At first, you feel somewhat perplexed as you stand in front of the historic townhouse’s façade. There are doorbells, but no names. After parking the EQS on one of Lisbon’s many winding streets, there is no indication of what awaits visitors behind the heavy front door and at the bottom of the stairs. We are guests of Manuel Aires Mateus, one of Portugal’s most influential architects, whose houses are mainly found in the region south of Lisbon, known to most as the Alentejo.
The wooden floor in a spacious conference room creaks elegantly. Historical paintings hang on the walls, models on the table, floor plans are stacked on shelves. Next to Aires Mateus is a filigree pencil drawing that is more like an artistic sketch than the design of a new house. This year, he and his office will once again take part in one of the Venice Biennales – as they have done many times before. What you don’t see anywhere is a computer. Manuel Aires Mateus pulls his iPhone out of his pocket and laughs. His team only finally managed to persuade him to buy one last year. It’s not that the architect has anything against the opportunities opened up by digitalisation. It’s more that Aires Mateus is guided in his work by sources of inspiration in nature, his intuition, the region’s traditions and the client’s wishes.
Immediately after graduating from university, Manuel Aires Mateus founded an architectural office in 1988 together with his brother Francisco Aires Mateus as a kind of family business.
Both quickly developed their distinctive style: understated, minimalist, a fine sense of style and a sensual modernity. Aires Mateus houses are always so much more than just an attractively designed roof over your head.
Their visual axes, the sense of space and the interplay his houses have with the surrounding nature all create the impression of having arrived, of coming to rest.
His architectural arrangements are luxurious, but in a relaxed way. Many wealthy Lisboetas have commissioned Aires Mateus to design houses where they will spend their weekends, especially in summer.
Painted white, they rise from the pine forests of the Alentejo, the plots overgrown with cork trees, which are cultivated in the region following a centuries-old cultural technique.
The floor plan of the house we want to go to the next day in the electric EQS is laid out in front of Aires Mateus on the conference table. The story of the construction begins with nothing more than a wooded piece of land, barely two hours from Lisbon. And only a short distance from one of the wide, white and mostly deserted beaches. We steer the EQS through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s city centre south across the Tagus river past the neighbouring Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve.
The battery range indicates over 600 kilometres – more than enough for the two-hour car journey ahead of us. And even if we had to recharge, there are enough charging stations along the route to get us to our destination. After turning off the motorway, the EQS – recently named the “2022 World Luxury Car” by an international jury (worldcarawards.com) – glides athletically along country roads, through small towns and along wider landscapes with their typical pine forests.
Beyond the Hyperscreen, which stretches from left to right in front of the driver across the luxury saloon’s entire dashboard, we have a view of the landscape. The spacious interior combined with the head-up display and navigation with augmented reality makes you feel you are sitting in a car from the future.
Almost like time travel, in fact. We are cocooned, safe and comfortable in the EQS, the wide windscreen making you feel part of the landscape. Features such as ENERGIZING AIR CONTROL with a HEPA filter regulate the temperature in the vehicle, but also filter pollen and viruses from the air.
The standard PRE-SAFE® system supports the driver with warnings or braking procedures, and the new vehicle architecture with its electric motor also makes the body even more crash-resistant.
The comfortable ride creates space to reflect back on the morning spent in Manuel Aires Mateus’ office. We drive past cork trees. The architect took the trees typical of the region as anchor points and carefully built the house around them. Aires Mateus selected a square shape to place the architecture considerately yet confidently in the landscape, with an interior opening up into a wide round. The four parts of the building are located in the corners of the square: the main house, a garage, accommodations for the children and a pool, all framing a spacious courtyard.
Aires Mateus ingeniously installed small terraces around two bony cork trees in the main building.
“It takes a great deal of effort to integrate cork trees,” explains the architect. But the work is about much more than practical considerations; it is also about the aesthetics of sustainable luxury.
Aires Mateus responds to this challenge by trying to preserve the scenic region in which he grew up and to offer the people of the Alentejo an economic perspective through the construction of these buildings. As important as tourism is, no one here wants clusters of hotels dominating the coast.
The Atlantic Ocean soon appears in the distance, its mighty waves rolling over the light sand towards us. The road to the house is provisionally paved, like many roads here that lie beyond the main arteries. It leads deeper and deeper into the forest, and just as you start to wonder whether anything is really here, a gate opens up in front of us. The house in Alentejo is a “grower”, a place that slowly approaches you.
At first glance, the building ensemble almost disappears into the landscape. It takes time to understand the interrelationships of the estate. But then this house quickly gives you a sense of the familiar, as if you have known it for a long time. The size of the building also only reveals itself when you wander through its rooms.
Through narrow corridors that open into a light-flooded kitchen, along floor-length panorama windows that give you the impression you are standing in the middle of the forest. The view across a kitchen island falls directly onto the inner courtyard where the EQS is parked in the midday sun.
The elegant shape of the vehicle is almost an extension of the building itself. Indeed, there are similarities between the house and the vehicle: the feeling of space, the light, lofty atmosphere, the modernity, but also the restraint.
The sustainable drive of the EQS matches the respect for nature and tradition in the architecture of the house in Alentejo. Both embody an attitude to life where luxury and the environment are combined in a new way. And in some cases, they even ensure that we can appreciate our environment in all its glory.
On the way back, we decide to cross the Tagus by ferry on the headland north of the picturesque town of Comporta, where we pass through Arrábida Natural Park.
The sky above the sea to our right is brilliant blue, and the sea shimmers behind the wide window front of the EQS at the foot of the mountains that drop steeply into the sea here.
We see the city of Lisbon on the horizon. And this is the moment when it occurs to us that the EQS represents a new attitude towards life. We gaze on the beauty before us with fresh eyes, a beauty not only in the environment. It is a strangely familiar feeling, a new sense of home.