The Tectonic of Curating

The Ethnographic Imaginary of the Vernacular
in the Architecture of Aris Konstantinidis

by Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

Aris Konstantinidis* is one of the most debated Greek architects. Let us see how: his domestic reception is roughly divided between those who admire him and naively claim to be his followers and those who dispute him, charging him with a prolonged entrapment into “Greekness”. Yet both these stances have been equally obstructive when it comes to pursuing new fields of research, each in its own way shrinking the overall picture of his work.

On the other hand, his international reception in the context of post-war modernism was considerable, but it also focused on confirming the “local identity” as inaugurated by Kenneth Frampton in the 1960s; this evolved into “critical regionalism” in the 1980s, culminating in David Leatherbarrow’s Uncommon Ground (MIT Press, 2000). The collective monograph published subsequently by Electa has more of a documentary nature, adding some useful unpublished material (ed. Paola Cofano in collaboration with Dimitris Konstantinidis, 2010).

The cutting edge of his work is not just the relationship he cultivated with topography or local tradition, but the fact that he turned architecture into an anthropological conditionand thus into a life form. His entire oeuvre is permeated by a long tension between Western modernity and Greek folk tradition, both of which lay claim to the same semantic root. It is this unresolved tension that makes him fascinating but also unclassifiable. To Konstantinidis the pre-modern forms of rural folk tradition are the privileged spot from which one can observe what western modernity fails to grasp. Yet his view seems like a paradox: the only place where traditioncan live is the present—i.e. modernity. This is one of the riddles that preserve the enigmatic character of his work.

The starting point of this attitude is his relation with the ethnocentric romanticism that dominated Greek culture in the inter-war years and his friendship with Andreas Embirikos, which has been undervalued by traditional historiography. The view of rural folk tradition that Konstantinidis formed lies at the core of romanticism. We must not forget his frequent reference to poets and writers like Dionyssios Solomos, Periklis Yannopoulos and Ion Dragoumis. It is through this prism that we can interpret the anesthetisation of the popular, the search for a “true architecture”, as he called it, and which equates with the quest for a paradisiacal state of architecture, or his interest in the sanctity of the landscape and the structures he described as God-built. Overexposure to the clichés of “cultural studies” might lead one to dispute or ridicule this almost ontotheological attitude. We should not forget, however, that religious and pre-modern references play a prominent role in romantic modernity until well into its late phase.

Konstantinidis insisted like no other on the cultural differences between North and South. He believed unreservedly in the geopolitical particularity of the Greek landscape, in its warmth, its serenity, its “luminous beauty” that differentiates it from the “cold and gloomy landscapes” inhabited by “more northern, more reticent people”. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from incorporating in his work some prominent forms of Western rationalism and that “gloomy” northern culture—and this is why his most interesting aspect lies at the frontiers, the threshold between northern modernism and southern tradition; between “reason” and “dream”, as he used to say, alluding to Solomos.

Yet this architect whose fame soon went beyond the borders of Greece gave an abrupt and dramatic end to his life, jumping from the roof of his apartment block on Vassilissis Sophias Avenue in 1993.

After our first collaboration (I mean his participation in the architecture section of the exhibition Metamorphoses of the Modern, National Gallery, 1992) I had the opportunity to attempt some new readings and reappraisals of his work. What I intend to discuss here is a paradoxical yet unexpectedly contemporary aspect: architecture as a coherent curatorial practice, which can also be expressed inversely as the elevation of curating into a privileged medium of architecture.

The paradox lies in that this shift towards the subsequent curatorial approach, which he prepared and announced, contains all the fundamental principles of his views. What I mean is that the ethnocentric fantasy of the vernacular fits in without contradictions with architecture’s curatorial shift. Only thus can we get to understand one of his provocative assertions, to the effect that the true contemporary architecture in 20th-century Greece is the huts and sheds of refugees. And this is one more factor that turns his work into a historical documentation of the crisis in the traditional representational function of architecture and a change of paradigm.

Building with words

In the epilogue to his book Projects and Buildings (Agra, 1981) Konstantinidis writes something which has yet to be noted sufficiently, although we could say it lies at the very core of his work: “Admittedly, my job is to build and not to write. Nevertheless, I have been writing ever since I started building […] Consequently, I feel like saying that I write because I build; as if I were not able to say something in words, written or spoken, unless I had uttered it previously in a construction. So, first I construct what I intend to say and afterwards I rebuild it in words. For this reason, then, what I have written has always been in accordance with what I have built: one and the same world.”

In the “Autobiographical note” that follows, Konstantinidis adds: “Towards the end of the year [1980], suddenly and quite unexpectedly, a publisher [Stavros Petsopoulos] came to me and offered to publish this book on my work. It was another honor I felt, especially since this publisher was going to let me organise this book all by myself, designing and constructing it just as I would my own house. The composition of the book—its photographs, drawings and text—was for me to determine. Moreover, it was up to me to decide on the layout and cover of the book. I was also going to oversee the printing and binding, just as in a construction. […] I consider this book to be another architectural work, marked by my signature. […] To conclude, I will mention some of my other “constructions”: the exhibitions I have put together, the lectures I have delivered, the books and other publications I have circulated and several articles of mine that have been published in newspapers, magazines and books.”

An architect with this focus on building (Bauen in German), Konstantinidis was the first in our country to realise in his contracted and almost delirious way the importance of producing architecture on a physical level other than that of conventional construction. The division he attempts makes use of all the media available at the time. He understands that the dynamic of architecture acquires a multiplicity and a strong communicational dimension that makes it into a kind of mass medium, although he does not dispute thenon-reducible nature of buildings. And this is his most interesting aspect. He is, in a sense, a post-medium architect —to use the term of Rosalind Krauss—with all the consequences and contradictions this entails as it fits the different media within a unity (“one and the same world”).

The cohesive element is the tectonic idea of constructing, to which I shall return later. Writing is building (“with words”); to produce a book is to construct (“just as I would my own house”); the choice of photographs, drawings, texts or the graphic design, printing and binding … all these make up a project (“another architectural work”). Let us add that he was a systematic archivist of his own work, using archiving as a tool of architectural practice.

I must explain here that Konstantinidis does not refer to the usual professional practice of an architect constructing a building which he then photographs in order to publish it together with a standard explanatory text or exhibit it. Instead, all these are venues where architecture is produced.

What is the major change of paradigm that emerges here? The representation processes of architecture are not separated from its production processes. On the contrary, the former constitute an integral part of the latter: the processes of representation become processes for the production of architecture. We must remember that Konstantinidis wrote these texts and designed the collective edition of his work in 1981, at a time when the forms of “intertextuality” expand and the means of representation begin to be seen as of equal importance to the means of production.

This is a case where one does not need to resort to the analyses of Beatriz Colomina to realise that the building itself is a “mechanism of representation”, a “structure” which comes to exist not only by being built but also through the blueprints, models, photos, publications, exhibitions or even various forms of moving-image documentation. Since the early 20th century, architecture has not been produced exclusively at the “building site” but also at an ever-increasing range of “immaterial venues”.

It is in this interpretative framework that we must see also Konstantinidis’ rich photographic work, the relevant publications but also the lesser-known exhibitions he presented or participated in (1951, Zappion Hall; 1957, ocean liner Olympia; 1957, Chicago; 1966, Hellenic-American Union; 1967, New York; 1976, Desmos Art Gallery, Athens; etc.). Konstantinidis sees photography like drawing (“the lens draws with light, shade and colour”) and in an almostsynaesthetic way: “The third eye (the lens) […] ultimately draws ‘with a feeling eye, with a seeing hand’ (in the words of another great poet, Goethe).”

What is additionally interesting here? It is that the emergence of this curatorial paradigm has been prepared by the architect’s extensive photographic research, which is mostly in the form of travel notes, confirming the links between anthropology and architecture and, what is more, a clear ethnographic slant: in-situ research, emphasis on space, documentation, taxonomy, tagging, archiving.

I think it is time to link some of the prerequisites for this shift with the ethnocentric fantasy of the vernacular or, if you will, the fantasy of the ‘Greek’, which is in effect part of a broader phenomenon observed in modernism right down to its later forms: the search for the Other.

With these photographic records Konstantinidis attempts a visual reading of the landscape with a documentary language which, in current terms, could be described as “democratic”, i.e. free of pronounced rhetoric elements. Above all, however, this obsessive and potentially endless research highlights new relations between social structures and buildings and, more importantly, performative models of outdoor or semi-outdoor habitation.

The Fine Art of the Skeleton Frame

This attitude is condensed in the architect’s retrospective at the National Gallery in 1989, at the entrance to which he placed an installation of a wooden construction meant to show the idea of architecture as both structure and exhibit. Indeed, today we could compare, somewhat arbitrarily, this construction with the “specific objects” of artists like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, or the installations of younger practitioners who move in the field of post-conceptualism (Liam Gillick et al).

The brochure that accompanied the exhibition explained things as follows, in the third person: “The wooden structure is meant to demonstrate that in the architecture of Aris Konstantinidis the key morphological element is often a visible SKELETON (of perpendicular props and horizontal beams) […] And since the props of the SKELETON are always equidistant and in an orthogonal layout, the architectural project derived from this approach gains in functionality and morphology (if not also in musicality) and appears truly self-explanatory in the landscape where it is ‘planted’ (like a tree)”.

What exactly is going on here? To Konstantinidis this structure (the “SKELETON”) is an organising principle, a tectonic condensation which seems to have the traits of a philosophical concept of building. The “SKELETON” at the entrance to the National Gallery is not meant to be inhabited but to “demonstrate”, to “translate” in a three-dimensional way the orthonormality, the clarity, the musicality, the structural articulation and the “planting” of the architectural project. What is displayed is not a model or photograph of a specific building but the very idea of architecture; so it is not a sculpture but an installation, in the literal sense of the word, which converses with the visitor who moves around and observes—and this is surely an almost conceptual practice. One could think in comparison of the oversized architectural models of the Renaissance (like Sangallo’s spectacular wooden model of St Peter’s in Rome), but these were strictly of a representational purpose.

To conceptual artists the idea of a work is the most important element, and its implementation is merely a followup. In short, the idea is the work. First we form a model, a form, and then we implement it. First comes the idea, the intellect which conceives the optimum, and then comes the will to turn the ideal into reality. This is the platonic origin of Western conceptual culture. In this sense the “orthogonal layout” of the “SKELETON’s” geometry can serve as the perfect model. As Plato writes with reference to war, “it will make all the difference whether a general is or is not a geometrician”.

It is worth noting at this point the perception about the “nature of the idea” as it was shaped in our recent culture. For all the discernible roots of the matter in Plato and the ancient texts, the “1930s generation” pursued a metaphysical reading of the Greek natural landscape and light which formed a specific cultural stance: “An idea becomes an object with surprising ease. It seems to become all but physically incarnated in the web of the sun. On the other hand, at times you cannot discern whether the mountain opposite is a stone or a gesture.” (George Seferis, Essays,trans. Th. Frangopoulos and R. Warner). And this advice by Solomos seems to have paved the way: “Study well the nature of the Idea so that its supernatural and procreative depth may push out [=project] the natural part […] It was thus that Metaphysics became Physics” (The Free Besieged; The poet’s reflections, edited by Iakovos Polylas).

This possible link aside, the key special element in the approach of Konstantinidis lies in its reversibility: given that he emphasises the “textual” structure of the building (which tends to become placeless and acquire its own intrinsic value), he is interested in the material properties of language, the physical and syntactic traits of writing, exhibiting and publishing.

What I mean is that Konstantinidis’ almost metaphysical obsession with the rectangular grid and the “standardised structure” he published repeatedly as model and ideal form of architecture can be interpreted also as a kind of primordial web, an orthonormal grid, a catalogue text or an information code that links us to all relevant derivatives (texture, weaving, plot, etc.). Like a building, the Greek word for text [keimeno > vb. keimai] means that which lies there in a tangible way.

To such a subject with distinct traces from ancient myths derived from the very gesture of building and the carving of writing, Konstantinidis adds his own differentiation: by stating unequivocally that he writes “because he builds”, he gives priority to doing over dwelling and thus changes the order in Heidegger’s “building, dwelling, thinking”; in Konstantinidis, doing (“building”) and “thinking” come before “dwelling”.

This tectonic priority to construction and the elevation of architecture into a constructional gesture are the elements which combine the materiality of the text with the textuality of the building. Let us see how, after attempting to make some clarifications in advance. By ‘tectonic’ we mean not any mystical fantasy but the constructional syntax of a building, the architectural organisation of the elements of a structure, like, for example, the “SKELETON” described by Konstantinidis. The tectonic priority in architecture does not pay attention to the symbolic or spatial elements of a building, in the same way that students of the syntax of a literary text are not particularly interested in the metaphorical meaning or, indeed, the content of the text they examine. The difference between text and buildingis that in the former the syntactic analysis is of preparatory character—or else it descends into self-referential formalism—while in the latter we would say it is final. The tectonic structure of a three-dimensional architectural object, a building, refers to nothing else beyond its own content: the specific morphology of the architectural organisation. In short, it has its own significance irrespective of its content. The autonomous syntactic significance of architecture is what turns an apparently commonplace structure into a poetic one, as in the case of an ancient temple. And this certainly helps us to understand the grammar in the architecture of Konstantinidis and the syntactic structure of its morphology.

The Building Site of Curating

Above all, however, this singular double move attempted by Konstantinidis—the opening towards other media and the tectonic contraction towards the non-reducible, the building—invests his architectural practice with a special curatorial character. Architecture expands into the other media, which are given its constructional essence (in the form of borrowing or reborrowing). On the other hand, curating becomes a format, the context in which the architectural object is produced. This kind of approach surely constitutes an alternative method and a direct challenge to the current diffusion of curating and exhibitions.

Konstantinidis was thus the first Greek architect who made us suspect that the curatorial activity and writing are neither separable from nor independent of the architectural practice, but are integrated in its constructional core; and this could serve as a first-class introduction to what we call architecture in our time.

What is the major shift brought about by such a change? It alters the way in which we perceive architecture and the forms of the sensible. Our perception of the architectural object is now as important as the architectural object itself. The imaginary emerges as critical. In such a field, the first to activate the desire is the winner.

Against this risky fusion of architectural production with desire, language and the imaginary, Konstantinidis as well as Dimitris Pikionis—although the latter moved in an anti-tectonic direction—do not adopt an attitude of “resistance” nor are they trapped in a symbolic paucity. The visits they pay for decades to the Rodakis House in Aegina is nothing but a kind of constant architectural exhibition.

We can see more fully the consequences of this choice today because of the decline of all the old distinctions between the tangible and intangible (cerebral) production of architecture and culture. The changes in labour are now going into the core of architecture for good. In the context of post-Fordism, what we used to see as “labour” and “non-labour” develop the same productivity, which is fed by language, narrative skills, the forms of subjectivity and aesthetic action.

In “bio-political” terms, this is an extensive reorganisation of social and cultural behaviours through a series of new institutions which optimise the performance of architecture within the context of post-industrial capitalist production; only thus can the new forms of curating fit back into the social framework of production.

So this is the truly “new architectural work” of which Konstantinidis speaks and which Walter Benjamin linked, several years later, with the expansion of the “exhibition value” (Ausstellungswert) which invested artworks with “wholly new functions”. A paradox though it may seem, in this way the architectural or curatorial project “appears truly self-explanatory in the landscape where it is ‘planted’ (like a tree)”.

All images
Paola Cofano and Dimitri Konstantinidis (eds.)                                                                                                     Aris Konstantinidis 1913-1993, Electa Milano, 2010

Aris Konstantinidis was born in Athens in 1913 and studied architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Munich (1931-1936). He became known for certain residential homes, workers’ apartment blocks, his stormy views and his numerous books, but above all for his work with the Greek National Tourist Organisation; as head of the NTO’s design department he produced a rich body of public architecture which was to mark the 1960s.

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