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τεύχος 6
Νοέμβριος 2015

Wilfried Wang - Elias Constantopoulos

του LastTapes


Our meeting with Prof. Wilfried Wang and Prof. Elias Constantopoulos was set at the caf
é of the New Acropolis Museum on a February evening 2011, after the presentation of the book Kyriakos Krokos: Fassianos Building, Athens 1990-1995 (edited by W.Wang, text by E. Constantopoulos). We were accompanied by Mrs. Leti Krokou. We decided not to interfere in the conversation drastically by editing, keeping its vivacity, discursiveness and its interesting change of directions in the text. Despite the surprising length of the resulting text, we feel that it is satisfactorily balanced by the broad spectrum of the discussion; indeed, departuring from the issues raised by the Acropolis Museum in Athens, we ended up exploring the grounds of Greekness, European identity, economic crisis, the Greek vernacular and our position in the modern Western world.
 

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Wilfried Wang:
In the 20’s and 30’s modern architecture in its extreme forms suggested that there was nothing to represent anymore. We had to get rid of ornament, we had to get rid of new classical architecture language, things were reduced to their components in order to satisfy certain programmatic requirements. So you have a kind of emergence of boxes. Without any idea where the entrance is, repetitive windows, a kind of an ideal constructional system, that could be continued ad infinitum, and so there is no real in, there is no real beginning, it is just a repetitive three-dimensional grid, that could have some kind of envelope. That’s extreme and characterize in a way of what certain architects and theoreticians were talking about in the 30s, and what after WW2 became the standard architecture. Modern architecture is about repetitive grids, repetitive floor plans. Then, people like Le Corbusier, became a little more playful, and you could see in Le Corbusier, even in the beginning, in his early buildings, what you could call a kind of baroque architecture of modernism, where you have more expressive forms, more playful geometric elements etc. And with people like Tschumi, and other architects of the 1970’s and 1980’s you would find that this became a compositional technique that ultimately tries to reintegrate certain things, like methods of representation, but still doesn’t find it easy to deal with aspects like window openings. So this building, (looks at the Acropolis Museum) ideally is about uniform skin, maybe some kind of just basic gestures of the building volume itself being shifted and altered. But other than that, there is not much effort to try to say that there is something very special... It is a big building, so that’s a reliance on its size to achieve what traditionally is known as monumentality. Monumentality is not just bigness, but is also a kind of articulation of the surface. The way that you actually treat the surface, is a question of monumentalizing or not. You can have a wall, a stone wall like that, and it’s monumental by the sheer size but it’s also monumental by the way that the buttresses are enormous and the buttresses themselves give this wall a kind of weigh. And as an observer you can understand, yes, I don’t know what buttresses are, but I can see that this thing is somehow dealing with weight, and therefore this thing up there somehow is a huge mass, and so you begin to understand as a layman, that this is very big, very important structure. But if you are confronted with an envelope of glass panels with silicone joints like this or even, mullions, metal mullions, you don’t really understand what’s behind it. It could be an airport, a hospital, an office building, anything. So what distinguishes something from another thing, in modern (better, modernistic) architecture, it hasn’t being a theme.

LT: Are you saying that modern buildings are in a way solipsistic?  

Wang: There is a tendency towards a kind of autism. Because you want to avoid any kind of ornament and representation - “representation is bad”! Hannes Meyer, the second director of Bauhaus, was absolutely insistent that architecture has to represent nothing. That was the end of ornament in modern architecture. So what do you do? How do you express interests, how do you express character? The notion of character was out. And so it’s interesting that you have here a volume of buildings that is based on the size of the Parthenon because it has to have the ornamental elements displayed on the inside. Somehow the volume of the building is kind of a larger volume and, eventually, an enlargement of the Parthenon. It’s a box.

Constantopoulos: In addition to what Wilfried has said, I’d like to make an analogy using the example of Beaubourg. There the intention of having a cultural space is actually transformed into a commercial one (quite clear when you walk in the interior, the ground floor or the mezzanine), you see all these neon signs – it’s like being in a city, and there are shops and there are cafés within it. People feel it as a continuation of the urban fabric, and only then you do visit the gallery spaces. But the public character of Beaubourg, apart from the success of it, also raised strong reactions when it was built (we could note that when you look at it it’s like a spaceship that has landed in Paris). Now the Acropolis museum, if you walk down from the Acropolis, you can barely see it. You see only the top of a black glass volume. It’s almost lost. On the contrary, you cannot miss the Beaubourg and the reason I think it has succeeded is because it created an enormous piazza, a public space, where things happen. The whole front of it, not just the door, is open to everyday activities, people gather there, so it’s a continuation of the city life.

What Wilfried said about this museum is absolutely true. That you walk around the whole block, you enter through a single entrance directly under a canopy and then, if it has character that you were talking about, that only happens in the interior. Once you are inside, after you have paid and got your ticket and gone through another more commercial, in a manner of speaking, area and you reach the glass ramp, then you are inside a monumental space. So, between the city itself (pedestrian walk) and the monumental walk that Tschumi creates in the interior with the glass, I would say there is a series of non-spaces. Not very inhabitable spaces and very singular in direction. Partly this is understandable because Tschumi had to uncover all the ancient excavations below. However, as a building in relation to public space? I don’t think it works there. And for me that also signifies a paradox in the approach. The whole business of modernism here becomes more acute because this is the most symbolic building you could build in Greece. It refers to a paragon of ancient culture, not only Greek but Western, and this symbolic character is not expressed, but it is housed. And it’s not only the entrance. The main justification for this building is that you have to have spaces for the statues and for the excavations, and the argument against the Elgin marbles. But Tschumi finds it difficult to express that symbolism. Part of the reason is what Wilfried has mentioned; being part of the legacy of modern architecture and the way it somehow tries but still does not have the language to do some things in terms of representation. Part of it has to do with size and context. Because you have a large program here, spatially, and it is a very congested part in the centre of Athens, but it also has a great advantage, the direct relationship with the Acropolis. It means to be contextual, as Tschumi says, but at the same time it feels to be very tight in its own clothes. Being contextual is like a straight jacket. If you take away the context, like if we take away the two building obstructing, as he suggests, the view of the Parthenon, or all this geometrical shift with which the building relates to the neighborhood and to the city, the museum will lose its meaning. It is contextual because of its restrictions and, as soon as it is contextual, because of its size, because of its modernistic language, it does not resolve them. So you have a paradox there.

img002LT: Are these problems part of the wider postmodern situation?

Wang: No, you are in a very difficult situation in this particular project. You want as a country, as a ministry of culture, to prove to the rest of Europe and to the world that you could be the guardians of the Elgin marbles. So, if you were to have chosen a Greek architect, who would not be a world-famous architect, maybe there are some individuals in the Greek ministry of culture and some with a particular influence, that would say that we don’t have someone with international repute, we need someone with authority. So why they would choose Tscumi I don’t know, but ok, he is chosen. That’s one problem. The other problem is the touristic thing Elias talked about. There is a question before all of that though: Why is it necessary to construct a museum at all? The reason is because pollution is destroying all the pieces. You could say, let’s accept pollution and let it be a memory of our bad behavior, that these things are going to disappear. Not possible. What else is possible? To restrict pollution. You can restrict pollution technologically. No, culture always has to give way to technology. Technology is always the most superior force. The aesthetic in this case is that of technology, not culture. If culture had been the driving force, then Kiriakos Krokos project for the Kili site would have been chosen because it’s in the spirit of the site, it’s a version of what the Greek tradition is all about. Krokos is the continuation of the tradition that stood against the simplistic, technological, rationalistic architecture of modernism. He had a very clear root in Greek tradition instead of just being interested in transforming it. He didn’t just have a kind of sentimental position that Pikionis had. So you have to differentiate the different possibilities that have been mapped out by architects in Greece of the 20th century. Here’s a design that was not chosen for various reasons, and I would suggest that one of the reasons is “How do we appear at the rest of the world?”. England has hi-tech architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, with the British Museum, Tate etc; we Greeks cannot just have a Greek architect who does a continuation of Greek architecture.

LT: Cannot have?

Wang: Cannot have. The ministry of culture would say we should have someone more modernist, more clean, more hi-tech, who would show that our conservation technologies are at the same standard as the Louvre, or as Berlin and London. So this is something like an inferiority complex of those people who are at decision making positions. In every single country, in Greece, in Germany, you have the same kind of people making these kind of decisions in the cultural sector. They always feel inferior. The Germans feel inferior to the Parisians and to people in New York and London, London people feel inferior to etc.

LT: Let me ask this to both of you. This post modernistic approach of everything also applies to architecture, so it is very common to see new buildings around the world by specific “star architects” (say Tshumi or Calatrava) expressing a unification of the style-

Wang: The system, not the style.

LT: A unification of the system. One wonders whether this approach takes under consideration, in any way, the special characteristics of the place, of the landscape, or of the country they work in.

calatravaWang: Well, the majority of these people simply don’t. The majority of these people are brought in because they have a characteristic style of their own. When you go to Zaha Hadid, Tschumi, Gehry or Calatrava, you know what you are going to get. There is no conversation with the context. For these people context doesn’t mean anything. Nothing. If you ask other people like Alvaro Siza or maybe Rafael Moneo, someone who is thought to be more conservative, you would get people with international reputation but with an interest in context as well, absorbing influences from the context, reading the context, the physical context as well as the cultural context, meaning the architectural context. But there are few of those around. It is a system that is based on half-educated, middle class, decision-makers. Politicians who are poorly educated, who are poorly informed, who have a lot of power, who are very impatient, do not have a lot of time and want in their four-year period that they are in business to be in association with the major cultural object. It’s depressing. They have a lot of money, they have a lot of political power and they push projects like that through the different so-called democratic committees. This bridge that Calatrava designed and realized here in Athens is completely ridiculous. Infrastructurally it is a nonsense. There is a traffic zone that is completely unnecessary. People can cross the street with a couple of traffic lights. It would be a millionth of the price of that bridge. It would have saved that whole urban fabric from that kind of incision which is very damaging. So, who needs that stuff? And then we haven’t even talked about the structural logic of it! It is kind of an enormous cantilever, a thing that holds back. And you could deal with the span of the bridge, if you wanted to, with 1/10 of the material.

Constantopoulos: Laughing But it is the Greek heart! That’s what Calatrava is.

Wang: Laughing Yes, yes, ok.

Constantopoulos: I would like to add something concerning the inferiority complex. That we agree that it could happen to any country, where you bring a star architect from abroad to bring the, say, “Bilbao stamp” to your country. I agree with you but I think someone should be beware of one point: not to totally exclude or obstruct such a process because then that inferiority feeling might be reinforced. Saying that I don’t need any Calatrava, any Tscumi or whatsoever, because we can do everything here as Greeks, then that might become even more provincial and isolated. And another thing about context. An interesting answer to the discussion we are having comes out of objective facts. Wilfried very clearly put down the case of how the ministry of culture wanted to select the famous names. Now, this was done on a site that was favored by the authorities, meaning the competition setters. It had to be on the Makriyannis site, which is very congested, where you cannot park and there are a lot of buildings around. Instead of looking at the architectural proposal, let’s look at the previous competition, when the award was given to Passarelli and Nicoletti (also a not good project in my opinion). All the distinctions, the second prize etc went to the best-known Greek architects, older and younger (Biris, Antonakakis, Krokos, Nikolakopoulos) who did not select this particular site. They had selected either Koili or Dionysus site, or a mixture of these two. So the reading of the problems in terms of the topography and the context by people who live here and read the land and say “my first decision is not to design this building beautiful or bad, or whatever according to my style”, was to know where to place it. Placement is a first choice. I think that the current solution of Tschumi carries with it the choices of authorities about the particular location, which is not an architect’s choice necessarily.

Wang: Let’s say someone comes to you and says “I have a problem, can you suggest a solution?” In the field of culture someone comes to you, the architect, and says to you: “we have a problem as a culture, can you suggest a solution?” Architects don’t take it seriously. Many people say architecture is about personal feelings, subjective ideas, individual idiosyncrasies, egomania etc, so they say “we can’t take that staff seriously”. Because we, as politicians, should decide what to do. Ok, politicians should decide for example if I have a problem mentally I should get operated. I have a problem with my leg but I should be operated on my arm, because I think this would be a better place.

Constantopoulos: Very Socratic, indeed, Wilfried.

Wang: What I am trying to say is that architects have lost a certain professional authority in terms of what people think that they know. People think that architects know only things from their own personal point of view. Something that is not true. We know a great deal about issues that are possible to be discussed objectively, there are many things on which we differ from subjective points of view but we can clarify, we can differentiate those things that we prefer on an individual basis, and eventually we can agree. We can agree for example on the development of history, we can agree on certain objective qualities that this building has, certain qualities that appear to me to be the case of this building. We can all say that this building does not exude an idea of representation. That it has some certain intentions in terms of neutrality of space and detailing. This has to do with the tradition that people like Norman Foster have established in their museums. You can even take it further to question the relevance of the stainless steel tubes on the top floor that separate the structural elements. Whether that’s really the kind of representational structural frame that you would want to have to deal with the character of that particular building.

Back to the issue of the site and the loss of authority, architects don’t make it easy for themselves, because they fight amongst each other, but when it comes to the issue of competition, the majority of architects felt, like Elias said, that this was not the right site, in terms of the area etc.

We live in an age, where everywhere across the world- not just Greece, not just Germany or the US, but everywhere- we have organizations of architects who are not really able to communicate with each other, we have architects who are resistant to change, clients who are unable to express what they really want. And clients who are unable to read what they are really going to get. Fairly disastrous situation. In this context, there are very few professional organizations that act as mediators between clients and architects. My experience has come from sitting on design review boards for UNESCO or Heritage Towns in Germany, or the Design Review Board for the Airport in Munich, where they are planning big projects, and where the client doesn’t really know how to talk with the architects. So we, as the design review boards, actually review the designs and we listen to the clients and listen to the architects and then we say: Well this is what you should be doing.

Constantopoulos: Do you think the press can be a mediator in that respect?

Wang: No, because the press is not knowledgeable in the way you should be talking about architecture or cultural issues. They are interested in controversy as a tool for selling more copies. What we need is not just evaluations of what has happened in the end, which is where we started this conversation, we don’t need people writing what they don’t want, we need people writing on options for improvement of a design before it is built.

LT: I am afraid the Greek situation is much worse than the German one. I don’t know if there is any conversation here at all. In the ministry of culture or in any other ministry. I don’t know if they have something specific in mind.

Wang: In Germany as well. Germans don’t want debate. We have so called modern democracies that they don’t want debate.

LT: But, I suppose in Germany the system is better constructed around some basic ideas or directions of thought.

Wang: No.

LT: You think not!

Constantopoulos: He knows!

LT: Don’t you think that in Germany or in the US there is an idea of a German or American architecture that is reflected in everyday life?

Wang: No.

LT: But when you are in the centre of Berlin, you can smell a scent.

Wang: Yes, but you cannot say that that is German architecture. You can talk only of individual styles.

Constantopoulos: Here you also have a "scent" in the centre, only you don’t like it. If you go at the Strefi hill and you look at the rooftops and see all the antennas, you might believe you are somewhere in the Middle East. That’s Athens, like it or not.

Wang: Multi-storey apartment buildings, balconies and green canopies, that’s what you have, and that was not the result of a theoretical discussion but the result of building regulations. You look at the building codes and ask: what can we construct until maximum volume etc.

The most successful alliteration is the top of the museum where you can have a broad view of Athens, being next to the pretty impressive sculptures having a similar sense of what you see from the actual Parthenon. Maybe this is not the worst building you could have had. It’s not the best but again not the worst. Somewhere to the scale of 1 to 100 is around 50 perhaps.

img002_copyConstantopoulos: I like that you can have a simultaneous view of the sculptures, the Parthenon and the whole city, I enjoy that. I don’t enjoy the closeness you get from some exhibits; you should have more space to look at them. I also don’t like the metal columns in relation to the exhibits. But I like the general environment.

Wang: If you think about Greek architecture of the period of 300-400 BC, let’s say, would you ever think of a temple that on a scale from 1 to 100 is a 50?!

Constantopoulos: It would all be higher.

Wang: What I am saying is that a national institution that has been built. People of our time think: “We can do anything. We have all the necessary technology". But then we are unable to do certain things in terms of quality. Why is that? Why do we spend 200-300 million Euros on something that is only 50%? And we accept it. But when we buy a car, would we accept that it is only 50%? Is that good enough? But in architecture we accept it. Architects, politicians, the general public accept 50%. We are technological supermen and cultural cripples. So, all these people who tend to talk on greekness or germanness, they tend to go back and discuss all the good things of the past (sometimes they also look at the bad things of the past), they tend to live from the glow of the past, and then they try to say: “Well, how do we translate this into today’s context, with the lack of discipline, with the expensiveness of materials etc” Then you have the mentality of clients who say “there are sales at the supermarket, why should I pay 200 Euros per square meter for this marble wall if I can get it for 150 or 100 Euros? I don’t need a marble panel of 25mm thickness, 15mm would be fine”. But we know what 15mm means, it means that if someone knocks that wall, it’s broken. We always accept these 50% situations in architecture.

LT: So these decisions made by politicians, ministries etc, what do they really represent? Because obviously they don’t reflect the needs of the people who live in an urban environment.

Constantopoulos: I’ll answer you with an example. The Calatrava stadium was what should have been for the Olympics 2004. The politicians wanted a super aerial photograph for the Olympics. An excellent photo, indeed. I’m not saying that the stadium isn’t good, when you enter it it’s really impressive, but what’s happened to all the spaces of the Olympics? The British are criticizing us because we cannot utilize that space for housing etc. The structures are just standing there. What the politicians want is the most successful (short-term) image they can get. That’s the limit of their thought.

Wang: If you take this seriously you must think in terms of centuries, not a few years span. You must ask questions like “what has Greek civilization meant”, “what has Greek civilization brought to global civilization” and what influence do politicians really have on that (if they carry out some serious analysis they will reach sobering results. They probably have very little influence on that development). Today we face so-called democratic processes, centralization of funds, centralization of decision-making etc., and the concentration of incompetence or should I put it more diplomatically, people make decisions on a limited knowledge basis. They don’t trust other advisors or they have advisors when the base for this advice is very narrow.

LT: Musil wrote: To move backwards is impossible. We are at the technological age. What can we do about it?

Wang: Well we may don’t have a choice to move backwards. Greece is in an economic crisis; how are you going to generate the growth that you need to deal with the deficit? You are not good to do it through industry. Well, you generate growth in an area in which you always have been very strong. You have sun, you have beaches, you have your culture. If you neglect culture, if you neglect hospitality, you are going to cut one half of your body. You don’t have anything else. You cannot compete against the Germans, the French and the Americans in terms of technology.

Constantopoulos: In these terms we are happy to sit in this new museum watching the Acropolis. But we wish to have this extra value that we do not have.

Wang: You should look after your existing culture. Boring for politicians, boring for architects. But you have to maintain all the things that you have inherited from your fathers and grandfathers, buildings from the 20’s the 60’s the 80’s of the 90’s that have quality, these need to be conserved. Buildings from later centuries. You need to look after the books that you have in your libraries. All this that has to do with education and culture needs to be strengthened, not weakened. Then the obvious thing: We know that politicians think about cutting back and closing museums. Sometimes museums close because there is no money to pay for the staff. That means you have one less attraction for tourists. Tourists may be not willing to go to Salonika any more. This means one more loss of some millions per year or taxes etc. These are stupid decisions.

Constantopoulos: Another example is that we have 17 UNESCO sites in Greece. Amongst them we do not have Knossos. The reason is what we have done to the surrounding environment and because context matters. What they have built around Knossos is second and third rate. The result is that tourists do not go to the most important Minoan monument; they prefer to go to Faistos etc, because that’s where they find a better surrounding environment. Wilfried put it very righty and Greeks rarely listen to that: When they talk about culture they talk about Acropolis, full stop. As if there is nothing else. But yesterday we talked about a Krokos building. I will bring also the example of Zenetos, an architect who unfortunately passed away very early. His buildings were completely mutilated. We don’t have many architects like Zenetos and Krokos in Greece, I would say not even in Europe. So you cannot say I do not care about Zenetos, but only about Acropolis. You should care about the whole lot.

Leti Krokou: Maybe this is because Modern Greek culture is not breathing.

Wang: Of course it is breathing. It is alive, because you have theatre, you have cinema, music, architects, writers who are producing things. You have both what has already been achieved and is acknowledged to be great, and you have people who struggle to produce.

img003LT: How did you become interested in Greek culture and Greek architecture?

Wang: Through Elias, and through architecture itself, because you cannot study architecture without studying Acropolis for example. We then study how contemporary architects deal with the great inheritance of the past. How individuals like Pikionis, like Krokos and Zenetos have interpreted that past in different ways. Zenetos in a more high-technological way, he looked in another path. He is not my favorite architect, but I acknowledge him to be one of the most important architects in Greece, and a very important architect in Europe. He made a school that is absolutely a pioneering school, the school that is the most important school building of that period in the world. Elias?

Constantopoulos: Well, though these sound like big words, I wound agree.

Wang: Well, the building has been recently restored, yes? At least there has been some acknowledgement of its importance. A lot of other buildings have been neglected or torn down. Konstantinidis is a very important figure, intellectually very important not just for Greece but for Europe, he is again not my favorite architect. My heart is for those architects who try to work within a tradition and who are struggling. Now Pikionis is a very extreme case, maybe overly sentimental, but the paths in Philopapou and Acropolis are exceptional pieces of architectural landscape and you cannot find something like that anywhere in the world. It is unique. It is a symbiotic relationship between something that is modern and yet also discreet in relation to an ancient monument. Krokos is an important figure because he is bridging the gap between somebody who is acknowledged to be sentimental and he’s trying to create a more abstract relationship between what is the archaic tradition of the islands and to bring that forwarded to the 20th century.

LT: He did not deny the neoclassicism like Pikionis and Konstantinidis did.

Wang: No, no, absolutely not.

Constantopoulos: It is interesting that earlier on we discussed about the dangers or the benefits you might have when you import architects from abroad into Greece, instead of resting on your own strength. But one can see a different positive aspect in this thing when you see people from abroad acknowledge modern Greek culture and architecture. Wilfried was involved in this new book for Krokos, recently we also had a monograph on Konstantinidis by Mondadori Electa publishing in Italy, and before that there was one on Pikionis. So Pikionis and Konstantinidis are part of this esteemed series, part of the masters of modern architecture. This might be a sign that there is some quality here that needs attention from us and not to be neglected.

Wang: This should come to the subject of continuity and the question of greekness. Why does that come up and why do people like Konstantinidis and Pikionis and Krokos raise that question, why do they try to answer in their way? Is it because they saw the responsibility, a burden, a great tradition, and kind of a need to answer to the question: "What is our idea of order and architecture today?"

Constantopoulos: It was mainly in the 30’s when the question came up even amongst people in the literary circles or artists, because it was a period with a very strong need to search for identity.

LT: Huge subject in Greece.

Wang: Well, it is also a huge subject in Germany. What is the canonical culture in Germany? The "Leitkultur"? It is a big debate amongst right-wing politicians today and amongst artists. And they are icapable of defining it. Because some choose Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven but then what about figures that came after? Strauss, Nietzsche and Wagner?

LT: Maybe a big issue in Greece is that we cannot find a place in modern technological culture because we are in the middle of tradition and the new era. Perhaps this has much to do with the “adventurous” history of Greek culture. We stand between a tradition we cannot fully understand and a new technological era we cannot be a part of.

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Wang: You don’t have to develop technology, you can use the technology that already exists. Do people visiting Greece really want to see another hi-tech museum that they can see in Paris or London? Or do you want to have an environment that people would think “this is Greece”? So, in architecture, we have all these major figures (Pikionis, Konstantinidis etc) who have dealt with these issues and have given particular solutions. There are some who have neglected that, like Biris who was interested I would say in a structuralist architecture. Maybe it would be very easy and very stupid to say that “I don’t like that style, let’s try to invent a new style”. Because in this way you don’t even try to understand what gave rise to that very particular detail of a dripping at the edge of a roof that ends up as a cornice. You don’t understand the construction material, the functional reason of it, the proportional appearance, the way that it creates an edge etc. All the kinds of holistic issues have to do with one single little detail. Tradition of an island for example is connected with these details. It’s people like Krokos who went to these islands-

Leti Krokou: He was born there, in Samos-

Wang: -and studied why certain things happened, why this plaster was used in this island and not in another, why they have specific minerals here that they could mix etc. We have a problem in schools of architecture and amongst architects. We look at magazines and we like a shape and then we copy the shape and then we say: “This is an avant-garde design”. We don’t understand anything, anything behind it. It’s not important to us. That will of copying and pasting is so different from the world of people who grew up or went and studied something. In depth. That is the fundamental difference.

Constantopoulos: Nobody really studies anything in depth Wilfried anymore, because everybody now claims that speed has overtaken us. Everything happens in such a fast pace and information runs so fast that nobody has time to assimilate it.

Wang: Yes, Google, Wikipedia.

LT: Let’s talk now about another example of our days: The Barcelona Olympics. How did the Spanish work there, how did their architectural and political planning work for them and for the period after the Olympics? How is this example connected with the issues raised in our discussion? For example we read in the newspapers that Spanish architects are very much involved in building making. In Greece we have exactly the opposite. Maybe in this example we could spot a positive example of political decision making?

Wang: Barcelona is a very exceptional case, this is true. But it is not as rosy as it seems. Politically the chamber of architects is really influential. They insure that every single building that gets constructed has to be designed by an architect or at least the documents for a construction must bear the signature of at least one architect. If it were the case in Greece would have more work. That’s one thing.

Constantopoulos: And you would have the vision as well. At least one person with a vision. What they really managed in Barcelona is that they got interested in many neglected aspects of the city. They designed left-over places; left over spaces that eventually somebody looked after, not only big spaces, but small as well. Like a little corner between two streets that turned into a little park. That has to do with the city life itself.

Wang: Yes, but before the Olympics there was a very clear social-democratic policy to improve public spaces. And that Barcelona incredible sense of self-confidence! They also used mainly architects from Barcelona (suprise suprise!).

Constantopoulos: And they built their modern history after the Junta, just as Greeks.

Wang: So what they did is to present visitors a place that had its public spaces on the centre and made them very beautiful. That gave them an enormous boost to the Olympics.

That strengthened the paths for politicians and so they insured that there was a general positive sentiment for the application. When you have Olympic applications today there are many citizens in these cities that are against the Olympics. This is something that the Olympic committee takes under consideration. They see the popularity. That the second one. The third qualification one needs to make about Barcelona is that they wanted to continue on this path forever. They made a very intelligent decision on how to integrate this Olympic competitors housing into the urban fabric, to be used after the event. However, this idea that Barcelona could continue on this path of continuous international fame and touristic growth hasn’t happened. In fact there has been a stagnation of the numbers. Ten years ago I met the person who was in charge of all the public spaces during the Olympics and he said to me that there is a limit to that. You cannot constantly turn the volume up. It does not work like this. But let’s see another example related to this, which is the difference between Berlin and Barcelona. And this is a great chance of Athens in the crisis.

Berlin after the reunification was a city for 3.4 million people. Before WW2 it was a city for 4.6 millions. The number of buildings hasn’t grown very much since ’45. So there has been an enormous surplus of space which has kept the rents down. Because of the East and West history, we have three opera houses, two state libraries, three universities and so on. So, for international artists Berlin has been a Mecca. For the first time in their lives they have been able to rent a studio as well as a seperate apartment, so they don’t smell the paint and so they were living in the same space. This could happen in the next 5 – 10 years to Athens. You have major social and spatial changes in the downtown area happening, lots of people have left the downtown areas so you have a lot of empty property. This is a problem, but it is also a chance. And this is where the city of Athens has to make some intelligent decisions: How to structure the development of these places. What kind of rules and regulations need to be put in place in order for certain kinds of things to happen. But that’s a wonderful opportunity. Not just a problem. Of course there are a few more things that need to be done, but it’s difficult to talk about it. You know, Athens is like Mexico City.

Constantopoulos: But much smaller.

Wang: But the structure is very similar to Athens. It has hills on the perimeter, there are two to three storey buildings all the way, with the exception of the centre where you have some high buildings.

LT: You agree that there is a Greek architecture. What we see around us. I’m not sure I agree but-

Wang: There is a Greek vernacular. And there are some Greek architects that if you look at them together as a body of work, they point towards a certain direction.

LT: That’s my question. What’s the relationship between the city we feel when we walk and live inside it, and the work of these major Greek architects.

arisConstantopoulos: When years ago we presented this exhibition with Wilfried, we also exhibited it in Turkey, Ankara. I made a speech talking about the major Modern Greek architects. At the end of the speech a Turkish professor came to me and said “this is all very good, but when I come to Greece I don’t see a connection of this work you talked about and what I actually see.” Again, Kenneth Frampton, another architect who has written on Greek architecture, makes an interesting observation in his Greek introduction of his book “Modern Architecture”. He says, I know you find Athens very ugly etc, but for me, as a stranger, I find that there is pattern, a typical form let’s say, and that is the apartment block. This is a very typical apartment block, with the balconies etc, because you don’t find it in other European cities. Because you have repetitions of the typical block you have variation of the form. You have a basis for the building object, for a way of life. So if you are critical you may say that the system of Greek quid pro quo system (antiparochi) led things to a worse state in terms of the environment. If you are asking how the important Greek architects connect with this system, you can see their suggestions, which are not however implemented by the state. You can see what Valsamakis did in the early 50’s in his first apartment buildings that influenced many others and so on. And if you look at them you can see that they do try to address a problem that has not always to do with money, but it’s about how you construct a total human environment. So architects do try to tell you about the conditions we live in.

Wang: I feel that in every modern society there is a split of what is called high-quality avant-garde activity and the vernacular. You see that even in a restaurant as well. You want to eat something typically Greek, and you get these avant-garde cooks who make a vernacular resemblance of tzatziki. So you get something that has nothing like the texture of tzatziki, but it tastes like it. And you wonder what the relationship between this and the tradition is. That is a problem of western societies. You have people (whether architects or cooks) who feel the need to propel themselves out of the bounds of everyday life. The difference between vernacular and architecture is that vernacular is a subconscious repetition of traditional elements. Tried and tested. Usually these solutions work. But it is not a reflection, it is not critical. Whereas architects project conceptions, they have an idea, and it is a highly reflected, a highly conscious process. People who become very conscious of what their tradition is, usually become extremely introspective and psychoanalytical etc, and then they say, “well, if I do something that like the pure vernacular, is that really a stupid thing for an architect to do?” The answer is yes! - For most architects. Because it denies their roles as professionals. After all their studies, now they repeat the vernacular? This prevents professional architects from doing a good vernacular building. It is global phenomenon this one.

LT: Don’t you think that on cities like Berlin or Paris, the theoretical discussions are reflected more in the cities than in Greece?

Wang: No, in Berlin we have the same debate, say, what is Berlin architecture, how can we improve on the apartment buildings of the late 19th century? Well, you cannot, because of the limitations to the floor to ceiling heights.

LT: Ok, but sometimes you can certainly see how the intellectual part of their architects is reflected inside the city.

Wang: I think that there are few cases where you can see it in Greece, too. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, there are at least some talents that will save the city from being destroyed by God.

 

 

picWilfried Wang is the O'Neil Ford Centennial Professor in Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. With Barbara Hoidn, he is founder of HOIDN WANG PARTNER, Berlin.

He is a registered architect in Berlin. Born in Hamburg, Wang studied architecture at the Bartlett School, University College London. From 1989 to 1995 he was in partnership with John Southall. Together with Nadir Tharani, he was founding co-editor of 9H Magazine (1979-1995), with Richard Burdett, he was co-director of the 9H Gallery (1985-1990), and director of the German Architecture Museum (1995-2000).

He taught at the Polytechnic of North London, University College London, the ETH Zurich, the Staedelschule, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and at the University of Navarra. Wang is the author of various essays and monographs on the architecture of the 20th-century.

With Michael Benedikt, Kevin Alter and Barbara Hoidn, he is on the editorial board of the O'Neil Ford Monograph and Duograph Series, jointly published by UTSOAand Wasmuth.

He has served on competition and award juries and is chairman of the board of the Schelling Architecture Foundation.

He is a member of CICA, an honorary member of the Federation of German Architects (BDA), a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and a member of the Academy of the Arts, Berlin.

Architect, B.Sc. Dip. Αrch. M.Sc. Bartlett School, University College, London (1975-1981).
Teaching, ΑΚΤΟ, Harokopeio University, Athens College. Board member, Hellenic Institute of Architects, Hellenic Society of Aesthetics. Member, Do.Co.Mo.Mo., Hellenic Secreteriat of Industrial Design, International Creators’ Organization. Greek Commissioner, 10th Biennale of Architecture, Venice (2006). Project Manager, ‘Europe-Japan’, Tokyo (2006). Research, «1930s Houses in Athens», «Drawing Course Program of Studies». Editor (books) Nikos Valsamakis, Contemporary Industrial Design in Greece, History of Applied Arts, cons. editor Architecture of the 20th c.: Greece. Editor 9H and Ntizain magazines, cons. editor, Architecture in Greece, Design + Art in Greece. Participation in international conferences, has published more than 100 articles. Co-founder, Sigma Design (1990-1995), 1st Prize Industrial Design EOMMEX. Architectural practice in Athens.

He is Associate Professor in architecture and interior design at the Department of Architecture, University of Patras. He also teaches at the postgraduate program of the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens.


Elias_Constantopoulos_2011_1Elias Constantopoulos (Athens, 1955) is an architect (Bartlett School, UCL). Since 1986 he runs his own architectural practice in Athens and he was director of Sigma Design Ltd, an award winning industrial design practice (1990-95).

He was commissioner for Greece at the 10th Biennale of Architecture (Aegean - A Dispersed Urbanity, Venice 2006), curator of the 6th Biennale of Young Greek Architects (Athens 2010), of the EU-Japan exhibition (On: the Modern and the Contemporary in European and Japanese Culture” (Tokyo 2006), and co-organiser of the Architecture of the 20th c. Greece’ (DAM, Frankfurt 1999) and of the conference The Role of Philosophy in Architectural Education’ (University of Patras 2009).

He is the author of over 100 essays on contemporary architecture and design, as well as the books “Nicos Valsamakis, 1950-83”, «Contemporary Industrial Design in Greece», « History of Decorative Arts», «Fassianos building by Kyriakos Krokos».

He was co-editor of “9H” and “Ntizain” magazines and is consultant editor of the reviews ‘Architecture in Greece’ and ‘Design + Art in Greece’, for which he has edited nine monographs on Greek Architects, Contemporary Viennese Architecture, Architecture and Sculpture, Architecture of Shops  (Ι-ΙΙΙ) and Parallel Architectures (I-II).

He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Hellenic Institute of Architecture and of the Hellenic Society of Aesthetics, and a member of Do.Co.Mo.Mo.

 

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