The Renaissance Macanese

Meet Carlos Marreiros, Macao’s most famous and influential architect.

Carlos Marreiros is Macao’s most famous and influential architect. He is also a poet, artist and a government consultant on preservation and urban planning. Some say he is the most versatile Macanese and that he passionately helped to shape, with his artistic sensitivities and skills, the cultural heritage of the city he was born in and deeply cares for. He was at the forefront of efforts to preserve and rejuvenate many of Macao’s much-admired colonial buildings and monuments.

Rooted in Macao 

Marreiros’ family has deep roots in Macao. His mother was a Eurasian in Macao and his father was Portuguese, who came here in the 1950s.  His maternal grandfather, José Maria dos Santos, was Portuguese, born to a family with over 200 years of history in Macao. Carlos’ mixed background is reflected in his Chinese name Ma Io Long, “horse as a dragon”, a reflection of his mixed background.

Marreiros used to walk with his grandfather in the São Lázaro neighbourhood where he has his studio today. “He was my hero and still is. He was the one who taught me to draw, to think. He was leader of the Brotherhood of St Anthony. I remember seeing my grandfather and his friends drinking coffee and learning to drink red wine – the Portuguese Tintol! – and eating cheese. It’s funny because my Macanese side was much more Portuguese than my metropolitan side,” said Marreiros, who is fluent in Cantonese.

Marreiros’ father, Julio, was metropolitan, a term used to mean Portuguese born in Portugal. Julio, a native of the Algarve, came to Macao to do his military service and met Carlos’s mother, Maria de Fatima, the daughter of a Chinese mother and a Macanese father.

Julio stayed on in Macao to be with her and found work in the Public Security Police. “My father wanted me to go to the Military Academy,” he said.

Instead, he chose to study architecture, a wide-ranging subject covering art, culture, science and technology. “I feel like a duck in water and, if I could go back 50 years, I’d do it all again,” he concluded. He later designed the School of the Macao Security Forces, in the late 1980s, partly in memory of his policeman father.

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Talent shown at young age

Even at high school, Marreiros had teachers who told him he had a flair for drawing. Others thought the law would suit him because he liked to argue and was good at maths and science as well. In other subjects, he did just enough because he realised “life was much more beautiful than just studying”.

From his mother’s side, he inherited artistic talent, from an uncle who painted and from Raulino, a relative who was a sculptor who exhibited his work in Portugal, Madeira and Japan.

Carlos’ only brother, Vitor Marreiros, is an artist, illustrator and set designer. They have always been partners in life, in work and in art. Although raised in a Roman Catholic family, Carlos Marreiros’ thoughts always focused on the Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies thanks to his connection with Chinese. In 2007 he caused controversy when, along with his successor as ombudsman of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia (Holy House of Mercy), António José de Freitas, he opted for Chinese nationality in order to be part of the Macau Electoral Committee for election as a member of the National People’s Assembly.

Impressive list of work

At 26, Marreiros returned to Macao after completing his studies in Lisbon, Germany and Sweden. In Macao, he designed his first house, followed by other socially focused projects such as Colégio do Perpétuo Socorro (College of Perpetual Help – Chan Sui Kei), the Extension of the Tap Seac Health Centre in 1991, the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, the Santa Casa da Misericórdia Home and the Tea Museum in Lou Kau Gardens in 2005. He expanded and restructured the Portuguese School of Macao.

Marreiros also designed interior spaces like the Portuguese Bookshop, the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, the International Institute of Macao, the Creative Industries Centre – Creative Macao and the newsroom of the Tribuna de Macao newspaper, among others.

Marreiros is partner and director of Marreiros, Arquitectos Associados and East & West Projects & Design. Admirers say he has a unique vision of a city that has a hotchpotch of influences, from its labyrinthine streets to smells and colours that are so dear to him.

Marreiros has been involved in several major heritage conservation projects and the creation of urban-planning laws and regulations. In 1983, Marreiros and his colleague Francisco Figueira drew up the plan for the pedestrianisation of Largo do Senado and Largo de São Domingos, completed a decade later. “It was widely criticised because the Senado Square was so commercially wealthy that removing traffic from it would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” he said. “In the end, business actually improved.” It is a project he is proud of and with time it has proven a success, as has Tap Seac Square.

The square, “stone tower” in Chinese, was an epidemic area devastated by plague and poor sanitation in the early 20th century. Thanks to Carlos Marreiros and others, the former swamp and later football field was transformed into a paved pedestrian square surrounded by neoclassical buildings listed as UNESCO World Heritage. These include the Cultural Institute, the main library, a gallery, the Health Centre and the Historical Archives.

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Active role in society 

At 30, Marreiros founded Revista de Cultura, a cultural magazine published by the Cultural Institute, and was the institute’s president from 1989 to 1992. He was vice president of Architects Regional Council Asia from 1999 to 2005 and a member of the Electoral Commission for the Election of the Macao SAR Chief Executive (1999, 2004 and 2009). He sits on several official bodies related to the environment, urban renewal and culture. He is curator of the Macao Foundation and holds top positions in professional bodies, such as the Professional Accreditation of Architects and Engineers and the Macao Engineering and Construction Association. He has taught at the universities of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao, and was speaker and visiting professor at the Lisbon Technical University, the University of California and Milan Polytechnic.

Asked to choose a favourite painter, he said, Perhaps I’d choose Rembrandt.” But his interest is vast, from Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Júlio Pomar, Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. He likes the provocative creations of Damien Hirst and enjoys the “very Portuguese” world of Joana Vasconcelos. He is not fond of Chinese paintings, but considers calligraphy a superior art and mentions names like Qi Baishi and Li Wu.

“Today there are highly intelligent artists but whose actual results fall short,” he said. “In my case, what I do is not for sale and I produce little. I make a living from architecture.”

Pleasure from sketching

Marreiros the artist draws pleasure from sketching by hand. A compulsive sketcher, he no longer paints the large abstracts he was famous for in the 1980s. Some of his paintings and sculptures in wood and iron are in the hands of private collectors in Portugal, China and the United States. In the Garden of Arts in Macao, there are two of the artist’s statues, one of the poet Adé dos Santos and the other of Camilo Pessanha.

Most of Marreiros’ paintings are focused on literary figures, and are a kind of tribute to “mistreated” writers and poets like Luís Vaz de Camões, Fernando Pessoa and Camilo Pessanha.

A smoker himself, Marreiros also held a Tobacco War exhibition in Macao and Beijing, on the pleasure of smoking, love stories and football. He has also taken part in dozens of solo and group exhibitions worldwide and illustrated more than 15 books in Portuguese, English and Chinese. He writes poems under the pseudonym Sanches Miranda (the name of a street where he worked), that he would like “to give life to a heteronym for poetry and painting”.

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Criticised sometimes for being vain, the architect admitted he has high self-esteem but said it is not negative or narcissistic. He said he is constantly his own critic and likes to see his work recognised for the basic feeling of accomplishment.

He has been awarded three medals of Merit, Value and Cultural Merit by the Macao government, and the Order of Prince Henry by the Portuguese government. Marreiros was proud too to represent Macao at the 5th Venice Biennale with the work DUCK MEN in 2013; and to present the multi-award winning Bunny Lantern at the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

Marreiros criticises today’s “extreme materialism” and how artists are no longer heard, adding that he is nostalgic for the good old days. “People say I’m a Renaissance man.”

Marreiros recalled how he could walk around the city with his eyes closed and could recognise where he was as a child. “[I could recognise] the Inner Harbour area with a strong smell of squid and dried salted fish that is now blocked out by car fumes; the smell of meat in the so-called Tin Tins and Rua 5 de Outubro, and the scent of coriander, guavas and custard apples in the gardens in the Tap Seac area.” The typical Macanese houses, few of which are still around, used to have a garden at the back with spices and fruit trees; in the front, there were beautiful flowers sending out an inviting fragrance.

Macao is special to Marreiros, even though he also loves cities like Rio de Janeiro, Prague and New York. He is sorry to see the territory so transformed, but recognises the success of local historical preservation. This is despite the delay in the implementation of the Cultural Heritage Protection Act last year – nearly nine years after the Historical Centre of Macao was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. “Much has been destroyed, but what has been done at all levels is remarkable and has been recognised, I am very proud.”

Family and travel 

“I would like to be with my family more often,” he confessed. His wife, Isabel Marreiros, runs the Creche at the Santa Casa da Misericórdia (a non-profit-making day child care centre). His children have followed in his footsteps. Alexandre and Farah Carolina are architects and Laura Raquel is a doctor.

Marreiros spends much time travelling – an addiction and an inspiration involving visits to building projects on-site, to feel them breathing, as he described it. He also likes to go to the Jewish Museum of Berlin designed by architect Daniel Libeskind or the Guggenheim Museum of NYC by Frank Lloyd Wright “to feel them”. He loves football too. “I love it, I’ve been to many of the great stadiums in Europe, Latin America and Asia. In Portugal, I go and watch my Benfica.”

Marreiros said he is not religious but is a believer of sorts. He thinks about death because he has always been interested in philosophy. The finite does not scare him, but the speed of time and not getting to do everything he still wants to accomplish does. His to-do list includes classifying his collection of antiques ranging from Chinese dishes to religious art and Portuguese tiles.

Marreiros likes to recover the traditions of the Santo António Neighbourhood. If I had a lot of money, I’d buy the entire [São Lázaro] neighbourhood.” This was where he used to stroll with his grandfather and visit the camphor trees that he now sees every day from the window of his architect’s studio. “A good horse comes back to graze the same meadow, as the Chinese say. I like to live but I’m not materialistic. I could buy these houses and make some sort of museum here. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

Albergue SCM – The secular shelter 

The neighbourhood of São Lázaro was a ramshackle area of houses mixed with huts housing Christian and Chinese families and lepers.

The Santa Casa da Misericórdia built a hospice for the lepers next to the Church of Our Lady of Hope with a garden behind it where they grew vegetables and raised animals. Around it, small factories were built and their workers set themselves up inside.

In the late 19th century, the entire area was severely affected by the plague and a sanitation order was imposed. Next came development, the first of its sort for Macao. In 1903, based on a design by Spanish architect J. M. Casuso, an orthogonal urban scheme was pursued, incorporating styles of the times, art nouveau revivalism and neoclassicism. The buildings were also tempered with Macao-style devices to ensure cross ventilation, shading and freshness.

In the early 20th century, the space was occupied by poor people and war refugees. Known as Shelter of The Poor and later Old Ladies’ House, the 1,300-square metre Building 8 of Calçada da Igreja de São Lázaro initially had five small houses but spilt later into two buildings. About a hundred ladies lived there. There was a central courtyard, a well and two imposing camphor trees still growing today. At one point it had a morgue where funerals took place; later, it was turned into a communal kitchen.

In 1999, with the streets already cobbled and decorated with lamps in the European style, the neighbour-hood was placed on the Macao Heritage List and gained new life and importance. Since then it has taken on the role of incubator of cultural and creative industries in the city, and is part of the tourist itinerary.

“When the economy started to grow in 2004 and everyone was talking about the gringos who came to the casinos, we were building facilities and preparing legislation,” said Marreiros, then a member of the Advisory Council for the Renewal of Old Neighbourhoods.

“As we discussed the city and the creative fields, there were some negative ideas that this area was abandoned and with rather decrepit houses. It was then that I thought I could work with the Santa Casa, and bring a group of artists in and create an area for cultural activities, but above all to save the neighbourhood,” he said.

Hired by Santa Casa, Marreiros was responsible for the remodelling and restoration of the Albergue in 2003, with the help of engineers Gilberto Gomes and Jose Silveirinha. The original social architecture designed by J.M. Casuso in the early twentieth century remained.

In 2008, after the Albergue was occupied, Marreiros himself decided to set up his studio in the buildings and take on the cost of restoration, calling for the citizens to play an active role in the city’s issues. “People said to me: ‘Eh pá! What are you going to do for the São Lázaro neighbourhood?’ I answered: ‘I will be a doorman.’ They laughed. There were makeshift huts all over the place, the floor was dirt and cement yet now everything is all fixed up.”

Marreiros said the neighbourhood deserved to be preserved and for life to be breathed into it. The architect created an art society Sociedade de Arte Bambu with two other brothers from the Santa Casa, José Maneiras and Leonel Alves, to manage the space. The buildings now house a newly expanded gallery, a conference room, a restaurant and a Portuguese grocery shop. It was previously home to the Lines Lab design studio and the Casa de Portugal workshops, which have since moved to a larger venue. The Portuguese restaurant is private and belongs to two partners, one local and the other from Hong Kong. “It works because of my strategy of linking the cultural aspect to the restoration to attract people,” he explained.

At the time, Marreiros said that, in five years, the site would be rejuvenated. They began by holding small conferences, cinema and poetry sessions in several languages ​​- Portuguese, Chinese and English. After that, they gained the support of the Macao Foundation and some private institutions and the space was formally inaugurated by the Govern-ment in January 2009. “Right now there are 17 associations and shops of this kind here in the neighbourhood. From a dark and deserted district, it is now colourful and sometimes even noisy,” Marreiros said proudly, believing that the area will be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

He said something is lacking that has already been proposed: “This pavement needs to be totally pedestrianised.” The architect calls for the construction of automated underground car parks across the São Lázaro neighbourhood and the creation of cafes and terraces above. “The government should liven up and find a way for these abandoned houses to be reused, for example, by young entrepreneurs and creative people. It would become one of those creative paths to create a balance for visitors.”

By Filipa Queiroz in Macao magazine
Photos by António Sanmarful

(Issue N. 29, July 2015)


About Filipa Queiroz

Jornalista. Nascida em Coimbra, criada em Braga e a viver em Macau.


  1. Sempre o mesmo rigor e qualidade na informação. É isso que falta a muitos “supostos” jornalistas. Obrigada pelo enriquecimento do meu saber. Bem haja

  2. Imelda Ma Concepcion

    what is the email address of Carlos Marreiros?

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