Aires Mateus and MORQ in conversation at Walsh St

Gathered in Robin Boyd’s Walsh Street House, designed and built in 1959, is a collection of people united by their shared appreciation for architecture which transcends styles and eras to celebrate instead the nuances of context and occupant. Surrounded by the patinated walls of what was once Boyd’s family home, the impression of times passage is tangible yet the relevance of the home still as bright as ever.

Speaking here tonight are two globally eminent architects whose work continues in the vein of Boyd’s unique response to placemaking and to designing places and spaces free of the constraints of preconceived ideas as to what denotes a home. Manuel Aires Mateus (Aires Mateus, Portugal) and Andrea Quagliola (MORQ , Perth and Rome) — brought together by Neometro which sits at the collaborative threshold of the two studios with Aires Mateus’ Mori House project for Neometro Director Jeff and wife Mariko Provan; a second collaborative project with both Aires Mateus and Kosloff Architecture on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula; and, a future Walsh Street, South Yarra apartment development with MORQ — both demonstrate an affinity for shaping the built environment in ways which intertwine contextual and personal influences to realise something which intuitively responds to the qualities of its occupants and site, absorbing them as if by osmosis.

Moderator, Katelin Butler opens the conversation with emphasis on the spirit of collaboration which has ultimately brought both Manuel and Andrea to Australia. MORQ was established in Italy between Andrea and his two business (“life”) partners, Matteo Monteduro and Emiliano Roia. While “the distance has grown between us from a geographic perspective, we spent our formative years together, close enough to develop an ethos that is shared,” begins Andrea.

Manuel affirms that “modern working in different geographies always means working with people,” with the Aires Mateus’ philosophy stemming from an understanding that every project is vastly different with each designed as a singular focus. In collaboration with MAArchitects as a local conduit studio, Aires Mateus’ seminal Australian project, Mori House is underpinned by this sentiment alongside recognition of the client being the guide of its conceptual development. “It was designed by Jeff and Mariko,” explains Manuel, “in the way they communicated the brief, the way they wanted the house to be, the way they explained the relationship with the family…they designed the house, we were only helping the process on the side.”

“Like the people, place is another circumstance,” continues Manuel of the practice of designing from a distance and the essential process of learning the intricacies of context. At Mori House, this began with a cross.

Manuel harbours a long fascination with an early Brazilian photograph where a cross was made through the jungle as a starting point which unfolded exponentially to realise a rich built environment. Mori House was borne of a similar genesis. A basic dissection of the land it occupies scored conceptually and then later emerging as a definitive facet of the home’s DNA. “We imagine an idea that this a new continent, that it is a different world, so we begin with a cross, and because of the people that they [Jeff and Mariko] are, this became a cross of light and the start of our relationship with Australia.”

Similarly, Andrea has come to understand that it is context, particularly light, that makes each project special. “It is in the way the light works. Especially the shadows. In Australia, it is so stark and strong so we look at creating refuge and a place that has become connected with the idea of chiaroscuro, depth and the experience of those two conditions as you live within the space.” In tandem with environmental context, both Manuel and Andrea acknowledge the brevity of cultural context and its effect on their work globally. These considerations form the connective tissue between people and place with context as the mediator.

Amplifying the sculptural quality of the work of both studios and the way each project responds to light, context and culture, is materiality. For Aires Mateus, a focus on a “main material” gives projects a sense of resolve. An obsessive methodology has emerged that allows materials to express themselves. “We like to build,” explains Manuel, “but we believe that in each project we can do new research so that the process is what drives the result.” For MORQ, no plasterboard interiors are in sight. “For us it is certain qualities in materials,” explains Andrea, “we look for qualities that give materials the feel that they have existed forever. That they belong to and connect with the site.” This elicits work that finds synchronicity with the landscape and responds to the elements of each place to absorb light, create sanctuary and transcend the stylistic virtuosity of what has been done before. The work of both studios is defined by this notion of timelessness, of existing beyond the realm of the vernacular, trend and even function.

“In architecture there are two statements that you have to accept,” says Manuel, “that it is an art, and that it is the art of eternity. We build for eternity in terms of ideas. We want our buildings to be very clear. It is these clear statements that can last beyond the building itself.” He explains further that, with changes to the interior aesthetic and to the finishes, by adding on and removing, buildings can take on new meaning. “It can be a house today, a school tomorrow and a cultural centre in 5 years but the building is the same.” With this sentiment in mind, Andrea talks of a project’s synthesis and that its project’s presence is an outcome of this synthesis.

As Boyd’s ageing walls take on an ambient glow and Melbourne dusk turns to night outside, the circle on the conversation between Manuel and Andrea feels like it is coming back round to close on the idea of timelessness and the notion that “architecture is a backdrop to life which connects to the feelings and emotions of the people who it is designed for” and that great architecture exists as a vital foundation to the many ecosystems it hosts in its own lifetime. For Manuel, architecture is an art that is only completed by life. “A sculpture or a painting reaches completion but architecture exists as a suspended moment in time. It is only completed by those who occupy it.”

Very special thanks to Manuel Aires Mateus, Andrea Quagliola and Katelin Butler. You can see more on the Mori house on our Instagram. Neometro are collaborating with MORQ at 49 Walsh Street, South Yarra. Words by Tiffany Jade, photography by Annika Kafcaloudis.