Atelier local
Volongo, PT

Atelier local, founded by João Paupério and Maria Rebelo, is an architecture office based in Valongo, Portugal, that emphasises collaboration and unconventional design choices. In our interview with the co-founders, we better understand how they tackle the challenges faced by clients of all backgrounds, creating inventive and often affordable housing solutions. Their work reflects a minimalist approach that reduces environmental impact while simultaneously contributing to critical reflections on architecture, for instance, exploring the historical significance of neighbourhoods built during the Portuguese revolution among many other urgent initiatives.

Between Belgium and Portugal

J.P: We first met as teenagers, but our friendship grew stronger during architecture school. When we made the decision to study abroad through the Erasmus program, we agreed to go together. We chose the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, despite knowing little about the school. Shortly after arriving, we had to select a design studio. Intrigued by the mysterious nature of Professor Adrien Verschuere, the founder of BAUKUNST, we opted for his studio based on his website, which featured little more than a slideshow of historical plans. The website showcased architecture through enigmatic construction site images depicting the construction process, vegetation, and cities surrounding the projects. Inspired by these images, we ended up working together at BAUKUNST, becoming our primary experience as architects.

M.R: In 2019, after approximately three years, we established our own studio. While working in Belgium, we unexpectedly started receiving commissions from Portuguese clients, even though we were not officially established as a practice. Faced with this situation, we made the decision to return to Portugal, fuelled by our longing for home. The working dynamics in Portugal and Belgium differed significantly, particularly as BAUKUNST primarily focused on competitions and our office on small private projects. Our time in Belgium taught us a methodical approach to work, which expanded the more orthodox teachings we received in Porto. It was liberating to be in Brussels, as we discovered new working methods that were not readily available in Porto's more traditional educational setting.

J.P: "Porto School" is renowned for its emphasis on drawing as the primary thinking tool in architecture. However, when we worked abroad, we discovered numerous alternative approaches to architectural thinking. At BAUKUNST, we rarely relied on hand-drawing to conceptualise projects. Instead, we engaged in extensive discussions amongst ourselves while viewing history not as a burden that shackles us to repetitive practices. We acknowledged the wealth of preexisting ideas and designs created by others, recognising their potential as ready-mades to be leveraged to our advantage.


A sense of collective production

J.P: It's amusing to reflect on why we chose the name "atelier local" before even establishing the practice, driven by different motivations. On one hand, we were drawn to the French interpretation of atelier local as a local studio that takes on projects that foreign leaders are unable to execute by themselves. These local studios often handle the work without receiving recognition for their contributions. For example, the local studio responsible for managing the construction site of Casa da Música in Porto remains relatively unknown. We appreciate this notion of anonymity. Even today, people in Porto are beginning to be familiar with atelier local, but they don't necessarily know who is behind it. In a way it is not very relevant. atelier local encompasses not only Maria and me but also everyone who is actively involved in a project at a given moment. Somehow, it refers to our faith in a collective production process, but of course it's not solely a result of our work approach because we didn't anticipate being able to work in this manner until we established the practice.

M.R: We are a small practice operating from our home, which also serves as our studio. A studio-house that we refurbished as a sort of ongoing full-scale model, designed for us to experience the qualities and failures of our own architecture. Also because of this, instead of having employees we prefer collaborating with external colleagues when we encounter projects that exceed our capacity.

To establish a clear separation between our studio and living space, we kept a 70 cm wall with rather tall steps, physically dividing our workspace from our home. This arrangement reflects our approach to life and work, emphasising the importance of rest and relaxation for productive thinking. We don't view ourselves or our fellow as heroes, as we find the notion of genius architecture problematic and outdated.

Fortunately, up until now our commissions are conveniently located near our house. We prioritise a method of work centred around ongoing conversations at the construction site, enabling us to make decisions directly with the workers. This exemplifies our belief in architectural design as a collective, rather than individual, process, a discipline that embraces the input of various workers. We value their active participation in our projects.

J.P: This methodological approach to projects was not primarily driven by ideology but rather a practical consideration. The proximity of our commissions to our home allowed us to establish a close collaboration with workers, which we came to appreciate. However, it's not always easy since this means workers may knock on our door multiple times a day while we are engaged in other design processes. Nevertheless, we view it as a fortunate coincidence that we work closely with the workers, and the word "atelier" captures this sense of collective production. In Portugal, an atelier is also associated for instance with the production of clothing, symbolising the collective aspect where everyone contributes to the creation of the same piece while having different responsibilities within the production process.


Navigating collaborative relationships

J.P: We are located in Valongo, a peripheral city situated 10 km away from Porto, and this significantly influences our work. Our choice to be based here stems from the fact that we have always lived in this area. Additionally, the liberal management of Portuguese territory has made living in the central areas of major cities, like Porto, practically unaffordable for a significant portion of the population, including ourselves. The challenges of living in the city centre extend beyond just the poorest; even the middle-class, which is gradually becoming poorer, struggles with the high costs of living. Both despite and because of this, the middle-class still relies on credit as a means to address their housing needs. Consequently, a significant portion of our work involves designing housing solutions for those facing these circumstances. It's not coincidental that we are based in Valongo, as many people choose to reside in the periphery instead of living in Porto due to the lack of alternatives. Dealing with an impoverished middle-class who are eager to build or renovate homes swiftly because they can no longer afford to live in Porto entails working within tight timelines and limited budgets, which presents challenges for us as designers. This places a financial burden on our clients and requires considerable effort on our part as well.

M.R: Designing a house for a person with a tight budget requires more inventiveness and creativity compared to designing for someone wealthy. Economic constraints have long been a part of architectural history in Portugal, but the recent crisis and labour devaluation have further exacerbated the challenges. Many skilled construction workers have been forced to emigrate, making the task of building with quality more difficult. The low fees and salaries, including for architectural workers, contribute to these harsh conditions.

In response, we have had to let go of certain notions of bourgeois comfort that have dominated architecture in recent decades—a perspective highlighted by Lacaton & Vassal, whom we greatly admire. By setting aside these notions, we are able to produce extra-ordinary architectures. Interestingly, sometimes I wonder if clients with more financial resources would allow us the freedom to make certain decisions. It's common for clients who approach us to already have a preconceived idea of their ideal house. While I'm not in any way romanticising austerity, it does offer us the opportunity to experiment and make decisions that people with more means might not be open to accepting.


Tailoring solutions

J.P: For instance, during the pandemic we personally designed and built our own house, which took a long time due to the slower pace and rising prices of construction. Our close collaboration with the carpenter, who primarily worked with wood, was invaluable. He constantly informed us about the most cost-effective materials available. At one point, OSB was the cheapest option, followed by water-resistant MDF, prompting changes in the design accordingly. As a result, our house features sections made of both MDF and OSB. For instance, when we were constructing the roof, OSB was more affordable, so we used it for the internal ceiling. Similarly, when MDF became cheaper, we used it in the bathroom and other appropriate areas. Being closely connected to those involved in architectural production facilitates finding the optimal solutions for our design.

M.R: In addition to Lacaton & Vassal, we draw inspiration from both built and written works by Alison and Peter Smithson. They influenced us particularly with their concept of minimal intervention, emphasising the reduction to the essential and careful consideration of needs. For instance, whether a door is truly indispensable or if multiple bathrooms are really necessary, we always privilege exploring possibilities within the existing framework. Our approach is rooted in utilising what is already available -what is found, “as found”- to the greatest extent possible. However, with clients, there are times when we make economical choices that we appreciate aesthetically but struggle to convince them to adopt due to their own imaginary of what a house should look like. For example, concrete floors can be more practical and cost-effective than other materials clients usually prefer. We might attempt to persuade a client to opt for concrete flooring, aligning with this idea of minimal intervention. By choosing the concrete flooring which usually serves as a base for other materials, unnecessary layers are avoided thereby reducing costs for the overall project. 

J.P: We often say that working for the middle class usually means designing for those who imagine houses they cannot afford establishing a dynamic where the project's possibility emerges from that distance. This concept is reflected in our initial commissions, like the refurbishment of an existing stone ruin in the Douro region for a small holiday house. The construction is nearly complete now, but it was commissioned almost five years ago, even predating the establishment of our studio. Throughout the project, several significant events have unfolded: Portugal experienced major shifts, including severe wildfires which forced an expansion of national ecological reserves that impacted our design possibilities. Additionally, the COVID pandemic profoundly altered labour relations and led to inflated construction costs. These circumstances necessitated three different versions of the house design, extending the process significantly. Moreover, the construction site remains dynamic, constantly evolving beyond our control, compelling us to adapt our choices almost on a weekly basis.

Originally, our plan was to rebuild existing stone house using “eco-friendly” methods and materials. However, due to circumstances, that idea was lost. Instead, the stone house eventually transformed into a rough, unfinished structure, primarily composed of concrete. To minimise costs (both on an economical and ecological perspective), we dismantled the stone house and repurposed all the stone to construct the exterior pavements and retaining walls. Unfortunately, the client's budget didn't allow us to implement our original vision, which meant rebuilding the house in stone. Consequently, we had to shift from a refurbishment project to constructing a new house using conventional techniques like beams, concrete pillars, and thermal concrete blocks. Surprisingly, these economic constraints enabled us to persuade the clients to embrace design choices they might not have considered otherwise. Unable to build with sustainable materials as initially planned, we adopted a approach to reduce environmental impact: to do as little as possible. As few doors, as few finishings, as few material gestures as possible. While we had to rethink construction techniques, we managed to preserve certain aspects of the original project's scale and spatial distribution, forcing ourselves to rethink where the architectural project stands in all of this.


Challenging the norms of architecture

M.R: We're currently interested in the relationship between aesthetics, poetics, and the role of architects in society. Considering the state of our profession, this holds great significance for us. While our design proposals may not always lead to significant advancements in these fields, theory naturally emerges as an alternative to expand our critical reflection on architecture. This motivation drives us to regularly contribute to editorial platforms with different focuses. Additionally, besides João's PhD research, we collaborate as editors, translators, and authors for Punkto, an online journal that explores critical thinking across various disciplines including philosophy, politics, art, and architecture. Together with Ana Catarina Costa and Francisco Ascensão, we're involved in the project "An Archaeology of Utopia," which aims to explore neighbourhoods built under the Serviço de Apoio Ambulatório Local (SAAL) program active during the Portuguese revolution, examining their past, present, and future conditions. Furthermore, we're currently engaged in a project with Fala Atelier, where our objective is to map young Portuguese practices founded during and after the last financial crisis. In our approach, we both avoid obsessing over architectural autonomy and simultaneously hold a respect for its specificity as a unique form of knowledge. Architecture is not just an autonomous discipline; it encompasses many interconnected aspects beyond its exclusive field.

J.P: At BAUKUNST, we have learned the importance of being interested in architecture beyond architecture itself. Architecture is not just a craft; it serves as a means to think ways of reorganising the world, even on a local scale. This perspective enables us to consider the terms we mentioned earlier. It's not merely about constructing a house in concrete or wood, but about creating a space that functions in a specific way, allowing inhabitants to experience it in a particular manner and eventually reshaping their own forms of live. We don't align ourselves with those who emphasise the autonomy of architecture and solely discuss building design. Likewise, we don't align ourselves with those who prioritise political considerations and view architecture as secondary.

M.R: We don’t believe that architecture is dead or that it should be forgotten. As an art, architecture has a political dimension that is intrinsic and specific to it.

J.P: We quite appreciate Luigi Snozzi's aphorism: "You cannot make a revolution with architecture, but revolution is not enough to do good architecture." That's why we're studying the neighbourhoods constructed during the Portuguese revolution. These buildings were only possible precisely because of the ongoing revolution, in a fascinating period where architects, alongside social assistants and various professionals, rapidly built remarkable architectures. Out of the 75 neighbourhoods constructed, most of them offer intriguing architectural experiences. This moment demonstrated that the revolution could result in good architecture, showcasing the positive aspects of revolutionary change and how architecture and politics are intertwined in transforming the world. The former is not capable of transforming the world on its own, but it offers an indispensable contribution to the latter. After the revolution, the program was suspended, halting the construction of new neighbourhoods. While some neighbourhoods remain in good condition, others are currently under the threat of demolition.

This project is a self-initiated research endeavour undertaken with a group of friends. While on vacation, we discovered that there was a neighbourhood adjacent to our accommodation. Accompanying us was Francisco, an architect/photographer who documents buildings through photography. Intrigued, we decided to explore the neighbourhood, engage with its residents, and our curiosity grew to discover other similar built neighbourhoods. Coincidentally, Francisco started dating Catarina who was pursuing a PhD related to the SAAL programme and our interests converged, eventually leading to these initiatives.

M.R: Repeating Punkto’s dictum, we very often claim to our peers and clients: architecture will never abolish chance… but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

01. self portrait Atelier Local Photo Credit Atelier LocalPhoto courtesy of ©Atelier Local

studio house 1 Francisco Ascensao and Luca Bosco AtlantePhoto credits ©Francisco Ascensão and Luca Bosco

studio house 2 Francisco Ascensao and Luca Bosco AtlantePhoto credits ©Francisco Ascensão and Luca Bosco

studio house 3 Francisco Ascensao and Luca Bosco Atlante 2Photo credits ©Francisco Ascensão and Luca Bosco

House in Ancede Baiao 1 Francisco AscensaoPhoto credits ©Francisco Ascensão

House in Paranhos Porto 1 Luca BoscoPhoto credits ©Luca Bosco

House in Valongo III 1 Francisco AscensaoPhoto credits ©Francisco Ascensão

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