PROF. PANOS KOULERMOS

The Time of Our Lives
Julian Reid

The greatest impression that Panos made upon me as a young architect was his belief that "Order must be the foundation of architecture". At the time I did not really understand what this meant, I just knew that it sounded right on a very basic, gut-instinct level. I felt that all great works of architecture, and art in general, were not random occurrences but very deliberate creations, with specific meaning and context. I was excited to find someone who was able to verbalize and manifest these instincts which I felt, and I was devoted to Panos as an architect and teacher from that point on. At the time I sensed that many of my fellow students at USC found this belief to be a bit uninteresting, given that deconstructivism was all the rage at the time and the most popular studios usually resulted in "buildings" derived from the cross section of television sets or some incomprehensible text by a self-important French philosopher. Panos and I along with others felt that these studios--while they did have redeeming qualities--often made undisciplined or casual architecture students look like great architecture students.

So a core group of USC students--myself, Mark Gangi, Knut Luscher, and others--continued to toe the line on the "Architecture-is-Order" school of design. This idea, though still very generalized at the time for me, had a great deal of influence on my schoolwork. After graduation I continued working at Panos' studio in Westwood. In 1992, Panos was chosen to do a project for the Greek pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. Mark Gangi, Panos and myself along with several others from Los Angeles traveled to Venice for the show. It was a truly memorable time in our lives. Ironically, the American pavilion featured architects whose bombastic entries epitomized the "trends" at the time. I was proud that our design over at the Greek pavilion provided a poetic rebuttal to this grandiose self-importance.

* * *

After the Biennale, Panos returned to Los Angeles while Mark and I went on to Athens and then to Crete to see Panos' work for the Foundation of Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH) and the University of Crete--two projects which we had worked on with Panos. When we arrived in Heraklion everything was taken care of--Panos had arranged the hotel rooms, transportation, and instructions for his associates to show us where to go. He insisted that all of our time be spent understanding the architecture there. I realize now that it was very important to him that Mark and I understand on a fundamental level why he created the architecture that he did. He insisted that we first spend a day at the Palace of Knossos before seeing his buildings. We did so, and there was a powerful sense of connection when we stood in the great courtyard, with the famous sculpture of the bull's horns at the end of the courtyard, framed by the indentations in the mountains beyond representing the horns of the great bull-god, the Minotaur, the mythical earth-shaker of Minoan lore. It was what Panos would call a "Eureka!" moment. Here was an architecture that creates order on a human level (physically, spiritually, emotionally) while at the same time acknowledging the divine order of nature and Gods (the order of the stars and planets, of the Homeric epics, of Genesis in the Bible).

Having found our religion, Mark and I set out for Panos' buildings the next day. The campuses were about 45 minutes outside of Heraklion in a semi-rural area mostly populated by olive groves and vineyards. The buildings had not yet been completed, mainly finishing work needed to be done, so the immediate environment was quiet and peaceful. Just the kind of environment that architects love for taking pictures and exploring. We arrived at FORTH first. Finally we were seeing these buildings we had worked on and seen pictures of. My most vivid memory of this moment was standing in front of the rough concrete forms, in that light that only exists in Greece, with the mountains and Mediterranean in the background, and our driver standing behind us prattling on about how we "only had an hour". Mark and I looked at each other and smiled. The driver was soon zooming away--alone--with Mark and I left behind not knowing or caring how we would get back to Heraklion.

The entry to the building is through a small amphitheater, with the building steps in the middle and the seating areas curving forward along the flanks, embracing the visitors as they enter. I clearly remember the afternoon that Panos and I sat in his Westwood studio designing this feature on 8.5x11 sheets of vellum--the drawings had to be faxed to Crete that evening so they would be ready for start of construction the next morning. Holding up the plan of the entry-amphitheater I could not help but point out the resemblance to the horn's of a bull. Panos liked that.

Once through the amphitheater and up the steps you enter into the "Galleria", essentially a double-height circulation axis bisecting 4 structures, each structure square in plan, two on each side of the Galleria. Of course this is the prototypical urban passageway found throughout the Mediterrannean and Europe, perhaps most spectacularly implemented in the Galleria in Milan, or more intimately in the passages found in the island cities of Santorini or Patmos.

The end of the Galleria opens up to the Plaza, the "void" object in Panos' composition of 4 squares. Again the connection was immediate for me: the frescoed images from the courtyard of Knossos depicting the bullfighter grabbing the bull's horn's and then cart-wheeling over the bull came into sharp focus. In reality of course the Plaza was created for less-challenging human events--perhaps a school reception after classes, with wine, music and dancing. One of the most dramatic features of the FORTH plaza is the L-shaped pergola framing the mountains in the distance. When I saw this I knew I had seen it before--on the roof terrace of Terragni's Casa del Popolo in Como, where the open structural members perfectly frame the Duomo in the distance.

At the end of the day Mark and I packed up and headed for Heraklion. A passing farmer stopped to give us a ride in the back of his truck. Driving away I looked back at the buildings glowing in the twilight of that early Greek evening and realized that it would be a long time--most likely many years--before I returned. I took consolation in knowing that I would spend this time talking and laughing and learning with my friend and mentor Panos Koulermos.

* * *

Having visited Panos' buildings, I am still overwhelmed by the powerful sense of discipline and respect for architecture as an art and practice. The realization that architecture is hard work came to me completely and fully. I came to understand what I had only felt before: that a work of architecture must be designed with a passionate sense of purpose, that even the most random of elements are there for a reason, perhaps to create an unseen connection to history or the land, or to make a silent offering to whatever divine entity passes judgement on works of architecture.

Main page | More Comments