Architecture for Greek light

Modern Athens may not be a place with beautiful architecture but it is the city of an architectural landmark in the history of Western civilization, the Parthenon. At times, this alone can make living here seem like a rare privilege. The Parthenon along with the celebrated Attic sky and the radiant light are at the heart of the Greek soul. The Parthenon encapsulates the importance of harmonious proportions (as in «the golden mean») over excess and ostentation, while Greece’s radiant light expresses extroversion, which, in terms of daily living, means that the out-of-doors is a vital part of Greek life. A sense of harmonious proportions, the lack of excess as well as a concern for open spaces that do not draw hard lines between indoor and outdoor space are the fundamental aspects in the work of the distinguished Greek architect Nikos Valsamakis (born 1924). This, coupled with an idiom that draws from the core of 20th century modern architecture (in the catalog’s essay Dimitris Philippides makes many analogies between the work of Valsamakis and Mies van der Rohe), describes the architect’s distinctive style. This style is fully presented in a retrospective exhibition on the work of Valsamakis currently being held at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum. The exhibition, which is organized by the museum’s Neohellenic Architecture Archives (NAA) and is designed by Valsamakis himself, takes the viewer on a chronological photographic journey through the architect’s work, beginning with a 1953 apartment building on Semitelou Street (considered innovative design at the time) through to today. It also pays tribute to one of Greece’s leading and repeatedly awarded architects. A steady trait in the buildings that Valsamakis has designed is in how the interior and outdoor spaces are unified through large windows that allow for uninterrupted views and for the light to enter. In the private homes – many of them on Greek islands – that Valsamakis has designed, this aspect of his work is particularly prominent. The semi-open spaces of a private residence in Sounion that was designed in 1974 or a private residence in Anavyssos from 1961 are just two examples. Constructed on the edge of the rock, this latter building is also impressive for its elegant minimalism and sense of light structure. Openness, as effected through large, uninterrupted spaces and the purity of modern architectural design, finds one of its best and most well-known examples in the architect’s own permanent residence, which Valsamakis designed in 1961. His house was illustrated in «One Hundred Houses for One Hundred European Architects for the 20th Century» along with the homes of architectural icons Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Otto Wagner, and Valsamakis designed every part of it. The residence is considered to have pioneered in Greece the concept of «total design,» in which the architect is in charge of every detail. The Amalia hotel in Delphi, also from the early 1960s, is another example of the pure, geometric spaces and lack of excess that defines Valsamakis’s work. When designing a building, Valsamakis also takes into account the specific site, its constructed or natural environment. He adapts the fundamental precepts of his architectural style to suit the different surroundings. Another example is Alpha Bank’s administrative building on Athens’s Stadiou Street in which Valsamakis makes a subtle reference to the surrounding neoclassical buildings. In the spirit of «total architecture,» Valsamakis has also designed the furniture, lighting and the lanterns hanging in the atrium. As with the rest of the buildings, natural light streams into large, unified spaces that have been designed with an appreciation of moderate and harmonious proportions. One of the impressions that the exhibition puts across is that the buildings that Valsamakis has designed are a pleasure to live in. They are made with a respect for privacy and an attention to ample space and comfort but also an appreciation for Greece’s light and nature. Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos, tel 210.345.3111. To February 18.