Glocal Mindset: An Interview with Saraiva + Associados’ Miguel Saraiva

Kanto sits down with Miguel Saraiva, CEO, founder, and lead architect of Portugal’s largest architectural practice, revealing a firm unafraid of failure as it brings hard-earned skill and expertise to the world stage

Introduction and Interview Patrick Kasingsing
Images Saraiva + Associados

Saraiva + Associados
Miguel Saraiva, photographed by Rita Chantre, Header: Vietcombank Headquarters, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

“Welcome to Lisbon”

As my conversation with Miguel Saraiva reached its second hour, it surprised me how much of his hundred-strong global firm was built on experimentation and leaps of faith. Research on the practice reveals a well-oiled, multidisciplinary practice headquartered in an unassuming midcentury modern block at Av. Infante Santo, Lisbon. At the time of my visit, Saraiva + Associados was fresh off marking its 25th year of operations with a sharp rebrand, initiating the S+Academy program (more of which will be tackled in an upcoming post), and introducing its tenth global studio in Los Angeles.

I arrive at the office one chilly Saturday, welcomed by Miguel himself, accompanied by senior partner Paulo de Sousa and publicist António Moreira. “Welcome to Lisbon!” Saraiva offers with a genial smile as he ushers me into the unassuming front door of Portugal’s largest architectural practice. I was then given a tour of the sprawling office, which felt intimate and human despite its size and capacity; this was further reinforced by the countless hand-made scale models on display and hand-drawn sketches secured on boards and walls around the space. “It is different when you do things by hand; there is still a lot that technology can’t replicate or do with accuracy, like achieving a human sense of scale,” de Sousa explains as he shows us a scale model with a movable human figure. “We invest a lot in technology: BIM, 3D printing, sustainability…but you must know when good old human feeling is required. Humans will be using this building after all.”

Saraiva + Associados
Saraiva + Associados’ main workspace

Leaps of faith

We gather inside Saraiva’s office, a mezzanine level with a window that overlooks the main workspace like a pilot’s cockpit. Our conversation rolls on from one topic to the next, from architecture to politics, climate change, and even fortune-telling. I gather from Saraiva a creative restlessness, the sort that architects and designers of his generation would have tempered for the sake of business stability and reputation. True enough, he had made a few bets that, without the proper safeguards and luck, would have downed the business altogether. For example, the decision to expand overseas amid a financial crisis, which involved setting anchor in Algeria, and the misadventure in hyper-competitive China, which yielded losses but whose lessons invigorated Saraiva to further his expansion plans. At the height of the pandemic, S+A widened their presence in the Southeast Asian market with their first project on Philippine shores, Lucima in Cebu, which they worked on virtually with local developer Arthaland. Clearly, Saraiva is not a man to rest on his laurels.

“We are too big for a small market such as Portugal, a nation of ten million…the only viable way for us to grow is to expand our footprint internationally,” Saraiva shares. But what can the Portuguese practice offer the world? “We have a distinct, human-centric approach to designing spaces in Portugal, one that is also very much attuned to the rhythms of nature. Practices nowadays are investing heavily in technology. We are too, but we also know when it’s time to listen to our needs and desires as human beings. This access to the human soul is what I feel is getting lost in many of our new buildings.”

More of Kanto’s conversation with Miguel Saraiva follows:

Saraiva + Associados
The firm’s dedicated auditorium seats 50 and is home to the S+Academy

What’s a building you’ve been to lately that has left a great impression on you?

The building that impressed me the most was the Holocaust Museum in Berlin for its completeness, complexity, and range of emotions it evoked in me. Located in a historic part of the city, the museum’s architecture perfectly complements the museum’s content: there is this permanent dialogue between the feelings it projects and the architecture that conveys them in such a brutal and vivid fashion. This combination, thought and designed by Daniel Libeskind, creates a compelling emotional experience, even to this day, of what the Holocaust represented to millions of people. It is truly impressive that this effect was achieved through architecture. Rarely have I felt, even in my buildings, the range of emotions that I felt within that museum: fear, respect, sadness, and many others.

It’s fascinating that after visiting the area over 10 years ago, I now have the opportunity to collaborate with a renowned architect on the development of the future Jewish Museum in Lisbon. The museum will be located in the highly sensitive monumental zone of the city, where the buildings are over 500 years old. It’s a unique and challenging project that I’m excited to participate in.

In your book, Local Global (2016), noted Portuguese editor Jose Manuel das Neves recalls his surprise at learning you were more interested in international work. You had a well-traveled childhood, with a father working for national carrier TAP. Beyond the monetary rewards and prestige, what else does designing internationally give you as a designer? What does a Portuguese firm such as yours offer international clients that they won’t find in, say, a British firm?

Working beyond our borders implies a higher level of responsibility and commitment than what we have in our own country. Because when a developer or the public sector hires someone from outside instead of a local architect, the expectations are incredibly high. There is no margin for error. It is not fair to design for other parts of the world without keeping this in mind. S+A has been sought out by people in the markets, in different geographies with diverse cultures and objectives, due to our designs and our studio’s expertise.

We grew, and now we export our know-how, and in doing so, we also train local professionals. This aspect is crucial for the success of our international projects because training local architects is essential to the success of our operations, whether it is for a unique project or for consistent work in different areas. We are honored to be able to export architecture in fields such as housing because the housing segment is much more challenging than designing an office building or even a hospital—areas in which we are experts in Portugal and Europe. Housing is so much more challenging because it is a local matter that touches directly on how people live, and it must embrace their culture and way of life.

Saraiva + Associados
Saraiva + Associados
Infinity Tower, Lisbon, Portugal

Would you say that there exists within many Portuguese practices a heritage of ‘smallness’? Why do you think this is so? What factors drove you to eschew such a path and go ‘big’ instead?

The architecture firms in Portugal are proportionate to the size of the country, which corresponds to the scale of the projects they undertake. Portugal does not have a tradition of constructing tall buildings, and there are legal and cultural restrictions on such construction.

While there has been a shift in this paradigm, territorial instruments in Portugal still place limits on large-scale construction. Additionally, the morphology of cities and built heritage is typically of small scale. If there is a willingness to develop good urban planning in peripheral areas outside of historical zones, it may pave the way for interesting vertical approaches. This is more of a social than technical challenge and requires political and architectural considerations. At S+A, we have been tasked with developing programs for skyscraper-style vertical buildings, such as the large-scale residential building we designed in Cebu, Philippines.

Saraiva + Associados
ALLO: Alcântara Lisbon Offices, Lisbon, Portugal

Your book’s introduction, written by Jose Manuel Fernandes, speaks of the firm’s ‘gradual construction of a brand image.’ You, too, mentioned your desire to develop an architectural signature. Why is that important? Where is the firm in its journey to creating a ‘personality’ or ‘signature’? Are there glimpses of this ‘signature’ in your recent work?

The book was published over 12 years ago, and at that time, at the age of 42, I had less conceptual maturity than I have today. Looking back over the last 12 years, my focus has not been on creating my own language but on developing a line of thought that will materialize into a language within the next 10 years. My focus has been on designing with high quality, respecting the different landscapes where our objects are located, and creating a way of life for their users that reflects a way of living. It is evident that being the author of my projects and/or their creative director, it is natural that they have a common conceptual language. This is becoming quite visible, for example, in a city like Lisbon, due to our volume of work. The constant practice of design, associated with a high volume of work in a short period, is obliged to improve the processes and, consequently, to produce good architecture.

I find the insight on your firm’s embrace of ‘market architecture’ interesting. Fernandes mentions your firm’s openness to experimentation and your desire to serialize solutions for sustainability. How does one innovate and systematize at the same time? What is the key to achieving a balance?

Systematizing involves processes, and processes are fundamental to it, but systematizing should never limit creativity. They must go hand in hand. This is because systematization has both a good and a bad side. Prioritizing systematization runs the risk of perpetuating the same processes and errors, and in the long run, killing creativity. This can be mitigated by constantly questioning previously tested processes. I view the creative process as a unique process on a case-by-case basis. Systematization only makes sense to me on its positive side: testing, happening, validating.

Saraiva + Associados
Saraiva + Associados
LiV Village Resort, Vietnam

To follow the previous question, how does one balance the art and science aspects of architecture? Which of the field’s two sides do you enjoy doing more? I ask as art makes a bold presence in your office, where thought-provoking pieces and specially commissioned works abound.

Architecture is an art but has highly technical and legal components that sometimes kill creativity. To mitigate these risks or to add value to my craft, I call on the other arts for my projects—painting, sculpture, industrial design, and graphic design. All of them contribute to their scale, to the valorization of architecture. Our studio in Lisbon reflects this: painting, sculpture, and design. It wouldn’t make sense to me to have a space where I share ideas with my architects that doesn’t have art. After all, we spend more time in our office than with our families and friends.

Being present in ten countries in 25 or so years is quite a feat, but more than the successes, it is often in failures that insight and growth are achieved. What were some decisions or experimental moves you pursued for S+A that did not pan out as expected or ended in disaster? What learnings or insights did these experiences offer?

The decision to go to China and open an office in Beijing, where we stayed for eight years, was a beautiful decision in theory but turned out to be wrong. The cultural shock and the size of the country were so overwhelming; we probably weren’t prepared at the time. However, we had the opportunity to compete against the largest architecture firms in the world for projects, which unleashed a learning process that is still highly valued within our firm’s culture today.

Nowadays, because of the multiple lessons learned in China, we can present ourselves in different geographies and scales much better than we did then. Moreover, we now know that there is no project we can’t add value to. Therefore, although the balance was negative financially and relationally, in terms of professional practice, it was highly positive. So, looking back, I don’t have any regrets about the decision to go to China. After all, experimentation is all about pushing our boundaries and embracing failure. The key is to turn failure into something beautiful in the form of lessons learned.

You said you had problems with structures and order in your formative years, and yet here you are running what is arguably Portugal’s largest architectural practice; what would you say are the factors that helped instill in you the discipline and drive to start, run and grow Saraiva + Associados into the well-oiled machine that it is today?

The primary factor contributing to the growth and success of the studio has been its absolute and unbreakable commitment to quality. This standard has been upheld over the past six years. However, other essential factors must be addressed daily to ensure continued success, such as cultivating curiosity and an unparalleled thirst for knowledge, practicing discipline and organization, and showing respect to those who trust working with the studio. Furthermore, the studio benefits from an outstanding team of architects who share the same commitment to these values.

In today’s world, an architecture studio must be managed like a business, allowing creativity to flourish while prioritizing a hundred percent focus on quality design from its professionals.

What is your ideal firm size? What else is vital to running a successful architectural practice?

The success of a company and its size is not solely determined by the capabilities of its leader but rather by the abilities of the second-tier professionals within the organization. These individuals are the backbone of the company and provide crucial support to enable the creation of innovative ideas and solutions. For a studio to grow and thrive, it must provide its professionals opportunities to develop their careers and offer continuous training programs for personal growth. It is essential to recognize that the studio cannot expand and flourish without individual growth.

Saraiva + Associados
Campo Novo Mixed-use Development, Lisbon, Portugal

You regard trust as fundamental to your firm’s success and choosing the right people. What qualities do your partners and managers share that have earned them your unequivocal trust?

The foundation of trust is a commitment, coupled with an extraordinary human quality. Creativity is one of the paths to success. If these foundational characteristics are present, then there is a solid base for leading teams within our structure. The space for discussion and criticism must be an area shared between all team members, an area without complex procedures, formalities, prejudices, and above all, full honesty.

What attributes or skills are needed to excel in Saraiva + Associados?

Managing human resources today is a complexity that overwhelms me. Our studio has different generations, each with its own unique education and training. Managing human resources has proven to be one of the greatest challenges of my career. As a result, we now have a very active and closely aligned human resources department working in conjunction with our company’s leadership. Architects must be equipped to manage human resources, so we need to employ external tools to support this aspect of our work. Despite this challenge, the skills required for success have mostly stayed the same over the past thirty years. The people make the difference: commitment, work capacity, organization, communication, and design are some of the essential factors for growing within a structure like ours.

Dostyk 300 Residences, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Saraiva + Associados has just recently opened its US office in LA and has ranked 87th in the WA100 2021 rankings, the lone Portuguese firm. How would you describe the firm’s journey thus far? Would you say it’s more of an “everything’s going to plan,” or an “I make it up as we go along” trajectory?

Our trajectory has been slow to be sustained at all levels. Sometimes, you take a step back to take three forward. It is not easy to have a direct structure of more than 120 architects in a country of 10 million inhabitants. I would almost say that there is a disproportionality between the size of the studio and the size of the market. However, it is this size that allows us to have a professional presence beyond borders and to assure our clients that we can deliver quality work. In the next 25 years, we will focus on more established markets, such as the United States or Switzerland. It is a huge challenge and requires considerable investment, but we believe it is a natural step for a consistent future for S+A. The past serves as a positive reference for doing better in the future, avoiding mistakes, and perpetuating the positive aspects of our work. •

Saraiva + Associados
Miguel Saraiva, photographed by Rita Chantre

We talk with Saraiva + Associados on their home-brewed continuing education program S+Academy here.

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