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The Concept in Architecture

By António Cabral de Meirelles, Project Director and Architect

“Three are the abstract elements that may exist in any form of art and that may, therefore, stand out in it: the logical order of the whole in its parts, the objective knowledge of the matter it informs and the excess in it of an abstract thought.”

Fernando Pessoa

The architectural “Concept” surely has an infinity of definitions, readings and interpretations; it is not an exact term, since it will always be subjective. It may be a base idea or a combination of several ideas; there are no formulas or mathematical algorithms for its conception; it is inherent to a process of a project and to the architectural thought.

Being essentially a project tool, it can also become a way of communicating and sharing the project’s vision. In that moment of communication, it is common to try to summarise the complexity in one, two or three simple and clear lines that are easily perceptible by the interlocutor. This is, without the shadow of a doubt, an important, even critical point, in which oversimplification lurks and moderation is good advice.

The concept and its explanation are different levels, with very different roles – tool, on one hand, communication, on the other. At the end will be the work, its impact, its integration; its experience will confirm the goodness of the concept and its capacity to transform into reality.

Because of dealing with variables of different origins, there may, in reality, be some clarification in its inherent polarity – on the one hand the information that is pragmatic, programmatic, local, typological, scientific and based on knowledge; on the other the abstract, sensible, poetic and intuitive reading.

Despite the fact that the architectural “Concept” constitutes itself as a central element in the development of a project, in the clear definition of the architectural intention and in its DNA, it also acquires a high value in the internal share and development of the project, subsequently, in the solution’s presentation and display.

The “Concept” materialises itself and is for the S+A an early stage of the project. It may come close, in some aspects, to the previous study, with a much bigger and more determinant reach, which will accompany the project in its several stages until its edification and experience as main purpose.

This seminal project stage, which we refer to as “Conceptual Study”, is made up, variably, of graphic and written parts as well as analysis schemes and elements, but also of volumetric and three-dimensional simulations. It is formally presented to the customer, being a powerful synergic and display vehicle, where the DNA which will accompany the whole project is stated.

This “Conceptual Study” combines in itself a broad range of knowledge, analysis and reflexion, balancing between the purest rationality and a constant appeal to sensibility and intuition; the intense search for an architectural, functional, adequate, integrated but also exciting and innovative proposal.

The drawing as a conceptual search tool is associated to the volumetric experimental. Several study, physical and 3D models are drawn up for each project, which are accompanied by discussion and internal debate until the solution considered right is reached. Two or three volumetric solutions are frequently developed for the same conceptual idea, shared with the customer, broadening the discussion and active participation, usually very consequential and galvanising.

In this Conceptual Study stage, the integration in the territory, functionality, form, materiality and constructive characteristics are already presented with a strong emphasis in the “Image” or materialisation of the concept. It is something that for us, architects, is crucial and intrinsic to the architectural process, without being addressed as an autonomous “dress” over a functional body, but as an intrinsic component, which is connected to the whole, the connection of the whole and the part.

The Conceptual Study, apparently free of the several technical “constraints” that involve the architectural creation, with the inputs of more than 10 specialties, different binding regulations, diverse land management tools with its architectural beacons not always coherent throughout the territory, reflects in reality an in-depth study of programmatic and regulatory constraints, with special focus on municipal regulations.

To the diverse architectural and project typologies developed by S+A, from urban planning to the building, with a big diversity of scales and levels, being it possibly residential complexes, offices, commercial spaces, congress centres, hotels, schools, industrial spaces, public buildings, etc, a Conceptual Study will correspond, which shall correspond to its characteristics and to the mobilisation of the teams specialised to each theme.

The architectural drawing, dimensioning and occupation of space in buildings with diverse purposes obeys to prerequisites determinant to its success. In this initial stage of Conceptual Study, the ratios per user in the diverse architectural typologies, the composition meshes or the location of the fixed points, and the identification of the repetition modules, the planimetric and altimetric pre-dimensioning are elements as essential as determining, and when right, persistent until the full use and architectonical fruition.

The evolution in the work project and studio drawing has been suffering major transformations, mainly associated to computer technologies and digital tools, reflecting itself, as is natural, on the creative and conceptual process, as well as on the architectural production.

Interestingly, the works now developed on the computer begin without scale; the zoom on the screen constantly distorts the sight dimension and, consequently, the scale, in contrast to its permanence in the physical drawing on the drawing board, an object which is almost archaeological in today’s studios.

This virtual process of drawing and volumetric modelling is a different paradigm, closer to the reality in some aspects, further from it in others, as in the notion of scale already mentioned, or in the simulations of reality, sometimes more perfect than it.

The importance of the real work, the material, the space, the light and the existence shall find in the previous representations of digital origin, ultra-realistic, a loyal and transitional tool, perversely not constituting the object itself. The representation of reality sometimes seems to be more valued than the reality itself.

What 30 years ago used to be manly handmade, over a paper on a drawing board, demanding very specific qualities, in which the representation could include, besides plans, cuts and elevations, rigorous or hand raised perspectives, is nowadays also worked out through computerised means. Today the production, and even the conceptual stage, has the digital as its support; the virtual representation is accessible and is a tool which has become indispensable. The technical skills demanded are necessarily others and so are the actors.

We may consider the best Conceptual Study to be the one that, besides merging and conceptualising the abstract thought with the vast technical information, is able to structure and adapt itself to the development of the project, preserving its DNA and conceptual line until the full existence of the work. Of this polarity surely something is born, which we dare to call Concept.

The exemplification of the Architectural Concept in 3 Projects

We analyse below three unique architectural and conceptually very different approaches, 3 locations, 3 programmes and a very diverse path of utopic intensity.

These are a Memorial Tower in Astana (Kazakhstan), the Portugal Pavilion in Expo Dubai and Infinity Tower, in Lisbon.

The Astana Tower, 330 metres high, is born out of a state tender of international scope for a symbolic monument that represents Kazakhstan’s independence, including a vast museum with the country’s history from its foundation. The possibility of a tomb function for the then president being later added to it was foreseen, hypotheses which should also be considered.

Our proposal comes from the reading of the location, which is in fact extraordinary, in an island at the bifurcation of the Ishim river, defining an inescapable axiality, but also from the will to create a unique Icon with a strong identity. The form arises from the outline, an immense tower gradually arises from the soil of the island funnelling towards the sky, touching it and ending in the tiniest point, as if indefinitely extending – the emphatic idea of the earth’s connection with the sky.

Its exterior colour, forming a diamond mesh, is born out of the interpretation of the support structures of the traditional nomad residencies, the “Samruk”, one of the strongest symbols of the country.

Its interior, underground under the tower, integrated, besides the area of the museum, a wide and scenic spiral ramp, running through the converging interior of the tower to a panoramic viewpoint of the city of Astana.

The Portugal Pavilion in Expo Dubai 2020 is an ephemeral work, with a deadline of existence limited to a year and extended to 2 because of the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

The idea of the caravel comes from the theme of Portugal’s connection with the world and its most symbolic vehicle, a stylised interpretation, decipherable in the cut and verticality of the “sails” and in the horizontal plane of the “hull”. The fluctuation of the whole volume states a double meaning, the constitution of a wide covered square, a leisure space, sheltered from the sun, to meet and share culture, as it was verified, but also the fluctuation as the eminence of the movement, of the departure of discovery.

The ephemeral character of the work allowed the use of light materials and a slight constructive system in metallic structure, facilitating the creation of large spans and corbels, accentuating the idea of opaque levitating mass that was intended to be printed.

The Infinity Tower, in Lisbon, conceptually answers the territory and its specific location. The 360 degree panoramic view over Lisbon, the Tagus River and Monsanto, and the wide visibility characteristics inherent to the height of the tower were crucial in its architectonic development.

The idea of a continuous elevation, without interruptions, “infinite”, was determinant. A volumetric cut that would allow to maximize the views and the surface of solar exposure was sought. The traditional vision of the main, side and rear elevations was contradicted; in Infinity they are all main elevations and there are no hierarchical or secondary blind walls.

The edges were abolished, replaced by rounded surfaces, reinforcing the idea of a continuous and infinite plan, totally open to the landscape.

Its configuration in “Y” allowed, in fact, a maximisation of the surface in contact with the exterior and the concentration of the vertical circulation areas in the volume “core”, allowing great versatility in the typological occupation and its variation throughout the floors.

Special attention and composition study was given to the volumetric variations imposed by the façade setbacks in the areas of the existing duplexes in different heights in the 3 arms of the tower, as well as in the upper finish, fragmentation of the covers and in the mass correspondent to the panoramic pool.

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11th Floor, Office 36.2,
010000 Astana, Kazakhstan

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