[Originally published in Azure Magazine, June 2017]
Nestled within a labyrinth of narrow streets, small squares and gracefully aged buildings in one of Lisbon’s most traditional neighbourhoods, Santa Clara 1728 is an 18th century urban palace that has been exquisitely rehabilitated into a small hotel with six luxurious suites by architect Manuel Aires Mateus. Owner João Rodrigues, an airline pilot whose family lives on the building’s top floor, is an art and design aficionado who, through a series of architectural projects undertaken with Aires Mateus, has been pursuing qualities of atmosphere and sensuousness in architecture. Their first experiment, Casas na Areia (Houses in the Sand), is an ensemble of small cabins in which the sand of the beach they are situated in extends indoors. Cabanas no Rio (Cabins on the River), is a pair of wooden fishers’ huts on a river jetty that explore themes of enclosure and exposure within a vast landscape, while Casa no Tempo (House in Time) is a former ramshackle farmhouse in a cork grove that seeks “the essence of home” through a distillation of its architecture.
Following this line of inquiry, Santa Clara 1728, the largest and most urbane of these projects, “experiments with new ways of living and experiencing space”, as Rodrigues puts it. All of the projects follow three basic principles: the maximum use of locally sourced, high-quality natural materials, the employment of local craftsmen and techniques, and the exploration of an architectural idea that emerges from the location of every project.
The first thing that is noticeable about Santa Clara 1728 is the absence of any visual reference whatsoever to a hotel. There is no signage on the restored building façade and no reception desk in the entrance hall, the centre of which features a Living Divani modular sofa ensemble forming an island below a moon lamp by Davide Groppi. The dining room, instead of containing a multitude of tables, features a single, solid oak table that convivially seats 20, while an adjacent single-piece stainless steel kitchen can be freely accessed by guests anytime. As Rodrigues explains, “This is not a hotel, but a house at which we like to welcome guests. We want visitors to feel at home.”
To convey an atmosphere of home, the building has been rehabilitated such that the distinction between new and original elements is relaxed, playful and informal. While the original limestone stairway, for example, is framed by a ceremonious classical archway at its ascent, the roughly cut underside of the stair’s return segment, originally covered with plaster, is also exposed. In a similar spirit, the Baroque paintings in the entrance hall and dining room are not wall-hung, but lean at angles against the walls, suggesting a more informal, temporary art display.
The relaxed formality of Santa Clara 1728 continues within the generously proportioned guest suites, where free-standing storage or bathroom elements that leave walls and ceilings untouched create the sensation of a single, large space that has been subdivided in an impromptu manner. Bathrooms within the suites, for example, conceal toilet and bidet within small, Finnish sauna-like wood pavilions that leave other fixtures partially concealed and a solid stone bathtub exposed so that, in some of the suites, views of the Tagus River can be enjoyed while bathing.
Furnished with pieces from B&B Italia’s Maxalto collection by Antonio Citterio, the suites do away with typical hotel paraphernalia such as telephones or flat-screen televisions. The emphasis here is clearly on stunning views, natural light, the textures of natural materials, and beautiful craftsmanship.
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