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 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--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.