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Minimalist Gem by Atelier Carvalho Araújo Masters a Tricky Site in Portugal

Modernist-minded designers often mine bodies of water for inspiration. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—perhaps the greatest house of the 20th century—wouldn’t exist without the stream that runs, dramatically, below it. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House was carefully positioned to frame views of the Fox River (though the river has occasionally flooded the dwelling, a bit of drama architecture buffs could live without).


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Following in this storied tradition, Atelier Carvalho Araújo used water as both guide and counterpoint in designing a house in Vieira do Minho, Portugal. The site is a steep slope overlooking the Caniçada Valley, about 20 miles northeast of Braga—where one of the firm’s two offices is located. (The other is 5,000 miles away, in São Paulo, Brazil.) A stream meanders down the site, connecting ponds at the top and bottom of the hillside, both now corralled into freeform pools.


The client, entrepreneur José Maria Ferreira, wanted a place to host business dinners during the workweek and in which to relax on weekends with his wife and three young children. An existing house on the site was positioned in the path of landslides, so Ferreira opted to tear it down. He wanted the new house to have stronger ties, both physically and metaphorically, to its location.


To design the 3,580-square-foot structure, Ferreira chose José Manuel Carvalho Araújo, the vision behind such projects as De Lemos, a sprawling winery in the countryside, near Viseu, and the conversion of an old Braga military barracks into a cultural center dubbed GNRation. The architect is known for strident forms that command attention. “Architecture must have the gift of awakening sensations, emotions,” Carvalho Araújo says. “The only thing I don’t want to evoke is indifference.”


Ferreira was no backseat client. He is the founder of Ecosteel, a building products company that designs and manufactures minimalist but high-performance framing systems in steel and aluminum, including the motorized 18-foot-tall glass sliders that bracket the living area. (Ferreira’s company uses the house in a promotional video, in which the double-height doors slide open and shut as if by magic.)


One approaches the property from above. A long straight-run stair descends from the driveway, at roof level, into the entry courtyard, where a glass wall provides views of the living room and beyond, to Peneda-Gerês National Park. A second entry route leads around the side of the house, flirting with the babbling brook before arriving at a large terrace adjacent to the dining area.


The house’s geometry is at once primal and puzzling. It has only three main elements, but it’s not always apparent how they fit together. A concrete tray, seemingly pinned to the hillside via a concrete box, cantilevers out over the valley. The tray supports a double-height living/dining space with exposed-concrete walls and flooring. Impressions of wooden formwork soften the look of the material while echoing the timber-clad ceiling and the surrounding forest.


Hanging over the public rooms, supported by angled steel trusses, is a mezzanine level that forms a deep overhang along the window wall, helping to block the hot afternoon sun without obstructing views or breezes. Accessed via a catwalk across the living space, the upper level contains a pair of bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms. Clad in Nordic pine, both inside and out, the mezzanine feels like a cabin in the sky, with windows screened by operable wooden hatches.


There is very little that’s superfluous. Carvalho Araújo designed custom kitchen and bathroom fixtures that maintain the spare aesthetic. Elsewhere, furniture is kept to a minimum. Surrounding the dining table, also by the architect, are chairs by the Pritzker Prize–winning Portuguese talent Álvaro Siza Vieira. Leather sofas in the living area, by Brazilian icon Jose Rodrigues, are built for comfort. The angled metal legs of a 1950’s Silvio Cavatorta highboard, almost a microcosm of a building, echoes the trusses that support the mezzanine above.


Art was an important part of the program as well, enlivening the otherwise earth-tone environment. (The client’s company produces large-scale sculptures for artists including José Pedro Croft and Pedro Cabrita Reis.) An outsize abstract painting by Dario Basso commands a living room wall, while a colorful acrylic canvas by Manuel Caeiro dresses up the dining room, its dynamic composition mirroring the trumpetlike brass chandelier beside it.


But most of the decoration is provided by the architecture, a skillful composition of thick and thin, dark and light, smooth and textured. And, of course, by nature, which is all around. Asked what he is proudest of, Carvalho Araújo answers, “the simplicity of the solution, which is reflected in its peaceful coexistence with the place.”


Project Team: Joel Moniz, Alexandre Branco, Leandro Silva, Ana Vilar, André Torres, Mafalda Santiago, Sandra Ferreira: Atelier Carvalho AraÚjo. Metaloviana-Metalúrgica de Viana: Structural Engineer. Lam-Engenharia: MEP Engineer. Vagaeng Consultores Associados: Acoustical Engineer. EcoSteel: Metalwork. Banema: Woodwork. Pedralbet: General Contractor. João Bicho e Joana Carneiro, Arquitectos Paisagistas: Landscape Designer.


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