2023 McDermott and Swank Traveling Fellowship

Alexandra Morales, Assoc. AIA received her Bachelor of Science in Biology in 2015 from Baylor University. She went on to pursue architecture at UTA and completed her Master of Architecture in the Spring of 2022. She is currently a project designer at Malone Maxwell Dennehy Architects in Dallas, Texas. Her primary interest is in using architectural strategies to develop dynamic spaces at the intersection of nature and the urban condition. Her love for travel has developed as a way to collect architectural memories while fostering a greater understanding of history, culture, and design.


Alexandra proposed a two-week research trip to four diverse regions of Portugal to study the craft of nine built projects that represent how nature, culture, and the history of Portugal have influenced the craftsmanship of contemporary architecture. Her goal was to explore the link between geography and geometry in vernacular building methods in order to understand how Portuguese architects have developed a language of contemporary vernacular construction.


Portugal is a small country on the Iberic peninsula largely bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It has a relatively small scale; for reference, Texas is about 7X the size of the country, measuring around 678,052 sq km while Portugal only measures around 92,090 sq km. In comparison to DFW with a population of about 7.6M people, the entire country of Portugal reported a population of about 10.3M people. According to the image, this is a primarily coastal population with a majority of residents congregating near the two largest port cities: Lisbon and Porto. Because of its coastal location, the region is rich with a maritime history of conquests. Most notably, the region now considered Portugal was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate, an Arabic Empire that ruled from around 711 to the 13th century. Eventually, Portugal regained the land and became the first international power, colonizing 50 countries beginning in the 14th century. Because seafaring ways meant at many times, a loss of human life, or even a loss of what existed previously, there is a word that has developed in Portuguese language that defines this nostalgic concept of loss: Saudade. Through this word comes the cultural response to remember and celebrate what once was. It is this combination of Arabic history and nostalgic desire for preservation that seems to allow for vernacular building methods to be celebrated in a contemporary fashion.

Based on interviews with representatives of seven Portuguese Architecture firms, the Portuguese contemporary vernacular design appears to be shaped by these two concepts: craftsmanship and context. The following quotes reflected patterns that were revealed during these exchanges:

  • In terms of craftsmanship: “Connection between the mason and drawings is everything. Portuguese see there is no architecture without these executed details. The small scale allows for this. But it is very, very important. “
  • In regard to context: “There is nothing without context for us. Even when we had a site in the countryside with nothing around, we found local vernacular warehouse buildings that informed the strategy for our design, and we pulled from this reference. We also pull from references outside of the context.”


Over the course of two weeks, Alexandra visited nine projects by architecturally significant designers in four locations in Portugal: Porto (Leça de Palmeira), Pico Island, Sao Miguel Island, and Lisbon (Cascais). Each building has some relationship to the Portuguese ideals of craftsmanship and context. Many of them explicitly utilized contemporary applications of vernacular building methods. The opportunity to approach each building in the context rather than from a two-dimensional perspective, revealed new depths of information that were not obvious from research previous to visiting the country. Below are brief descriptions of each building organized by location in chronological order of the visit. Each description is accompanied by photos and sketches that allowed further understanding of the designer’s original intent.

Porto (Leça de Palmeira)

Casa de Cha da Boa Nova

Alvaro Siza, Leça de Palmeira
Casa de Cha da Boa Nova by Alvaro Siza is so embedded in the rocks along the coast of Leca, you can only experience the whole thing from above. This nearly underground building is designed so that the user must discover in vignettes upon approach. The ascension up towards the rocks and the sky guides the user towards the front entrance. Once the threshold is crossed, patrons then must descend back down into the rocks to reach the dining room where the solid mass dissolves into glass to reveal the sea. Programmatically, this historical structure was transformed from a tea house to a Michelin star restaurant, Siza designed every detail from the furniture to the lighting fixtures.

Public Swimming Pools

Alvaro Siza, Leça de Palmeira

Similar to the previous project, this architectural strategy was intended to be embedded into the existing context of the rocky shoreline. Instead of jutting out from the rocks as an extrusion, the project sinks into the ground with pools mimicking the natural tidal pools that form along the coast only meters away.


Pico Island

Gruta Das Torres

SAMI Arquitectos, Pico Island, Açores

This is a visitor’s center for the largest lava tube in Portugal that is also built using lava rocks. SAMI Arquitectos designed a contemporary version of a lava wall usually used to protect the grapes for making wine. In this case, the stones are not stacked for protection. They are stacked to let in light. The protection for the building comes from the faceted glass wall that casts many reflections as people walk past it.

Cella Bar

FCC Arquitectura + Paula Lobo, Pico Island, Açores

Pico Island’s whole economy used to be driven by the whaling industry. Now there are places like the CELLA bar built in honor of the whales. Inside, the curving and jagged wooden planks reminded me of being inside the hull of a ship. Locals compare the shape of the building not to a whale but to a peanut, in response to the curvilinear shape as well as the faded nature of the wood cladding.

Sao Miguel Island
Furnas Monitoring & Research Center

Aires Mateus, Sao Miguel Island, Açores

Furnas Research & Monitoring Center by Aires Mateus was sponsored by the local government to promote the cleanup of the beautiful but polluted lake at the top of a volcano. This building has a Modern twist on a central courtyard with walls rising to match the slope of the surrounding volcano. The architects define spaces by material types: matte black for the service areas, polished wood for the interior public space, and aged wood for the exterior to blend into the landscape.

27 Dwellings

Eduardo Souta de Moura + Adriano Pimenta, Sao Miguel Island, Açores

These two rows 27 dwellings sit staggered on a hill sloping down towards the green and blue lakes of sete cidades, the house placement means that every family gets a great view of the water. To break up the monotony of the board -formed concrete Eduardo Souto de Moura and Adriano Pimenta gave each family a little red door.

Arquipelago Contemporary Arts Center

Joao Mendes Ribeiro + Menos e Mais, Sao Miguel Island, Açores

Can you believe this used to be an old distillery? The Arquipelago Contemporary Arts Center by Joao Mendes Ribeiro and Menos e Mais seamlessly fuses existing conditions with the new construction. Rusticated stone signifies the old buildings while the new ones boast of dramatic concrete cantilevers. The rhythm of separations between the buildings are used guide you to the next entrance, or the next plaza.


Lisbon (Cascais)

Santa Maria Lighthouse Museum

Aires Mateus, Cascais

When I was in Cascais, I stumbled upon this lagoon that actually has a great view of an architectural treasure, a 17th century lighthouse called the Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum. The museum was remodeled by Manuel Aires Mateus in 2007 with a series of white buildings that are shaped just like the rocks jutting out of the cliffs below. When you walk through the lighthouse plaza, you can see the ocean through these sort of port holes on the left wall, while the walls on the right-side push in and out, opening up in spots to let you in to places like this cafe and radio station, where I loved seeing this man swinging on the top of the door trying to get it to shut.

Paula Rego Museum

Eduardo Souto de Moura, Cascais

Inside one of these red towering pyramids, it feels surreal. Serene, like a chapel with books for sale. Every line adjoins to every other. Paula Rego, to whom this museum is dedicated, wanted a building that was fun, lively, and a bit mischievous. The building is embedded into the landscape, so that you might see the same window above you in one place, yet below in another. According to the architect, these red towers were meant to feel like inhabited chimneys. It’s remarkable to think all of this exists in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in Cascais.


Special Thanks

Special thanks to the Dallas AD EX for providing this spectacular learning opportunity and thank you to the Mcdermott family for this life-changing experience. Thank you to Audrey Maxwell of MMD Architects for encouraging me to apply for AD EX Traveling Fellowship, as well as for supporting this crucial stage in my career as an emerging professional.

Many thanks to the gracious Portuguese Architects who took time out of their busy schedules to discuss the scope of this project. Their insight changed the shape of this research and broadened my view of what architecture can be. The leaders in these firms provided layers of context and the conversations reminded me about the fruitfulness found in collaborative discussion regarding design. My biggest joy during this experience was the time I spent discussing architecture with these talented experts in the field.


Chronological Meeting Order:

  • Filipe Magalhaes of Fala Atelier (https://falaatelier.com/)
  • Nuno Melo Sousa of NMS Arquitectura (https://nunomsousa.com/)
  • Joao Pauperia and Maria Rebelo of Atelier Local (https://atelierlocal.pt/en)
  • Sofia Couto and Sergio Antunes of Aurora Arquitectos (http://aurora.com.pt/)
  • Ricardo Camacho of Promotorio (https://www.promontorio.net/)
  • Vasco Matias Correia of Camarim (http://camarim.pt/pt)
  • Jose Adriao of Jose Adriao Arquitectos (https://joseadriao.com/)