Space: at essence
Interview with Aires Mateus
by Leela Shanker


A moment of silence is often invoked as a mark of respect and pause for reflection. Of its own, without dedication to a particular event or happening, it can also be a moment of peace and clarity. To compose a moment of silence, is to create space within the clamour of our urban audio-scape that is increasingly rare and therefore precious.

What lives there, in that precious quiet, is the vital space for ideas to breathe. By creating conditions of visual and aural quiet within their installation for the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2016, the particular idea that Aires Mateus set to life was a contemplation of the notion of space itself.


Drawing the black, entrance curtains aside and stepping into the black unknown that lay behind them, you were enveloped by the intimacy of a silent and darkened round, the only light emanating from a series of vignettes of space that encircled you as you turned. Here was a moment of silence from the Biennale, an opportunity for pause, reflection and clarity from the “fair” of activity and abundant offering of ideas outside.


Titled “Fenda” (meaning fissure in English), the work provides apertures through which to imagine the genesis of space that came before cultural preconceptions of place; space without labels of function; space that defies definition or regulation; space of ambiguity that brings awareness of the artificiality of control; space that abandons the rules set down over generations of construction; space that extends limits rather than reinforces them.


This was the “battle” Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus, brothers and revered Portuguese architects jointly known as Aires Mateus, chose to address with their work. It was their response to the challenge issued by the Biennale’s Director, Alejandro Aravena, with his theme for the 15th Architecture Biennale, “Reporting from the Front”, calling for participants to address a current battle in architecture.

For Aires Mateus, this was grounds to distill and explore what remains as the essence of the art of architecture. Evading the din of urbanity and pressures of contemporary architectural practice – with its rush of deadlines and growing diversion of energy to promoting image and profile – they take the dialogue back to first principles to challenge the nature of space and its creation.


With this Biennale contribution, Aires Mateus invite us to engage in a suite of singular moments, prompting us to ask more of the relationship between space and matter as revealed by light. What brings space into the realm of existence? When does space evoke the topography of dreamscapes as opposed to nightmares? How do we interpret the typology of in-between space that sits somewhere between binary reductions?


Their proposal is that architecture is distinct from other arts as an art of support; it’s role being to support other arts and, most significantly, to support life. In turn, the role of the designer is not to determine strict dimensions prescribed to the function of a space. Rather, it is the uniqueness of life that provides the rich detail and original narrative that completes a space; a school is completed by the colour and exuberance of the children who run through it, a home by the texture of happenings brought by those who share time there.


In testing these dimensions, what results is the open architecture of possibility. Working with mono-materiality, surfaces all white with detail defined only through the gradient of light, we discover suggestions of form through the formless that exude timeless grace and exhilarating freedom. It seems that by committing to the lightness of hand to refrain from setting such defined limits, and the generosity of providing space intended to be completed by the colour and energy of incoming life that will fulfill it, we find space that holds such presence it is as though it always existed; the compositions of space, volumes and the light that convey them are so seamlessly interdependent, you cannot tell which existed first.


The space is profoundly, sublimely moving. Here, pondering the translation of these ideas to the scale and experience of our cities, we share a moment of silence that resonates so deeply we cannot but be compelled to dive into the vast expanse of unprecedented possibility.


Leela Shanker
Venice Biennale of Architecture 2016
May 28 – November 27, 2016

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