Modern Architecture as Anachronism

Tradition and Modernity in the work of Dimitris Pikionis

Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

Dimitris Pikionis with Caresse Grosby in Delphi

“Anachronism is necessary; it is fertile”
Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps. Histoire de l’art et anachronisme des images

The impression most people have retained of Dimitris Pikionis is that of a solitary man who spoke in a gentle, mumbling voice (“like a soft drill”, N. Hadjikyriakos-Ghika used to say) and spent a quiet life designing and teaching at the Technical University. In his writings, his paintings, his few buildings and the outdoor layouts he designed one can find a melancholy world with bursts of physiolatry and geocentric mysticism. In effect, however, he was an even more complex personality: an architect-thinker (he knew long excerpts from ancient Greek texts by heart) who gave precedence to painting. It seems strange that the best-known Greek architect of the twentieth century never missed an opportunity to say that “Architecture was never among my central inclinations”.

Today we know that Pikionis tried an ascetic approach to attaining ‘authenticity’, and was enough of a mysticist to believe that what we call tradition could help us express a timeless and life-giving essence. The catch in this attitude is easy to discern: it is the difficulty in conceiving tradition not as a contemporary thing but as a changeable and diffused relation to reality. Indeed, in his notes for a speech at the Athens Academy, Pikionis himself would go on to generalise and speak of a “single tradition on the planet” which spreads “between East and West, North and South”.

Dimitris Pikionis, Resting place at the church of Aghios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris, Landscaping of the archeological area surrounding the Acropolis, 1954-1957

So the time is ripe for a ‘misreading’, a revision of stereotypes. First of all, let us touch on a taboo subject: The most enduring elements of his work are the watersheds, the vertigo of mixtures and the cultural redefinition of bricolage. Although his relationship with handmade decoration and handicraft more generally is known, it has never been examined in the cultural, anthropological and conceptual context of the culture of bricolage. Pikionis moved around the crisis of the ‘engineering’ paradigm and the transition to that of the ‘bricoleur’ – the one who makes creative use of any material and object, working with disparate leftovers, scraps and combinations to renew or enrich his stock.

If the model of the ‘engineer’ was the uncontested symbol of modernism, the ‘bricoleur’ liberates the process of design from the dominance of industrial self-reference. The bricoleur, as described by Claude Lévi-Strauss, works with unexpected combinations and conversions, re-evaluating handicraft and the repressed dynamic of popular material culture. What matters most here is the process, not just
the form. In every historical fragment, every material relic or leftover, we can recognise the units for creating another – and this is why the process of bricolage is always partial  and never finished. The intellectual equivalent of this type of strategic correlation with the past is the mythical or magical thought, that is, the kind of practical constructional process and learning which, according to Lévi-Strauss, is a trait of “primitive” societies.

Dimitris Pikionis during landscaping of the archeological site around Acropolis

It is this attitude that invests the work of Pikionis with a contemporary character. The “authentic” is combined with the handmade and the personal. This is evident throughout his work, from which I select indicatively the home-studio of sculptor Frosso Efthymiadi-Menegaki in Ano Patissia (1949). It is a ‘landscape building’ which promotes an impression of Secrecy. Indeed, more than an impression it seems to be a key goal, since there is no habitation without Secrecy. If “nature loves to hide”, as Heraclitus said, this is even more true of habitation. And Pikionis was well aware of this, even when he said that “children learn by hearing the secret voices within them.”

Walter Benjamin was one of the thinkers who persistently explored this special aspect of habitation and the changes brought about by the advent of modernity: the quintessence of architecture is its ability to hide, to protect from both the elements and prying eyes. “Glass is generally the enemy of secrets”, he wrote in 1933 about Paul Scheerbart’s Glasarchitektur; “This has now been achieved by Scheerbart, with his glass, and by the Bauhaus, with its steel. They have created rooms in which it is hard to leave traces”. Now see how Pikionis added “the problem of the form” in 1946: “the great incongruous contrasts between [large] openings and walls divests the building of the half-lights which, as Rodin put it, are the life of a sculptural work”. The half-light is also what can make “‘plaster’ look like ‘human skin’ and turn architecture into painting, into a ‘sculptural work’ in itself”.

In the Menegaki home-studio – and in a more luxurious version in the Potamianos residence (1954) – the ‘half-lights’ of tradition unexpectedly coexist with some modern elements which belie the architect’s accepted idiosyncrasy. Indeed, it appears that Pikionis did not summarily reject changes in house equipment, the new sanitary norms and the reorganisation of home life within the house.

Dimitris Pikionis, the Andiron on Philopappou Hill, Landscaping of the archeological area surrounding the Acropolis, 1954-1957

Visitors to the Menegaki residence will note the hidden atmospheres, the architect’s handmade fantasies and the sculptor’s luminous studio; Menegaki used to say that during construction Pikionis would go there at night with a candle, and next day he would change the staircase because he didn’t like its shadows. This is more than an anecdotal testimony. In one of his poems, “Love”, from the 1918 collection Poems in Prose, the architect himself says: “With divine light it clothed the oil lamp’s feeble glow. Its presence makes the earthen walls, the humble threshold radiate. A light pierces the darkness of the night, and the winds hum in its glory”.

It is worth noting here the affinity of the drawing that adorns and accompanies the poem with a specific kind of illustration which emerged in the early twentieth century and aimed at the ideal of primitivism, idealising man’s ‘pure’ relationship with nature. Pikionis thus remains firmly focused on the Secret, not on the modern ‘transparency’ but on the incorporeal, the intangible or the pure. In other words, he concentrates on the relation of (rough) matter with light.

Dimitris Pikionis, Home-studio of sculptor Frosso Efthymiadi-Menegaki, Athens, 1949, side view

His projects and designs bring to mind an architecture which is modern and local in an unorthodox way. The same feeling is triggered by his famous archaeological landscaping projects around the Acropolis and Philopappou, the church of Aghios Dimitrios Loumbardiaris and the tourist pavilion (1951-1957), or the Playground of Filothei (1961-1964). What seems to stand out in all these places is a narrative perception of architecture and the physical experience from following certain routes. As we walk there again today, we realise that what matters most is not the way in which they assimilate the forms of tradition but the slow and quiet life they suggest: a sluggish time of emotions which makes us see differently, legitimising the delicate decorations and the rough details; a serene architecture that politely shares out moments of waiting, a sweet languor and images to discover. The model of slow living in these spaces attempts to exorcise the spectres of the capitalist metropolis and encourage you to savour the pleasure of innerness: a perception of time that approaches the “nostalgia of Adam’s bliss”, which we could also describe as “the bliss of tardiness —this would be the fitting name for the best part of this feeling of happiness”.

Paolo Virno quotes in Grammar of the Multitude an excerpt from the novel La vita agra which can help us understand the anthropological paradigm derived from such an attitude: “The peasant moves slowly because the work is so related to the seasons; the peasant cannot sow in July and harvest in February. Workers move quickly, but if they are on the assembly line… One produces something from nothing; the other transforms one thing into another.”

So more than an ostentatious relationship with tradition, this architecture expresses towards tradition a loving and ennobling awkwardness. It is in this spirit that we must look at the architect’s well known obsession with the geophysical surroundings. I shall not repeat here the many things that have been written on this. I shall only stop at one way of putting it: “The architecture of Pikionis comes straight from the earth – as does the architect.” This is the most apt observation made by Zissimos Lorentzatos: the earthly origin of architecture from the “primordial matter of mystery” (C. G. Jung) and its encounter with an almost pagan secretiveness.

Dimitris Pikionis, Primary School in Pefkakia, Lycabettus, 1932

The architect as ethnographer

In his Autobiographical Notes (1958) Pikionis condenses in two paragraphs much of the subsequent endless debate around his work: “When I became familiar with the Modern Movement, I felt instinctively close to it. If the more perceptive minds among us accepted and embraced the Modern Movement at that time, it was for the following reasons: it promised to become the embodiment of organic truth; it was austere, and fundamentally simple; it was governed by a geometry that conveyed a universal design capable of symbolising our age.

The Lycabettus School was built in 1933, but as soon as it was completed, I found it did not satisfy me. It occurred to me then that the universal spirit had to be coupled with the spirit of nationhood; and this led me to make buildings like the Experimental School in Thessaloniki (1935), the apartment block on Heyden Street, Athens (1938) —for which Mitsakis produced the floor plan— and the house for the sculptror Frosso Efthimiadi (1949).”

This distinction had a number of side-effects, to the point of drawing a dividing line between a first ‘modern’ period and a second one in ‘the spirit of nationhood’. This may have been Pikionis’s way of acquiescing to the views on ‘Greekness’ so prevalent in the 1930s Generation, to which he is known to have made a decisive contribution; however, it also promoted a great misunderstanding which prevents us from discerning the cohesive element that permeates his entire work: the constant preservation of the enigma within the difference.

In the same text Pikionis quotes the phrase that de Chirico had written on one of his portraits: “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est…” The preservation of the enigma plays a binding role in the work of Pikionis and the distinctions between the ‘contemporary’ or ‘universal spirit’ and ‘the spirit of nationhood’ can easily tumble, simply because they coexist and make inroads into each other. Besides, Pikionis himself in “The Spirit of Tradition” spoke about the “deeper affinity of principle between the cubic shapes of Aegean architecture and those of New Art.”

Nevertheless, Pikionis is the best-known but also the most misunderstood of Greek architects. The architect who is widely recognised internationally through exhibitions, tributes and publications is thought of by most as a venerable amateur of tradition who exalted the Greek landscape: in short, an exile from the reality we live in and a sterile rejector of everything new. Historiography and his ‘followers’ have been promoting his work in the wrong way, as a depressing cartoon of pietism. And it is truly strange how the false traps of schematisation are still reproduced.

On the contrary, Pikionis secured for Greek architecture a kind of modernism which (hoarsely) proclaimed as its motto the phrase: “Let us look like what we really are”. To avoid misunderstandings I must say that if architecture today is postmodern, it is not necessarily so in the manner of Pikionis. The serene “return to Earth” advocated by Pikionis can be better seen today through (rather than against) the contradictions of modernism. We know now that one part of modernism came out of a strange return to myths and a renewed engagement with the ‘spirit of cottage industry’, bricolage, manual work and the traditional crafts and was fed by the rise of nationalisms in the inter-war years. Thus his true contribution is not a sterile rejection of the modern but the anthropological enrichment and its “metaphysical” priorities. This may be the source of the “emotional” (a word he often used) and melancholy strain of his work, which highlights the “loving” function of architecture.

Consider his much-debated references to Cubism, the novel and sometimes weird ‘implants’ of concrete in his shapes or his close relations with a staunchly modernist urban planner like Constantinos Doxiadis. And all this while he writes about the “absolute unity” of the “nation’s roots”. Characteristically, he is at once “attracted to and repulsed by” German idealism (whose “metaphysical mood”, however, made it “particularly capable of approaching the mystical content of Greek civilisation”) and modern painting, both of which he got to know during his studies.

The best things we have lie at these disturbed watersheds. So it would be no exaggeration to claim that one of the most interesting sides of Pikionis is that he realised the vertigo of these mixtures. I believe we should re-evaluate this aspect more carefully. Indeed, once he described the varied elements in these contradictory zones as alien, unequal and of different minds (diha-froneonta) – or what in contemporary terms we might call schizoid. It is an attitude with the traits of a cultural neurosis, in that
it contains a series of symbolic expressions of clashes and multiple fusions between desires and defences. In any case, such situations produce meanings, have an active and retroactive character, primary and deferred (Nachträglichkeit) fantasies which combine in peculiar ways the before and the after, temporality and anachronism, origin and repetition. In this sense, the elevation of anachronism into a dominant practice questions the established historical views and activates the modern approach of the montage – the constant layering of different times which coexist.

If not from folklore studies, Nikos Politis and Georgios Megas, it was certainly from poets like Gatsos or Elytis and writers like Nikos Gavriil-Pentzikis that we got to know of a folk imaginary which attempted to decode nature, giving a measure of balance even in areas of human activity that lie in the dark or the ‘half-light’. Today we know that at some point this kind of strategy intersected with surrealism, and its impact has yet to be fully evaluated.

Yet if the architecture represented by the Rodakis House (1880)—an archetype for the architecture of Pikionis—had a collective, folk character, in Pikionis it becomes personal. What we perceive in this architecture today is not the frenzy of details but certain atmospheres; certain psychological conditions which have a special way of promoting the symbolic function, the hermetism, the attraction of ‘opposite worlds’, the juxtaposition of materials, and so on. Under such a perspective the writer, the artist (or the architect) is not a ‘producer’, as per the title of one of Benjamin’s essays, but an ‘ethnographer’, according to the change introduced by Hal Forster.

Dimitris Pikionis, Settlement of Aixoni 1951-1955, residence preliminary plan

Architecture and melancholia: the libido of the unattainable

In recent years many of us suffocate under the inflated philology with which certain ‘fans’ and ‘followers’ have burdened the oeuvre of Pikionis. Yet his work itself reminds us today in an almost scandalous way how much we had been ‘fooled’: What was it that we missed? That his architecture laid claim to an area of discretion and to certain melancholy atmospheres (we must insist on the concept of atmosphere) in which Pikionis found a profundity, a scepticism, perhaps a disappointment, a spleen, but above all a kind of surprising self-sufficiency.

How we would define the relation of architecture with the melancholy mood (Stimmung), with these “ruins in the sphere of things” (as Walter Benjamin calls them)? Do not expect any linear corroboration of the familiar imagery, such as pictures reminiscent of the morose angel with
the discarded scientific instruments at his feet (Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, 1514), the seated woman who stares at her expressionless face in the mirror (Arnold Böcklin,Melancholia, 1900), or the dark and gloomy figures that haunt the uninhabited cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, with whom Pikionis had become close friends as students: “we had endless discussions about painting and our future plans under the arcades of the Technical University”.
I think it is more of an atmosphere, a Stimmung, which Pikionis shapes as an idealisation of certain myths and as a state of alertness over the vanishing pre-capitalist (rural) tradition in all its versions and aspects: pagan, classical, Byzantine, popular.

Pikionis himself turns to depictions of Ariadne for many of his drawings, while he refers to Melancholia in the Autobiographical Notes as he links certain of these works with the sculptures of Scopas: “I must note here that my adoration of Greek antiquity had led me to produce a number of figures drawn in charcoal on Ingres paper, which, upon being placed near a flame, became suffused with the delicate tinge of ancient marble. I had also drawn some heads in red chalk in an attempt to capture some of the melancholy quality of Scopas’s work– that ‘powerful breath of inner life, but also pathos’, as the architectural historian Tsoundas once described it. These drawings depicted venerable, bearded figures, with serene and austere brows furrowed by deep thought. While they had no great value as works of art, they showed the beloved idols which peopled my imagination.”

It is worth going closer to the core of the concept. In 1915 Sigmund Freud, “clarifying certain theoretical precepts of psychoanalysis”, links melancholia to mourning, pointing out that they are both reactions to loss. However, unlike the mourning process where what is lost is replaced by something else, in melancholia the emotional investment may be of a more ideal kind or unknown to conscience, extending into a part of the ego equated with what is lost. Under these terms we can say that in the case of Pikionis we have the faint outline of an architecture which encountered the notions of wear and poverty (Verarmung); the “shades” and “half-lights”, not darkness; the inner rather than the visible nature of things.

In this peculiar encounter lies the meaning of his work. In a strange way we can assume today that by processing this loss his architecture gained in terms of live inwardness and mystery (“a breath of inner life and empathy”). The obsession with allegories, the practices of bricolage and the earth themes – that “primordial matter of mystery” we saw earlier – is inevitable: throughout medieval cosmology the connection between earth and melancholia is inseparable.

We do not need much more to suspect that we are before a revival of the romantic spirit, which is in any case a fundamental precept of the modern. This hypothesis
is confirmed by the paradoxical ‘folk combinations’, the ‘half-lights’, the neo-Platonic hints, the preference for the handmade and the irregular, the love for the picturesque and the fragment (what we usually describe politely as attention to detail) and the melancholy atmospheres. The difference is that Pikionis (like Cezanne) never resorted to the romantics’ corrosive irony. Rather, he sought to familiarise us with certain practices of tradition at the very moment of their foretold eclipse – as if this would save “the last crumbs on which the Shape survives”, or at least it would preserve their testimony.

We can discern a fetishist echo in this preservation attempt, which necessarily points to the lost Whole, the one ‘we cannot have’. In short we have to do with a ‘work of mourning’ (Trauerarbeit), which enables the processing of the disjunctive contrasts between past and present, and above all the idea of reiteration as a form of “protection” against the shock of the new and as the “potentiality” of what used to be.

Dimitris Pikionis, collage from the “Documents of Folk Art” series Image from Agni Pikioni (ed.), Pikionis Paintings, Vol. B, Indiktos, Athens, 1997

Kosmas Politis once said that the Greeks are the most melancholy people on earth after the Jews. If this is true, it is easy to understand why Pikionis is seen as one of the greatest Greek architects of the twentieth century. His kind of attitude would be hard for others to continue, exactly because it touched on some truths that we still do not know how to handle.

Yet if today we set architecture at the core of a broader cultural approach, to a large extent we owe this to Pikionis. What really emerges is an architectural approach based on exchange, interaction and the appropriation of pre-existing forms, practices and tools, as well as an incomplete and contradictory cultural plan which in today’s post-industrial age most people compare with contemporary creation.

It is through this prism that we must examine his relation to tradition. The dilemma in this case is the following: did Pikionis follow faithfully what Derrida has called “nostalgia for origins”, identifying himself with all the entrenched illusions that see tradition as immutable, or did he recognise the changes that render tradition “open, so to speak, to the patterns of the avant-garde movement of New Art”? His attitude in this respect seems to have been equivocal: he often appears to favour the former direction while at the same time leaning towards the latter. It may be this very ambiguity that nurtures and enhances his work. “I coveted the unattainable” Pikionis once wrote, summarising his entire course in the primary motive of libidinal desire.

share this on facebook share this on twitter share this on google+ share this on pinterest more