The firm foundations of Mário Martins

The firm foundations of Mário Martins

By: Ana Tavares

Essential spoke to one of the country’s leading architects, Mário Martins

He is one of the most recognised architects in the Algarve but he refuses to be a prima donna. Mário Martins is as home-grown as they come (he was born and bred in Lagos, where he still lives), and humble enough to admit that, despite all the accolades for his creations, his architecture is at his clients’ service. “Sometimes clients don’t feel comfortable bringing in sketches but I find it really amusing, because you can see straight away what’s going on in their soul. I have always avoided playing the role of ‘I know best’,” he tells us at his studio in Lagos. But Mário Martins does know – a lot.

Born in the Algarve in 1964, he studied Architecture at the Technical University of Lisbon and, after finishing his course in 1998, he worked with two of the most prestigious Portuguese architects: Manuel Graça Dias and João Luís Carrilho da Graça. “I could have stayed to work with either of them in Lisbon, but I came back to Lagos after a few months to finish my course.” He came back not just because of his roots – he has a great love for the Algarve – but also because he finds the mix of nationalities interesting in this small rectangle in the south of the country. “Despite being a small city, it is somewhat cosmopolitan and that’s something that appeals to me.”

Nevertheless, when the architect returned to his home town, where he later set up the Oblíqua Architects studio with his friend Vítor Lourenço, the Algarve’s architectural scene wasn’t the most exciting: “Twenty-odd years ago, only around 3% of architecture projects were done by architects. An architect was seen as a difficult creature and a more expensive service,” explains Mário, adding that it took “a lot of grafting” to convince clients.

But, project after project, the architect began conquering the Algarve’s architectural landscape, and even went on to influence it with the simple yet bold forms of his architecture. Contributing to that were not only renovations of public spaces, such as the renovation of Lagos market, but also exhaustive research work, such as A Cor na Arquitectura em Lagos (Colour in Architecture in Lagos), a photographic compilation in partnership with respected local photographer João Mariano in the 1990s, which led to the restoration of various façades on the Lagos riverfront.

Projects like these celebrated the colour of the Algarve’s heritage and the use of natural pigments – in the old days, the importance of a building was measured by its colour and ornamentation, he explains –, contrary to the image of an excessively white Algarve, which was sold as a tourism product for British tourists under the slogan “very traditional”, as the architect jests. Despite saying he has no colour preconceptions – in fact, he stresses that two vital things in architecture are the absence of preconceptions and dissatisfaction –, Mário Martins believes that he opened a kind of ‘Pandora’s box’ with the project, as the indiscriminate use of colour that followed in the ensuing years wasn’t always visually pleasant.

Then, in the year 2000, the architect founded Mário Martins Atelier with his partner and wife Maria José Rio. A champion of an architecture that has to serve not only the client but also the context of the construction itself, Mário has worked essentially on single-family houses. “I don’t have the perfect house. My perfect house is the perfect house for each specific situation. It’s born from my clients’ wishes, the location, the sun exposure, the wind, the view. I don’t know how to do two identical houses.”

It’s this closeness with his clients, which Mário calls “craft work” and which makes him work on a house for a British client for three years, for example, that also makes his work so striking. Houses in Lagos such as Casa da Malaca have already been mentioned in the prestigious ArchDaily portal, and his Villa Escarpa was one of the 25 most visited Portuguese projects in history in ArchDaily Brazil. In 2011, Uzinabooks even published a book dedicated to the architect’s work, entitled Houses Mário Martins.

Like Mário the man, Mário the architect also mirrors his passion for the Algarve in each project: the materials used are adapted to the region’s climate, with an emphasis on white plaster, natural materials that age nobly, a layout that is often devised to promote outdoor living, simple, contemporary and clean lines, and the concern with sun exposure to enhance thermal comfort.

“I will gladly do a small house or a detail in a staircase or an entrance gate, for a client with more or less means. I put all my dedication and everything else I can into any of my projects,” he states. In the belief that each project is better than the last, the architect adds that his work has become increasingly minimalistic as he matures. And which project stands out the most? “The last house I design is always the one that excites me the most.”

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