A hidden jewel in Central Macau is a unique and delightful home to architect and artist Alexandre Marreiros and family

Hidden in plain sight is one of Macau’s best kept secrets when it comes to down-town living.  Built in 1943 and named after a famous Portuguese queen, Rainha Dona Leonor is today unobtrusively located next to the Sintra Hotel, looking over the Praca da Amizade square and beyond the imposing Grand Lisboa that looms above.   At almost 80, this stately old lady is starting to show her age but she represents an important part of Macau’s residential jigsaw puzzle.  She was the first residential building in Macau to have a lift.  And at the time, this 14-storey building was also the tallest structure on the peninsula and could be seen from far afield.  

Designed by Jose Lei, Chief Architect and one time Director of Public Works in Hong Kong, (also famous for designing the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and closer to home, the Old Macau Court), the plans for the building were advanced for the time; to combat the strong sun during some parts of the year the façade is recessed to provide sufficient shadow to keep the residents cooler.    All the apartments are duplexes and there are 4 apartments per floor.  The module is repeated horizontally and vertically with an access corridor at the back.

One of the apartments is home to Macau-based architect and artist Alexandre Marreiros, his wife Leonor Mesquitella, a teacher, and their young family of 3.  A 1500 square foot duplex, it has 3 bedrooms and a family bathroom upstairs and downstairs an open living-dining room, small cloakroom, kitchen and teeny housekeeper’s room.  Being on the first floor the residence benefits from having a superb and spacious garden terrace.  A dining table and chairs are set up in the middle and there’s other cozy seating nooks. “We do a lot of entertaining and barbecues out here!” exclaims Alexandre.   

“We’ve been in Macau, this time, for 6 years.  When we first arrived we lived in Taipa just behind the Altira.  But the place was so dark that when we woke up in the mornings we had to turn on the lights.”  Alexandre and Leonor thought about buying but “one cannot justify the costs of property here especially to find a place big enough for a family of 7” including their live in housekeeper nannies.  “We originally wanted to be in Hellene Garden” in Coloane as it’s by the sea and “I grew up living by the sea.”  But when I saw this place for the first time it was flooded with light.  And even though at the time it was full of old furniture and rubbish my wife and I could see that with some basic renovation to the bathrooms and kitchen, it had the potential to be a very comfortable home.  The big appeal was the terrace, which really excited us”.

Alexandre’s family is from Macau although he was born in Cascais and raised in Estoril, Portugal.  “One of my grandmothers came from China, so I am deeply connected to Asia.  All my school holidays were spent in Macau.   I grew up between the two cultures of Portuguese and Chinese – in the same house, you can find a Buddhist mother and a Christian father.  You celebrate a lot of important dates from the Chinese culture but also Catholic events from the Portuguese culture.  My mind set is very Portuguese.  But then there’s the other part of me, I love Chinese culture.

Alexandre tried living in Brazil for a while, believing it may have similarities given the language – but no – “I feel Macau is home.   It’s a melting pot in every centimeter!  Here I can eat bacalhau, I can walk on Portuguese calcada tiles, I can smell the coffee and bakeries mixed with the smells of char sui, my senses feel at home here” he muses.

“Macau is also safe for my family.  Ever since he was 8 years old our son Eduardo has been able to use the bus by himself to go to play tennis.  And we have another type of security here, religious security – the mix of Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, all living in harmony.  Architecture tells this story; we have St Paul’s Ruins, a Catholic church, and right next door, sharing the same wall, is a Buddhist temple.  For 500 years we have lived together peacefully.  We have economic security with a benevolent government supporting the people.  This makes Macau a very special place.”

“On the other hand, it can get claustrophobic here at times and when that happens Macau is very close to so many destinations, we’re 10 minutes to the airport and can get out on a Friday to enjoy a long weekend away.”

The son of renowned Macau-based architect and artist Carlos Marreiros, Alexandre was raised in a household that is part of the arts scene in Macau.  He obtained his Masters degree from the Arts and Architecture College of Lusiada University in Portugal and now works as an architect on projects as diverse as residential, schools, casinos and light rail stations.  In his ‘spare’ time, he is active on the local and international art circuit and has participated in a number of notable cultural events.  Both Macau and Portugal, the East and the West, which planted the seed for his love of space, cities and narratives, inform his diverse work that spans the spectrum from architecture to illustration to painting to photography.

Being an architect he can especially appreciate the various building design features in Rainha Dona Leonor.  Beams and pillars are thin and narrow giving a sense of lightness to the space.  “All internal walls can be removed so the module can be easily reconfigured to suit a single person or a larger family.  This is a very modern attitude that is lost today; one can’t find apartments with such flexibility to change the space inside.”   The old fashioned iron-framed windows running along the whole width of the living area let in a lot of natural light.  Over the years they’ve been painted and repainted so have old-worldly black patina; each can be opened allowing for a pleasant cross breeze.  

The apartment décor is that of relaxed, casual and practical family living that immediately puts the visitor at ease.  An eclectic mix of modern clean-lined furniture such as the IKEA sofa sits comfortably with the various family heirlooms – the 30’s art deco side table, the glass cabinet which was originally his grandfathers, the camphor chest, and old gramophone and a fine looking TV cabinet that was picked up secondhand.   A stunning statue of a lady resting head on hand, belonged once to a family member and came from Cambodia.  And all the while one is surrounded by some spectacular and important pieces of art; a huge painting at the top of the stairs is by Alex’s father, another by Portuguese artist Nonu Santiago, and others by Alexandre himself.

A true blend of architecture and art, a very special home indeed.

Text: Suzanne Watkinson

Photographs: Suzanne Watkinson