Through Moorish windows

Design and the quest for perfection with architect Mário Martins

Since Mário Martins graduated from the Faculty of Architecture of Lisbon Technical University in 1988, he has been adding architectural layers to the Algarve and beyond. Take, for instance, the cranes that marked the Lagos skyline, working on an old property.

“I took the roof out and left just the structure of beams, so you have the blue sky, the moon, the stars,” Mário explains. “I left the spirit, even physically the limits of the old house, so there remains a dialogue between the old house and the new. For me, this is architecture.”

Not long after our online meeting, we received photographs of the former site. It was a medley of yellow and ox-blood arches; of grit upon a concrete floor; a weathered roof of tiles and beams. The exterior walls wore layers of graffiti and grotty paint. Not so today. So, who is the man shaping our urban habitat?

“Mário Martins is a simple guy born, living and working in the Algarve. And that’s it. I used to say, ‘I’m not the architect Mário Martins; I am just Mário, and the architect is my tool to work.’” We wanted to know what makes up that tool.

His laden bookcase in the background of our interview reminds us that “architecture comes from ideas.” He confirms: “A good project is born from an idea, from a sense, from a reason to be. With an idea, I start the drawing. The idea comes in the lines, which come into the project. If you’re just trying to join forms, then it doesn’t make sense. It’s not strong enough. It’s not like making Chorizo,” says Mário.

“To create a house is something very important to the family. I need to know them, to go into their lives, into what they really care about. I have a very personal relationship with the client. I put my knowledge at their service.”

Later, we discover how ideas and the relationship with his clients manifest in a building. But, before that, we must understand another quality that informs his work: culture.

“I’m a staunch defender of safeguarding the heritage and cultural identity of the Algarve. But we, architects, also have a duty to improve this culture,” he explains. “Architecture is having layers and adding layers in time. A town is nothing more than the layers from different ages. If I contribute to a place and add another layer to the town whilst respecting the roots, for me this is also architecture.”

At the end of our interview, opportunity arises to experience his work. We return to the place that piqued our curiosity. Casa Bonança and its sibling Casas das Freiras sit side-by-side, conjoined by walls in the centre of the old town. Outside these walls, we thought this had to be a new art space. And it is, of sorts.

“We can’t leave the doors open,” Paul, the owner, laughs. “People come in thinking we’re a museum.” Mário even suggests installing a table, a book and a collection box, ushering us into the space of his and the property owners’ making.

Mário’s affection for his craft is clear, as he pauses at the bottom of the stairs to admonish a choice he made about the depth of a stair. “His attention to detail is incredible,” says Paul. “It could be his downfall.”

As we tour the couple’s home, the light moves about the space whilst each element and area are distinct yet connect with a smooth, flowing quality. “That’s my favourite picture,” says Gill, pointing to a square window that looks across Lagos’ rooftops. When asked if she has a favourite part of the house, she is stumped. Gill tells us it depends upon the time of day.

As for the process with Mário, she reveals: “You get into conversations like, ‘Do you spend more time at the oven or the hob?’ It gets that detailed. And he does these drawings.” These we saw in his office: hand-drawn lines of ink that are the intersection of ideas, creativity, and the building that will be.

We continue towards the exterior. The open roof, the azure sky’s a brilliant canopy beyond the wooden frame, is fantastic. It rained recently and there are streaks upon the walls left by runs of water. It reminds us of Mário’s commitment to work with natural materials, ones that will weather and reflect their place in history. Paul points to the bougainvillea that clambers across the Moorish windows. “That was my idea, to bring the bougainvillea inside,” he says. “Mário says it was his idea. We can’t agree,” he grins. And so, it goes that creation is a conversation of place, restriction and opportunity, architect and inhabitants.

In the neighbouring house, we encounter smooth polished plains of concrete, glass, and wood. One roof slants upward so that, from inside, you can see the full picture of what lies beyond the perimeter: three arches of the former convent look down like the snooping eyes of nuns.

Watching family members lounge within the home, we notice how the design complements and enhances life inside and outside. Like an image that adheres to the rule of thirds, that uses lines to draw the eye towards its subject, this is like being within such a picture.

For Mário, visiting his completed projects is always an incentive to do even better: “Most of the time, I look to the building and see what I would do differently, with a critical spirit. If I feel I am the best architect in my street, how can I improve?” he states.

“We have this dream: the next one will be the best. This is my life. It’s like the donkey with the carrot. I am always trying to do the perfect project, though I know it will not be perfect. This is what keeps me alive.”


Casa Bonança before