Pre-public Scenery, 2018Petra Rinck Galerie, DüsseldorfPress release and exhibition text by Moritz Scheper
thanks again for the intensive studio visit yesterday! I think it really helped me to get a better grasp of your project. The images of the vacant Rea shopping centre in Athens still reverberate, which, scrupulously cleaned and sun-drenched, looks like the idea of an icon of modernistic architecture. Not only because this ideality of a showpiece is rooted in Greece’s precarious economical circumstances, but perhaps also because of the romantic- tragic figure, which is the architect. Possibly, we don’t know that much about Yiannis Kontodimas. His furnishing of the building emulates Frank Lloyd Wright and the other big men of architecture of a certain time, with every single piece of furniture, fixture and door handle being made for the building. The fact that he took up this understanding of an autonomous architecture in the early 1990s, of course, resulted in it completely falling out of time. Especially with the dark woods, which he used as a nod in agreement with Wright again and again, but when used in a shopping centre seem strangely abstruse and out of place. For someone to indulge so much, inadvertently producing so much vacancy by overlooking the necessities of a situation—you mentioned that even in the block of flats he built, all the apartments except for the one he inhabits are unoccupied—is rather superfluous. You probably know Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais idéal. The shopping centre reminds me a bit of it, not formally or anything, but because of the devotion of the autodidact, which makes it incredibly difficult to take up a critical stance on his exaltation. Admittedly, he didn’t build completely without a purpose, after all he lives and works in the buildings and keeps the centre open to the public… I think yesterday’s visit was also important because I could see how living and studio are one in your and Sam’s apartment. Work, life and your offspace Drop City don’t occupy different functional rooms, even though there is the possibility to segment the space using the space-dividing curtains when needed. The more I think about it, it seems to be this utopian echo of a spatial conjunction of work and life that interests you at the Rea shopping centre. And its spatial openness! Because what makes the centre relevant is the problematic dominance of the planning personality, which in the pursuit of an artistic ideal makes too many stipulations, making the building completely unattractive to deviating functions and aesthetics. And if you can not bring yourself, you will hardly feel at home, even with a shop. The resulting emptiness of a building that is accessible to the public - and, moreover, a very beautiful one - holds the possibility of appropriation, of a public use that is not subject to any planning regulations. Such places of assembly, of unexploited existence are ultimately missing in every nook and cranny. Most likely, our societies are crumbling, because there are hardly any spaces in which something like community comes about - the filter bubble has long been a city planning dogma. That's why I think your idea of making Petra’s gallery, with only a few installations, into such a place for gathering and staying for your show is pretty good. Most of all, because it imitates one of those planning statements that architects are constantly making. Mostly with the best intentions for the community, but still risking to build past the reality. I look forward to it!
with best regards, M.
thanks for your reply. You’re probably right that it’s unfair of me to accuse Yiannis of having produced vacancy. If he built the apartment with the intention of having his family move in bit by bit, and not renting it out in the meantime (not least because Greece clearly has a very different culture of renting) then that’s totally understandable. And it goes without saying that he didn’t conceive of his mall (which actually functioned for a good decade) as an empty glass palace. But he now insists on the building’s special design and he won’t make concessions to potential tenants, which certainly hasn’t improved the situation since the economic crisis, helping to keep the place empty. And this is a point I’d like to focus on: I told you how for me, the building’s emptiness turns it into something like a space of possibility. And you often speak of it as a fictional device, a view in which its current lack of function surely plays an important part. On second thoughts, my euphoric reading is perhaps rather naïve – after all, empty offices and shop units have long since become the norm, as a symptom of an investment-driven real-estate sector where being out of use is no problem for investors as long as the buildings exist as assets on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about Yiannis. I just find it interesting how the phenomenon of vacancy, whose current scale is a result of the financialization of the real-estate market, meets in the Rea Shopping Center with another kind of vacancy caused by the economic crisis sweeping all the shops out of Yiannis’ complex. And this is interesting because the two are linked. To recap: Greece didn’t descend into crisis because the Greeks like to drink wine and get up late (even if some people would have us believe this). Instead, the notorious credit crunch of 2007/08 was triggered by American banks recklessly granting loans to people who wished to fulfil their dreams of buying a house in the suburbs and then making them pay excessive interest rates to fund overblown yield expectations – something they were eventually not able to continue doing. Maybe the idea is far-fetched, but could one not say that modernist architecture was a precursor to this systemic networking in which real-estate speculation in the United States is capable of triggering a decade-long crisis in Greece? After all, it formulated an architecture with a non-specific, universal claim to validity that no longer made any concessions to the architectural traditions, cultural peculiarities, climatic conditions and natural surroundings of the places where it was built. I’m aware that this critique falls slightly short, especially where International Style is concerned, as architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler (both of whom, incidentally, had been disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright since the Wasmuth Portfolio) wanted to balance out this obliviousness to context with their plans for social reform, using prefabricated elements to create housing quickly and cheaply. But we both know that the whole thing never got beyond the Case Study phase. Though it did teach them that cheap building techniques make most sense in expensive projects. By the way: are you, too, immediately reminded of Julius Shulman’s saccharine photographs of those houses? But to return to the necessarily context-less quality of modernist buildings that I also attributed to Yiannis’s Shopping Center. This severing of links to the building, also referred to as the “third skin”, has now progressed further still. Today, the ground on which a building is erected is no longer assumed to be a piece of levelled terrain – in Singapore or Bahrain, the ground may beimported from Malaysia, Vietnam or elsewhere. There is also the rather loose, even abstract connection between the building and its owner, which especially in the case of empty office blocks often means an international real-estate investment fund. My point is this: the broken link between building and setting is something that’s also sometimes attributed to modernist architecture. And this adds a new level to your project, since in Yiannis’s case, in a conservative, holistic way, these links are intact. This means that, once again, he’s an anachronism, which I mean here in a wholly positive sense. Maybe you won’t agree with me on this, but the subject of your work has a dimension linked to global commerce, even if it’s not an aspect you emphasise. But maybe I’m underestimating you, after all, you did have those ropes made, whose pattern picks up the dominant colours of the photographs (and of course the colours typically used in Athens’ typical polykatoikia apartment blocks!). Ropes being the product of rope making, a now dried-up sector of the Greek economy that also points to maritime trade and the beginnings of global commercial networks. Oh, I’ve totally forgotten the time! I’ve got to be at the station in 15 minutes. I’ll get back to you soon
it took a while, but now I can pick up the thread of what I was saying (excuse the pun). Like I said, I like the way the ropes refer to maritime trade and thus also to both the distance and the connection between the United States and Greece. Simply because this illustrates the cause and effect of vacancy in Yiannis’ Shopping Center, as well as the stylistic migration from Frank Lloyd Wright to Yiannis and his buildings. The architectural similarities are obvious, of course, but you’re clearly also interested in a specific self-image, a specific angle on the job description of the architect. So it’s very clever to play this interview over footage of the Center, where it remains unclear who’s speaking: Wright himself, or Howard Roark, the character based on Wright by Ayn Rand in her novel The Fountainhead, or maybe even Yiannis? Whoever it is, his sometimes obnoxious decisionist individualism is beautifully superimposed on the building, which is funny because negative public reactions to the empty building generate feedback. As if ordinary people, as shoppers, were boycotting the architect. In the central shots shot on the roof terrace, the polykatoikia slip into the picture again, which strikes me as no coincidence. Contrasting with architecture that understands itself as a shaping of society (I’m talking more about Wright than Yiannis), this extremely successful typology stands for an adaptable vernacular architecture. A single structural unit permits a wide range of potential uses and modifications. And it is this adaptability of the polykatoikia that is always cited as the reason for their success. I’ve already speculated about the degree to which Yiannis’s refusal to adapt might be responsible for the current vacancy of the Shopping Center. In this way, the film itself is already confrontational, even if the calm shots in which the occasional gentle breeze blows don’t make it look that way. But there’s no need to take sides or speak out against the polykatoikia or the mall, and I assume that’s not your intention. It’s enough that the two are related to each other as aesthetic and social models, giving contradictory answers to the same questions and bringing different qualities with them. Although I do get the impression that you’re making a small statement against the architecture’s oblivion to context by dying the ropes, these anonymous tools of sailing, in the dominant shades of Athens facades (polykatoikia!). You probably wouldn’t agree with that, so I’ll put it differently: an emphasis on context seems important to you, which in turn reveals a perceived oblivion to context as the product of a specific context. Which makes it possible, on the next level, to discuss something like responsibility. I can’t go into more detail on that here, but I think you understand how this links back to the design responsibility I mentioned in my first letter. Looking forward to discussing this further ...Warmest greetings to you, and to Sam,M.