THE MEDITERRANEAN BRUTALISM OF DEMETRIS AND SUSANNA ANTONAKAKIS
* Round table discussion: “place and architecture” The French Institute of Athens, 15th April 1994.
Understanding the Mediterranean Brutalism of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis – a distillation of the language they have consistently developed over a period of three decades in terms of place, landscape, and construction – presupposes having taken into account the globalcontext to which European architecture of the last fifty years belongs. Their architectural practice is in fact part of a wider context that transcends the borders of Greece – and even the borders of the Old World.
Obviously, if seen from a different angle, their work also falls into a continuous line of developments in architectural discourse that invoke the contribution of Greek modernists such as Demetris Pikionis and Aris Constantinides. This link, that has for years been the subject of a critical discussion carried out by Alexandros Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre  and Yiannis Tsiomis has averted the possibility of misconceptions in this respect with far greater success than I might ever hope to achieve myself.
Nevertheless, apart from the strategies of design that are a result of the couple’s close familiarity with the history of Greek architecture and of its leading figures, there are other developments and other issues referred to in recent or older buildings by the Antonakakis, which go back to issues discussed well before the dialogue and controversy that postmodernism has spurred beginning in 1980.
The architecture of the Antonakakis has been registered, in a rather simplistic attempt, as an instance of “critical regionalism”, a category under which Kenneth Frampton has placed in the early 80s a number of architects, whose work, though strikingly diverse, shared a common hostile attitude toward what was considered as homogeneity and illustrated a commonly shared desire and concern for inscribing the scale of the local within the discourse of the modern.  It is my view that however useful this somewhat oversimplifying notion might have been in its time, and indeed it was, it cannot alone account for the multiplicity of design solutions and ideas in the work of the Antonakakis couple.
The critical aspect of their work is the result of reflecting upon the experience of the “modern movement” and of doing so with great liberty, but in principle it seems to point to a thought that could be specifically Cretan (the Greek words for “Cretan” and “critical” are homophones); it does not therefore refer only to the particular Greek regions where it may lay anchored, but rather includes a series of subtle hints at an archetypal architectural culture that emerges out of overlapping sediments of historical experience, accumulated on the island over the course of centuries, which many a time become evident in their works regardless of possible differences in scale.
References to Minoan geometric systems – among the oldest on the Island– are a recurring characteristic of the rectangular arrangement of their designs. At other times, certain tectonic elements, such as columns integrated into the masonry, as seen in buildings around the campus of the Technical University (Polytechnic School) of Crete in Chania, or, in the same case, window frames that seem to stand apart from the wall’s level, allude in quite a humorous way to other Cretan figures. One such allusion, as anecdotal as it is revealing, can to be traced to the visible outline of the cross-section of the staircase at the Monastery of Aghia Triada (Holy Trinity) in the outskirts of Chania. It is to this design that the stairway of the Polytechnic School of Crete makes reference.
Generally speaking, I would say that the particular problematics of the Antonakakis stems from the fine nuances of modernist discourse, which in their case has been read with a selective attitude as regards both the strategies of construction and those of form; and I would think that one ought not to refer only to the Greek and, more specifically, Cretan origins of their work, but also to a more universal approach, which was attempted in the decades between 1920 and 1940 by architects of the “modern movement”: the attitude known as “mediterraneaneity”. In using this term, I do not wish to give it the kind of conservative, strictly formalistic meaning that Alberto Sartoris assigns it when gathering the most disparate attempts under an entry titled “Mediterranean order and climate” in his Encyclopédie de l’architecture nouvelle. What I mostly have in mind is all those strategies that led certain architects to contemplate the landscapes, the materials and light that were specific to a notion of “Mediterraneaneity”, primarily seeking through this contemplative approach of history the image of a lost order.
For some, like Le Corbusier, this translated into a quest for the analogies and geometrical convergences in the rules governing construction of both machine and Parthenon. For others, a relationship with traditional local architecture functioned as a motive and an excuse – I am thinking of Robert Mallet-Stevens’ Villa de Noailles in Hyères (1923), or Giusepe Pagano’s photographic work for the Architectura rurale italiane exhibition (1936). At other instances the issue becomes slightly more complex: Le Corbusier’s Villa de Mandrot at Le Pradet (1931), a “Mediterranean version of the Villa Savoye” as Bruno Reichlin has described it, explores the issue of resulting relationships between the geometry of standard volumes and that of the landscape and its rocky features, an issue that is also at the core of Eileen Gray’s work in Roquebrune-Cap Martin (1927). The same quest takes on a more sensual character in the case of Adalberto Libera and in that of Curzio Malaparte, especially in the villa the latter designed for his own use, while in the case of Giuseppe Terragni, particularly in his Casa del Fascio in Come (1934) it takes a turn for the metaphysical.
The subtle diffractions and nuances particular to certain regions, not in political or linguistic terms, but rather in terms of a more anthropological or aesthetic nature, the particular specificities of place that tend to contribute to the shaping of certain architectural principles, although still remaining relevant in the post-war period, have no longer functioned after 1945 as a set of rigid laws, especially when faced with issues of reconstruction or the need to provide a mass answer to the problem of housing. At the same time, though, there seem to be other areas of interest, such as the possible relationship between modernism and housing, as illustrated in the cases of Japan, Brazil, and perhaps even Greece.
This setting – the Mediterranean – at once poetic and tragic, serves as a backdrop for the entire work of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis. Their thought, their use of natural light for example, intimates that for them light is as much a friend as it is a rival. Light is not only introduced at the heart of interior space, but also used for the purpose of illuminating the walls themselves in a manner that is rather sharp, through punctures, openings fitted with artificial lighting that is at times filtered and diffused, at others direct and focused. Besides, their perception of the notion of mediterraneanity manages to steer clear of the cliché, evidence for which is provided by their playful approach of the element of the roof, developed at around 1970 when they began designing roofs with one and later two slopes. Rather than fetishizing the tradition of the white volumes of the Cyclades, so often thought of as a primary source for notions of mediterraneanity or as one of its fundamental parameters, their designs introduce details from that tradition, yet depending on the occasion ultimately present forms that are more comprehensive in character, whose origins are also to be traced back to the period of Ottoman rule. Such is the case of the Tzirtzilakis residence in Chania, which in fact makes reference to an old “metochi”, or stone cottage, situated on one of the neighboring hills.
The urban sequence
Alongside this intention of recording the cultural identity of an archetypal whole that is evident in the work of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis, their particular investigation of notions of identity also demonstrates an additional concern for representing that which is unique to certain places. This problematics of place was central to the critique developed by Team 10; Aldo Van Eyck drew in the 1950s a very clear distinction between the concept of place and the term “space”, which Sigfried Giedion used, as between the terms “experience” and “time”.
Ernesto Nathan Rogers, a central figure to the group within CIAM (the International Congress of Modern Architecture) encouraging the “revolutionary” spirit of a younger generation of architects, as had Le Corbusier himself, had already shaped the concept of a preesistenze ambientali, in order to allow for a reflection on the context of every design, and this twenty-five years before the emergence of the trend of postmodernism.
In shaping the basic topoi of their architectural practice, regardless of the scale of individual works, Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis have experimented with many different elements. Among these, Tzonis and Lefaivre single out a use of the grid and of the passageway, while Aristides Antonas proposes that we consider the significance of the courtyard. I, on the other hand, would like to look at their work in a more general perspective; to draw attention to the overall articulation of individual parts into a whole and to the relationship formed between the two. Throughout their quest for a general structure that determines the hierarchy of individual elements and the steps followed in joining them together, Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis seem, in my view, to be employing a process that results in a concentrated version of a sort of urban structure.
If I use a linguistic metaphore, referring to a differentiation introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure, rather than being a simple paradigm, this has the function of a syntactic unit, of a phrase, a manner of articulation in the wider context of a spatial or micro-urban expression, predicated on the notion that the city is a natural assemblage of building types and, perhaps even more so, a compartmentalized experience of communal life. To return to the discourse developed by Team 10, what the work of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis alludes to is the notion of “Built Homecoming”, which Aldo Van Eyck proposed though the example of his Amsterdam Orphanage (with which the Antonakakis couple had been familiar already from the stage of its construction in 1960) when he declared that architecture “should be conceived as a configuration of intermediary places clearly defined”.
Both the Lyttos Hotel in Anissaras, Crete (1974-1976), and the Polytechnic School of Crete in Chania – still under construction – whose design evokes the style of the 80s, were composed as small-scale cities, although the second case clearly presents an example of a building that is a city by itself, somewhat in the image of Minoan palaces.
The logic followed in designing the various passageways does not so much invoke the idea of paths traversing a certain landscape as that of a system of roads, which not only brings out the various units and allows visitors to memorize their specific location, but also facilitates perception of the work’s overall proportions when viewed from a distance following transversal or diagonal visual axes. In a way, residences designed by Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis are a scale model of this type of arrangement. They are in fact miniature cities in themselves, examples of a reversal of the Albertian principle or a scaled down model of the Minoan palace. They include courts and open spaces, squares and passageways designed to scale; the latter having the exact same function as a road.
Although I cannot but point out the persistent presence of the “road” in the work of the Antonakakis, I am at the same time inclined to draw a distinction between their approach and this demonstrated in the unique paved pathways Pikionis would design around the Athens Acropolis. It is my belief that Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis’ fruitful choice of this particular element is inspired more by the notion of the “march” than that of a route.
Central to the teaching of the arts, the notion of the “march” aimed at allowing conception of a given plan that would also involve envisaging the succession of emotions that residents or visitors experience upon entering and penetrating a building and ultimately finding themselves surrounded by its wider space. In Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis’ plans, this suggested route is also a mental experience, a virtual experience that is not necessarily denoted by a mark on the ground: the crossing of an intricate man-made structure that is a combination of places reserved for communal life and places hosting the intimate life of the individual.
The Tradition of Brutalism
Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis have had the opportunity of honouring James Speyer, their instructor at the School of Architecture at the Athens Polytechnic, in several of their commentaries. Speyer, a student of Mies van cer Rohe, who had an immediate experience of the pervading atmosphere at the Illinois Institute of Technology, did not limit his teaching to the strict confines of Mies’ classic minimalism.
The Archaeological Museum of Chios (1965) is an early example of the way in which the work of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis assimilates Mies’ constructional rationality and combines it with an investigation of tectonic elements whose origins are alien to Mies’ problematic: they eventually drew a connection between the grid’s transparency and modularity and the quality of material depth, revealed through the element of the accidental that was present in the stone walls surrounding the Museum, defining its space and at the same time ensuring its integration into the mineral landscape.
It is hard not to discern in this attempt an echo of the strategies of Brutalism or Neo-Brutalism, an analysis of which Reyner Banham was carrying out at precisely that time. Having its roots in the rough surfaces of the Unite d’ Habitation in Marseilles, followed by Jaoul houses and the La Tourette Monastery, this trend developed by Le Corbusier and defined by the raw aspect of the material it employed, namely béton brut or raw concrete, would inevitably create a strong impression and exercise considerable effects on the practice of such architects as Alison and Peter Smithson, Louis Kahn and, of course, Paul Rudolph.
In France, in the work of architects belonging to a generation slightly older that this of the Antonakakis couple, in work produced by Roland Simounet, by the Atelier d’urbanisme et d’architecture (especially Paul Chemetov and Jean Deroche) and by the Atelier de Montrouge, one may trace the Neo-Brutalist concern for a clearly hierarchical arrangement of constructional elements and for their immediately legible integration into a solid, sturdy edifice.
Together with the residential complex at Distomo (1969), near the industrial settlement of Aspra Spitia, very close to the resorts built by the Atelier d’urbanisme et d’architecture, the apartment building on Benaki Street (1972) best illustrate this Brutalist vein in the practice of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis, a vein which runs through their entire work, simultaneously invoking an architectural vocabulary comprised of screens, woodwork and galleries, adjusted to the design’s particular theme and scale. The combined approach evident in this vocabulary might perhaps be construed as indication of a concern on the architect’s part to point out certain elements, as well as an instance of the architect’s individual signature. Personally I would interpret it as a careful attempt at ensuring that the various trends present in their work’s material aspect assume both a visual and tactile quality that is immediately perceivable, which at the same time emphasizes the intricacy of its design as well as its limits.
Following a phase in their work in which the interplay of colours overshadowed the texture of materials used, some of their recent works intimate a return to a type of architecture where constructional elements are exposed and conspicuous. Painter Varvara Mavrakakis’ studio on the island of Aegina (1990-1993) proposes anew, as if revisiting Chios or Distomo, a clearly demarcated presence of diverse parts such as cement blocks, coursing joints and elements of concrete, which can be seen as levelling criticism against the world of plaster and the pretense of current construction, practices that are not the monopoly of Greece alone, referencing at the same time a strand in the tradition of industrial buildings.
In an era that oscillates between an architecture often meant to remain paper and a fetishism of the machine, the directness of Demetris and Susanna Antonakakis’ response to construction provides noteworthy evidence of a creative professional practice. Furthermore, it is the sign of a self-reflexive investigation into complex issues (as Aristides Antonas points out in his analysis of the error in the Aegina studio and the manner in which it was ultimately corrected), in which all members of the project group participate at the stage of designing. This is a type of practice whose origins go back to 1960, which has been put to the test in architecture studios mentioned above and which has the capacity to evolve and to respond, through a personal idiom, to the challenge posed by sensitive social issues.
In the environment of the cities and of the desolate landscapes of modernization, the buildings of the Antonakakis stand as an affirmation of the notion that the basic theoretic views and fundamental strategies associated with modernist design cannot be reduced to a type of formalistic or fetishistic repetition that is blind to existing conditions and habits; indeed they stand as a series of constant reminders of the fact that these views and strategies now shape preesistenze, to repeat Rogers’ term, that inherent to our contemporary mental environment and with which they remarkably know how to play.
1 Alex Tzonis et Liane Lefaivre, “The Grid and the Pathway”, in Kenneth Frampton (sous la dir. de), Atelier 66; The Architecture of Dimitris and Suzana Antonakakis, New York, Rizzoli, 1985, p. 14-25.
2 Kenneth Frampton, “Greek Regionalism and the Modern Project: A Collective Endeavour”, in Atelier 66, op. cit., p. 4-5.
3 Maristella Casciato, “Forum”, Architettura e cultura nei primi anni Sessanta”, Casabella, no606, novembre 1993, pp. 48-53.
4 Aristides Antonas, “L’ erreur et la rectification”, in Dimitris et Suzana Antonakakis ; Art Studio, Athènes, Institut Français d’ Athènes, 1994, n. p.
5 Aldo van Eyck, article in Forum, repris in Team ten Primer, Londres, Studio Vista, 1968, pp. 102-104.
6 Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism, Stuttgart, Karl Kramer, 1966. La définition initiale de cette attitude était le “neo-brutalisme”, terme importe de Suéde par Hans Asplund et formé par référence au “néo-réalisme” italien.
7 Aristide Antonas, “L’ erreur et la rectification”, loc. cit.