A Conversation with Alexandra about Casa do Conto in Porto

November 11, 2015

Alexandra is the owner and architect of Casa do Conto, a striking building in Porto with concrete suites and a mix of designer and period furniture.

Alexandra is the owner and architect of Casa do Conto, a striking building in Porto with concrete suites and a mix of designer and period furniture.

A Conversation with Alexandra about Casa do Conto in Porto

Alexandra is the owner and architect of Casa do Conto, a striking building in Porto with concrete suites and a mix of designer and period furniture.

“One week before opening, there was a huge fire and everything disappeared within 12 hours.”

How did you come up with the idea to start Casa do Conto?

I was already working in the field of reconstruction of both 18th and 19th-century townhouses. As the identity and the spirit of these types of houses were so close to my heart, I bought one as soon the right opportunity arose.

The house was meant to be a project for a client but he pulled out for personal reasons and that’s when I thought that this was the right house for what I wanted to do. The location is a bit unusual but it’s central and I like that. It’s more surprising.

In 2008, we bought the house and made a few adaptations to turn it into a boutique hotel in Porto, maintaining most of its original antique elements and introducing a few modern touches to offer more comfort. The house was amazing, all lined in Riga pine and genuine stuccos. However in March 2009, one week before opening, there was a huge fire and everything disappeared within 12 hours.

A fire that (nearly) destroyed everything.

When you saw the building on fire, do you remember what was the first thing that crossed your mind?

It was awful. I live nearby and it was 3 am when my neighbours warned me saying the hotel was on fire. After that, I can’t remember anything else, not even getting dressed, which I did. I picked up the hotel keys and ran down the street. I remember seeing fire-fighters and police everywhere.

The city had stopped because of the fire which also affected the houses next to it. I went crazy and I even tried to get in, thinking that I could do something about it. They had to put me inside the bakery right opposite the building with a glass front. From there I watched the house disappear. It was a sensation of despair. I wanted to get in but I couldn’t. At the same time, I was thinking of what was coming next and my financial situation.

I was still hoping that some of the structure had survived. The fire lasted from 3 am until midday the day after and when they finally let me in, I understood it was gutted inside.

I will never forget that day. That day has a before and an after in my life.

“I will never forget that day. That day has a before and an after in my life.”

When you first saw the fire did you think at any point that that was the end of the project?

Watching it all burn down was very traumatising. I thought the project couldn’t die like that. No one got physically injured but I had a seven year investment ahead of me and I had to make a decision – would I live the rest of my life with this anguish of driving past the house every day and seeing the unfinished project, or would I turn this into a page of the process?

Looking back at it I think that's what saved me from going crazy, I had to begin working on a new solution straightaway. Although that was a little crazy itself because I did not even have any money to do the work, I did not even know how I would pay what I still had left to pay… it was as if they were two realities. It was almost as if I needed a dreamy reality to endure the truth, and the truth is that it all ended up unfolding.

When the fire-fighters finally let me get in, I took a photograph which for me was a crucial moment in the new project. The photograph was of the only wall that was left in the staircase. It was then that I had a vision of the two towers, the slabs and the new staircase, in the same location as before the fire.

The hotel was originally meant to be a perfectly refurbished 19th-century townhouse. The staircase before the fire (left), and the staircase now (right).

Why concrete as the main material?

I knew it all had to be made in new materials. It made no sense to reproduce what was here before which would have been too expensive to do anyway. I wanted to keep the proportions and the ways to walk through the house. I kept the staircase and the skylight. The concrete works like a fossil, subtly leaving some memories of what the house used to be.

When I had the vision I knew I was going to use reinforced concrete. My company is called ‘Pedra Liquida’ which means Liquid Stone. It has to do with concrete, on how a stone can somehow be liquid and become whatever we want it to be, despite the hardness and the seriousness of the stone. So concrete it was, without the previous coatings and decorations that existed.

Both the new staircase and the skylight have been left in the same place where they used to be. Reproducing everything in the original materials would be way too difficult and expensive. The concrete also works like a fossil, ‘subtly leaving some memories of what the house used to be’, such as the pattern on the walls which match those of the previous wood.

Where did you get the willpower to start all over again?

The process after the fire was very interesting. I could feel that our friends were around us. They supported us and showed us they cared. On the day that we were meant to launch they got together and organised a symbolic auction where a lot of people donated art pieces.

Their aim was for me not to give up and that was amazing. We received pieces from various Portuguese architects and artists such as Siza, Souto Moura, Cabrita Reis… incredible stuff. The auction happened and the money was symbolic but it inspired me to not let the project fall through and to start a new chapter.

After the fire, how long did it take to get everything ready again to open?

It took a year to get all the licenses in place again. It was hard to get the approval to build in concrete. In May 2010 we started the construction works and in June 2011 we opened.

It was a great moment because the team that worked with me on the construction had worked so hard. It was also their project and they had also felt the loss.

A few years ago a guest who collects boutique hotels wanted to buy Casa do Conto. It was a good business opportunity but it’s like selling a son that got into trouble and you managed to save. It’s here, it’s done, it survived and it’s doing well.

You were one of the pioneers when it comes to boutique hotels in Porto…

In 2007 when I decided to buy the house to start a hotel, the tourism boom that Porto is experiencing still hadn’t started. We were somehow pioneers and maybe nothing happens by chance – after all, now there are many boutique hotels similar to what I was originally going to do and what we have now ended up being original and unique. There’s always another side to a story.

The typographic ceilings in the rooms are original and striking. How did that idea come up and how is it done?

I decided to invite some architect friends to write some texts about the house. They knew the house before the fire and what happened. And then I invited R2 Design, a design studio that I love, to work on the typography composition. The work they produced was incredible. Somehow through the texts, we end up telling a small story.

Alexandra invited architects and friends to write some texts inspired by Casa do Conto's story.
Those texts were then graphically composed by R2 Design.

Was there any furniture left after the fire happened?

No, everything was gone from furniture to lamps. That part was specially really hard on me because there are some things I’ll never find again. I love collecting stuff. I like the eclectic mix which ends up being a reflection of ourselves and our lives. We keep some things in our memory and others in things from our everyday lives. I always wanted a house to be like that, like the overlapping of different times.

What’s your favourite object at Casa do Conto?

I love the mirror which is in the entrance, facing the staircase. It belonged to my grandfather.

The mirror and the piano survived the fire because they were the hardest things to carry. We were going to move them at the very end.

Alexandra’s favourite object at Casa do Conto is this vintage mirror which belonged to her grandfather.
“I love the mirror which is in the entrance, facing the staircase. It belonged to my grandfather.”

This is an unusual street to open a boutique hotel in Porto. But after reading the reviews it seems like the guests like that. Can you tell us more about the location?

The fact we’re located in Rua da Boavista, which is also my neighbourhood, allows us to still be central but not in the middle of the hubbub. We’re also near ‘Casa da Música’ and ‘Serralves’ which are both art institutions that I deal with and that I like. We’re near Boavista and near Baixa but not within Porto's touristy route.

Why the name Casa do Conto (The House of Tales)?

That was actually the original name. We never imagined in a million years that the first story we would have to tell would be our very own story!

Since the beginning we wanted to organise cultural events, to tell people new things. We not only receive guests but we’re also a house open to culture.

Where do you tend to go on holidays?

I don’t have much time for holidays. I like the beach but because I’m a bit hyperactive I can’t bear being somewhere looking at the sea or the countryside for more than three days, it makes me a bit nervous. I need the cultural side, the city, the art shows…

What’s your favourite hotel worldwide?

There was a small hotel where I stayed in Sicily. Back then, I would never have imagined I’d end up running a hotel myself. It was a really small house on the top of a mountain with a sea view. It was very connected with the geological aspects of the islands, its views and the people that look after it. I believe it was then that the seed to start a hotel was planted in my brain.

Thank you very much for this interview Alexandra.

Thank you too!

Here's hoping you create new memories here in Portugal. Tag us on Instagram (we would love it if you do!) and let us know how it goes. 🤗

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Joana and Sofia

Check out our full report on Casa do Conto

© Photos by JO&SO and courtesy of Casa do Conto.

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