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Architects don’t invent anything; they transform reality”, Álvaro Siza Vieira, the giant of Portuguese modern architecture, has often been quoted as saying. Could it be that a need to transform reality then, or even to escape it, is at the root of a new wave of architectural projects in the Portuguese hotel industry? For when the first one appeared in 2010, the country was already in the grip of a severe economic crisis. Against a backdrop of IMF bailouts and austerity packages, of unemployment and mass emigration, these small, alternative but perfectly-designed bolt holes, created by some of the country’s leading architects, have proliferated to form a visible trend.
Certain threads are common to all. Size is one, with the hotels typically offering a handful of rooms – already a departure from the mass market concrete hotels that have dominated the Portuguese landscape for far too long. Most are in rural locations and have a strong link with the landscape and nature, whereas, previously, cities tended to be the focus of big-name architects. Lastly, many of the projects use unconventional and distinctly humble materials, from raw cement, to cork, to recycled wood.
The first of these properties hit the headlines at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010. Casas na Areia started life as a couple of abandoned buildings in an isolated setting in the rice-growing wetlands of Comporta, an hour south of Lisbon on the west coast. The owner João Rodrigues, who bought them to use as a weekend escape, asked his friend, award-winning architect Manuel Aires Mateus, to bring them back to life. Four low-lying buildings emerged, all topped with traditional thatch, two in white concrete and two in a mix of wood and reeds. They form a semi-circle set in rough, untidy sand, littered with wild flowers, surrounded by silence and with views over the Sado estuary.
Three of the houses contain bedrooms, with stark, white on white interiors. The fourth, with walls made of tightly packed vertical reeds, is a sitting room, dining area and kitchen. It contains white sofas and a long wooden table for eight but the eye is immediately drawn to the floor. For while the furniture is as you would expect in a house, what lies beneath it is fine golden sand, the kind you want to dig your toes in. It sits on top of a heated floor, giving you a sensation of liberty without the loss of comfort.
When Aires Mateus was invited to attend the Venice Biennale he offered several of his recent projects but was astonished to be told that “it is Casas na Areia that we want”. The interest it produced made him re-evaluate his work and has resulted in a continuing partnership with Rodrigues. Their next project, Cabanas no Rio, opened in June 2013, a few minutes’ walk from the original, and exemplifies Aires Mateus’s aim to “amplify the natural understanding of the landscape”. A pair of old fisherman’s cabins made with recycled timber, it stands alone next to a wooden jetty on the river. Another, Casa no Tempo, a four-bedroom farmhouse set among 400 acres of rural splendour in the Alentejo, opened this month.
“Fifteen years ago, architecture in Portugal was the opposite of landscape, it was construction,” says Jorge Sousa Santos, a Lisbon-based architect who designed his first hotel in 2012. The property, Rio do Prado, just outside Obidos, incorporates concrete walls, turf roofs and recycled materials, in keeping with what Sousa Santos sees as a new drive among architects to integrate their work with the landscape. “I think it is a state of mind brought on by the need to look inside our country during this crisis we are going through.”
Fifteen turf-roofed concrete suites dot a grassy slope around ponds, which are home to a multitude of vocal frogs, near a famous wetland reserve. Constructed using local, mainly recycled materials from discarded wooden doors to woven rope mats, what pleased Sousa Santos the most was “the paradox of using sophisticated architectural design with the humblest of materials”.
The paradox of big-name architect and small-scale project is also noticeable. Eduardo Souto de Moura is the celebrated winner of Pritzker and Wolf prizes, as well as being a professor at the University of Porto, visiting professor at Harvard and a creator of grand projects including Braga’s football stadium, a museum and a tower block. But he is also the designer of a four-room bed and breakfast in Foz, the bracing former fishermen’s district of Porto where the Douro river meets the Atlantic.
The hotel, called simply The Four Rooms, is a conversion of an elegant 19th-century townhouse. It opened fully last year but another is already in the pipeline, this time in Montesinho Natural Park in the rural northeast. It will share the original’s focus on design – from the Jasper Morrison spoons on the breakfast table to the Eames chairs and furniture by Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen and many more.
Design writ large is also to be found at Villa Extramuros, a new five-bedroom B&B in the Alentejo. This dazzlingly white modern villa stands out in an area more readily associated with ancient manor houses. Run by a French couple who are passionate about architecture, their only stipulation in its creation was that it should include the local materials of white and rose marble and black cork.
Jordi Fornells, their Lisbon-based architect, was delighted to use cork. “While it has long been used as insulation,” he told me, “a new high density agglomerate has meant that it can now clad ceilings or doors or walls, adding as it does here, a warmth among the austere, minimalist, white walls as well as creating silence.” It is a silence that suits Villa Extramuros, with its central courtyard reminiscent of a monastic cloister.
A little to the east, near the beautiful city of Évora, lies the Ecork Hotel, which opened last year claiming to be “the first cork-clad hotel in the world”. It comprises 56 freestanding, white villas, clustered around the main cork building, which houses the restaurants and leisure area, in a nod to the typical medieval layout of castle and village.
José Carlo Cruz, the hotel’s architect, first came across cork in architecture at the Hannover Expo 2000, when Siza Vieira and Souto de Moura used it in the Portuguese Pavilion. “In spite of its virtues, people still consider the material too humble,” he said, “and yet it is recyclable and a good thermal insulator, as well as being one of Portugal’s main exports.”
Perhaps most telling of all is the reinvention of the Pedras Salgadas spa and nature park, near Vila Pouca de Aguiar in the north. A venerable spa resort that has welcomed guests since 1879, it was taken over by the Portuguese beer and drinks company Unicer in 2002. As part of a major investment, Siza Vieira was brought in to restore and reimagine the swimming pool and spa buildings, but the existing hotel was considered too far gone to refurbish. Instead, architect Luis Rebelo de Andrade created something more in keeping with the setting – 20ha of soaring pines and large sequoias, strawberry trees and red squirrels. The result is 13 eco-houses, which use local pine and slate, hidden under branches in the forest.
For his pièce de résistance, he created two tree houses. “But these thin pine trees had no arms,” he told me, explaining that he had to support the houses with stilts, and build a hill from which to run a wooden bridge into them. The houses were assembled off site to minimise any damage to the park and merge so well in their background that their elongated black slate forms have to be actively looked for.
Álvaro Siza Vieira told me that he believed “there are moments when history forces big changes in architecture”. It will be interesting in the future to look back and see if this was one of them.
Casas na Areia (casasnaareia.com) sleeps eight and costs from €500 per night. Cabanas no Rio (cabanasnorio.com), sleeps two, from €200. Rio do Prado (riodoprado.pt) has doubles from €175. The Four Rooms (4rooms.pt) has doubles from €100. Vila Extramuros (villaextramuros.com) has doubles from €130. Ecork Hotel (ecorkhotel.com) has doubles from €120. Pedras Salgadas Spa and Resort (pedrassalgadaspark.com) has ecohouses sleeping two from €160 and tree houses sleeping two from €200