1. Ruins of Modernism
The contemporary Mediterranean Metropolis is a complex, clement, vibrant ruin. Massively rebuilt, gradually self-compressed and extemporaneously diffused through informal planning, quid pro quo property laws, bottom-up development and familial socio-economic structures, its architecture unanimously embraced the Domino House as a fast, ubiquitous, open building system. (Frampton, Aureli) In Greece this open system, filled by its inhabitants with architectural program, function, style, meaning and performance, enthusiastically and haphazardly, was defined, after the war, by its flexibility, flatness and ‘expectancies’ – a technical and legal term for the rusting armature protruding from reinforced concrete slabs for future additions – ‘roof pop-ups.’ (Habraken)
The post-industrial decline, large scale social events, preserved historic centers, shrinking public space, branding excesses, political and material inertia, immigration influx and the severe economic and social crisis of the past seven years have tipped the physical, structural, communal, social and architectural integrity of the Domino polykatoikia into a slow, precarious, constant internal erosion. An entropic condition, the inevitable result of the more than half-centennial age of the Mediterranean Domino, this has become a dynamic, sporadically productive event of the informal city but not necessarily for its generic architecture. (Dragonas) The majority of designed spaces transformed by this bio-diverse process of urban ruin usually regress to a disordered state. Their infill architecture engenders the process of own collapse. (Aureli)
The erosion specifically manifests itself in three architectural zones of the polykatoikia. The first operates in the ground: a burrowing of the quid pro quo foundation of private plots and of their historically consequent, large scale landfills at the edge of the city. By entropic and disastrous natural forces, by misplaced, uncoordinated, small and large scale works of public infrastructure, and by private waste disposal and removal, the ground is destabilized. The peripheral drosscapes and the vacant lots of the city center as well as the compacted earth, foundations and decaying infrastructure below private properties – cloaca, basements, ramshackle soil, drainage and buried antiquities – plastered over by layers of asphalt and cleaning concrete, become increasingly porous. The Modernist tabula rasa and its practices of landfill, cast and polish crack under the weight of time and history, deeply undermined by the jugged, catastrophic ground of the Mediterranean city. (Babasikas I)
The great erosion continues at the level of the Domino’s empty communal spaces. These, vertically cancelling the physical protection yet minimizing both the social and atmospheric permeability and the use and clarity of common space, extend between the building perimeter and private spaces, adjusting its proper skin. Glaringly vacant, they are transformed from clement, vibrant interstices to multiple zones of decay, entrenching a building’s social, economic and infrastructural decline, expressing the inhabitants’ communal inability of constructive coordination, to typological erosion: having lost their purpose and daily use, the polykatoikia’s voids also lose their meaning and relevance to both the contemporary interior and to public space. They herald an end of phenomenal transparency, of the Domino’s compositional resonance and visual blend of inside and outside, loaded with the dark, messy clutter of everyday life: junk, debris, and dirt.
The most visible and pronounced result of the ruin of Modernism on the urban fabric and the architecture of the Mediterranean city is found on its roofscape. The white block carpet of the city and its attendant vegetation of antennae, armature, heating panels, tanks, railings and informal structures, sporadically inhabited but generally as vacant and cluttered as every other communal space of the Domino house, congeal in pixelate, expansive flatness; they create a hard upward limit impermeable by weather and exposed to pollution. The polykatoikia roof’s occasional use as terrace, laundry, gathering space and belvedere speak to its potential as a Modernist roof garden, yet its accommodated communities and their complex relations of ownership most often deny this potential, rendering the roofscape oppressive to the mat interiors it caps. The Domino roof repels weather and creates split levels of atmosphere, on top of and underneath it. It defines and reinforces a standardized vernacular architecture for the 20th Century, duplicated ad infinitum, forming a deeply ordinary public city, full of potential yet, up there, overwhelmingly empty. Its force of erosion – meteorological, aesthetic, atmospheric –is whiteout. (Wigley)
Against and through the three previous progressive states of ruin, the breathing, clement, vibrant urban landscape of the Mediterranean Metropolis springs from its interior. Opposed to erosion, the Domino polykatoikia truly fulfills its open plan promise of unhindered space, flexibility, cleanliness, air and light inside its apartments. Powered by density, proximity and diversity, this interior stands in constant conflict with the primal, entropic, catastrophic nature of its public space. More communal and less private due to its fundamental openness, it protrudes outwards to occupy the city boldly and informally, in modest cantilevers, illegally covered outdoor spaces, occupied sidewalks and irreverent noise. (Aesopos I) It is infinitely varied and constantly broadcasting itself across the street, the block, the city. It forms the inverse of the “black box of Modernism” (Banham): a brilliant, pulsating, transparent prism held by the crumbling white skeleton and flat skyline of an obsolete building system, barely holding it together against the natural, social and economic pressures of a new Depression Era.
The dense condition of natural, structural and semantic erosion, of porous ground and cluttered interstices, of pubic ordinariness, split atmospheric whiteout, of top and bottom flatness, travels, in a genuine spirit of Modernist mass-production, from the hyper-dense center of the Mediterranean Metropolis to the fringes of its diffusion and its undefined countryside almost unchanged. (Aesopos II) The only Metropolitan aspect that does not carry to the edge of the city, of the fields, of the forest or of the sea, is the vibrant interior. The ordinary suburban architecture of the second half of the twentieth century is a facsimile of its urban counterpart, defying every notion of border, slope, scale and landscape. Facing an equally complex reality of informal and partitioned rural ownership, it has no recourse to expanded versions of the radiant or the garden city, only to the cheap building technologies of Modernism, confined within small plots and random conurbations. The polykatoikia is thus violently planted within the social structures and outlands of the Mediterranean village. Its vernacular architectures provide the strongest possible case for the utter fallacy of context. They result, predictably, to the sequential decline, depreciation and occasional catastrophe of the Mediterranean landscape. Beyond the edge of the city and its post-industrial drosscapes, this landscape experiences a most intense and visible decline, not as a direct ruin of Modernism but indirectly, by the exhaustive and expansive application of the Domino’s building technologies and their intense conflict with the principles of the place they happen to land in.
2. Furtive Object vs. Aetherial Landscape
If the new social tribes that spring from and re-inhabit the urban ruins of Modernism are freelancers, the jobless and immigrants, then those of its ruined suburban landscapes may be the Mediterranean families and second generation immigrants that Modernism built for back in the 1960s, now returning to their empty ancestral villages by want of work, community and social infrastructure. The contemporary ideology of the urban edge may thus mutate from the timeless fantasy of the villa, “impervious to reality,” a matching counterpart of leisure to its urban forms of work, to a more complex condition, socially, architecturally and programmatically. (Ackerman) This new living setup must accommodate work, leisure, production, sustainability and alternate versions of the nuclear family. The flexibility of the urban interior, missing beyond the city’s edge, may be reinstated by another type of exterior, in response and direct reaction to the ruin of Mediterranean Modernism.
The four Greek residences considered for the second part of this essay, by Niko Smyrlis, tense architecture network, deca Architecture and paan architects may, by the previous train of thought, be understood as indirect responses to the double ruin of Modernism in the center and edge of the Mediterranean Metropolis. They are “extreme comfort residences,” built at the edge of the city, the forest and the sea. (Babasikas, II) They are all direct responses to the ground or edge conditions of their building sites. Two of them are primary residences and two are vacation homes with a particular relationship to their surrounding productive landscape. Their most prominent architectural characteristics are their oblique, non-symmetrical roofs and their vibrant interior and intermediate spaces. These architectural elements – roof and interiors – work always in tandem to create a sum much more complex than its parts, against, on top of, or inside the existing ground. They generate an architecture that folds in on itself and in so doing extends its realm both inward and outward.
Before analyzing those four houses it is necessary to look at two very important predecessor residences, not in terms of their formal qualities or their organizational structure – parti, but in terms of how they reinvent their roofscape vis-à-vis their interiors, how they touch the ground and how they open to their surrounding landscape. The first is Andrew Geller’s Pearlroth House, designed on Westhampton Beach, New York, USA in 1959. The second is the iconic Casa Malaparte, designed by Adalberto Libera and Curzio Malaparte and built exclusively by the latter on Punta Massullo, Capri, Italy in 1937. Both of these ‘manifesto houses’ flagrantly undermine the standards of residential use and usability and create remarkable experiences of living on the edge.
Pearlroth House treads as lightly on the beach it inhabits as is structurally possible: it minimizes its physical footprint by turning its two main living quarters 45 degrees from the horizontal, then refills ingeniously the resultant interstitial, triangular spaces with program – circulation, rest, storage, open spaces. The house itself becomes a threshold between two different environments. No longer a mediator between the vertical and horizontal, it becomes a passage between land and sea, assimilating its edge condition, spiriting its place off the ground in a completely aetherial and furtive move that creates a series of endless interior permutations. It is a self-sufficient object broadcasting upon and permeated by its surrounding landscape; a non-contextual building in open dialogue with its context; a roof that becomes a house.
By contrast, Casa Malaparte digs into and infills the solid rock promontory it sits on. The villa becomes a different type of platform – a collage of monument, house, buttress and rock. Its creation of complex interiors begins underneath the exterior staircase of its roofscape, via a haphazard architectural promenade; these interiors, subdued by the platform, resist the view by framing, program and introversion. The house defines its edge condition by excavation and interior terracing; it simultaneously hides from and creates the ultimate stage to its surrounding landscape. Malaparte is a massive, oblique roof that almost became a house, a Modern ruin rising from its primal landscape. It invents a completely different departure from the vertical vs. horizontal condition, by creating an entirely new, monumental and landform edge condition.
3. Ground & Edge vs. Roofscape
In their Hill House at a forested suburb of Athens, paan architects place a triangulated object-house in the middle of a clearing. The triangulation of the object is in direct response to the hill it stands on, the forest that surrounds it and orientation. (paan) Juxtaposed to a relatively standard ground floor plan, the interior spaces of the house become intensely complex at the second floor and in section, giving double height to communal areas and subtracting rectangular volumes from the triangles to create an extensive network of interconnected exterior and interior spaces. Here the ground is a general condition of hill vs. forest vs. house but, via the processes of triangulation and volumetric subtraction engineered by the house, the roofscape and interiors strongly relate to the ground and obliquely open to the forest.
In a very different condition, the Sikamino Residence by tense architecture network creates and inhabits “a fracture in the ground.” (Designboom) This residence is a downhill landform building and an uphill, elongated object house. The oblique ground continues, from its roof and canopy, to its interior, surrounding it with an architectural promenade, backing it with a series of bearing walls, and creating a number of uncanny, triangulated, cavernous interior spaces. The roofscape is mirrored and exploded by the interior as it splinters into a trench transversely and into the slope longtitudinally.
The two residences treat the ground, respectively, as a soft, scalped, deforested promontory and as a hard rift – two different types of erosion from which they respectively extend or dig into. Their communal areas are completely integrated into the building volume. They are in dialogue with the landscape and the view – the Hill House visually and atmospherically, the Sikamino Residence by splintering and rebuilding the earth on top of it. They are against flatness and incorporate, in their basic formal strategies and building systems, their gradual erosion. They reinvent the standard of Mediterranean suburban living against the tabula rasa, by performative interstices, interior complexity and an oblique roofscapes.
Niko Smyrlis’ Rodia Vacation Residence and deca Architecture’s Voronoi’s Corrals home reinvent their edge conditions within two different fields of trees, working their oblique, non-symmetrical roofscapes and intense interiors in tandem to create immersive and extensive experiences. Deca’s vacation residence on the island of Milos inhabits a slope looking out to the sea. It is surrounded by an extensive olive grove and is nested in such a way as to protect itself from sun and wind. (deca) The house operates as a series of separate spaces and courtyards, either dug into or looking out over the slope, organized by no other hierarchy than their ground condition and adjacencies. The interior order of the house thus refers directly to both the slope and its roofscape. It creates a new type of hollowed rock formation on the landscape, covered in different versions of earth. The result, again, is maximum interior complexity vs. a relatively small built surface. The building manifests itself as ordered erosion. Its roofscape is a series of interconnected, concave and convex, triangulated stages.
Niko Smyrlis vacation residence creates an edge within a flat site by placing the building over the invisible ecotone of sea and mountain, near an existing riverbed, erecting a rock-like formation in the middle of an orchard. Unlike the previous three residences, Smyrlis’ building is linear and introverted in its tectonics rather than its form. It denies its status as an object and is closer to the notion of a wall, or a conglomeration of material: the building is in fact covered by rock excavated from a nearby infrastructure project. (Smyrlis) It creates the inverse of landfill, erosion and sediment, a solid formation that balances between the long and the oblique.
The Rodia Vacation Residence plays with and reconfigures the vernacular typology of the rural stone house, the flatness of the Domino’s building system, and the pulsating linearity of an inhabited double wall. These different frames of reference are held together by its undulating, triangulated, non-symmetrical roofscape and a series of terraced interior floor levels that respond to the roof, sequentially activated by a series of courtyards – open spaces subtracted from the linear mass. The result is a truly complex, delicately ordered spatial sequence, short and long views, constant access to the landscape’s basic flows and a looping architectural promenade – immersive and extensive – from sea to interior to mountain. The building simultaneously departs from and deposits itself upon the edge condition.
4. The Fallacy of Context
These four houses provide direct answers to their not-so-distant double ruin of Modernism by their relation to the edge and ground condition of the landscapes they inhabit. They are sustainable in as much as they incorporate formally and tectonically the process of their own erosion; they defend against Mediterranean disaster, entropy, landfill and waste by digging into or bracing for them and by subtracting from their own volumes, overcoming the inevitable porosity of the ground, the dirt and clutter of the vertical interstice and the ubiquitous flatness of the roofscape. They are genuinely non-contextual and by being so they energize and reinvigorate their surroundings. Their methods of triangulation and void, enabled by the digital media they are originally designed with, provide them with a narrative complexity that extends and multiplies their spaces beyond their standard surface area. They practice an architecture that folds in on itself, extending its realm both inward and outward. They may be read as new expressions of a cultural condition that privileges, amidst a new Depression Era, a function of the oblique:
“The purpose of the oblique was to encourage a constant awareness of gravity, bringing the body into a tactile relationship with the building. The qualities of the architecture were to be perceived in a sensitive, sensual manner, as people became free to move beyond conventional spatial situations… At a time when there is much talk of flexibility, openness and mobility, Claude Parent appears to be swimming against the tide in proposing fixed, monumental, almost immutable structures which maintain a distance from their surroundings.” (Lucan)
“The criteria for evaluating a site – the preference of sunlight, the requirement for vegetation, etc. – will be stripped of both their traditional bucolic and their newer ‘hygienic’ terms of reference. The promiscuous concern with the details of a landscape will give way to a cursory awareness of place. Just as all of man’s so called ‘natural environments’ have shown themselves to be merely a reflection of primitive superstitions, so too the taste for rusticity will ultimately be revealed as a relic of antiquity.” (Virilio I)
5. Back to the City
In the future archaeology of the Mediterranean Metropolis and its various edges one can imagine its new social tribes and types of citizens replacing and reusing the ruins of Modernism not by the contemporary, communal techniques of infill and patchwork, but by the landform, triangulated, subtractive, ground and edge design conditions of these oblique architectures against and within the porous base, interstitial spaces and roofscapes of the city. The basic architectural principles of Smyrlis, paan, deca and tense architecture network’s residences can migrate back to the city, taking their safe experimentations to an urban context.
“Urbanism can no longer be solely concerned with the organization of the district and the administration of the city; in future, its only limits will be the elements: continental, marine, spatial. The configuration of these thresholds – the morphology of their relations – will govern all operations… urbanism will in future have much more to do with ballistics than with the partition of territories.” (Virilio II)
This concern is as much a formal strategy as it is an architecture sensitive to its surrounding atmosphere. One can imagine an entirely new metropolitan, breathing skyline forming as a result of these operations: penetrating the massive, white, pixelated roofscape, connecting to its ‘expectancies’, reaching into its interstices, dispersing the generic and the ordinary, countering its flatness: a performative, triangulated, landform, oblique stratum, a fifth elevation of maximum permeability among the city, its interior and exterior weather.
Originally Published in DOMES Review of Architecture 05/13 (2013)
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Petros Babasikas, “Faliron 2014,” Pidgin Magazine no.10 (2011): 182-187.
Petros Babasikas, “Extreme Comfort Residences: the Storytelling Trappings of Villa Marittima” DOMES Magazine 07/09 (2009): 44-59.
Reyner Banham, “A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture” in eds. M. Banham, P. Barker, S. Lyall, C. Price, A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham (Berkeley: University of California Press 1996), 292-299.
deca architecture, “Voronoi’s Corrals,” 5 October 2013. <http://www.deca.gr/#/ en/project/342>.
Designboom, “Residence in Sikamino, Greece,” 5 October 2013. <http://www. designboom.com/architecture/tense-architecture-network-residence-in-sikamino-greece/>.
Panos Dragonas, Anna Skiada, “Made in Athens,” in eds. Panos Dragonas, Anna Skiada, Made in Athens, Greek Participation at the Biennale di Venezia 2012, Catalogue (Athens: Ministry of Environment 2012), 10-13.
Kenneth Frampton, “The Modern City par Excellence,” in eds. Yannis Aesopos, Yorgos Simeoforidis, The Contemporary (Greek) City (Athens: Metapolis Editions 2001), 67-68.
N.J. Habraken & Jonathan Teicher, editor, The Structure of the Ordinary, Form and Control in the Built Environment (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1998), 26-40.
Jacques Lucan, “Introduction” in ed. Pamela Johnston, The function of the oblique: the architecture of Claude Parent and Paul Virilio 1963-1969 (London: AA Publications, 1996): 5-9.
paan architects, “Hill,” 5 October 2013. <paan.gr/projects/14>.
Nikos Smyrlis, “Rodia Vacation Home,” 5 October 2013. < http://www.smyrlis.gr/ #/ Rodia%20Vacation%20Home>.
Paul Virilio & Claude Parent, “Architecture Principe: Texts from the manifesto-magazine” in ed. Pamela Johnston, The function of the oblique: the architecture of Claude Parent and Paul Virilio 1963-1969 (London: AA Publications, 1996): 65-71.
Mark Wigley, “The Architecture of Atmosphere” DAIDALOS 68 (1998): 18-27.
 Incubating, in certain venues, the rise of the Commons against the decline of the Public.
 The early ruin of Modernism and the informality of the Mediterranean Metropolis became a source of critical celebration in the 1990s, yet the intense, inverse decline of the Mediterranean landscape does not enter in any critical discussion of architecture and urbanism until the past few years. A landscape urbanism approach, connecting the Metropolis to the Mediterranean countryside is thus almost concurrent with the Crisis.