With Tefchos Review
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
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
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
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
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
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.