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
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,
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
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
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
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 déjà-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
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
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
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
JS: I am interested in learning more about your
professional transition from England to Italy. How did you come
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
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
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
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
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
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.