Miguel Câncio Martins – The magic of the architect

on Sep 1, 2008 in Now Boarding | No Comments

The most incredible bars and restaurants these days are designed by Miguel Cãncio Martins. The architect and designer introduces us to his finished works in the four corners of the world and reveals that his secret is to surprise. As he does in his love life.

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In the library of his atelier in Paris, a city where Miguel Câncio Martins sees himself as just another immigrant, the books are strictly catalogued and numbered. The architect says that, when you reach a certain professional standing, you have to catalogue everything. “On a small project you can do quick alterations. But on a more complex one, like the Conrad Resort, one of his current projects, there have to be codes and efficient ways of working. Wasting time is wasting money”. It is a luxury he can’t afford. The hotel Conrad Palácio de Valverde & Resort Spa will be the first six-star hotel in Portugal. Imocom are running the project, in partnership with the Hilton group, and it will be built opposite the Quinta do Lago shopping mall, in Loulé, in the Algarve. At 43, the signature MCMD – Miguel Câncio Martins Design – can be found on hundreds of projects, especially in the restaurant and hotel sectors in Paris, London, New York, Marrakech or Amsterdam.

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Prestige Signature

His trademark is also present in top-brand shops like Lavin, Plein Sud (two in  Paris and one in New York) and in the Portuguese Vista Alegre, the outlet in the Chiado, the heart of Lisbon. As his works can be found in places as different as Singapore and Montreal, Miguel feels like a citizen of the world. His roots, his culture and his education are the baggage that he carries and uses as tools. He still feels that, because he has lived next to the sea for most of his life, he has a different approach to putting his ideas into practice. On the other hand the relationship he has with Portugal is very close, so that some people think he will return here.

As a boy he wanted to be an archaeologist or a diplomat, although he was very fond of drawing and of plans, sketches, rulers and Rotring tools. His father, also an architect, didn’t restrict his professional career path, but because of his background, he became a precocious traveller and drinker as an adolescent, and saw a different way of living, which gave him “an opening” on the world. At 15 he moved to Paris, where his parents worked at the Portuguese embassy next to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and, for the same reasons, part of his student life was passed in Belgium, although he continued to attend the German School. Miguel thinks that this education, which started when he was nine years old in Lisbon, following a teaching method based on friendship between teachers and students, is still part of his identity today.

The magic wand

In 2001 the Portuguese weekly Expresso published an article on Miguel Câncio Martins calling him “The Portuguese man who renovated Paris”. With no false modesty, the architect and designer remembers that what kindled the whole thing – nothing less than the revitalization of the Champs Elysées – “was pure chance, the luck that comes to you sometimes”. It started on the day that Bar Doobies was opened by tennis player Yannick Noah, Martins having done the interior decoration. Without Doobies, his career path would have been completely different. Located on the Rue Marbeuf, the place that brought him to the world’s attention was a canteen by day but at night, Miguel transformed it into the most “in” bar in Paris. They put up curtains, hung some pictures on the walls and an exclusive ambience was born. “We created an atmosphere inspired by the nightlife in New York and Barcelona, because Paris at that time was a little bit out of it in terms of a night scene. I conceived a baroque kind of style which contrasted with the giant, modern black and white photographs.” It didn’t go unnoticed by Le Figaro: “How can a magic wand transform a simple canteen into such an extravagant bar?”.

It seemed that the Portuguese architect did indeed possess a magic wand, transforming everywhere he touched into dream decors. Although Barfly, also in the French capital, was his second bar project, Miguel’s image will always be linked to Buddha Bar in Paris: “I remember many people were interested in that place. It was a basement in a friendly street. On the first visit I got the finished idea. We went in, I pictured the place and I did the design”.

The Portuguese architect has specialized in public spaces  with atmosphere, admits the crdeit can’t go to him alone. Raymond Visan, owner of the restaurant, was inspired by the new trends coming out of Los Angeles. Trendy, places where chefs like Wolfgang Puck launched fusion cuisine. “It’s always a risk bringing in something new. They wanted a type of cooking like at Le Chinois in California; I only had to imagine the décor.“ Those unable to remain indifferent to this type of Tibetan temple include designer Philippe Starck and the daughter of ex-French president Jacques Chirac, today  regular customers of the restaurant.

Ecology and other inspirations

He is always one for inspiration. On plane journeys, through the window, he looks for lines and motifs for his creations. “Everything inspires me, an object, a chair, a passing car”. He goes to art galleries and is interested in what Paris painters who live in New York, like Sonya Sklaroff or Miloš Todorović, are doing.

Lately he has come to understand the magnitude of the global warming issue and notices that people still haven’t reacted to this question. At a conference he thought the idea rather strange that: “any person has the right to create X amount of  pollution per year. This idea has been going round in my head. We all live on the same planet, we are going to leave it as a legacy for our children. But there are people inventing new things with few resources and few costs which prove it is possible to use less energy”. So, on the eco-hotel project at Comporta, south of Lisbon, he is applying suitable measures, natural techniques the Romans used that have now been revived. For example, insulating walls well and reusing rainwater, which greatly reduces your dependency on electricity. He also has a proposal for a casino in Holland, which will be totally ecological, with solar panels and recyled materials: “I know I won’t save the planet, but if everybody was more environmentally-conscious, they could lower pollution levels and influence the future”.

On a different note, two years ago Miguel restored the 18th-century building used by Heritage on the Avenida da Liberdade. The hotel has just won the Renovation Prize, at the Portuguese Property Oscars 2008. Apparently, the secret lies in respecting the existing building but giving it a modern air. Another secret he can’t keep is his success. He has know-how, he does his homework, is used to solving problems and always gives his best. “The clients are expecting something different. I try not to disappoint them and to surprise them, like you do in love .” 

Wherever he goes, Miguel changes landscapes, interiors and exteriors. Environments as disparate as the classical suite at the Royal Monceau in Paris, the Hotel W in Montreal, the brand-new Italian Last Supper restaurant, with images from the Sistine Chapel, in Luxembourg, or Vermillion & Cinnabar, an Asian restaurant in Manchester for a client from Bangladesh. So much merit has not gone unrecognised and, on 10th June last, Portugal’s National Day, he was distinguished with a Knight of the Order of the Infante Dom Henrique, by the President of Republic.

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By Maria João Veloso       
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