have engineering subjects. The person responsible for the structure under construction is the architect. In Portugal, we can see by the Portuguese people who work with us, that they don’t have these notions, there are two separate areas. Sometimes, if we are not on the same page, we can explain our point of view to the engineer and this is important.
With BETAR the conversation works well since we are able to talk about our ideas and they find several solutions, they do not immediately impose a definitive one.

How do you describe the AZ architecture’s concept?

A.: We always try to mix the old and the modern, preserve the original and add a touch of modernity with contemporary materials. We make a rigorous combination to culminate in a contrast that makes sense. There is consistency in the whole. We always try to maintain the walls, we only reinforce the structure to ensure safety. Whenever possible, we keep original tiles, doors and windows. These are things that give a lot of value. We reconstruct, with good technology and materials, what needs to be new to ensure maximum comfort. Regarding the window frames, we try to make them in wood, with frames close to the original model and with the original design. We reinstate old doors, which we find in derelict properties. There are things with enormous potential and people to recover these objects. It is a pleasure to recover in Portugal and people value it a lot.

W.: If the back façade is very different or has elements that do not have strong characteristics and visible traces of the building’s antiquity, we rebuild it, with a more contemporary reading. If it has, besides maintaining, we emphasize, we highlight it. What distinguishes us is the care for details, everything is important. Sometimes we do things on-site ourselves. The other day, we went to a construction site and the contractor was not understanding what we were saying regarding the tiles’ application. So we made a rectangle on the floor with the complete composition of what we wanted. We do everything, from A to Z. and only then, we involve the people who work on-site. They realize that there is a personal investment on our part. They like to learn from us and we often learn from them, because we go to the carpentry shops to see the furniture assembly and the machines they work with. Then, the person that has been doing it for 20 years can also explain to us that in a certain way it can get better.

AZ Invest is a part of your company that buys old properties to rehabilitate. Tell us about this aspect and what you want for the future of the studio.

W.: We search for properties ourselves, through real estate agencies, visit spaces, see the potential right away, buy and then redo and sell. Basically, we are selling our way of working. It is not common to have an investor who is also the architect and who thinks of the building in terms of quality, more than numbers. Our look is different right when visiting the property. We think of good architecture as an asset for investment. We know that it is not worth doing things with low costs, we bet on quality and character.

A.: Regarding the future, we like this scale, we don’t want to do much bigger projects and get to the point where we can’t control the details. It doesn’t matter to grow to a more industrial level. We have been very successful with our way of working; people start to recognize what we do and look for us.

This interview is part of Revista Artes & Letras # 97, May 2018
Partially automatic translation from portuguese: some expressions may differ from their actual meaning.


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