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Architecture weaves the fabric of society February 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece.

Yiannis Kizis & Associates, a firm that has done numerous renovations in Athens, gives old buildings the chance to re-enter urban culture

yianniskizis1.jpg  yianniskizis2.jpg  Architect Yiannis Kizis in the courtyard of the Benizelos family mansion in Plaka. The historical home, which dates to before the liberation of Athens, belongs to the Athens Archbishopric and Kizis’s firm has been commissioned to renovate it. (Left). A model for a new building complex to be erected on the corner of Stadiou and Amerikis streets in central Athens.(Right).

Architect Yiannis Kizis makes a surprising confession when he says, “Unfortunately, I have been identified with restorations and ancient monuments.” Behind the closed doors of his office, sitting at a table and surrounded by bookshelves he has designed himself, the architect ponders the course of his creatively rich career. This creativity is based firstly on composition, the art that adds small pieces to the puzzle of our culture and heritage, and then on restoration, the know-how of intervention.

Kizis and his associates have, in fact, gained something of a lustrous reputation over the years for working miracles with old edifices. A map of Athens with the buildings this firm has worked on indicated with flashing lights would look like hundreds of fireflies caught in a bottle.

One of the their most recent and reputed projects is the Pireos Group’s City Link in downtown Athens, in which Kizis’s firm had a solid say-so concerning the changes to the vast building complex that used to house the Army Pension Fund.

Kizis is a man of few words, in life and in his architecture. He is a published writer and has spent years studying and researching architecture around the world. His architecture, be it designs for new constructions or renovations of existing buildings, is not about making a splash. “I want there to be a lasting interest in the buildings, not a sense of awe-struck admiration,” he says. “I want the layman to overcome the stereotypes and fixations that surround monumental architecture.”

There is an entire culture in Greece concerning modern monuments, a prevalent culture of contradictions and blaring contrasts that waffles between a desire to preserve, at all costs, even the most inert pieces of an often manufactured ideological past and complete apathy regarding the fate of anything that belongs to past. Kizis’s philosophy is nowhere to be found here; it does not lie in the golden mean between academic conservatism and a pragmatism that has been imported from abroad. The architect goes beyond these contradictory extremes, arguing that the concept of intervention on an architectural work of the past is an act of almost political, realistic vision.

“For a building to live again, to be given a new lease on life, it must be given modern elements that will help usher it into a new era,” says Kizis.

A staunch believer in the possibilities offered by modern technology, Kizis has developed a stolid stance as to how he defines his priorities and on the manner in which the individual perceives a work of architecture that has been chosen for renovation. “A building, by its very existence, participates in a broader public dialogue. The manner in which a building reflects new definitions, how familiar it is, how well incorporated into its environment or how ‘friendly’ it is, is an issue for debate. I am very happy when I succeed in providing a space with a feeling of familiarity and intimacy. Because a dry architectural approach does not help it to become a part of the fabric of society, we often risk losing the forest for the sake of a tree.”

Like the layers of human societies, each one leaving its own imprint and aura on the cycle of life, cities making their way into the future tend to hold on to their utilitarian elements. For Kizis, the usefulness of a building has to do with intangible things as well as with the tangible, when, “in the process of prioritization, a particular building can be seen as a calculable cultural asset.” Then, that particular building, as a single unit in a city, acquires a new dynamic that will claim a role in the future of the city, gaining a few more years of life before it is once more included in the prioritization process.

The level of maturity of a society, of a city, is very much defined by its levelheadedness and sense of daring. In Greece, what tends to prevail is extreme statements and diffidence. “In developed countries, the scope for innovation in architectural interventions is very broad,” says Kizis. “Many people are shocked by I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, but the hype that surrounds it has launched the museum two centuries into the future. I suspect the same will happen with Milan’s La Scala theater, which has been radically renovated by Mario Botta. Societies that have an urban history of 1,000-plus years are taking the risk to constantly experiment.”

In the case of City Link in central Athens, Kizis says that “there have been some strong expressions made that go beyond the limits of a simple renovation.” Among them are a crystal fissure, the Spyrou Miliou Arcade ceiling, the placement of a Fernando Botero statue at the entrance of Pireos Bank and the crystal facade of the Pallas Theater. “Crystal and stainless-steel technology allowed me to create translucence and to highlight the penetration of public space into the theater area. This, of course, has to do with Voukourestiou Street being a pedestrian zone,” says Kizis, explaining the architectural concept of the Pallas Theater’s glass front looking out onto the paved road.

“Of course, the fact that on an international level, architecture is in an experimental phase has had a catalytic effect in Greece. We are also getting very positive signs from the relevant authorities at the ministries of Culture and Public Works and Physical Planning, who are increasingly supporting more progressive views. They only do this of course once they are sure that any given project will preserve as much of the authentic material as possible,” says Kizis.

According to Kizis, the oft-requested quick fix presents a number of other problems, including not being able to discern between the truly old and the new. “We often see a history that never existed being built. In some areas, we can see where a kind of cultural background has been manufactured from scratch. Take the King George Hotel in Syntagma Square or the Electra Palace in Plaka with their new neoclassical facades. There is, of course, an international clientele for hotels who will pay to have a room that gives the illusion it was part of some grand old mansion. Revivals have always succeeded in gaining ground, but in the 19th century there was a prevalent proclivity for romanticism. Today, in contrast, the demand for glamour is leading to the construction of a history that never really existed.”

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