With James Steele

    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 Ern 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 dj-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.