“Simple ideas can have the ability to become powerful ideas.”
Simplicity, when it comes to good design, is a misnomer. The word is often associated with a feeling of clarity and connection that, in fact, can only be achieved through intense care and attention toward a broad range of practicalities: financial, logistical, elemental, historical and personal. Done well, everything merges seamlessly to create something so natural to our humanity as to feel ‘simple.’ It is a concept Lisbon-based Aboim Inglez Arquitectos understands well.
The work of Ricardo and Maria Ana Aboim Inglez, co-founders of Aboim Inglez Arquitectos, is characterised by a feeling of continuity, timelessness, and freedom. In other words, simplicity. Their design process involves carefully analysing the property “the landscape, the place, the environment” and working to reinforce it. For renovation projects, this includes honouring the original architect’s intentions, and asking “how can you complete it — how can you add something — without it losing its character.”
“Simple ideas can have the ability to become powerful ideas. And that’s what we like to work with,” says Ricardo. “And then things get very complicated, and there is a huge effort from our part and it takes time to reach a level of simplicity. For a while we are taking things away; we realise what is important and not important. We are taking and taking and taking but in the end it is all there.”
When designing Monte da Azarujinha, a converted farmhouse in the Alentejo region of Portugal, the architects were faced with an immense property, “and there was only this very humble building standing there, not in the middle of the property, but standing there in the vast landscape. And the question for us is: How do you enlarge this building without being the ‘new building in town,’ the ‘star of the whole landscape?’” Ricardo says. “How do you continue this tranquility and this serene landscape, being contemporary, dealing with contemporary issues, but not trying to impose those issues onto the project and onto the site?”
These are questions they asked throughout every stage of the design process, which served to thoroughly interweave the project with the place. Rather than extending the existing building, they created a second using the same materials palette to more quietly integrate. The windows of the buildings became a thoughtful connection point that is simultaneously unobtrusive and fresh, offering a new perspective: “We tried to bring out the best of the site, framing the views so it will not become boring. If you have a large window facing toward that vast plain you will be bored because it is always there. So it’s nice to have some framed views inside the building,” explains Ricardo.
One result of the framed views is a different interaction with the property, an invitation to move around the space. Freedom of movement was very important to the architects, and influenced many design decisions for Monte da Azarujinha. “There are no doors, there are no circulation paths you have to follow,” says Ricardo. The entrance door is only used when the house is fully closed. The clients, when they get there, they open that door and they never use it again. They close it and they always go through the [sliding] windows...it’s a very free space, that we wanted to suppress entrance doors, barriers, circulation paths; we wanted to have freedom.”
“Because we had a very low budget also, we tried to use the cross-ventilation and that was what helped us: how the light and the wind come in,” adds Maria Ana. “That was how we started drawing all the circulation, and this need to give a very free way of using the inside and the outside — that was also our purpose.”
The buildings, designed to sit quietly in their natural surrounds, reflect the landscape both figuratively and literally: “The building changes, the colours — although it’s all white, it has a lot of colour because of sunsets and because of the clouds,” says Ricardo. “And when you are standing in the house or in the property the sky is so massive, because there is nothing around, that it becomes again another project element.”
Aboim Inglez Arquitectos cite celebrated Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza as a key influence who “played a major role in our architectural upbringing” and there is a deliberate nod to him in Monte da Azarujinha. Ricardo explains: “You know the external long corridor with the bench that exists on the new building? That’s our Siza homage. And that’s a lesson we’ve learned in one of his first projects, the Casa da Cha, the teahouse...the entrance is so low, I think it has 2 metres, you can touch the ceiling with the hand, and then when you get in, you go down and everything is quite vast or in front of the ocean; there is this sense of freedom. And that porch, for us, plays [a similar role] — it is very low, it is 240 high; if you stand on a bench you can touch the ceiling, and at the same time we felt we needed an element that almost touches you in that vast plain. So it is the element the building connects with you and makes sense of the whole landscape surrounding.”
The pool was also designed with the aim of creating connection. “One thing Maria Ana and I really thoroughly decided was we didn’t want to have a pool surrounded by the house. Because the most logical thing was to put the pool in the middle ... and then that becomes an element that is always there, present, and it doesn’t have to do with the property and the spirit of the place. And we wanted something that was more like a water tank,” Ricardo says.
“Like some distance of the main construction to give more openness or more freedom. Also again to be able to walk around and not be completely surrounded,” says Maria Ana.
“You can be in the house without seeing the pool or you can be in the house looking at the pool. You feel the people there bathing and having their own privacy; they are not exposed as if it was in the middle and it is not really the centre,” says Ricardo.
“And you can feel also the landscape better while you are inside the water. A nice feeling of being really involved in the surrounds,” says Maria Ana.
“And traditionally, Alentejo region is one of the poorest areas of Portugal... it’s very vast plains, very hot here in the summer, and they were doing agriculture, people were very humble; we felt this should go into the project,” says Ricardo. “It’s not a pool house, it is just a property that happens to have the pool, which is very very different. And the clients were in the same frequency in tune with us, because they are very... simple people, very intelligent people... very open to project ideas, and very bold... they never told us, but they expressed it without verbalising it is that ‘we don’t want to stand out, we just want to stay calm, have a nice property, people will enjoy it without standing out.’”