Discreet charm of apartment blocks

You had to look really hard to find any apartment blocks at the time the last biennale took place, in November 2005. In the case of the current biennale, which runs till January 20 at the Benaki Museum on Pireos Street, apartment blocks and housing complexes are in the ascendant. What has changed in the past two years? A lot. The return to the city center, as people take up residence in formerly rundown areas, such as Gazi and Metaxourgeio, has sparked some serious thinking about new types of apartment blocks. It has also helped that the apartment block itself, once identified with mass construction in the 1950s and 60s, has shed that stigma. New generations of architects seem more reconciled to the concept of the apartment. And the 2004 Olympic Games gave Greece an opportunity to see housing complexes built on a much more extensive scale than before, most of which were used to house athletes and journalists for the Games. New patterns of urban living have arrived on our threshold and architects of all ages are learning new tricks. Architect Stavros Gyftopolos, a lecturer at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) and one of the two curators of this year’s biennale, attributes the sudden appeal of apartment buildings to last year’s competition for an apartment block by the GEK construction company in Metaxourgeio, and to a change in the general atmosphere. «The widespread practice of construction studies put pressure on architectural design, especially in the implementation phase,» Gyftopoulos explained. To say nothing of the fact that many apartment buildings are not designed by an architect at all. Professor Anastassios Kostiopoulos of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki believes that the updated vocabulary of urban apartment blocks and houses has been one of the most important elements in the current biennale. «Residential buildings, either in the form of free-standing homes, housing complexes or apartment blocks, appear to be the primary focus of contemporary architects. More and more they are proposing cleaner forms, unexpected continuities and discontinuities of expressive elements in facades and are moving away from conventional stereotypes,» he said. Commenting on shapes and styles, Kostiopoulos noted that greater participation in the biennale’s competition confirmed once again that there is a revival of interest among young Greek architects in a wide range of composite ideas. «These ideas move away from formerly established frameworks, such as what was critically referred to as ‘localism,’ and back once again in the direction of an international language, be that minimalist or hyper-expressive.» The committee made an initial selection of 60 projects from a total of 169 submissions, and then shortened that list to 42. It recommended to the governing board of the Institute of Greek Architects that all 60 projects be exhibited, allotting different amounts of space to the two categories. The exhibition is curated by the institute’s secretary general, architect Katerina Yiamalaki. The catalogue is edited by the institute’s director, architect Marianna Milioni, who declared she was delighted with the great increase in the number of participants. For many young architects, the biennale is the only opportunity to show their work, and Milioni, who has had professional experience in Vienna, is well aware of that. «In Greece, there is still a climate of distrust toward young architects, and when I say young, I’m talking about professionals aged 40.» The flowing forms of Zahar Hadid with their compressed levels, reversed geometrical shapes, three-dimensional designs and sharp corners have exerted an understandable fascination on young architects. This is a world that springs directly from a computer screen and it is the only manifest revolution in architecture over the past decade to which young architects from all over the world can relate. Though the digital look is present in abundance at the biennale, most of the ideas have not been implemented. Nikos Kalogeras, NTUA professor and the president of the institute, believes two distinct camps are emerging. He thinks that digital design makes it easy to experiment and find new shapes, but that it draws architects into purely virtual design, namely designing shapes and spaces that cannot be built with real materials. «Without denying the contribution of these design acrobatics to the development of architecture, I must say I have observed that some people who cannot express their designs and ideas and the ideological concerns of the society in which they live use computers as an excuse,» said Gyftopoulos. «Architects have acquired unrealistic expectations from computers, where everything is possible.» A colleague of Kostiopoulos approved «the use of representational technology to take the architectural repertoire of shapes beyond flat surfaces and rectangles.» He also pointed out that we do not see such designs being implemented, either at the biennale or at international exhibitions. «It’s worth raising the question of whether such designs are technically mature or whether they come up against an inherent unwillingness, originating in society, to make into architecture any sculptural shape of biological or other inspiration.» The implementation of designs by Hadid and others show that everything is technically feasible nowadays. The dissatisfaction expressed mainly in academic circles is understandable. Digital design gives architects unprecedented scope and it results in a vast store of projects that will not easily find a place in real life. As in the old world, those who survive will be those who possess the priceless, timeless qualities of talent, inspiration and ideas.