Feature —

Bringing back Greekness

Elsbeth Ronner

There are at least three fascinating aspects about the work of Point Supreme Architects: the distinctly colourful graphics, the powerful collage of materials and forms, and the eye for detail. The architecture of Marianne Rentzou and Konstantinos Pantazis seems to be the result of a personal, intuitive way of working. Elsbeth Ronner spoke to them after their lecture, entitled Rooms and Cities, at the Piet Zwart Institute to discover the origins of their architecture.

Petralona House, Athens (2011-2016)

Elsbeth Ronner: Where does your interest in architecture come from?
Konstantinos Pantazis: When I was a kid I was very interested in other people’s houses and how they lived. In a way, architecture became a window into other people’s lives, more than space and buildings. My family was lucky enough to be able to travel abroad, so I became more aware of the differences in how people live. I also realized that Greek cities lack design and any urban scale. There is no master planning. Greek cities are beautiful because of the context and landscape and all that, but there’s no architecture and no urban planning. I started to become sensitive to that after visiting cities that were designed. Public space in Greece is really bad, so that’s why our architecture is very sensitive towards it.
Marianne Rentzou: I have a different story. I come from a village, from a farming family. As a chiId, I wasn’t interested in architecture, but I did like to paint. I studied chemical and electrical engineering for three years before deciding I wanted to do something more creative. So I chose architecture. I’d a hard time with architecture in general, and in Greece in particular. The revelation came here in Holland.

Why did you have a hard time?
M: I was suffering because in Greece the context and the artistic side of architecture is very important, and that’s very far from me. In Holland, studying at the Design Academy Eindhoven and working at OMA and MVRDV, I learned how to be creative by being totally realistic and pragmatic. For me this was a relief, a very big relief.

What is realistic and pragmatic?
M: All our projects are pragmatic. We propose very simple and …
K: Our work is buildable, affordable and realistic. In Greece you’re taught to be imaginative and original and artistic. Anything goes, as long as it looks weird or new or different or whatever. Holland is not about that; that’s the lesson of Holland. I think the way we work is to be very pragmatic and practical and think of the best possible solution without any thought for aesthetics or anything else, and then we find aesthetics through that.

Office space Point Supreme

Would you say that being brought up in a rural environment where there is no such thing as architecture as an artistic pursuit has something to do with this approach?
K: It’s true. We’re not from Athens. We’re from small towns, so our background and our memories are all based on very simple, daily, family rituals. There was really no design in the world where we grew up.
M: Design didn’t mean anything to us. Other things were more important.
K: If you look at Greek culture, design is a totally different concept. It isn’t academic or theorized. It’s more symbolic.

Some architects from countries full of remnants of the ancient world, Italy for instance, feel a pressure to compete with classical architecture. That doesn’t seem the case with you.
K: Greece and Italy are very different cases. In Greece there’s a big gap in the continuation of western, European civilization. It stopped completely for four hundred years while under Turkish rule. For the past 150 years, we have been a new nation, a free nation. This new thing started totally blank. Of course we carry this historical weight, but it’s far away, distanced. That’s why contemporary Greek architecture is very international, very modernist. There’s no ‘Greekness’ to it. We make an extra effort to restore a kind of Greek sensibility through our architecture.

So, for instance, your research into the polikatikia, the multi-floor apartment building you see everywhere in the cities.
K: That’s right. That research is an attempt to theorize something from the new Greek period. It’s a contemporary thing. In the Athens municipal area, the volume of polikatikia increased from 15% of all housing in 1964 to 40% in 1976. That happened without the involvement of architects. Through this research, we want to include the polikatikia in our work and in our world. Polikatikia still has very bad connotations.
M: But I think it’s changing.
K: Yes, of course it’s changing. A year ago we used the polikatikia in a tourist campaign. If you look carefully, you see so many beautiful polikatikias. Not necessarily because of the architecture, but in the way people use these buildings. They’re so successful because they’re so practical.

Nadja, Athens (2014) – photo Yannis Drakoulidis

Your research is a method to relate yourself to your Greek culture. Can you say something about your design methodology?
M: We try to introduce monumentality and clarity, and to include an urban dimension in our projects. That comes from Konstantinos’s study at the Berlage and our work at OMA.
K: Generally, we want to base our projects on research, on being objective, on problem-solving.

This seems very Dutch, although you don’t seem too dogmatic about your concepts.
M: Yes, it’s very Dutch. And yes, we’re more flexible. I think that’s rooted in our Greek background.
K: Because in Greece if you’re rigid, you won’t make it. Architects don’t have the authority to overrule the various powers in the building process. Adaptability is a matter of survival. If you’re not flexible, you won’t get a result. I think we’ve become good at being flexible as a way of achieving a good result.

What I find interesting is that you’re very flexible and you can adjust easily, but what keeps it together is your strong sense of aesthetics.
M: That’s true.
K: Probably. On second reading, if you look carefully, I think there’s another constant: the way we order the programme. We unconsciously use a very specific method, a logic. I realized at some point that we have a lot of strip projects, linear organizations. Serpantina is a very clear example.
M: Also, Petralona House is a good example, although not obvious.
K: It’s obvious that lots of different things, atmospheres, come together in our architecture. That’s also what we’re interested in. A sequence is the simplest way to organize things in a controlled way. Of course, it can get more complicated, but it often starts with a kind of line.

Your work is very graphic.
M: That started because we didn’t have enough budget for many projects, so colour and graphics were the only tools to add aesthetics and further meaning to a project. We realized that even if small, they organize the project. For example, in the Nadia apartment we have these graphic lines that separate functions and spaces.
K: We’re very open to different kinds of aesthetics, but the graphic character is always very direct, very strong.

Circular Playground, Aigaleo, Athens (2016)

Marianna, you said somewhere at the end of the lecture: ‘everything matters’. This seems applicable to lots of things, all style matters, all scales matter, all questions matter.
M: It’s true, we’re obsessed with every bit we design. We’re totally obsessed, and that’s exhausting. But we cannot escape from it; it’s how we think. In the Petralona House, for example, every plug is different. A plug close to the window is different from the plug in the middle of a wall. Because we believe in experience, these things matter.
Hey Konstantinos, I know what kind of picture we should put in our house. Remember that picture of the Eameses, where they have their table and invite friends over for lunch? There’s this incredible set-up with the cutlery. It’s like a masterpiece, with flowers in the middle and candles. We should show it in our lectures.
We also do this in our daily life, eat with a candle on the table. Our little son Ikaros demands it if we forget it.

What is the value of these rituals?
M: They enrich the moment, add magic.
K: It’s about celebration and joy. We like to celebrate ordinary moments and to become aware of simple moments. It’s the heritage of people like Warhol and the Eameses. They’re our role models, our idols. People who celebrate and enjoy simple, banal, real things. We’re close to this thinking.

Looking at your projects, I think you love a post-modern aesthetic. What’s your fascination with that?
K: I think that post-modern is close to us in the sense that it is inclusive. It allows for different things to come together, unlike modernism for example. So in post-modernism there were different colours, different forms could collide. And again, graphic identity and communication was important. So while modernism was kind of erasing identities, memories and flattening experiences, post-modernism did the opposite. It brought back multiplicity. We’re close to it because of this attitude. I hope that our work is not seen as post-modernist, but that it does have a similar kind of inclusiveness.

Athens Representation – Athens as Polikatikia