‘Give daring architects a better chance’

For a Dane like Karin Skousboell, an encounter with Greece may have started with Classical antiquity but ends with the contemporary urban landscape. An architect based in Copenhagen, Skousboell is an associate professor of architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She has seen architecture reorder its priorities several times since 1960, taking on different agendas and directions. Greece attracted her attention as both an ancient and new country with, as her research revealed, an indigenous version of modernism. Her book, «Greek Architecture Now,» published in Greece by Studio Art Bookshop, is essentially a study of urban development here since the 19th century. She recently spoke to Kathimerini. How did you first get involved in studying the architecture of Greece? As a student of architecture in the late 60s, I took part in architect Dr Eivind Lorenzen’s research for the book «Along the Line where Columns are Set» (Nyt Nordisk Forlag, 1970), which dealt with the elegancy and consistency of Greek and Egyptian surveys, proportions, scaling and measuring systems. Among the places studied were the Temple of Apollo at Bassae [Peloponnese] and the Naxos Colossus statues. I was deeply inspired and impressed by the Greek spirit, just like Henry Miller (without any comparison, of course). I also worked also in Rhodes with G. Andriotakis’s office and have traveled in Greece. In 2000 and 2002 at the Architecture Biennale in Athens, I discovered a lot of new talent on the Greek scene. I wondered why there was very little on it in international periodicals and foresaw that Greek architecture would gain a new focus as regards the 2004 Olympics. Did your study change the views you already had about Greek architecture? Yes, of course my view changed during the research in a lot of aspects – good and bad. I had some ideas of the regional differences in expression, materiality and colors, but I found it thrilling to see some of these characteristics reinterpreted in contemporary architecture in a very fresh way and to see the great era of modernism surviving with a special Greek touch. To me it has been a very positive surprise to see that my fellow women architects in Greece have played an important role for a long time. On the bad side, commercialism and its pompous kitschy style from the postmodern era was a side of Greek architecture that to me was a negative weft – a kind of unbecoming hubris. Can you place Greek architecture in the larger family of the Mediterranean style? I have been researching and working in Southern France and Italy and the Mediterranean style has of course many common characteristics. But to me the primacy of the relationship between building and landscape is the icon and hallmark virtue of Greek architecture (in antiquity, the 1930s, 60s and 90s to now). At its best, Greek architecture has a special «open-air» feeling and clarity referring to classic temples’ expressive and elegant dialogue between the supporting and the supported elements. Would you place Greece in the Balkans or in the Mediterranean? What differences did you observe between Athens and Thessaloniki? Considering Greek history, and not least the geographic «discrepancy» of natural conditions, one cannot place Greece in either the Balkan or the Mediterranean spheres – the blend of cultures is what gives it the special flavor of lifestyles as well as architecture, food, light and colors. While Athens feels very classically European, Thessaloniki has a fascinating touch of Oriental chaos, charm and incalculability. The topography of Athens is basically a convex landscape while Thessaloniki has the concave shape of a bowl opening to the sea, which also provides a completely different feeling of density and urban scenography. What is the main difference between Greece and Denmark in terms of the contemporary landscape? Denmark is a small country with a generally soft landscape with much less drama than Greece. This influences the architecture, of course. But we share the affinity with the sea – the thalassa. Few Danes live more than an hour’s distance from the sea. If we are speaking about the urban landscape, since 1900 planners in Denmark have had a lot of authority to enforce law and order in the building process and urban development – unlike conditions in Greece. Yet I have been quite taken by the way the polykatikia [apartment building] system in Greece, not least in Athens, has managed (in spite of all odds) to become an autonomous expression of culture and identity in the urban landscape. There is a great difference in the concept of public space. In Denmark, this has long been an important issue. In Greece only a short time ago there were no designed public spaces. Is there a dialogue between the two perimeters of Europe, the Aegean and the Scandinavian landscape? In Scandinavian landscapes – if you look to the mountains of Norway or volcanoes of Iceland or the rocky islands of Sweden’s archipelago – you find many common traits of nature and atmosphere. What would you say is the first priority for Athens as a metropolis? For me the first priority must be greater emphasis given to public spaces and an embellishment of the urban scene, as was begun during the 1990s. Of course, the continued improvement of infrastructure and the fight against pollution are important issues as well. The role of architects could be much better appreciated. The city should give daring architects a better chance to reveal their talents more freely in the cityscape. What are the main features of today’s generation of Greek architects? The main feature of contemporary Greek architecture at its best is the ability to combine inspiration and acknowledgement of the virtues of the past and masters of glorious modernism with a reinterpretation of the genius loci of a given site into a new personal spatial composition. The best Greek architects are still masters of the relation between building and landscape, and they incorporate sky, water and landscape in spaces in a way that shows a special Greek touch. Many contemporary villas have shown how these qualities can blossom, but far too few public buildings take advantage and make use of the mass of talent to champion the Greek touch instead of the international style.

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