THE ARCHITECTURE OF DIMITRIS AND SUSANA ANTONAKAKIS: TWO COMPLEMENTARY DESCRIPTIONS
* “Description 1” was originally an article/entry on D. & S. Antonakakis in Muriel Emanuel (ed.) Contemporary Architects, 3rd ed., London: St. James Press 1994. A first version of “Description 2” was presented at the round table discussion on the work of D. & S. Antonakakis held at the French Institute of Athens in April 1994.
The architecture of Dimitris and Suzana Antonakakis offers a creative way of thinking on space which is valuable for the Greek as well as international contemporary architecture. In their work, space, geometry, materials and socio-cultural values are combined in a multi-variant and consistent logical structure
Four basic organizing principles characterize their work:
- Spatial organization, or better, the syntax of space, is based on a downward gradient transition from one category of space to another, with different degrees of complexity.
- The space produced is usually polyvalent. This is true both in the complex space, such as a living-room or a university, as well as in the simple or secondary spaces, such as a corridor or a channel of transportation. Because of this, a corridor in the Antonakakis’s architecture is not a corridor, but a creative and stimulating space.
- The “closed-open” and the “private-public” are used in an ambiguous way and transform the conventional aspects and definitions of what is called function. In this context the relation of the building with the street becomes a subject of critical importance.
- The materials and methods of construction correspond to the needs and possibilities of the Greek environment and at the same time keep a good path with a high technological level. Construction and materials combine with the natural and man-made native environment without being “folksy”.
As a result of the consistent use of these organizing principles, each one of the works express coherence, though this does not mean that they resemble one another.
These four organizing principles are not always clearly defined and clarified from the start, nor are they always apparent in every one of their works. The Antonakakises are, however, scrupulous and persistent in elaborating the problems of socio-spatial organization as well as defining and clarifying the ways in which their architectural work is composed. This gradual and open-ended clarification of organizing principles characterizes the evolution of the work of creative architects as well as any creative/intellectual work.
The apartment building in Benaki Street, Athens, one of their earliest projects, is still an excellent example. The spatial organization – with an elaborated system of different levels within the block and within each flat, and the relating of indoor with outdoor spaces (street and back yard) results in a consistent and cohesive system and introduces new situations in the stereotypes of the urban condition. This piece of architecture proves how it is possible to transform and use in a positive way the restrictions of the conventional financial and building regulations of a typical urban milieu.
The Pierrakos House at Oxylithos in Euboea, is a country house designed with a variation of the spatial syntax used in the Benaki Apartments. The system is developed freely in space whereas in Benaki it is “enclosed” in a restricting “trunk”.
The mineworkers housing at Distomo, a project of urban scale, is organized according to the same spatial concepts as Benaki or Pierrakos, but within a complex of many buildings differing in size and function. The complex is well integrated into the natural landscape, with a thoughtful interplay of open and covered streets, open and closed spaces, a response to the socio-cultural activities, and a result of the physical organization, of the whole.
Two large-scale projects, the School of Philosophy at Rethymno, Crete and the Technical University in Chania, also in Crete, are a clear and creative evolution of their previous work. Scale, spatial syntax and the relationship with nature, emerge in such a way that a new and original urban thinking is created. A spatial
network of activities and iconographic references are successfully co-ordinated by a main piazza, piazzettas and a dominant main street: a human setting which creates a state of excitement and a symbolic image without copying stylistic fragments.
Many years back, in the 60’s, with Dimitris and Susana we went to look at a single-storey house they had designed, whose construction was almost finished. Years later, as I walked around another of their works, the house and painting studio in Aegina, I felt that their architecture was what I had known many years back in 1960, or almost what it had been back then, while also being at the same time different. To my view this sense of continuity and discontinuity, this quality of similarity and difference is the signature trait of works of creative architecture. The basic theme is always the same, but it constantly takes on different or very different forms. There is nothing simple to the creative process.
There is a basic orientation, an original intention that characterizes a thoughtful work of architecture, that cannot be lost through change, minor or major breaks and ruptures; in other words, in the context of this basic orientation there occur internal upheavals that may often entail risk for the quality of this consisted. I call them creative risks. This is the result of yet another characteristic of the art of Dimitris and Susana Antonakakis: investigation never ends; the work has the character of a continuous process, whose various manifestations always are competent with the creative principles.
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If discussions concerning architecture were given the title of discussions on the art of architecture, and not simply on architecture we might all find it easier to address the subject from at list an optimal viewpoint.
Architects are “composers” who create works of art given the generic title of architecture. It is redundant to add or clarify here – it is in fact nonsensical to do so – that the functional side should be efficient and that construction should be sound. As these considerations are self-evident, it would only be tedious to point out any relating characteristics, as for instance it is obvious that the music’s composition should be such and such, employing such and such sounds etc. Unfortunately, the kind of distortion that is the result of habit, of stereotypes, of a pseudo-utilitarian approach to architecture is so overwhelming and so resilient that all discussions pertaining to architecture are forced to an endless reiteration of the same issues.
Even on a big scale, the comparison between a city-work of art such as the city of Chania and a new place-work of art, namely the Technical University of Crete, is a favourable one. Chania is a difficult, complicated city: an old, Greek, Venetian, medieval city determined by its relationship to the sea, by its big arsenals, and its derelict images.
The Technical University of Crete brings together all that the city is and all that is the apartment house on Benaki Street, the Museum of Chios, the large, expensive residences and small homes that the Antonakakis couple have designed. I would say that it is a vortex of space that has been recorded, imprinted on all these works. Perhaps this is the main feature of the architecture of Dimitris and Susana Antonakakis.
This is a characteristic quality of the arrangement of space in the Technical University of Crete, a quality that is ever present, even when no students are around moving from one building to the other, inside the buildings, at the open core of interior space or in its hard contours; the routes and the two points between which they run are obvious, the point to which they could not possibly end is also obvious: you can tell which direction they would develop along, where they would have to stop etc.. There is a reciprocal relationship between the movement of the young persons and space, which involves a creative degree of freedom. We might say that architecture is a system in which such reciprocal relationships, however unpredictable they may be, are materialized. Such relationships involve the element of movement, the act of breathing, the state of repose or nervousness, the sun and the light – all these disparate things. This is why there are designs that are works of art, either they are called a school or a house. This is a way to escape the staleness and aphasia of the way in which stereotypes dictate the view at things.
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The compositions of Dimitris and Susana Antonakakis insist on demonstrating the significance of space as space. It is an architectural credo – a credo of art. Their work is an apotheosis of spatial characteristics that Adolf Loos would gather in a box-like envelope . It is as if Loos’ walls have been removed and the work demonstrates all elements of space, up and down, left and right; all relationships involving movement as well as different states of being.
A difficulty of the art we call architecture is that its various elements cannot easily be described; this is why the odd multi-media application and the multiple representations will not suffice. When inside the “vessel of life”, that is inside the work of architecture , you change direction, glide forth, observe, etc – it is not the same as if looking through its technical representations.
There are many different truths and many different stances or views to be taken into account in designing architecture – in other words, there are many different possible acts of synthesis to be accomplished. The art of architecture is in itself a firmly established, dynamic universe in which there is – fortunately – room for contrasts and contradictions: contradictions being, as with all creative art, as in the life of the human community, the most important part of the process of synthesis, of the creative work.
It is no easy matter to combine the work’s own stance – the stance “composed” by Dimitris and Susana Antonakakis – with that of the viewer, or user, or, more so, with that of the customer, to translate, that is, all these different stances into one synthetic unit. The work is no passe-partout, this is why dialogue is crucial for the creative process.
1 P. Tournikiotis, Loos, Paris: Macula 1991.
2 Aris Konstantinidis’ well known view on architecture as articulated in this simple yet obscure phrase.