|| The Time of Our Lives
The greatest impression that Panos
made upon me as a young architect was his belief that "Order must
be the foundation of architecture". At the time I did not really
understand what this meant, I just knew that it sounded right
on a very basic, gut-instinct level. I felt that all great works
of architecture, and art in general, were not random occurrences
but very deliberate creations, with specific meaning and context.
I was excited to find someone who was able to verbalize and manifest
these instincts which I felt, and I was devoted to Panos as an
architect and teacher from that point on. At the time I sensed
that many of my fellow students at USC found this belief to be
a bit uninteresting, given that deconstructivism was all the rage
at the time and the most popular studios usually resulted in "buildings"
derived from the cross section of television sets or some incomprehensible
text by a self-important French philosopher. Panos and I along
with others felt that these studios--while they did have redeeming
qualities--often made undisciplined or casual architecture students
look like great architecture students.
So a core group of USC students--myself, Mark Gangi, Knut Luscher,
and others--continued to toe the line on the "Architecture-is-Order"
school of design. This idea, though still very generalized at
the time for me, had a great deal of influence on my schoolwork.
After graduation I continued working at Panos' studio in Westwood.
In 1992, Panos was chosen to do a project for the Greek pavilion
at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. Mark Gangi, Panos and
myself along with several others from Los Angeles traveled to
Venice for the show. It was a truly memorable time in our lives.
Ironically, the American pavilion featured architects whose bombastic
entries epitomized the "trends" at the time. I was proud that
our design over at the Greek pavilion provided a poetic rebuttal
to this grandiose self-importance.
* * *
After the Biennale, Panos returned to Los Angeles while Mark and
I went on to Athens and then to Crete to see Panos' work for the
Foundation of Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH) and the University
of Crete--two projects which we had worked on with Panos. When
we arrived in Heraklion everything was taken care of--Panos had
arranged the hotel rooms, transportation, and instructions for
his associates to show us where to go. He insisted that all of
our time be spent understanding the architecture there. I realize
now that it was very important to him that Mark and I understand
on a fundamental level why he created the architecture that he
did. He insisted that we first spend a day at the Palace of Knossos
before seeing his buildings. We did so, and there was a powerful
sense of connection when we stood in the great courtyard, with
the famous sculpture of the bull's horns at the end of the courtyard,
framed by the indentations in the mountains beyond representing
the horns of the great bull-god, the Minotaur, the mythical earth-shaker
of Minoan lore. It was what Panos would call a "Eureka!" moment.
Here was an architecture that creates order on a human level (physically,
spiritually, emotionally) while at the same time acknowledging
the divine order of nature and Gods (the order of the stars and
planets, of the Homeric epics, of Genesis in the Bible).
Having found our religion, Mark and I set out for Panos' buildings
the next day. The campuses were about 45 minutes outside of Heraklion
in a semi-rural area mostly populated by olive groves and vineyards.
The buildings had not yet been completed, mainly finishing work
needed to be done, so the immediate environment was quiet and
peaceful. Just the kind of environment that architects love for
taking pictures and exploring. We arrived at FORTH first. Finally
we were seeing these buildings we had worked on and seen pictures
of. My most vivid memory of this moment was standing in front
of the rough concrete forms, in that light that only exists in
Greece, with the mountains and Mediterranean in the background,
and our driver standing behind us prattling on about how we "only
had an hour". Mark and I looked at each other and smiled. The
driver was soon zooming away--alone--with Mark and I left behind
not knowing or caring how we would get back to Heraklion.
The entry to the building is through a small amphitheater, with
the building steps in the middle and the seating areas curving
forward along the flanks, embracing the visitors as they enter.
I clearly remember the afternoon that Panos and I sat in his Westwood
studio designing this feature on 8.5x11 sheets of vellum--the
drawings had to be faxed to Crete that evening so they would be
ready for start of construction the next morning. Holding up the
plan of the entry-amphitheater I could not help but point out
the resemblance to the horn's of a bull. Panos liked that.
Once through the amphitheater and up the steps you enter into
the "Galleria", essentially a double-height circulation axis bisecting
4 structures, each structure square in plan, two on each side
of the Galleria. Of course this is the prototypical urban passageway
found throughout the Mediterrannean and Europe, perhaps most spectacularly
implemented in the Galleria in Milan, or more intimately in the
passages found in the island cities of Santorini or Patmos.
The end of the Galleria opens up to the Plaza, the "void" object
in Panos' composition of 4 squares. Again the connection was immediate
for me: the frescoed images from the courtyard of Knossos depicting
the bullfighter grabbing the bull's horn's and then cart-wheeling
over the bull came into sharp focus. In reality of course the
Plaza was created for less-challenging human events--perhaps a
school reception after classes, with wine, music and dancing.
One of the most dramatic features of the FORTH plaza is the L-shaped
pergola framing the mountains in the distance. When I saw this
I knew I had seen it before--on the roof terrace of Terragni's
Casa del Popolo in Como, where the open structural members perfectly
frame the Duomo in the distance.
At the end of the day Mark and I packed up and headed for Heraklion.
A passing farmer stopped to give us a ride in the back of his
truck. Driving away I looked back at the buildings glowing in
the twilight of that early Greek evening and realized that it
would be a long time--most likely many years--before I returned.
I took consolation in knowing that I would spend this time talking
and laughing and learning with my friend and mentor Panos Koulermos.
* * *
Having visited Panos' buildings, I am still overwhelmed by the
powerful sense of discipline and respect for architecture as an
art and practice. The realization that architecture is hard work
came to me completely and fully. I came to understand what I had
only felt before: that a work of architecture must be designed
with a passionate sense of purpose, that even the most random
of elements are there for a reason, perhaps to create an unseen
connection to history or the land, or to make a silent offering
to whatever divine entity passes judgement on works of architecture.