Porto and its façades: a real architectural connection

When people think about Porto and its architecture, they think of tradition: its tiled façades, the colour blue, its old wine-cellars, and the Douro river. However, there’s much more to Portugal’s second city than history, fado and melancholy: Porto is, in fact, a leading light of contemporary architecture. And it’s achieved this almost without trying to.

We asked Ignacio Juan, the coordinator of Architecture at ESET, about when modern architecture really came to Porto and he gave us a name: Fernando Távora. “Porto existed before Távora, but he was the first architect to lay the foundations of a fundamentally different kind of architecture,” he said.

It’s true that there’s something about Portugal which makes its architectural culture truly unique. It’s a small country, but it has some deep-rooted traditions which really come through in its buildings. It’s a society that has managed to soak up the best of contemporary architecture, blend it with local characteristics and produce some stunning buildings, and yet which are also warm and welcoming.


Fernando Távora knew how to achieve this, and he was soon followed by Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura. There are now many small Portuguese studios which maintain that same spirit and scale, and they have turned Porto into a world-class architectural powerhouse. We have had the honour of bringing one of these studios to ESET.

FALA Atelier and the power of façades in Porto

We want to give our Architecture students, who come from more than 20 different countries, a wide-ranging and truly international education. That’s why, for several years now, we have sought to take a different city as our theme for each year. This is what ArchiTRIPture is about. With this approach, we want our students to experience their studies through the prism of a particular culture, circumstances, history and architecture every year. Two years ago, we learnt about Berlin through the Löser Lott Architekten studio, and in 2019 we travelled to Scandinavia with our partners JAJA Architects. This year we’re back in southern Europe again and our guides on this journey are FALA Atelier.

For us, FALA Atelier is one of the leading studios in Portugal. It’s a young studio, with its own distinctive approach and architectural language, but one which is a great fit with our own learning philosophy. That’s why Valeria Samovich is our guest of honour this year and the leader of our international workshop, ConnectA. With Valeria as our guide and through the practical exercise the studio set for us, we’ve been able to come closer to understanding Porto in a quick, direct and architecturally stimulating way.

Valeria and CEU graduate Elia Bernardos set us the task of replacing the façade of a unique building in Porto. This is a very different task to what we usually do at ESET, as we wouldn’t normally view a façade as an isolated architectural component of a building. Over the course of a week, we came up with a range of solutions which went beyond the merely aesthetic, and then we also reflected on these with a critical eye.

One thing that was clear to everyone after an intense and relentless few days of work alongside FALA Atelier is the fundamental role that façades play in the personality of our cities. Although the interiors of buildings are often renovated more or less as a matter of course, façades rarely receive the same degree of attention. And yet there is no denying their enormous impact on our cityscapes and on our cities’ history and culture.

Valeria set us a fairly specific colour and geometric scheme to work with. There was a lot of work to do and not much time to do it, but the whole experience has been a great success.

Berlin, Copenhagen and Porto: three stops on our ArchiTRIPture tour

But the ConnectA workshop is just one stage of this learning journey which, every year, takes us to a new international destination. Two years ago, this stimulating tour programme took us to Germany, a country with a more rigid architectural culture, characteristic of Mitteleuropa. Then came Denmark, enabling us to discover a different northern European context with its own distinctive meteorological and cultural conditions. This year, we’ve come back to the Iberian peninsula to explore a city which isn’t so far away, but whose geometry and geography is so different from ours.

To enhance our students’ education, we try to link the material they see in their courses with our international destination for that year, whether the course itself concerns urban planning, or the design of buildings, facilities or structures. So, in recent years, we’ve learnt these things through the prism of how things are done in Berlin, Copenhagen and Porto.

The next step to take is to travel to Porto. This will enable us to consolidate the work done in lectures and in the workshop, by comparing what we think we already know with the situation and culture on the ground. The first thing to do in Porto will be to walk around the city to absorb its aesthetics and culture first-hand. We’ll discover buildings from the 30s and 50s as well contemporary work. We’ll visit the FALA Atelier studio and they will take us to see some of their completed buildings and ongoing work. We’ll look at buildings from the outside and construction sites from the inside, so that we can gain the full architectural experience.

We know that buildings are not just things to visit and admire: they’re there to be used, too. That’s exactly what we did in berlin, when we attended a concert at the Berlin Philharmoniker. It’s what we did in Switzerland, when we dived into Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals. And we’ll do it again in Porto, when we visit Siza’s swimming pools and even his Casa de Chá da Boa Nova.

And in 2021… there’ll be a new architectural destination!

The next stage of our learning journey is still up for debate. We’d like to explore the history and leading studios of a Mediterranean city: Rome, maybe, or Athens? Of course, all architects should visit the Parthenon and the Pantheon, but there a lot of cities which fit the bill of what we’re looking for.

With everything still to be decided, and with our Atlantic trip to Porto still on the horizon, we’re only sure of one thing: the fourth stage of ArchiTRIPture will be in southern Europe, and on the shores of Mare Nostrum.


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