It is true that architects move around a lot. They build in many places and leave signs of their work here and there. But Panos Koulermos is different, because his work is rooted in every place he has been involved with. He leaves disciples and often buildings behind.
If we look in particular at his mature projects, we can see that the plans are always calm and controlled, logical and consequential. Open and enclosed spaces are well articulated and beautifully proportioned. The elevations are considerably more complex. They are not simple projections of the plans, but visual panoramas generated by an interplay of elements and plans at different levels. Two recent designs, the Nursery School in Los Angeles and the Greek Pavilion at the 1991 Venice Biennale, illustrate this well.In both cases the plan is rich but extremely ordered, while the elevations, and the formal expressions in general, are strong and fascinating, forcing us to read all the parts that constitute the overall design.
Koulermos’ work acknowledges that not everything can be new every time. In some projects in Greece and California, certain design resolutions and forms are used in anticipation of future development or adaptation: the rotate square, the slab block that completes the composition, and the diverse structural systems drawn from elegant and appropriate models.
I am reminded of some other friends of the same generation, Constantino Dardi and Gustav Peichl. Though very different to each other and to Panos, they nevertheless operate in the same free manner within the established modern and contemporary tradition where the old masters form the base and they are the new generation. Their work is also new and 'orderly' at first glance, but, looking deeper, it reveals itself as exhilarating and full of surprises. Koulermos may make reference to the old masters of Modernism - sometimes he evokes Kahn in the organisation of bays or the use of irregularity within a regular framework - but his buildings are essentially the product of his own energy, his own talent for innovation.
Koulermos has learned from the way the ancient Greeks integrated the built space into the landscape. His work relates to the context of a place, to its history and geography, in much the same spirit as Palladio’s villas relate to the Veneto landscape, or Béla Bartók’s piano pieces relate to Hungarian popular music.
In Crete, Koulermos has recently had the opportunity to build a number of projects for university facilities, which represent a summation of his work to date. These interventions are not tied together by formal similarities or a partially repeated architectural language, but are independent buildings, distinguished by their location and context and, above all, by their identifiably different conceptual aims. The design of the first complex, the Research Centre of Crete, is based on an axial organisation of three highly differentiated buildings, which are combined to form a larger composition with a compact and articulated plan that generates an equally differentiated volumetric expression. The project for the Foundation of Research and Technology, on the other hand, is a much more linear design - a real 'slice of the city' within the new campus.
This book presents an extensive documentation of the work of Panos Koulermos over the past fifteen years. But it could also be considered as a testimony to his future work, for he is constantly developing his experience. Everything he does builds on what has gone before.
Panos Koulermos is in love with architecture
and his work proves it. Panos knows about form, space and, most
importantly, about spirit. Of course he should because he comes
from that part of the world where such things are honoured and
celebrated. Panos has stories to tell and we listen to him.
He makes us happy to know about the various fates of man and
also of woman. Panos understands that the ancient gods are always
waiting, observing our creations; that is , they compare and
finally judge. I think they smile with and upon Panos Koulermos.
In their positions, the gods need their hearts to be warmed
a bit as do we humans, and Panos provides us with the necessary
heat, just enough, for he does not want to burn us. He is clear
about the ambiguity as to what the heavens might bolt down,
so he makes an appropriate offering, that is , the offering
of good work in the form of architecture.
I imagine part of our friendship is due to our similar respect to the time honoured generators of architecture. We both love white surfaces where the sun and clouds can do their work. We respect the shadows and the shades. We think that the site, the plan, the elevation, the section and the detail are weights enough in which to express our imaginings. We are suspicious of the facile, the extravagant, the noisy. We believe in structure and construction. We are the enemies of chaos and of de-constructions. We abhor the mindless and exaggerated visceral. We celebrate the invention of programme and the explorations into the unseen. We revere our discipline and we enjoy eating with each other. If ever I have to take a dangerous voyage, I want to have Panos next to me. He has the ability to make bad monsters make way. He laughs them to death. His oblique rationale speeds up their disappearances. I always look forward to seeing my friend again. With him, one is still able to talk about the square, the circle and the triangle.
At this moment of his life, Panos is having a remarkable spurt of energy. He is moving like a bat out of hell or a man out of hell or a man out of the labyrinth. His architecture on Crete/in Crete is extraordinary; wonderful plans, solid geometries/volumes bathed in unrelenting sun/light, the mastery of large programmes, elaborate requirements made into imposing structure, cities on a hill, at once hidden and seen. One can be assured that these are joy-full places of learning and discovery. How refreshing to see an architect making precise/simple architectural plans. Panos loves columns, beams, piers, wall, stairs, ramps, windows, balconies, cylinders, cubes, earth modulations, bridges, floors, ceilings, lightwells, skylights, doors , entries, arches, masonry, plaster and steel. He uses the above as an alchemist would. His chemistry is judiciously mixed.
I want to extract out and speak to/of two of his most recent projects that provoke thought - thoughts about time , our time, past time, new time, old time, time within time...The two projects are the Nursery School in Los Angeles and House 12 in Ithaca. In a way they encapsulate the conditions we confront today.
The Los Angeles Nursery School presents the diabolicalness of the outside conditions if our cities, the compressions upon the innocent and the proposition that, like the monasteries of the Middle Ages, the schools of today are becoming the refuges and protectors of our youth and their freedom to learn. Panos' school presents certain problems head on. He understands that our educational institutions are under attack and he makes a monastic/defensive proposal. One can inter/change the programme: stated school/unstated refuge. Also, the undertone as school for sunlight, air, and school as penitentiary, schoolyard as playpen, and schoolyard as minimum security exercise yard. The Los Angeles Nursery School plan is quite simple: three cylindrical volumes in a court surrounded on three sides by a volumetric wall-walkway-rampart; the fourth side enclosed by a two-story volume which contains kitchen/dining facilities plus administration, toilets, etc. Basically a normal nursery school . Taking the same plan, two other institutional programmes could be imagined: a monastery and penitentiary. For the monastery, the surrounding narrow walkway could be considered the cloister walkway, enclosed and overlooking the cloister yard . The three cylindrical volumes could perhaps be the monastery chapel, library and meditation areas, with the large vaulted structure serving as kitchen/dining and administration along with sleeping facilities. All told, a reasonable plan for brothers.
The second programme/plan could be conceived as a penitentiary, with the encircling outer wall-walkway, the elements for security guards overlooking the prison exercise yard. The Three cylindrical volumes could be used for the prison work areas, and the fourth elements, the vaulted rectangular volume, for administration, kitchen, dining, sleeping, toilets, and so on.
I speculate about this because I believe plan/programme can be interchangeable, as shown in the above case either for learning, for prayer or for incarceration. It is eerily strange that our times seem to need all three. In one case a joy-full programme, in the other a thought-full programme, in the third a chilling programme.
Panos Koulermos' Los Angeles Nursery School could be thought of too as school for angels that provides for prayer so that the angels are not captured and imprisoned.
The project House 12 in Ithaca is a beautiful idea and seminal work. I am deeply moved by it. It is a land ship, a house ship that a modern-day Ulysses would have to engage, Whatever his trials and tribulations, at least the ancient Ulysses always had a water ship, a ship that floated upon the liquidity of a fluid. Panos' modern-day ship/house is tied to the land. Its fate physically is to be static and fixed. The oar-like structural buttresses are at once ancient, medieval and modern: the wood of antiquity, the concrete/masonry of the Middle Ages and gripping of modern earth.
I believe Panos is saying that with all our apparent modern-day mobility we in fact have become more fixed, more internal, more inaccessible and, in a strange way, more private.
In response to his land/fixed ship, I can live within it. That is , I can think within it, I can pray within it, and I can travel throughout the world within it. And most important of all, I can imagine it.
I think somewhere or other Le Corbusier has stated that the only thing transferable is thought. Panos Koulermos helps us to understand.
First published in the catalogue to the Panos Koulermos exhibition Topos, Memory, and Form, shown in 1990 at he House of Cyprus, Athens.
The first step towards knowing more
about the work of Panos Koulermos is to consider the details
of his biography. Koulermos was born in Cyprus some 50 years
ago. He studied first at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL),
where his training was in the hands of personalities such as
Douglas Stephen and Thomas Steven. After graduating, he worked
for a number of years in London. However his contacts with Italy
increased and in 1960s he moved to Milan, which was one of the
most vigorous cultural environments in Europe at the time. There,
he took a course in urbanism at the Politecnico di Milano. He
also studied the work of the Lombardy Rationalists of the 1920s
and 1930s, in particular Terragni and Lingeri, who had first
attracted his attention in London. Out of this research came
the first comprehensive assessment of the Italian Rationalists
to be published in Britain after the war-a strange feat for
a Cypriot-born architect, but only really a surprising one for
While continuing to shuttle between his European bases, Koulermos has become a resident of the United States. Since 1973 he has taught in the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and has lectured extensively throughout the United States, Britain, Greece and Italy. His projects have been presented in leading international reviews, including Casabella, Domus, Arquitectura and A+U.
An international man, Koulermos has sought inspiration from the most disparate cultural sources. Yet his work is unfailingly cohesive, building on his sound training and firm principles of practice. As a consequence, he has progressed unchecked though a period that has been very difficult for international architecture in general-a period of false turns, of wasted energy. By this, I do not mean to say that his experiments and research have adhered statically to their point of departure, unwilling to recognize the changes wrought by time. Quite the reverse: his architecture reveals an evident curiosity. He weighs up the battered rhetoric of ephemeral innovations and passing fashions and extracts from them the elements worth retaining as a stimulus to thought. For this reason alone, Koulermos' projects deserve to be subject of wider attention. Rather like a low-sensitivity film, they capture the best results of the (often confused) architectural research conducted since 1960s. As a whole, his work constitutes a kind of 'critical text' which requires careful reading.
Koulermos' expressive modes have evolved into a small but steady flow of successful commissions and inventive design experiments. The latter provide the opportunity to research issues more thoroughly than would be possible in a real contract. However, even in the designs produced for pure pleasure, or for the purposes of testing a new morphological hypothesis, we do not see the self-indulgent graphics that make much 'paper architecture' so superficial. Koulermos' designs are always oriented towards construction, and this gives them not only the cohesion which we have already noted, but also a healthy clarity. These features are, I believe, immediately evident in all of his projects, from the Rationalist early schemes in London to the most recent experimental designs in Greece , where the beautiful landscape has formed and natural focus for his research and built work.
From this point of view, the carrier of Koulermos represents a modern retelling of an ancient tale. He has been on a long voyage, facing many trails on the way, but now he has returned to the land of his birth, a grown man, mature. Or, to put it in slightly different terms, he has returned home laden with precious goods collected on his travels throughout the years.
His work is accumulative. The Scalabrini Retirement Center in Sun Vally, Los Angeles, which interprets his interests in Rudolph Schindler, the Tradate School, which reflects the design culture of nearby Milan , the 'theoretical' designs for Venice, the projects undertaken with his students in Los Angeles-all have built upon each other to form a design language and practice which have yielded their best results in his recent commissions in Greece.
The Science Complex for the University of Crete is proof of this. It combines into an articulated narrative all of the issues on which Kuolermos has been concentrating so patiently: the memory of the ancient civilisations of Crete, the lessons of Kahn, the intensive development of elevations, the constantly repeated vertical slots, the shifts within the floor plan that are reminiscent of his experiments in Italy. The result is a firm but open building which is fully aware of its environmental responsibilities.
While the massing of the Science Complex is richly narrative, Koulermos' design for the Research Center and Administration Building of the University of Crete is more concentrated and explicit-a judicious mix of Mediterranean simplicity and models reinterpreted from his time in Milan.
These projects demonstrate Koulermos' ability to filter and select. The task of selection is done not only with intelligence and cohesion, but with a moderation that engenders elegance, as we can see in the Nursery School in Los Angeles and , above all, in the twelve houses based on an invented programme for twelve different sites in the Hellenic world. These last works also encapsulate an act of sincerity, for they clearly record the sources of their inspiration and the models they are intended to study.
It is evident that Koulermos studies as he works. For this reason, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the designs and the finished projects. Seizing every design opportunity, even to the point of creating a fictitious client-himself-he skilfully accumulates the material that he will use in his buildings, selecting everything with thought and care.
Panos is a prudent and moderate man. Could there be any higher praise for an architect in our times?
Edited version of article published in the catalogue of the Panos Koulermos exhibition, Topos, Memory, and Form, in 1990 at the House of Cyprus, Athens.
In an interview with James Steele in
Los Angeles, Panos Koulermos talked about the development of
his career and the moves which have taken him from London to
Milan to Athens and LA, always in search of light. The discussion
spanned the London architectural scene of the 1950s, the influence
of the Italian Rationalists, and the importance of understanding
what it is that makes a city.
JAMES STEEL: The obvious place to begin is at the beginning, with your time in London. How would you characterize that point in your career? What were the influences behind it? How did it all happen?
PANOS KOULERMOS: It was a significant time in my life. It might at first appear strange that someone from Eastern Mediterranean should have gone to England to study, but I think it's important to seek out a culture that is different from one's own-a new place to learn from. London in the 1950s was a good place for organized studies and discourse. I went to Polytechnic of Central London, which I believe is now called Westminster University. The period, however, was rather lacking in architectural vitality, because it was caught between the post-war Welfare State and a kind of Scandinavian romanticism. English architectural interests were in general rather soft: Early Modernism was perceived as too 'Mediterranean', though there was a partial flirtation with Le Corbusier. Nonetheless, these were intriguing years. The Poly was basically a good, solid school with some dedicated teachers. I was also exposed to many interesting people through my contact with Architectural Association.
JS: Who were the paradigms for you as a young student? The Smithsons were active at that point. Lubetkin was in London...
PK: Lubetkin had already dropped out: I believe he'd become a farmer. He was anti-establishment and disenchanted with the patronage of the time and with architecture in general. His primary contribution, as Colin Rowe has said, was 'to establish Corbu as an English taste'.
JS: James Stirling was a tutor at the Polytechnic for a short time before his teaching stints in the States. Was he big influence at the school?
PK: He was a great person to have around, though of course nobody could have guessed how important he would become. I still have a clear memory of the time when my tutor, Douglas Stephen, brought Stirling to look at my project: I knew from his critique that he was special and different. Stirling was of the same generation as Stephen, Maxwell and Rowe. They all studied at Liverpool.
JS: They were all involved with the Polytechnic?
PK: Only Stephen and Stirling were. Bob Maxwell later taught at the AA. Around this time, Stirling was working for Lyons Israel and Ellis. He met James Gowan there and they went on to open an office together. Their first significant project, the Langham House flats in Richmond, was a definite breakthrough in English architecture-a major influence, as the Smithsons' Hunstanton School had been a few years earlier.
JS: This was also the period of the New Towns, like Stevenage. Where you interested in that?
PK: As students we didn't find them particularly interesting, or perhaps we didn't understand the issue very well. To us, they were part of a decentralised plan based on economic factors. We couldn't get enthusiastic about them because they didn't have much to do with architecture. The New Towns were never interesting places for people. They were uninteresting, solitary camps.
JS: Who or what did capture your interest?
PK: Denys Lasdun and Ernö Goldfinger were very important. There was also a small group of younger architects with a lot of talent but no significant work, and exhibitions such as This is Tomorrow, with contributions from Smithsons, Eduardo Paolozzi and others, In terms of my life, however, Douglas Stephen was the most influential person and I will always be indebted to him. I had the good fortune to work with him after graduating and he introduced me to a lot of interesting people. I recall Saturday mornings at the French pub in Soho, which was a famous gathering place. Alan Colquhoun and John Miller would be there, as well as Colin Rowe when he was in town...and Neave Brown, Jim Stirling, Bob Maxwell and Kenneth Frampton, just to mention a few. These were very spirited, informative social events. I also think that Reyner Banham's emergence as an architectural historian and critic was important. He used to write a column in the New Statesman every Friday.
JS: Can you identify any of the ideas or directions that came out of the discussions of that period?
PK: Le Corbusier was a tremendous influence, The good British architects were doing academic Corbu, or rather an Anglo version of Corbu. I think Jim Stirling's early work, such as his thesis and Langham House flats, shows the influence of Corbu. The same could be said of Colquhoun and Maxwell.
JS: Langham House was a private development, wasn't it? It had a humanistic quality of light and materials, and conceptually it was very different from other housing projects of the time. In a way, Stirling was trying to show others how to do it.
PK: I think you're right. He wanted to show a progressive way of doing housing-an alternative to the 'romanticised conventionality' that generally came out of the local authority architecture departments.
JS: What were the Smithsons doing at this time?
PK: They were working on their entry to the Barbican competition, which was based on the idea of 'streets in the air', development theories put forward by Ginsburg in Russia in the early part of the century. Peter Smithson was also in charge of the fifth year at the AA while I was teaching there as a thesis tutor. We learned a lot from him and Alison when she took part in reviews.
JS: Did Team X ideologies and discussions coincide with yours?
PK: Some of them did. They certainly coincided with my education-we used to attend various lectures about their work. Their theories presented an alternative to doctrinaire Modernism, to the prevailing systematic and pragmatic approach to architecture. In my case, however, the major influences were Le Corbusier and Terragni.
JS: How did you discover Terragni and Italian Rationalism?
PK: Through Douglas Stephen. Very few people knew of Terragni, because he had died so young. His work had been published in Alberto Satoris' books, but these were not readily available.
JS: What was it about Terragni, now that you mention it, that caught fire with you?
PK: One day Douglas showed me a photograph of the Casa del Fascio and I had a sense of déjā-vu. It seemed very familiar to me, but at the same time I knew I had never seen it before. In many ways, it was the embodiment of what I wanted to do; an architecture close to my heart-modern, fecund, and Mediterranean. Aspects of my thesis were influenced by Terragni, blended with Corbu.
JS: What was the subject of your thesis?
PK: The Greek Embassy in London. Topics have their moments and in those days embassies were very fashionable. Later, it was libraries and museums. I chose the embassy because its programme had a certain potential for formal development. I was interested in learning how to develop a language of exciting forms. In retrospect, my concern was not to express function but evolve a concept that addressed larger concerns, such as the city, order, space and autonomous form. I suppose this was my 'official' initiation into Rationalism.
JS: Beyond the visceral sort of interest that you find with Terragni, is there also perhaps a philosophical connection, a link through the classical tradition, absolute geometry and absolute form?
PK: As I've said, I immediately felt a strong affinity with Terragni.. In my view, he was the one who established the classical roots of Mediterranean Rationalism, which forms the basis of my own work as an architect...There are many categories of Rationalism, not just the formalist, rhetorical kind that some people think of. Mediterranean Rationalism is a poetic Rationalism. Rather than making a radical break with the past, it reinterprets traditional architecture; it makes a connection with history. To me, this is very important.
JS: What were you doing professionally at this time?
PK: I was Douglas Stephen's first assistant and later associate partner. I worked with him for five years and the experience meant a great deal to me. He was a lively, provocative and challenging person. He was the most significant educator I've had-and I use the word 'educator' in its true sense; to mean someone who really brings out who you are. During my time there I worked primarily on projects for residential and educational facilities. The major building that I designed with Douglas was Centre Heights in Swiss Cottage, London, a complex containing shops, offices and flats. Later on, Kenneth Frampton joined the office and worked on a block of flats in Bayswater. Douglas let each of us take on one or two projects and follow them all the way through from design to construction.
JS: You mentioned that you were also teaching at the same time.
PK: I was teaching at the Architectural Association. In a way, it was one of the most exciting times of my life. Though the AA was not the AA of the post-war years, it was still a very lively place. Cedric Price was there, so were members of Archigram Group-Ron Herron and Warren Chalk.
JS: So why did you decide to go to Milan when you were involved in so many challenging things in London?
PK: I felt I could not possibly live all my life in England. I missed the light and warm weather. I used to dream of the blue Mediterranean sky and I realized that light was an essential part of the architecture that I wanted to do. The architecture of the 1930s was primarily Mediterranean in conception; it needed strong light. So, too, did the work of Corbu, with its combination of Classicism and Mediterranean vernacular. You need to have the right context and climate. This is made clear by Aldo van Eyck's orphanage school in Amsterdam. It's a outstanding building, but if you see it on a cloudy, dark day, it appears dull, alienated. When the sun is shining, however, the organisation and forms come alive; it makes sense.
Milan is not exactly a sunny hotspot, but it is better than London. My concern was to learn, and Milan was an important cultural centere. Italy was also a country where I wanted to live for a while; a kind of stepping stone towards the Hellenic Mediterranean. At the suggestion of Kenneth Frampton, who had become the new technical editor of Architectural Design, I started to research a special issue of AD on Terragni and Lingeri. This Magazine (of March 1963)was the first post-war English publication on their work.
JS: Did you start it while you were still in England?
PK: No, it was something I did in Milan. It was really Kenneth's decision. He knew my affection and admiration for those people and he said 'Let's publish something'. I completed the research in a year in spite of the difficulties in getting the material. People were very critical of that period, associating it with Fascism. As a outsider, I had also to learn how to operate in Italy, how you get around people, I felt that it was very important to get the publication done while Lingeri was still alive, so my wife and I went to visit him frequently. Lingeri was charming, warm man and he was able to tell me a lot about Terragni and Sant'Elia, with whom he had worked for a while. This experience really marked the beginning of my interest in historical and theoretical research.
JS: I am interested in learning more about your professional transition from England to Italy. How did you come to Milan?
PK: Milan is not like Rome or Florence or Siena. Piera, my wife, warned me that Milan was not going to be easy. It is a tough, fast-moving business centre. There is no time for dolce far niente or idling in the piazza. In the end, it was an arduous but worthwhile move...and the beginning of a long, perhaps romanticised affair with Italy which continues still, both personally and academically, 30 years on.
JS: What other elements of study did you get involved in during that period, besides the connections you made with the Terragni publication?
PK: I researched educational facilities and got involved in substantial studies of housing projects for various public and private organisations. I also became absorbed with urban planning and attended the postgraduate course in urbanism at the Politecnico di Milano. I think it is vital for architects to study the larger context in order to understand the city and the socio-political complexity of their work. Buildings cannot be designed in abstraction and in isolation, for they are an element of our culture.
JS: Would it be fair to say that you are looking at urban design and planning as an area of study? Modernism hasn't typically focused on urban planning, with the exception of Le Corbusier and perhaps Kahn, but it tends to be an area of interest in Rationalism. Am I right?
PK: In England, I found that planning was done by planners; architects never got involved. As a consequence, the urban masterplans were not physical plans; they did not deal with urban form. In Italy, there were no planning schools as such. Planning was a component of an architect's training, a specialised course you could take. People generally assumed that an architect would also be a planner- a misconception, as being good at one doesn't make you good at the other. Often architects have no understanding of what makes a city. In the post-war era there was a tendency to consider the city as 'one building', to be organised in a regimented way in the name of simplicity and rationality. The result was a standardization of the built environment. The attractive qualities of the older cities were lost. People found the new buildings oppressive and impossible to relate to. That was the beginning of a problematic period in planning. The buildings themselves were sometimes interesting, but the open spaces, the 'voids', were not. In many cases, you had either bad planning and interesting buildings, or the reverse: good planning and bad buildings. In England, unfortunately, many of the New Towns were bad in both respects- uninteresting as planning paradigms, and unrewarding for the people who lived in them.
For a number of years there was a kind of stagnation. Modernism was in crisis and architects did not know which way to turn. The Italians provided a way of studying urban planning and architecture. Aldo Rossi's The Architecture of the City deals extensively with the subject, as does Carlo Aymonino's The Importance of the City, which was written around 1975. They were concerned not with methodology or social policy, but building typologies and the city. Of course, this is not the only approach. In the United States planners are interested only in policies; they do not want to become involved in design. Yet policies are meaningless unless they are manifested in physical form.
JS: The urban spaces of Rome have the Nolli quality, in that interiors and exteriors are unified. Is Milan the same?
PK: No, because Milan is primarily an 18th/19th-century city, with a sprinkling of medieval sections, early paleo-Christian churches and Roman ruins. Rome is more historical. Its City fabric gas been built up over the different epochs from ancient times to the present. The urban form in its historic centre is unique. It has wonderful public spaces such as the Campidoglio and the Spanish steps. Experientially, Rome is inspiring and alive-and would be even more so without all those cars, of course. It's worth studying the interdependence between urbanism and architecture.
JS: Did Milan, in a same sense, become an urban textbook for you when you were there?
PK: Milan is not yet a typical city. Its 18th-and 19th-century buildings are engaging because they are a fusion of Central European and Italian ideas. The influence of Vienna and France is clear. De Finetti's Meridiana apartments, for example, are inspired by Adolf Loos. They show the gradual evolution of Modernism- the transitional phase before it became a doctrine with strict rules and iconography-and they have a discreet connection to the past. Milan is a dynamic city where things happen. It is not somewhere you go to find 'romantic' cityscapes, although the centre is a captivating and quite remarkable place. The problem with Milan and other European cities is urban sprawl. We have been unable to create good urbanism so far this century.
JS: How would you characterise the influence of the city on your career, coming from London and then working in Milan from a period of time? How would you say it related to what you were interested in?
PK: I think it has tied in very well. My education in London was about Rationalism, so moving to Milan was like going to the Rationalists' home turf. Even though I was extremely fond of London. I've never regretted leaving because I think it was vital for me to get out...just as later on it was vital for me to get out of Milan and go to Athens. I've always felt the desire to learn and to be challenged. I'm not a person who is easily contented. For me , work is not about running around in order to make money; It's about learning in order to avoid stagnation and, above all, provinciality. It is astounding how quickly one can become provincial. I've also moved in search of light and warmth...
JS: So, after leaving Milan, you went to Athens?
PK: All along I really wanted to go back to the Mediterranean - to Greece and Athens, which was the major city of the Hellenic world and, for me, the right place to be. I opened an office with Spiros Amourgis, whom I'd met in London, and Nicos Kalogeras. It was a very exciting step and an incredibly important period in my life. We were committed and energetic. I also found that at last I could begin to apply some of the knowledge that I had acquired in the right context-the Mediterranean!
JS: How did you break down the various roles within the partnership? Were you the design influence?
PK: All three of us were interested and involved in good design. We were oriented much towards design than business, but we all found our own roles. In general, one partner would answer to the client and administer the project in collaboration with the others.
JS: What was the general scope of the projects you worked on?
PK: We had very diverse work: housing, educational facilities, industrial buildings, office buildings, libraries, airports and planning schemes. We also took part in competitions to test out some of our theoretical ideas, and were quite successful in a number of them.
JS: This was a period of time in Athens, if I am correct, when there was a housing shortage.
PK: A shortage of good public housing, yes. The military Junta was in power, and it took a lot of the joy out of life and work. Even so, I have no hesitation in saying that those years were really the happiest of my professional life so far. They were formative years. We were also very idealistic and wanted to help establish a better attitude towards architecture in Greece. We founded an institute, which we called the Workshop of Environmental Design, and organised international summer programmes for six years. We had no grants - nobody gave us any money - but we had energy and passion. In spite of the military Junta, in spite of the political situation, it was a full, intense and meaningful time.
JS: Did you maintain your connection with Italy and Europe?
PK: Of course, I was going back and forth all the time to work on some educational facilities in Milan. During this period my whole image of the city changed- the place appeared more friendly. The Milanese at first seem cold and distant, but they are really discreet; friendship just takes time to develop. Now I am happy to say that I have remarkable friends there. I've taught at the Politecnico di Milano and I also have an ongoing academic relationship with the School of Architecture in Venice ( IUAV), which started with an invitation from Carlo Aymonino, who was then its director, and Gianugo Polesello. In 1966, I began my 'official' academic career, teaching as visiting professor at various universities in the United States.
JS: That period coincides historically with an enormous intellectual upheaval in Italy, the Tendenza. What was your connection with that?
PK: I don't really think that you could describe what went on as an 'upheaval'. The Tendenza is a strange phenomenon, because in the beginning it was recognised only outside Italy. Very few Italians knew about it.
JS: Was that the name given to it by outsiders?
PK: The Tendenza was an approach towards architecture advocated by Giorgio Grassi and Aldo Rossi. It was a trend, a very selective kind of view. My main connection with it was through a traveling exhibition called Rats, which showed the work of Ungers, Rossi, Aymonino and Grassi, among others. When the exhibition came to Los Angeles in the 1970s. we invited all the participants to give a lecture. The event generated a lot of discussion and interest during a period that was deprived, to say the least.
JS: Did the Tendenza start in Venice, where Rossi was teaching?
PK: No, it was a Milanese movement. As I have previously mentioned, Rossi's Architecture of the City was very important book because it provided a theoretical treatise about urban typography. Post-Modernism was emerging at that time too. Architects incorporated historical motifs into their designs, responding in a rather scenographic , superficial way to the past and to a place. The problem was that they often did one building at a time without understanding its relationship to the rest of the city and to the other buildings. I do not subscribe to the idea that if you know how to do a house, you know how to do a city. The two things are not the same.
I think the Italians have contributed significantly to a more considered attitude towards the city. In Italy, Post-Modernism never really established itself as a major movement in the same way that it did in the United states and, to a lesser degree, England and France. Italy has enough real history not to feel the need to create a false one. Italian students were very critical of that whole Post-Modern period, as they are now of Deconstruction. They still operate freely within the Modernist and Rationalist ethic.
JS: This brings us to your academic involvement, a significant part of your career. You have taught since 1973 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and it must cause some philosophical dichotomy when you see how the students operate here. Unlike Italy, they are looking for trends.
PK: Fortunately, not all of my students in LA have been trendy- a lot of them have done quite serious work. Because of the non-historical milieu, they tend to be open-minded and to have a stylistic propensity. But this freedom also brings about a less critical way of thinking. The city defines no rigorous rules of operation; there are no infill projects, no areas of urban compactness. You can do whatever you want, up to a point of course. Many architects practicing in LA are trying to do their own thing, and their self-indulgence and egocentricity have created an array of idiosyncratic buildings, some good, some bad, which together don't make up a city.
JS: Since you have a international outlook you can look quite objectively at this city. What do you think this lack of regard for urbanity means? Are architects here isolated? Will LA ever be more than all these centres in search of a centre?
PK: First, I think it's very wrong to call Los Angeles a 'city of many centres' - I only whish it were. Rather than having urban centres like Paris, London or Rome, it has concentrations of commercial buildings, of stores or gallerias. These are not 'centres' in the true sense of the word. This is not true urbanity; it does not help people to create a compatible society. Los Angeles has to offer its inhabitants other options than auto-mobility. Life here is highly programmed; you cannot do things casually. Environments create attitudes and LA has to start thinking about its collective well being. We have to address issues which I think are pertinent to this city and find a way to create places where people can live together. Maybe then in 150 years we will have a good city.
In this interview, the Greek review
Tefchos talks to Panos Koulermos about the design of
his building complexes in Crete for the Research Centre of Crete,
and the university of Greece, one completed, the other under
construction. Naturaly enough, the discussion touched on a large
number of other matters, such as the firm principles which underlie
his work and the relationship between context and building type
in architecture. Included among Tefchos' participants in the
discussion, which took place in Athens, were the following architects:
C Papoulias, Y Simeoforidis and Y Tzirzilakis.
TEFCHOS: In your lecture at the House of Cyprus you said that in the last few years, and particularly in your designs for Crete and Spain, you have been concerned with rigorous forms, powerful forms. How, exactly, do you perceive this?
PANOS KOULERMOS: The basic architectural vocabulary of my work is that of articulated pure forms. I think that large public buildings (the res publica, as Toy Garnier used to say) ought to be powerfully geometric, in order to assert their presence and urbanise the surrounding area. They ought to be points of reference in the disorderly environment that one usually finds on the edges of Greek cities. The site of the Research Centre of Crete lies next to the existing University of Crete building, just outside Heraklion on the road to Knossos, in amongst endless houses and blocks of flats without any form or order. When I saw it, the first thing that occurred to me was to create something highly geometrical and powerful. In fact, all the first ideas that I had for this project were geometrical in building terms, though some elements, like the Technology and Research Foundation, were perhaps a little more freely organised. I never produce buildings which are not rectilinear, that is, which are not geometrical.
T: The buildings are set in natural environment. But the chaos of the city could be said, to some extent, to follow us into nature. Is that why your buildings have a concept of order within them?
PK: Perhaps, because a juxtaposition takes place. The buildings as an artefact is juxtaposed against the natural landscape without any attempt to soften that relationship. The antithesis between nature and building is powerful one, which is in fact a very Greek characteristic. Integrating a building into the landscape does not mean making it disappear. I think that one of the most serious problems in Greece is that everyone builds in a scattered manner, destroying nature, when it would be preferable to group the buildings together. How you see a building, whether it's clear, the strength of its presence in the landscape-those are very important things.
T: You often use the word 'see'. Is it ultimately a matter of vision? What does 'seeing' really mean?
PK: To see, to read, to interpret. From a distance, you see the general form and articulation of a building: you cannot distinguish any details. As you approach, however, the tectonic structure unfolds and you begin to see the various elements. Notre Dame, for example, has a marvelous volumetric form and articulation, with its flying buttresses, when seen from a distance. As we approach, the image of the building is enriched with the details, the materials and the colored glass, the statues, the interior, and so on. The first reading, from the distance, is of great importance in every building I design. The rapport between the building and the land is the first thing that interests me. This is followed by the spatial organisation, the articulation of the elevations, the interior, and a variety of other experiences which transform the masses into habitable buildings. Buildings evolve in the same way as a city. La Tourette is a major reference in my work, particularly in relation to the first and successive readings of the building. Seen from a distance, it appears to be a vast stereomorphic mass dominating the landscape. Yet when you approach the building and enter it, the scale changes at once and a 'modest', human environment is created.
T: I t could be said, none the less, that there is a difference between La Tourette and the Crete buildings precisely at the point where one enters them - a difference in the organisation of the interior space.
PK: The buildings in Crete are based on the idea of a city, and more specifically on the idea of the city centre. There is also a dynamic interdependence between the macro and the micro scale. I think this is the role played by architectural form: it meditates the transition from one scale to another, from the urban scale to that of the building. When we study a building which is not part of an urban context, we have to find, and generate ourselves, the points of reference and relationship; that is what I mean by space urbanisation.
T: The ability to read a building from a distance reminds us, apart from La Tourette, of the monasteries of Mount Athos or Sinai. In these complexes an inner lack of order lies behind the surrounding wall. One can see this relationship in the Crete buildings, especially in the Science Complex, which is organised like a little town. There is a geometric form, with the mountain in the background, running down to the sea. At the same time, this form leads us to the concept of the 'monument'. I know you have your reservations about the word, but it exists all the same. What sense do you ultimately give to the monument?
PK: Jefferson said that architecture is a useful art in the full sense of the word, and I don't think he meant just 'functional'. Monuments, to me, are not a 'useful art'. The use of the syntax of architecture and teconic forms exclusively for symbolic purposes gave rise to both the Vittore Emanuele Monument and Palazzo del Civilta' del Lavoro in the EUR district of Rome. Fortunately, this is a tradition which has not yet arrived in Greece. I would also say that for me 'monument' means something closed and frozen, in which human life plays a secondary role. But the word has been misused for many years, in good faith, perhaps. I think it is better to refer to the question of organisation of scale and form instead. In the Crete buildings, the primary significance lies in the natural and the human environment. I would prefer them to be seen as 'temples' to man and life.
T: In a recent text Ignasi de Sola-Morales proposes a different concept of monumentality as an echo of the monuments of the Classical Age, as what art and architecture can produce when they manifest themselves not as aggressive and domineering but as 'tangential' and 'weak'. However, the Crete buildings display a marked desire to dominate the landscape.
PK: I had a reason for designing those buildings the way I did: I think there are not enough examples in Greece of buildings which try to generate a powerful relationship with their context. The Crete buildings correspond to small hill towns; they are 'landmarks' in space. Each unit in these complexes has its own integrity and, at the same time, is connected to the rest. We designed the piazza of the Science Complex as a large public space. It is not a piazza for biologists and chemists alone, but a piazza for everyone - the urban piazza of the university as a whole.
T: Let's go back to the question of vision, to what we were saying about 'seeing'. The sizeable presence of your buildings brings about a major transformation of the existing landscape. What is it that you want to be 'revealed'?
PK: The visual connection between the landscape and the city is of great importance, as is the relationship between the buildings themselves. It is very important that we should have an overall view of a building or of a city before entering it. This is an experience based on movement, memory and the reading of the buildings and urban areas which we see in succession; the urban stimuli. This is the principle which we have followed in our designs for Crete. The large piazza of the Science Complex is approximately 110 metres long and is at right angles to Mount Psiloritis, thus establishing a visual bond between the building and the landscape. The same idea is repeated in the galleria of the Foundation of Research and Technology, which is about 65 metres long. This type of organisation and form was evolved in such a way as to celebrate the presence of the landscape which surrounds them. If that kind of landscape and topos and an understanding of its history had not existed, we would not have proposed these ideas. Of course, I owe the conceptual inspiration to Kahn's Salk Institute and to the court of Phaestos. That is one of the constant elements in my work: I always try to create buildings which have roots both in their land and beyond it. This does not mean 'regionalism', since the magnitude of the concept of the topos varies from person to person. In my case, I mean Crete and Greece in general, with references to the Mediterranean tradition of Rationalism and 'evolutionary Modernism'.
T: This is the point at which Frampton's critique comes in. In the text in which he presented these designs in Casabella, he referred to the topological organisation of the buildings and their relationships with the site.
PK: Frampton referred to the type and size of the Science Complex and to its relationship with the terrain. He believes that the type dominates the site. Perhaps he would have preferred smaller units, more freely organised in space. In its section, the complex exploits the slope of the ground. Of course, the size of the laboratory units meant that large bases and podiums were necessary. In addition, as I have mentioned before, I believe that strong unified forms are more suitable for this landscape. Frampton cites the Knossos palace as an example of a building that, with its inflections and different levels, sits well on its site. I think the opposite is true. Knossos is an extremely geometrical and rigid megastructure which has many levels connected to each other by larger or smaller staircases. Frampton may not have been thinking of the south side of Knossos, with its large bases, high retaining walls and stepped portico. And he may also have forgotten the western side, with the 'customs house" building, whose base is equal to its height. This is the condition of contrast we touched on earlier. In any case, we are not talking about small residential units but about large public buildings. In my opinion, what is important in these cases is the architectural and planning entity and not the type, which can be scrutinised as an isolated phenomenon. These designs do not deal with one single building but with a number of them. They are predicated on the models in which a large form dominates the landscape, as is the case with the centre of ancient Miletus or the Italian cities of Urbino and Assisi, rather than the paradigm of island towns, in which the final form is the accretion of many smaller forms.
T: However, perhaps we could claim that after the triumph of typology over topos, there have recently been efforts to redefine that relationship. What does typology in architectural practice mean? What role does it play in design?
PK: There is a typology in terms of the plan and in terms of the form or formal association. I believe that both of these stem from the fundamental organising idea and from the dynamics of the topos and the land. I do not mean that in the way a surveyor would see it, but in the sense of the broader context; that is, context is site. I think that this view is the opposite of the beliefs of some of the Tendenza architects, who often make an a priori choice which satisfies, first and foremost, their philosophical position or the local architectural culture, ignoring the other design criteria or, if not, reducing their importance. In the Science Complex the choice of the "portico" for the ground floor of the teaching building was made in order to establish a dynamic relationship with the piazza: so what we really have is an urban idea giving birth to a type. The idea of the "grand gate" created by the double-ended opening in the centre of the building dominates the organisation and expression of the various spaces. The principal thought, the formal association, was the city wall and gate. Here, there is a reference to the type/form. The typological organisation of the ground floor portico is volumetrically differentiated and leads to forms related to the more general concept of the complex.
Construction also follows this central idea. Construction means building space, and it clearly has a language of its own. What I mean is that one doesn't design by drawing floor plans without having any image and form in mind for the building, or in other words, elevations. Kahn said that architects ought to be composers of elements, rather than designers. Construction has played a very important part in my work and has often assumed a predominant role in the form of the building. I think the spirit of the tradition of Rationalism and that of Le Corbusier and Kahn have revived a richer repertoire of architectural thought and expression, one which overcomes the worn-out and sterile Functionalist mentality.
T: Your reference to what you call the tradition of "evolutionary Modernism" and its connection with Italian Rationalism brings us back to a debate which has been almost forgotten. Tell us something about the point at which your personal work intersects with that tradition.
PK: The work of Le Corbusier and Giuseppe Terragni had a great effect on me when I was a student in London. The influence of Le Corbusier is clear in my thesis for the Greek Embassy in London in 1957, where I proposed to transform the 'Classic Modern' linear type of building into a typologically complex combinational building by placing a cylinder between two rectilinear towers sharing the same base and cornice. This was, for me, an exercise in a three-dimensional solution which made use of pure forms on a large scale. Some people in the school saw the proposal as iconoclastic and ostentatious (this was, after all, the Dark Ages of the post-war period), but it led me to understand the potential range of 'powerful forms' in space and the significance of light in architecture. I realised that some forms provide more of an urban nature than others, and are more evocative, too.
This interest of mine was continued in Milan, and then in Athens in 1965, where my good friends and associates Spiros Amourgis and Nicos Kalogeras and I designed a series of buildings which fluctuated between two basic conceptual categories. In the first instance, the form of the building had a dominant position as a way of urbanising space (eg, our design for an office building in Omonia Square). The principal feature of the second category was the infrastructural grid: urbanism was an inherent element in the architectural concept, which was then expressed in rather neutral and undifferentiated forms (eg, the design for the PIKPA hospital for handicapped children, or Alexandroupoli airport). These designs were influenced by the social debates of the 1960s and were also inspired, to a certain extent, by Aldo van Eyck and Shadrach Woods. Woods' proposal for the Berlin Free University, in particular, demonstrated a 'new-old' way of organising a large complex and, regardless of the constructional outcome, I consider that organisation to have been one of the most important theoretical concepts of the century, together with Le Corbusier's proposal for the hospital in Venice, which is perhaps his only building complex based on the 'idea of the city' as a unified, low and continuous city fabric and form. During the 1970s, I was more closely involved with designs of the second category. The complex for the Scalabrini Retirement Centre (1973-77) in Los Angeles was in a way the concluding climax of this phase. However, I have carried the lessons learned in the 1970s over into more recent work. I have never ignored previous experience and research; I simply continue it and transform it in a new situation. What I realised was that most of the infrastructural projects were right from the social and functional point of view: they could be built in stages and were easy to expand. Unfortunately, however, they were not points of reference vis-à-vis the context and they were morphologically too neutral.
T: Neutral forms and democracy were typical of that period. The tendency to return to more geometrical forms came later, and was connected with the reacquisition of urbanity and the Tendenza.
PK: That was not true in all cases. I think, for example, that Aldo van Eyck's orphanage school in Amsterdam is one of the most significant buildings of modern architecture: its only problem is that it needs to be in a place with sunlight. My design projects for the Masieri Foundation Hostel and the Community Recreation Centre at San Francesco della Vigna, both in Venice, re-established my interest in the city, and the relationship between the building and its context, in the late 1970s. This 'return' to pure forms was perhaps a counter-proposal to the pseudo-historical interests of Post-Modernism. I believe that people were in too much of a hurry to put Modernism on ice, as if nothing had happened since the 1930s. For me, every period has its modernity.
Frampton says it was the work of Kahn which led the Tendenza to return to its Rationalist roots. Although I share some influences with the Tendenza architects, there are lots of ways in which we are different. My Rationalist roots lie closer to Terragni and Libera. I am interested in the past and the present, not the pre-industrial period and its typologies. The Tendenza seems to have become an enormous basket into which historians stuff everyone. What is important, to me, is that during those decades conscious attempts were made to stir up and clarify theoretical and compositional principles for large-scale buildings and their relationship to the city. For that change of direction, I may owe a lot to Louis Kahn. As Frampton quite correctly points out, the Crete buildings are a 'unique synthesis of mass-form and Rationalist space'.
T: What led you to become involved with Italian Rationalism and with Terragni?
PK: When I was a fourth year student, my tutor Douglas Stephen showed me a photograph of the Casa del Fascio. I felt a powerful attraction to the beauty of that building. I was very struck by its form and impressed by its modern, Mediterranean spirit. It touched my heart, as Corbu would have said. That was the birth of my interest in this very important period of architectural history. The elevations of the Casa del Fascio were designed with outstanding skill. We can see a thematic idea being developed as a representational element, in three differing but harmonious ways: the frame, the wall, and the frame and wall together. We can also see the spatial relationship between the frame and the wall located behind, in front of and between the columns. I interpret Terragni's work intellectually. I think his references to history are very important, and so is the manner in which he connects his buildings to the city and the topos. Terragni's interest in 'tradition' was typical of the Gruppo 7 architects. Their philosophical position, that 'tradition transforms itself and takes on a new aspect beneath which only a few can recognise it', was diametrically opposed to the views of the Futurists, who wanted to flatten Venice and destroy all the historic city centres. The visual relationship or dialogue between the Casa del Fascio and its context is made clear by the formal resolution of the pergola on the top level of the building which 'frames' the view of Como Cathedral. Furthermore, the siting of the building and its main elevation determine the edge where the public part of the piazza ends. Terragni's interest in the city is quite manifest in this case.
T: That period, the 'spring' of Italian Rationalism, was interrupted and has never really been continued, if we overlook some examples from the Anglo-Saxon side, and from the New York Five in particular. Is it possible to tap again the vein of what, in the end, is a singular form of Modernism? Is there something unstated, something binding, which has made architects afraid to carry on with it?
PK: It has a difficult social and political background. Terragni went up like a rocket and his untimely death put an end to the evolution of that Rationalism. The whole period faded out under a veil of shame and guilt. The appearance of Rationalism coincided with the rise of Fascism; it became equated in the minds of the people with Fascist authority, so naturally after the war there was a great deal of antipathy towards it. There were no mass media to inform the people that others in Europe were building like that, too.
Of course, the objective historical assessments that we can make today were not possible at the time. We also don't know for sure what role MIAR (the Italian Rationalist Architects Movement) actually played in Fascism. Nor should we forget that this was a time when Italians were looking for realism and certainties. Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto were fashionable then, following Bruno Zevi's promotion of 'organic architecture'. This was the period of the early works of Carlo Scarpa, Ignazio Gardella and Franco Albini, who were seeking 'softer' forms for their buildings. The Torre Velasca block in Milan by BBPR signalled the end, in 1958, of the period of the International Style and CIAM.
T: Even now the architecture of Terragni has not really been restored to its rightful position in Italy. Perhaps we can make another hypothesis: that this is because it draws on the purism of Le Corbusier and the traditions of the Mediterranean. It contains an element that is missing in the architecture of Italian neo-Rationalists - the passage from the organisation of the floor plan to the expression of the building.
PK: I agree. The lyrical and plastic expression of Terragni's work is not to be found in the repertoire of the Tendenza. In the Casa del Fascio the relationship between plan and elevation turns into a wonderful game, a narrative, as Giovanni Michelucci would say. You begin with a frame in space, which you then convert or transform. The frame is what holds all the elevations together. Its existence is perceptible everywhere, regardless of whether or not it is always visible. In this project we can see the fundamental difference between Rationalism and German Functionalism. Italian Rationalism is the expression of a general idea and not of one specific function. This means that buildings can lend themselves to a multiplicity of uses. Essentially, it deals with a broader programme. Without being told, you would not know that the Casa del Fascio was the club of the Fascist Party. The building says nothing about being a club. It symbolises and expresses a sense of authority and publicness; it might equally pass for Como Town Hall, or a number of other things.
For me, the work of Terragni is intellectual and not formalistic. When I look at his architecture I feel that there is still hope in the world. None the less, I would like to pause for a moment over the difference between the Casa del Fascio and the Casa Giuliani-Frigerio. The latter has an awkward floor plan with very little articulation. There are three apartments, which lie parallel to each other, to the staircase and the main road. This is where we find the famous resolution of the section: you go down from the landing to enter the third apartment through an access balcony that lies behind one of the other apartments. The frontal expression of the building on the three sides bears no relation to the basic organisational idea of the spaces. What interested Terragni in this building, I think, were the theoretical repertoires of expression and the syntax of the organisation of the elevations, regardless of the arrangement of the internal space. I find that project simultaneously educational and unsettling. It was the last building Terragni worked on, and perhaps his most narrative and challenging.
T: We believe that we ought to turn our attention to uniting the Functionalist and Rationalist elements, which today present themselves as separate -and perhaps even contradictory - through this specific historical progress of architecture. Let us think for a moment about the distinction between the Italian and German 'traditions of the new'. In your lecture at the House of Cyprus, you said that the idea of the city held by the German Functionalists was a little strict, a little rigid.
PK: The 'typologies' of the hard-line Modernists cannot create a city.
T: Wasn't the proposal by Terragni and Sartoris for the Rebbio district part of the same rationale?
PK: I must admit that I'm not certain about that proposal. Terragni's intervention in the city of Como (the Cortesella district, 1940) is a problem, too. I think it's a harsh intervention, in terms of urban scale.
T: Yet designing a whole city, or even a part of it, is not the same as designing an individual building. Of necessity, we have to relate the problem of economical and social housing with the problem of changing scale. The programmes of the Social Democratic town councils in Germany, for example, have not confined themselves solely to the question of Functionalism.
PK: I think there are other solutions to the problems of social housing, and we don't have to end up with slabs or blocks. We tried to achieve a more human scale in a housing project in Milan, with staircases, patios and relatively low buildings. With such a rationale, you can quite easily begin to make typological combinations and, in the end, create a city: something that is very difficult to do if you base yourself on the logic of the one-piece, one-type block.
T: Here you seem to be criticising post-war architecture more than the Modern Movement. However, the examples of the Siedlungen in Frankfurt are of extreme importance and we believe that in the area of the typology of social housing, and particularly of its equipment, things have in effect not progressed since the time of Wagner, May, Taut, Hilberseimer and Oud.
PK: I agree. I do not want to underestimate such work, but those were small and isolated phenomena and, regardless of whether or not they were successful as ideas, they did not become models for post-war planning. Here I am referring to the type of town planning which is not just a repetition of a 'typical unit' in space. The city is not just a block. We only have to look at the layout of Rome, of Paris, of Vienna, to realise how rich the urban organisation of their buildings is. Too often we see the destruction of historic centres as a continuing urban fabric is replaced with independent and unrelated buildings. I still believe that slabs and other independent buildings which cannot be combined cannot make a city, and neither can the so-called 'Deconstructivist' buildings.
This edited version is reprinted here by kind permission from the Editorial Board of Tefchos International Review of Architecture, Art and Design, Athens.
The plan expresses the limits of
Form. Form, then, as a harmony of systems, is the generator
of the chosen design. The plan is the revelation of the Form......Architecture
deals with spaces, the thoughtful and meaningful making of spaces.
The architectural space is one where the structure is apparent
in space itself....
The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis Kahn, 1962
During the 1960's the architects of the 'intermediate generation' born during the 1930's faced the now famous dilemma: continuity or crisis in the tradition of the Modern Movement? At the scale of the city and the urban project, European architectural culture began a critical dialogue with its past. Divergent paths opened up, particularly in Italy, prompting Reyner Banham to accuse Italian architects of 'retreating' from the principles of Modern Movement.
In Greece similar mood prevailed. Indeed, we can identify a kind of architectural spring, beginning at the end of 1950's, that coincided with the neo-Brutalist period of architecture in the country. Yet with the dictatorship of 1967, these efforts faded away. The collective dream of an entire world sank into a morass of silence. Only a few architects kept up their theoretical and design inquiries within the 'modern project', striving to escape the deeply-rooted mythologies of the Greek tradition.
Among these efforts, particular attention should be devoted to the work of Panos Koulermos, who came to Athens in 1965 after describing a trajectory through Europe, from north to south. He brought with him a Rationalist background from London (from studies at the Polytechnic of Central London, teaching at the Architectural Association, and an associate partnership in Douglas Stephen's office) and valuable experience from the natural cradle of Italian Rationalism in Lombardy. This first professional period of work in Athens, which lasted from 1965 to 1973, marked the beginning of a partnership between Koulermos and the architects Nicos Kalogeras and Spiros Amourgis. Together , they shaped a challenging practice which placed particular emphasis on interdisciplinary research and on education and culture in general. On the architectural level, the main focus was on the organization of the floor plan and section in terms of the tectonic logic of the building.
Koulermos has continued to develop his work against this background of 'change in continuity'. Although based in LA since 1973, he continues to move diagonally across cultures, between the vast city of Reyner Banham's 'Four Ecologies' and Athens, often stopping in Milan and Venice on the way. He combines teaching with practice. His work revolves around competitions, commissions and research designs. All of these have a cohesive spatial organization which comes out of an unrelenting theoretical process nurtured by his experience in the classroom and the workshop.
Koulermos' designs for Los Angeles , Venice, Milan and Greece, in particular Crete, express a clear, balanced relationship between the rational and the symbolic essence of architecture. The rational is embodied in his public buildings: the Santa Monica Art Center, the Hollywood City Hall and Los Angeles Nursery School all convey a deliberately 'timeless horizon', attained through an abstract elaboration in the design process of the rational elements of the architectural tradition. The symbolic element is most frequently present in his designs for private residences or other small projects, such as the Greek Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, which have a mytho-poetic narrative. The concepts of topos, memory and form have been at the heart of Koulermos' work in recent years, but they have acquired a personal tone free of the nostalgic emotional charge that is all too common in contemporary architecture. These concepts are not articulated in ways defined by Frampton's 'Critical Regionalism', by the geographically unique notion of 'place', or by building techniques. Koulermos insists on evoking the memory of formal associations on the basis of spatial experience, rather than style.
It was Alberto Sartoris who acknowledged the central features of modern Greek architecture: simplicity, clarity of mass and rectilinearity . The architecture of Panos Koulermos accurately fits this description. It also responds to Sartoris' polemical thesis, which interprets Rationalism as a constant force in architecture, deriving from the traditions of the Mediterranean , and rebuts the idea that modern architecture originated in the north. Such an approach puts Mediterranean Classicism against Romanticism and Northern Medievalism, and maintains the superiority of aesthetics over ethics and sociology.
Koulermos' work manifests an 'elective affinity' with the poetic spirit of Le Corbusier: the expression of movement as a significant element in urban and architectural organization is clearly evident in the designs for the FORTH Research Offices and Conference Center in Heraklion . In his projects on Crete, Koulermos appears to be recomposing and developing all his previous experience. He constantly alludes to the Mediterranean origins of Rationalism, as reflected in the strict geometrical traces and the tectonic logic of the monument. These origins, filtered through the work of Luis Kahn and contemporary Rationalists, constitute the main thread of his work, drawing him closer to the eternal idea of the classic. His insistence on the mytho-poetic element, in particular on the notion of the monument, reveals his metaphysical vein , as well as his critical detachment from the proponents of the Greek Romantic tradition, who dislike the very idea of the monument, preferring instead to create an organic relationship between the building and the earth. The architecture of the projects for Crete is essentially Mediterranean, reminding us , as Le Corbusier said, that 'architecture is masterly , correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light'.
In this approach to history, the work of Panos Kouleros represents what Ignasi de Solà-Morales calls 'the architecture of identity and difference':' His analysis of the place, his own memory and purely autobiographical episodic suggestions will lead him to find the simulacrum of a trace from which to establish the difference that will enable him to avoid repetition' (Domus no 736, 1992). The projects in Crete reveal this process. They show a transformation of the typological structure of the ancient Minoan palaces at Knossos, Phaestos and Mallia.
The presence of the palaces can be explained primarily by climatic conditions (Crete is considered to be the warmest island in the Aegean). They occupy hilltop sites, are oriented along a main north-south axis, and have a large internal open court. There are in addition many other interior courts or lightwells which bring indirect light into the spaces, creating an almost oriental, labyrinthine atmosphere inside. Other features include hydro-installations, porticos leading into courtyards, galleries, and monumental stone stairways with a rectangular, overly theatrical disposition.
We can discern many of these elements in the projects for the Science Complex and New Campus of the University of Crete And the FORTH facilities. In my view, these buildings show a clear process of 'identity and difference' with the Minoan palaces. The palaces appear random, yet a thorough analysis reveals that considerable planning must have preceded their construction. It also seems clear that the focal point of the plan was the central court, and that the palaces were planned in sections radiating from it. According to archaeologists, the guiding principle in the planning was not aesthetic, but practical. It is important to note two more points: the exterior walls marked only the rear of the buildings while the true facades of the different sections gave onto an interior court, and the irregularity of the plan and the disparity of the roof levels was made possible by the use of the flat roof-a regular feature in Minoan architecture. I insist on this description because some of these elements are evident, though transformed, in a number of the above projects.
The Science complex, unfortunately, has been completed without the part that would have defined the public court; what Koulermos calls the 'urban piazza' of the university. However we find a similar organisation in the Foundation of Research and Technology, where the buildings front the internal space-in this case a double-volume galleria (stoa)-which serves as the major organizing space of the complex. The other external elevations respond to context, horizon and adjacent buildings and spaces, creating a sense of urbanity.
To paraphrase Giuseppe Terragni, we might say that the traditional, as well as the modern, lies 'not in the form but in the spirit'. In these projects we can distinguish Koulermos' search for an 'order' opposed to the present -day irrationalism of 'styles'. That order is tied to a firm vision of a humanist culture-a sense of civitas vis-à-vis urban life. The projects in Crete are simply expressions of civitas, urban complexes within the landscape. Their monumentality commemorates the beginnings, the arche. of their foundation as public, educational places-as places of paideia ; that is , of culture.
Form has no presence. Its existence is in the mind.....Form precedes Design. Each composer interprets Form singularly. Form, when realised, does not belong to its realiser. Only its interpretation belongs to the artist. Form is like order.
Louis Khan, L'architecture d'Aujoud'hui no 142, 1969
to Panos Koulermos, I have learned much about him as an architect, as
a human being, above all, as a thinker. In the process. I have discovered
the profound bond of his ideas with the philosophy and spirit of the
Mediterranean- not only the Hellenic Mediterranean, but the whole immense
region, with its diverse shores and primal, mystical waters. The Mediterranean
is perhaps the most serene of all seas, and serenity is perhaps the
most important feature of Koulermos' architecture.
At present, when Koulermos is at the height of his career, his work appears more reflective, well conceived and careful than ever. Other architects, when intensely busy, give up the search for new inspiration, preferring to copy themselves in order to meet the demand for their work. For Kuolermos, each new project is more complete than the last, with fewer concessions made to frivolity. Most importantly, he has remained independent of the trends that have come and gone in rapid succession in recent years. He has chosen a difficult means of developing his work: even his smallest, most everyday projects, such as dwellings and villas, show a search for transcendence and solemnity. Running through all his projects, like a golden thread, is a concern with the physical and historical aspects of the site and place, irrespective of time.
It is no accident that one of the buildings which interests Koulermos most is the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, In this exemplary project, Louis Kahn responded to a site that was exceptionally evocative, though hardly fraught with history. The resultant building transcends the landscape. Close to Heraklion, Koulermos' buildings for the University of Crete and the Foundation of Research and Technology establish the same kind of transcendent dialogue with the landscape and the elements that shape it: the wind, the scent of the place, the changes in temperature, the seasons and the crops. In the case of his Biennale project on the Grand Canal in Venice (Ca' Venier/Guggenheim Foundation) the site, with its mystery and its poetry, is the thread leading to Koulermos' magical solution that also links itself with Gardella's architecture in the same city. One might even say that Koulermos designs not only the buildings themselves, but the space around them.
I had the opportunity to work with Koulermos on a competition project for the area around the Alhambra in Granada, He grasped the place and its history immediately, extracting Its truly important aspects from his very first visit. He had a clear sense of the culture of Granada and the Islamic architecture which is part of the heritage of the Mediterranean - and an equally clear sense of the practical issues involved. He knew just how to scale the project: how to orient it, define its boundaries and manipulate the difficult topography of the site.
A further element that I consider to be essential in Koulermos' work is his ability to create works of architecture which are solemn without being 'monumental' (a widely misused term In contemporary architecture). Those who strive to build a city out of a succession of significant buildings often fail to convey the kind of solemnity that Koulermos infuses into a building or citadel by the act of binding it with the greater natural environment. Koulermos has nurtured this ability throughout his life. He is constantly curious, always attentive to events that may have a profound cultural meaning in our times.
Regarding his craft as an architect, the outstanding aspect is the strong yet simple way in which each of his buildings relates to the ground. In each case, the esplanade, platform, podium or staircase will respect the various topographic incidents and respond to the requirements of the programme itself. The building will rise in a clear manner, without ambiguities or distortions, unfurling itself freely against the horizon, capturing the light and sending it across roofs and walls, defining a whole new architecture as the shadows fall over the horizontal planes.
Needless to say, these brief comments cannot fully describe Koulermos' work and thought. However, I do believe that they can help the reader find in his work the inspiration and motivation that those of us close to him have learned to value so highly. To conclude, I will mention an element of his work that has been very important to me personally: his vision of history. Panes believes in the oneness of time. Present, past and future all converge in the site, sustaining the work of architecture from its birth to its natural destruction. The true architect has the ability to envision the finished work, to imagine, while he draws, how it will look after the passage of time. This, to me, is Koulermos' most important asset - and his most admirable one.
have, through my work, attempted to be critical and to strive for the
transformation of the spirit and the meaning of Modernism; in fact, I consider
myself an ‘evolutionary Modernist’.
These are Panos Koulermos’ words1. They express a will that goes beyond the straightforward panorama of the good architect, conscious of his role, who is able to explain his own work in a thorough and constructive manner. By looking more closely at them, I believe we can understand better Koulermos’ intentions.
What exactly does being an ‘evolutionary Modernist’ imply? At the University of Venice we have worked together on various projects for the city, and have tried to address the discourse on the true sense of ‘Classicism’. How do we define what is ‘classical’ and what is ‘modern’? Or, rather, is it not appropriate to speak of both as one phenomenon? It is in this sense, I think, that we should interpret ‘evolutionary Modernism’, for Koulermos has said: I believe in the modernism which recognizes the significance of history, the city and its forces, and in an architecture that goes beyond satisfying only its functional programmatic purpose; an architecture which is symbolic, spiritual and poetic...
These beliefs in the value of history and deeper nature of architecture constitute the substance of Koulermos’ work, but they are reinforced by a further element. The poetry of the architecture, the poiesis, is rooted in the memory of the place: Memory-mneme-both collective and personal, plays a significant part in the way I design. Furthermore, Koulermos seeks the connection with a place through formal typological references and associations, raising his architecture above any accusation of superficiality.
In an essay on the nature of Greek art,2 Emanuele Loevy formulated a series of characteristics commonly found in primitive Greek drawings. He noted that the structures and movements of the figures and their parts were limited to a few typical configurations. The singular shapes were stylised and schematized in images that were linear, regular, or tending towards regularity. Loevy explained this schematization in relation to the role played by memory in artistic creation: ‘As a result of the visual impressions that we have received from numerous samples of the same project, what remains imprinted in our minds is a mnemonic image, which is none other than platonic idea of an object, namely a typical image devoid of any personal or casual attribute.’ Panos Koulermos develops architectural concepts by elaborating and adopting building types which he defines, in a similarly atemporal manner, as archetypes and primary ideas.
Although I do not think it is appropriate today to speak of architecture in terms of its national origins, I feel we can still speak of its ‘spirit’. In the designs and poetic visions of Koulermos, it is the mneme which characterises the type, which consolidates its character, turning and object into a typical image. As Loevy wrote of Greek art: ‘Among all the aspects, memory chooses the one which presents the object with properties which make it different. Consequently, it chooses the one which makes it most understandable, giving it maximum possible visibility, and exhibiting a wholeness in each one of its parts. As a matter of fact, in almost all cases, this aspect coincides with the wide-ranging viewpoint of the object itself’.
Memory is history without historicism; an effort to link together ‘Classicism’ and ‘Modernism’, an investigation into the meaning of ‘place’. It is the development of a ‘type’, the will to produce shapes and figures. These concepts evoke all the things that I hope to see in architecture-and all the things that I do see in the work of Panos Koulermos. Regardless of whether the projects are built or unrealized commissions, nature is understood to operate in essentially the same way. In the case of the buildings, nature is seen outside the ‘artefact’; in the drawings, it is integrated by the active process of the mneme.
This, I believe , is the modern meaning of the search for the ‘classical’. Koulermos’ series of twelve houses in the Hellenic world concludes with a sort of house/ship or house/ark. I venture to think that this is perhaps a key, a clue to possible revelation if we continue further.
1 See page 46 of the catalogue to an exhibition of Panos Koulermos’ work, Topos, Memory, and Form, published in Athens in 1990. Subsequent quotations are taken from the same text.
2 This essay was published in English in 1907, under the title ’Rendering of Nature in Early Greek Art’.
Translated by Yorgo Koulermos.