Giorgos Makris: Construction man

As though sprouting up from the ground of Aegina itself, the house, built on a 7,000 sq.m. plot on the north side of the island, dominates the horizon like a lone boat. Like an endemic plant, it is an organism in its own right, breathing in the dry air of Aegina, absorbing, yet fighting against the salt, listening in on the total silence of the night. It is a house which, set apart from the trends, some might call marginal, yet if you were to look closely, you would wonder at the attention to detail and the builder’s dedication to artistry. Which technicians practiced their craft in this remote corner of the charming island? Who taught them to love the fragments of brick and the granules of the Aegina earth so much as to mix the concrete as though it were lacework? The house took six years to complete, an uncommonly long time, yet if one considers that the market on Aegina is limited and that the labor force must first be recruited, then the time it took to build seems natural. This house of simple beauty, unadorned but of substance, whose hidden joys have yet to be discovered by its owners, has recently been showered with praise. The aim First came the Greek Architecture Institute’s award for a residential design in 2000, then came the publicity – the August 2001 issue of Architectural Review lavished praise upon it. The spotlight then fell on the creators: Giorgos Makris and his associate Yiota Kalavrytinou are the architects who were contracted to design the Aegina house. «It is the result of the investment of much toil. We had to look at it as though we were monks, to dedicate ourselves to it, heart and soul. It is in this sense that it is a marginal house, which required work to be done even by hand,» Giorgos Makris tells us in his central Athens office, with his architectural designs on the walls, bric-a-brac, and the calm atmosphere of another era. But the Aegina house wasn’t crafted in the urban center. It may have been designed there, but the house was born out of the air and the mud of Aegina. «We would go to the then empty plot with nothing in our minds, and wait for the architectural ideas to ‘sprout.’ We wanted the house to be as much a part of the place as is the natural topography. The landscape gradually gave birth to the house. The reeds became windbreaks, the dry stone walls were filled in, the natural porous stone of Aegina was complemented by hewn cement, wood and iron.» «All materials have their virtues,» says Giorgos Makris. «Their characteristics evolve from their use and a proper knowledge of them.» The stones of Aegina, pebbles, mud, gravel, fragments of old materials, warm colors of the earth which rise and fall with the sun, are all incorporated into a house designed to be enjoyed by its users, according to their desires. «It is a combination of many small spaces with the potential for guests and with an emphasis on semi-open spaces.» One gets the feeling that this unassuming house for a four-member family on the north coast of this mythical island is like a manifesto for an alternative lifestyle. Giorgos Makris is opposed to all kinds of fashion and consumption trends, consciously distancing himself from «-isms,» as he puts it, and metropolitan influences, trying instead to reconciliate the landscape with that which previously existed. «In no way would I attempt to repeat certain forms. I am interested in the abstract ideals that tradition embodies, and not in fake replicas. We try to introduce these ideals into the contemporary use of building materials and construction techniques.» The more one studies this house, the more symbolism one finds. Two iron fish decorate the external stairwell leading to the roof. «They embody things I have experienced,» he tells us. He brings in two wooden caryatids taken from a village balcony. «Yes, they might be based on ancient Greek korai; they could be the daughters of a vizier. It’s the desire of the folk artist to make his work distinct.» Memories «I grew up with such things. As a child I would cut out Karaghiozis figures and improvise a theater.» Giorgos Makris grew up in the 1950s and therefore experienced Athens before it was transformed dramatically. «Drosopoulou Street was still a dirt road when I was young,» he recalls, and one senses that his concern today is not to look back but to continue moving forward, while preserving a full sense of continuity. Known in the architectural world as «the construction man,» Giorgos Makris has taught at the National Technical University of Athens for 30 years. «I spent a large part of my life collaborating with big architectural firms,» he says. He worked with the architect Kyriakos Krokos for 12 years, from 1978-1990. «I respected him a lot,» he says. «He was a great architect. We were friends from the university and when Krokos was awarded first prize for the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki, he sought me out to work with him. I was in England at the time. I was, however, known as an architect with a good idea of what construction means.» And for this reason, Giorgos Makris also became responsible for the construction of the house on Aegina. He puts his own teams together from scratch and initiates the technicians and craftspeople into what he sees as a wager between the landscape and the values of contemporary architecture. Stone and cement were hewn, earth packed, pergolas set up. With the quarries of Aegina no longer in use, local porous stone was gathered and reused. «We didn’t mess up the open area,» he says. «We created some terraces, transplanted indigenous plants of Aegina, like the giant mastic tree, and, even though the ground had to be dug up, we avoided overturning large sections. We just tamed the place a bit. We respected the things that we found and tidied up carefully. Half the time passed in sorting out the open areas.» In the unusual light of Aegina with its dry climate, a house with tiles of ash and gray-green colors appears like a giant natural pebble, sculpted not like a statue but like a vessel. The landscape Giorgos Makris knows a lot about the island’s early architecture and what sort of buildings were built in the past. He talks emotionally about the Rodakis House that Frislander designed between the wars, and the spiritual relationship alluded to is clear, not so much in terms of the result, but in terms of ideology. Makris also states that he belongs to that group of architects that draws inspiration from a specific place in which the landscape is represented in the architectural design in the manner of folk craftsmanship. «It is never my intention to be decorative,» he says, although in the Aegina house, one encounters elements and symbols which at first glance appear to have such a role. «If I am ever going to do such a house again, I would take it a little bit further. I would remove some of the elements that are perhaps a little too literary, without this meaning that I would go for minimalism.» The house on the island of Aegina, a symbol of a new vocabulary in architecture that is neither urban nor traditional, is a revival of a practice which in Greece has very deeply rooted points of reference.