Zenetos: A contextual conceptualist rather than a utopian avant-garde visionaire?
Takis Zenetos was born in Athens, Greece, and designed some of the most beautiful modern buildings in Greece during the 60s and early 70s. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, graduating in 1954. His life in Paris in the lively atmosphere of pioneering artistic and cultural life of the post-war period had a big impact on his work, which is marked by using prefabrication, addressing flexibility and mobility, designing sustainable buildings to the solar heat, recycling and saving of materials and energy, adapting to the natural environment and rearranging the environment as a setting for architecture and using of advance technology.
Major built works of Zenetos in Greece are the Fix Factory, the Kavouri residence, the Amalia Hotel, the Ag. Dimitrios School and the Lycabetus Theatre, all in Athens and its suburbs. Major unbuilt works, among others, are the research by design on “Electronic Urbanism” and his urban plans for new settlements in coastal Greece.
What is interesting is that Zenetos is considered by younger theorists as a pioneer connected to the international avant-garde. This notion is shared by his contemporary (friends and colleagues) architects, but they connect him more with the context of his projects and his era, appearing to be concerned about locality rather than the international debate. Here are two references on his work, one from 2006 and the other from 1978 to render this distinction:
Takis Zenetos was a genuine idealist, contemplating the vision of a new future enlightenment, a period of ultimate universal egalitarianism and progress for the people. In his time, he was understood by very few, while for the majority he was associated with the blurred elusiveness of a myth. Nowadays with this work we are able to conceive him for what he really represents: a prophet not only of his time but also of the century after him.
—Andreas Yakoumatos, Digital visions and Architecture,
Authors: Eleni Kalafati, Dimitris Papalexopoulos, Edilstampa, Athens 2006.
The history of postwar Greek architecture abounds with the solitary struggles of young architects who started out in all optimism to introduce the achievements of contemporary architectural thought, which they aspired to adapt to local conditions and enrich with their own original contributions and the teachings of our architectural tradition. Like all solitary causes, these struggles achieved but a few—and minor—victories. In a marginal capitalistic country such as Greece, the result of all human endeavor is decisively influenced by the general adverse conditions generated by a confused but very determinative network… T. Ch. Zenetos was one of the outstanding representatives of the postwar generation of Greek architects. With his knowledge of technology, he was a tireless researcher, deeply concerned with social problems… [His] works are distinguished by their functional organization, clarity of form, perspicuity of construction and the opportunity they provided the user to shape his own environment, the use of advanced technology, the highlighting of detail and respect for the landscape…
—Orestis Doumanis (editor and personal friend), Takis Ch. Zenetos 1926–1977,
Architecture in Greece Press, Athens 1978.
The osmosis of artificiality and naturalness in two works of Takis Zenetos.
During 1966–7, the office of Takis Zenetos prepared two studies for the development of new settlements in Agia Galini and in Plakias, in the south Rethymno region in Crete.1 These two studies were meant to form an innovative precedent and a trigger for future discussion on the management and development of countryside settlements in Greece. The Agia Galini and Plakias proposals were part of a series of studies for touristic development, commissioned by the Agency for Regional Development of Crete of the [then] Ministry of Coordination.2 As planned by the “Study for Tourism Development in Crete,” Agia Galini would be attributed the role of “urban touristic center,” with 2,000 initial residents and expansion to finally 6,000, after the completion of the plan, while Plakias had a destination for “autonomous touristic settlement.”
Based on studies of Greek urban planners of the 60s, the need for increased social and tourist infrastructure would lead to a densification of urban centers, hotels and small industries, while the traditional urban fabric should coexist with modern buildings. Takis Zenetos has designed the two projects in this given framework. The Agia Galini design was focused as an urban center of southern Crete, transforming the two eastern hills of the existing village into stepped bearing-plates of buildings, excluding the use of vehicles, sheltered an agricultural cooperative union and an industrial area. The 1,200 meters-long beach of Plakias remained “completely un-designed and deserted, preserving its special character,”3 while all the sports facilities, restaurants and nightclubs were programmed towards the inland. The small village with low-rise buildings and a total of 300 beds was designed on the hill, while the existing Mírthios settlement was expanded with villas. A hotel [Liakota] hosting 1,500 beds was designed on the rocky part. The highways were designed out of prefabricated concrete slabs, “given the dubious sustainable use of road transport … with the possibility for reuse as building materials, such as bearing walls, etc.”4
What is common in these two proposals is Zenetos’ approach to regional and town planning which seemed more than improbable on those years. His focus on social environment and technology can be found in the basis of some current projects and his influence can be perceived nowadays, not only in Greece, but also beyond.
The ‘60s and Zenetos’ “Electronic urbanism.”
Although Zenetos in Greece is considered to be detached from the local context and the debate of his contemporaries, and even with these two proposals that seem to be utopian tropes, we could identify several crisscrossing relations with what was happening at that time in Greece, in as much as they were based in the specificities of the given landscape. Zenetos’ thoughts have been previously analyzed and researched in relation to the 60’s international utopian and avant-garde context. His deep influence by the debate in Greece over the balance of society, economy, architecture, tourism and the landscape is neither acknowledged nor researched. His approach to planning for the future of the city must be seen as part of the pioneers of the decade of 1960, without compromising the role of the debate on the society and economy of Greece, architecture, tourism and special landscape.
In mostly all of the avant-garde projects, such as the proposals by Archigram, Independent Group, the Metabolist, and Yona Friedman (among many others), there is a common reference in the confidence and faith of the architects of their capacity to develop an ideal model, ultimately rendered as a world engine with unknown internal laws. In this context, Takis Zenetos’ ideas can be easily understood as part of a general movement, where the search for political awareness, social commitment, and technological improvements where part of it. Zenetos worked in a dynamic era in Greece and dreamed of his own version of the habitation of the future, using the term “electronic-urbanism.” Always updated on the most recent technological developments, he was rather influenced by creators of a more tangible utopia, like Barry Patten and Frei Otto during the 1960s.5 The proposal of Frei Otto for the Highrise of homes near the beach and the construction of Habitat ’67 in Montreal designed by Moshe Safdie, are influential models for his quest on alternative relations of the ground with the city, ownership, services and the social utility networks.
Examining the signs of the times from a distant scope, Tafuri and Dal Co find a common ground in the avant-garde of the 60s: “A prevailing form in all directions that ends in decorative enrichment of the urban chaos, the one that initially intended to curb.”6 Zenetos worked in this framework and, while being less ‘utopian’ than his contemporary visionaries, his “vision” included an “electronic” polycentric Athens. His technical approach was triggered and inspired by a constant search in science magazines of his time. He invented his overhanging cities as mega-constructions in tension that gradually would cover the Earth’s surface, though without stirring it up. The only interference with the ground is the nodal connections in combination with the foundations of the pylons.
This establishes a parallel crust to that one of the earth (the natural one, called in Greek “φυσική” =“physical”), forming a world that espouses fluidity and flexibility and at the same time is based on the grid. It is humanity captive in tele-life that seems so alluring. Zenetos proposes a society where working engines free the humans from boring rituals. To explain this, he wrote, “This free time that will result will give a new dimension to relations between cohabiting individuals, which will be heard by the quiet contemplation of the essence of things…”7
Towards what kind of tourist development?
Since the 1950s, Greek architects were exploring the expressions of modern architecture, placing the question of rendering a quality tourism project on the relation of hotel types with the given landscape. This debate continued in an issue of the journal Architecture in Greece of 1968, where Aris Konstantinidis promoted a management planning of the coasts, Aristomenes Provelengios introduced the term “tourist humanism” and A. Kalinskis introduced touristic units with prefabrication.8 In the same way of thinking, Zenetos reports on the settlements in Crete, mentioning constantly the need to maintain the given character of the place, when the negative examples of Italian and Spanish coastlines were starting to be present. In Crete, he tries to capture the given image through architecture and to display it into the future.
Zenetos worked on the evolution of Agia Galini from a small fishing village to a settlement of 6,000 inhabitants, researching on a “structural system, which is responsive to the natural environment and the topography of the area.”9 The new architecture singularity enhances the existing specificity of the landscape and both are identified as key “accomplices” for tourism development. The issue of size and proportions is controlled, though “while under this proposed structure, the plan is always an integrated sum, in all of the distinctive phases of development.”10
While emulating nature as a fixed background and simulating history as a place to extract evolving ideas, Zenetos follows the teachings of Pikionis whereby “…the forms are in contrast or in similarity to the shapes of landscape and the synthesis of stability and mobility, through the architectural oeuvre, harmonizes with the construction of a new landscape”11 Such an approach is found in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, where “Organic Architecture” provides a method for the perception of the relationship of architecture and place. In the rugged landscape of Plakias, Zenetos considers the synergy of architecture with the strong northern winds necessary. He insists on “taking into account the technical measures of neutralizing”12 so that the negative element is converted into an advantage.
In Agia Galini, the specificity of the architectural form is the tool for resolving all scales of intervention and aims in a recognizable settlement and the creation of an additional tourism where none existed. In the context of economic development through fishing, Zenetos proposes the mutation of the typical fishing boat into a modern equipped boat. With the same attitude that he designed folds, expansions and excavations in whole mountains, Zenetos approaches the intangible data, the moving air and sea. As in his Electronic Urbanism, things have to change in obedience to the dictates of the conditions. Human interventionism is present in the physical and the natural imposing its own perspective. Geomorphology is the foundation, the pretext for an active intervention in nature, creating a new landscape with mixed artificial and natural materials.13
Architectural Exaltation [Metarsiosis].
The integrated form of Agia Galini as well as the modular installation of Plakias has to be seen as perspectives of the proposals of “Electronic Urbanism”. In the two Cretan projects, Zenetos simulates the issue of a stone slab detachment (Greek: plaka) from the ground, the most distinctive aspect of the geomorphology of the Greek mountains. The idea of the “ground” is very dominant in his work, either by exaggerating the relief or by ignoring it. The horizontal slabs of “tele-lifetime” overlap with the natural landscapes of peculiarities. The two plans in Crete seem to become more an ‘ethical’ background of his work in an effort to find a kind of “alibi” and “legalization” from nature itself of his current theory and can be seen as experimentation, as an intermediate phase (or a snapshot) of their complete change. The morphology of the premises on rural settlements is seen by Zenetos as nature’s economy, while for larger formations, such as cities, the technological culture results in creating a bidirectional landscape.
The “unattainable” in the urban project of Zenetos was present in his thinking “…because the most likely scenario is that this will stay at the proposal stage…” but, “the way of poets is to ignore reality. Dream rather than act. What they do is just results of fantasy. And fantasy creatures are simply constructed. In Greek, the construction is called poetry. (ποίηση)”14
His synergy with nature cannot be compared to the one of the level of Archimedes, but his poetry certainly reaches that of Jean Tinguely,15 with common references to the movement and taming of the wind, the reuse of materials, and the experimentation and the personal moments of self-criticism and irony.
This text is part of the current research for the forthcoming book Takis Zenetos. Unbuilt Tropes. Barcelona, dpr-barcelona, 2013.