Q&A | João Palla – Architect: ‘Today there are not so many opportunities for architects in Macau’

Architect João Palla, who has worked extensively in Macau over the past few decades, is showing a series of his works in an exhibition at Casa Garden. The exhibition, which opened earlier this month, is titled “Tracing * Liners”, and involves traffic road markings superimposed or merged with other objects, such as steel plates.


Palla has an interesting take on architecture and heritage preservation in Macau. Just this week he launched an online petition calling for a halt to the demolition of the Lai Chi Vun shipyards on the basis that they constitute a valuable memory for local people.

The architect has an interest in the city’s history and his opinions are partly formed through an understanding of the context of Macau. Palla says that over the years he has seen Macau undergo significant changes.

“When I first came in 1982, Macau was very, very slow. We wanted to have things go a bit quicker. I guess nowadays it’s the opposite,” he told the Times throught laughter.

He sat down with the Times to explain his exhibition and the inspiration behind it, and to talk history, architecture and the future of Cotai.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – You are often described as an architect, an artist, a photographer and a designer. Do all of these labels fit you?

João Palla (JP) – I don’t consider myself an artist, nor a photographer – I am an architect and I do what I have learned: the design process. I consider this exhibition as a design process more than anything else. So it’s something within my practice of thinking about reality and the will to transform it [into art].

MDT – What was the inspiration for the “Tracing * Liners” exhibition?

JP – In this case I built some pieces – maybe not artworks, but pieces – and I see them as something that helps me move forward [in my process]. During this process I thought as an architect. Building as an architect is more or less this process […] that ends with the actual construction. In a way you are interpreting reality, but it also involves creativity. I started by looking at the lines made on the road as part of a daily activity. In order to draw a line on the road or pavement, there are five guys that need to be involved, responsible for different parts [of the process]. I love that ‘dance’, that act.

I very much like the common activities made by common people that somehow are invisible [go unnoticed]. I found out that I am somehow led to observe activities that I would describe as “vernacular”, or made by the common people. This is an inspiration in my work [as an architect], for example with [my project] with bamboo scaffolds. I am fascinated by the ancient practices and activities [particularly within architecture] that contrast with the globalization trend… these activities still exist and that attracts me a lot.

MDT – What are the opportunities like for young architects in Macau?

JP – I think that there should be a lot of new opportunities for architects. However, what I see in Macau is, unless you are working for a casino, the freelancers struggle to maintain their activity and I believe that it should actually be the other way around. There are new, young architects looking for work and there are few private architecture firms that provide their services [in Macau]. I don’t know why… it’s a pity because there should be more opportunities for young people to make a career [in architecture], like in Hong Kong. Today there are not so many opportunities for architects in Macau.

MDT – Is there anything inconsistent in Macau’s architecture given the various ‘worlds’ that exist here, for example the Portuguese colonial style, the Chinese traditional ‘grey-bricks’ and the casino towers? Or is this the very culture of Macau?

JP – There is nothing inconsistent about it… actually I think it is the consistency of having everything together in Macau [laughs]. It has been like that since the beginning. Initially you had Chinese temples, grey-brick houses and fishermen villages […] but then you had churches, walls and civic architecture with the Portuguese. In a way, these “two cities” have grown together since the beginning.

There are still some traditional Chinese dwellings in Macau, which used to comprise small communities that shared knowledge and certain activities. They are still visible – not that lifestyle – but some of the buildings and communal areas. Even today, if you really search for them you will find them.

MDT – Does the casino world fit seamlessly in with these two historic pasts?

JP – Yes, why not? In the 20th century you had a few casinos that were huge buildings – the tallest in Macau – and they stood out. You had the Hotel Central and later the Hotel Estoril […]. Then later came the Lisboa, which became an icon of Macau. Now, if you ask me about the kind of architecture that has been completed in Cotai, I am very critical. I think this kind of architecture is to some extent repetitive, which I totally dislike. I don’t think that’s honest. At least from my [education], an architect should follow their own investigation and not copy things.

MDT – What do you think of the totality of architectural preservation in Macau? Is it right that almost every heritage building is repurposed as a museum?

JP – I think that we live in different times and buildings have the capacity to be converted and fitted out in so many different ways.  The concept behind [this] rehabilitation […] is to take an old building and maintain its formal and structural characteristics, but convert it into something that is pleasant and useful to the public and contemporary life. That means you need to have water and electricity and internet [access].

You have to adapt the building to have these facilities… but you cannot lose its style or fundamental aspects. You need to feel that you are in an old building, and not a new building with an old façade. Most of the buildings in Macau that have an old façade, have had their interiors totally demolished and rebuilt. That was a trend in Europe during the 1980s when people didn’t care for the type of construction or the material constitution [of the buildings], but nowadays in Europe you would never be allowed to demolish parts of the building that would be considered heritage. In Macau, maybe there are no buildings – apart from the churches – that have their original structures [in entirety]. It was already ‘artificialized’ long ago. A lot of the preservation is on the surface.

MDT – What are your thoughts on the urban planning of Cotai?

JP – Cotai is a new city with a programmed urban plan. It was programmed to have hospitals, schools, residential areas and sports facilities, as well as hotels and leisure. What has been built according to the initial plan is [a lot less]. There are very few residential units there.

The plots of land are very large, so the scale of the city is totally different to what the Macanese people are used to. The Macanese people like to walk on the street – it’s the street life, not the American life.  This kind of American model in Cotai means that you cannot walk, for example from The Venetian [Macao] to Studio City… it would take too long. In Macau there is a human scale – you shop, get some street food – but Cotai is really not designed for locals, its designed for a specific set of people.  It’s totally nonsense actually, because people from Macau only go to Cotai if they work there – they don’t go because they want to.

MDT – Is that Cotai plan now irreversible?

JP – Well, today you don’t have much land left [in Cotai]. Unless the government plans to build more residential units there, I don’t think anything will change.

MDT – You established an online petition this week calling for an end to the demolition of  Lai Chi Vun shipyards. Why are they so important?

JP – I am ashamed of the demolition of shipyards in the Lai Chi Vun area. For me they are both heritage and the memory of an old profession in Macau. It is a crime […] to deprive younger generations of knowing the past [of Macau].

Macau used to be based [economically] on maritime activities. The shipyards were the basis of Macau’s success before industry. At one point in Macau’s history, [the now- peninsula] was an island and the sea was the only way of getting to the outside world. […] All of the temples in Macau are related to the goddesses of the sea, fishermen and boats – not only A-Ma – and this [connection] goes back further than the Portuguese. So the shipyards are a very important symbol of Macau’s relationship with the sea.

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