The architecture of happiness

Alexandros Tombazis has left an indelible and graceful mark on Greece and the rest of the world. He is one of Greece’s greatest living architects. Over the past four decades, he has designed more than 250 structures, ranging from office buildings, to museums and places of worship. The 72-year-old’s office is housed in a cement brick building in Polydroso, a lush suburb in northern Athens, but his projects stand around the world in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

In a surprise move, the mild-mannered architect joined the ticket of Giorgos Kaminis, the former ombudsman who was in November elected mayor of Athens (meanwhile, then-incumbent Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis was announcing the recruitment of flamboyant TV persona Ilias Psinakis). The renowned architect has received considerable credit for tilting the balance in Kaminis’s favor.

However, a health problem means that Tombazis will be limiting himself to an advisory role rather than engaging in the full hustle-and-bustle of being a City of Athens councillor.

The architect, who specializes in low energy and bioclimatic design, also oversaw the revamping of the Pedion tou Areos Park, which was opened a few months ago to the excitement of locals looking for a peaceful enclave in the heart of the cement jungle that is Athens.

One of his most notable projects, the new Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Fatima, Portugal – which is one of the biggest Catholic churches in the world – was completed in 2007. The grandiose, rotund sanctuary, which was raised at the cost of some 80 million euros that came from an estimated five million annual pilgrims, can seat 8,500 worshippers. A 240-page, full-color, English-language volume dedicated to the project («Sanctuary of Fatima: Church of the Most Holy Trinity») is out by Images Publishing.

Tombazis has led quite a life. Born in India in 1939, he moved to Britain before finally settling in Greece. He graduated from the School of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens in 1962 and, among his other distinctions, is a honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Tombazis spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, on building a mosque in Athens and why the Greek capital is not a lost cause.

You joined the ticket of new Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis in November’s municipal elections. What prompted you to engage in politics and what do you expect to achieve through your involvement?

I joined Mr Kaminis following a suggestion from [former minister] Stefanos Manos. Personally, as I have said a number of times in the past, I have no political aspirations. The reason I joined was because I believe that in difficult times everybody should try to contribute his little bit – that this would be the only way to change something for the better. However, my health (last August I had a stroke) does not allow me to be involved to the extent I would wish to. I would like to be of any help I can in the field of my knowledge, but I cannot undertake all the commitments of a municipal councillor.

Athens is, in many respects, an urban nightmare. Do you think this city is a lost cause? What are the first three things you would change in the center?

It would be disastrous to say it’s a lost cause. Besides, I do not believe that Athens is a lost cause. The basic thing, in my opinion, is that we should play by the rules of the game. One cannot expect others to do things, when oneself does nothing. And this starts with the obvious, little, things: we should respect the rights of others when parking our car, we should try to reduce our garbage etc. – these are simple things we can all do, and they can make a difference too. Apart from that, I believe one of the first things we could do to improve living conditions in town are some small-scale interventions to make neighborhoods more green. Large-scale interventions may also be necessary in some cases, but they are more difficult to realize, whereas small-scale interventions can make a difference to start with without costing a fortune.

After years of renovation works, overseen by your office (and that of Harry C. Bougadellis), the revamped Pedion tou Areos Park is finally open to public. Are you pleased with the result?

Yes, in general I am. The most important thing though, is not what we have done, but what we will do with it: how the park will be used, how it will be maintained, if it will be taken care of by its visitors etc.

You designed the Church of the Holy Trinity at the shrine of Fatima, Portugal, one of the world’s biggest Catholic churches. Would you be interested in designing a mosque in Athens?

I have in the past designed a mosque in Dubai. I believe places of worship are containers for the expression of faith, and in this respect I do not see any difference between one religion or the other. So, as an architect, yes, I would be interested in designing a mosque in Athens. However, the questions of where and how this should be done – these are matters of political decision-making and are subject to discussion between the many parties involved.

Is timeless design something to aspire to as an architect, or are you just trying to meet the demands set by the context (time and place) and, why not, the client?

No, I do not really strive for a timeless design, what does timeless mean anyway? One of the basic principles when starting a new design is to fit what we are about to build in its context, especially in the specific place and its specific climatic conditions. This is even more important in the case of bioclimatic design. And yes, of course, one does need to respond to the needs of the client.

How has the perception of architecture changed since you started out?

For me an important development has occurred in the field of bioclimatic design. I remember well that I was interested in solar energy even as a school child. At the beginning it was more out of an interest for the technology behind it. But as the years went by, I came to realize that it is not a matter of even more technology to integrate in our design, but rather a matter of a logical (eco-logical, if you wish) approach to design and a matter of simplicity, which are exactly the factors which I believe give it its beauty. In the late 70s and 80s the issues of ecological, bioclimatic or energy-efficient design, or whatever you care to call it, were fringe issues, which did not touch but a few architects. Nowadays they have more or less become common knowledge.

You have said in the past that every building is a «political statement.» What do you mean by that?

I must admit that I do not remember in which context I said that. Architecture has to do with life, and, as an expression of life, of course it can and to a certain extent should be a vehicle for political statements.

You are widely regarded as an eco-architecture pioneer. Why has Greece’s progress in this field been so slow?

I think that people are only now starting to realize how important it is. Education plays an important role in this respect, and possibly in the past we failed to provide widespread education on these issues, be it for architects or the public in general.

Is the economic crisis taking a hefty toll on the architects’ role and creative vision? Do you have some advice for the new generation of architects?

The economic crisis has severely struck the architectural profession, as it has struck all professions that have to do with building and many more. Nevertheless, it can also give us the opportunity to set things right and make new, more modest starts for a better future. To the younger generation I often say that, if you love what you are doing, you will always find the way to overcome the difficulties.

Have you regretted any of the buildings you have made? What is your favorite work? What would your ideal project be?

Well, to a certain extent I regret every building. When one looks back, one will always find things one could have done better or differently. This comes from the never-ending process of learning through each project you deal with. My favorite projects are those in which I developed good relationships with the people I worked for or worked with. This is what counts most when all has been said and done. What would be my ideal project? Ideally that which one would enjoy to the greatest possible extent. But apart from that, I’d love to someday be involved in the design of a museum for modern art.

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