The Education of an Architect

The Education of an Architect

An essay by Michael Lykoudis

In the 1950s and 1960s the last vestiges of traditions that organized cities and buildings were still visible around the world.  In the shadow of the apocalyptic Second World War, a brave new world was being shaped and my entire generation grew up under the shadow of William Butlers Yeats’s “rough beast, its hour came round at last, [slouched] towards Bethlehem to be born”.

 

I remember my grandmother holding me on the sill of our diminutive neoclassical house in the Koukaki district of Athens when I was about two.  A gypsy with a dancing bear appeared on our unpaved street with a backdrop of bullet riddled houses left over from the German occupation and the civil war.  I was awed by the sight of this creature being paraded about in a rhythmic dance and the image has been imprinted in my memory ever since.  After the bear had passed beyond our house and into the square, my grandmother pointed to the war torn facades across the street and said,  “We will build a new city, a better city, a place where you will be safe and these horrors (of the war) will never happen again.”

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A few years later our house was demolished and a new nondescript apartment building went up, a scene that was to be repeated over and over in this beautiful 19th century European capital until the city that had existed was no longer.  The barbarism of that destruction is still embedded in my psyche.  

 

I was born in Boston in 1954.  My parents had come to the US to pursue their PhDs and my mother found herself at Radcliffe studying archaeology and my father at Purdue studying aeronautical engineering.  Their interests, one in the past and the other in the future, were to profoundly shape my view of the world.  At three months old, my mother and I took the train from Boston and we arrived in West Lafayette or as William H. Gass would say more than twenty years later, “in the heart of the heart of the country”.    

 

When I was one, in what was to become an annual ritual, my father would drive my mother and me to Indianapolis where we would take the train to New York.  After staying in midtown for a few days, we would go to the west side piers to board one of two ships, the TSS Olympia or SS Queen Frederica.  Each vessel would take its turn sailing us over the Atlantic on a ten-day voyage to Piraeus.  Sometimes we would go over twice, once in May and again in December.

The winter crossings were the most memorable as the vastness of these ships became more apparent in the emptiness, cold and damp of the North Atlantic at that time of year.  In the summer, the chaotic and emotional arrival to Piraeus with passengers meeting relatives and friends, the near disasters of precariously held crates being unloaded was a stark contrast to the quiet streets and avenues we would take in my grandfather’s 1940s Navy surplus grey Ford.  Under the scorching mid-day sun, the streets were deserted and the dirt roads brought dust and heat into the interior of the car.  Outside with the sounds of the car rumbling over the road, there was tranquility everywhere.

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This tranquility was but a curtain.  I was to discover that Athens was a teacher.  It was a nineteenth century city but with electricity. We had a refrigerator but also an ice box just in case.  Each morning would begin with a delivery of ice by a donkey or mule drawn cart of the ice man. This would be followed by a morning parade of produce or dry goods merchants, all with their own animals hauling their wares. After siesta, the afternoon was signaled by the arrival of a water truck that would spray the street to settle the dust and paved the way for “the Ambassador” who was an ice cream seller on a tricycle pedaled contraption.  He was dressed in a Linconesque manner, with coat tails and a stove pipe hat.  I could hear his arrival with tens of shouting children chasing him to get their share of a cone or cup.

Every day had an order to it.  In-between the deliveries and conversations with the cart sellers, my grandmother and mother would take me along to the grocers, fishmonger, bakery and other merchants for daily needs.  In the evenings my grandfather or aunt would accompany me to the playground in the square near the house or take me to have a dessert in the café across the street.  A few times a week and at least every Sunday, my grandfather would take me to the Royal Gardens where he would watch me sail a boat in the duck pond and talk politics with his friends and acquaintances.  Invariably we would end up at the grand café Zonar's which is still there today so he could have a coffee and I would enjoy a fruit drink or dessert.

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Once a month or so, the family would get in the car and drive to a nearby town for a long lunch or take the food and find an unspoiled, quiet and empty spot in the country for a picnic.  Each year had its rituals celebrating Christmas, Easter and the plethora of feast days of friends and family.

 

There was a daily, weekly, monthly and annual rhythm to life.  It was organized by the relative proximity of each activity.  The farther out from our house the less the frequency and the more special that activity was.

Athens could have been just another pretty city of facades and quaint spaces and the memories just a bit of nostalgia. But to me Athens was a textbook about how to think about life and of what I would later value most. I will come back to this later on.
 

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On the three occasions during those years, when my parents and I did not go to Greece, my father piled my mother, me and my pet turtle in our 1962 Oldsmobile and took Route 66 to Los Angeles where he worked as a consultant to several aerospace companies.  On the way, I saw a bit of Americana with its neon signed motels, vast prairies, towering monuments, glorious national parks and regional identities that emanated from the native Americans who had lived there and the geology and climate of the areas.  Los Angeles was the modern city - a city of lights, convertibles and superb suburbanism or I should say rather poor urbanism.  For three months my mother and I were pedestrians in a city that was decidedly not.  At five years old I was traumatized by the fact that a policeman gave my mother a ticket for jay walking.  

 

While in Los Angeles for those summers, my father invited  home for dinner aircraft designers and project managers of various space projects.  Back home at Purdue, I would spend many Sundays in my father’s laboratory looking over dismembered aircraft where students were charged with reassembling them.  There were also the abandoned jets from the Korean War that sat outside his lab only meters from the main runway of the airport.  Scrambling over them and sitting in the occasional open cockpit was a favorite pastime for me and my friends. At home the guests of the department of aeronautical engineering included the astronauts, cosmonauts and other major figures in aviation and aerospace. My love for ships and aircraft grew as all of society embraced the future with an enthusiastic optimism.  Eventually I wanted to fly myself and took flying lessons.

 

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In 1967 the military seized power in Greece. This was to be yet another transformative role in my thinking. My family were not on the “left”, but certainly democratically inclined and because of that, we were not allowed back into the country for several years. After the intervention by two senators of Indiana, my parents were granted safe passage back to Athens to take care of my ailing grandparents.  A year later, I followed and started spending my summers there again.  I took up painting and found the streets of old Athens still had the warm humanity I had remembered as a child.  I would set my easel up in a street and would find myself being treated to fresh squeezed orange juice, pies and other delicacies by the neighborhood denizens. Sometimes the residents would invite me in to opine about the artwork in their living rooms.

In 1968, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King stunned me.  I had been active in the campaign of Eugene McCarthy and felt that Bobby had acted opportunistically entering the campaign when it was clear that Gene not only stood a chance but was garnering enthusiastic support.  Kennedy came to Purdue to speak shortly before his assassination, and I was mesmerized by his words and powerful presence. .  While I did not change my support for him, the 1968 campaign, the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention and all of the rapid unfolding of the civil rights and environmental movement fueled my sense of injustice and outrage about what humans were capable of doing to each other.  It amazed me that we were capable of creating so much beauty while at the same time, unleashing incredible cruelty on each other.

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After a short and unhappy first semester at Indiana University in 1972, I returned to Greece to paint.  On one evening I was invited to the house of family friends who introduced me to an architect, Myrto Costica who had studied under Mies van der Rohe in Chicago.  After a conversation about politics, art, tradition and cities, Myrto asked me to bring my paintings to her office.  After the visit I was offered an internship.  During the next six months, I prepared a design for a duplex house and went to the island of Sifnos (my mother’s ancestral home) to oversee the construction of a new house for an Athenian family.  

 

The workers on the site, taught me about construction.  They showed me how to dry lay a wall, stucco and plaster.  One of the workers, Giannakos Komis, happiliy by chance turned out to be my uncle. During the German occupation he had traveled to Athens, under cover of darkness in a sailboat of one of his friends,  to seek medical help from my grandfather, who worked for the Red Cross.  After his treatment he convalesced at our house in Athens.  I was very much surprised when one morning at the construction site, he produced a photograph of my mother and aunt leaning up against the outside wall of our house.  That weekend Myrto arrived on the island and the man who turned out to be my uncle slaughtered a number of his sheep and chickens and opened up his barrels of wine to celebrate the reunification of our family with the entire village.

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By the end of my time in Athens, I had decided to go to architecture school. After being accepted to Cornell and my subsequent visit there, I felt Cornell was the place to be if I were to pursue being an architect.  As it happened, in 1961 I had spent my 1st grade in Ithaca when my father was a visiting professor in the College of Engineering so this was, while not quite like the Odyssey, a return to a familiar place. 

Architecture school was not what I had thought it would be.  My thinking of traditional architecture as the Lingua Franca of the profession was quickly dashed as a particular aesthetic hegemony ensued throughout my student years.  I soon realized that if I were to be part of the modern world, I needed to embrace modernism although I remained a skeptic of industrial culture and all that it was to symbolize.  

 

Cornell, despite its subjugation to a particular philosophy of the future, had a few professors that had a profound influence on my thinking as a student and more importantly years later when I was able to make connections between my own values and experiences, what they were saying and what was transpiring in the world.  Michael Dennis, Charles Pearman, Maria Romañach, Colin Rowe (although I never had him in studio, I did take his theory classes), and others connected history to modern practice.

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Cornell was a bumpy road.  Alex Kira was my first critic and was to play a significant role in my time at Cornell.  He was a devout Miesian, which endeared him to me after my time with Myrto Costica. Our first project brief was to design a resort village on an Aegean Island.  I could not be happier, knowing what I knew about Greek village architecture and urbanism.  My design was modeled after a traditional Greek island village.  At the first review, it became clear that I had missed the boat.  My classmates and the TAs burst out laughing.  Alex with comforting words, warmly suggested that this was not architecture and that I should work on something more original.  He worked with me closely afterward and in subsequent years to realign my focus.  During Thesis in fifth year, my thesis was to explore how classicism could have modern applications and had spent the preceding summer at the American School of Classical Studies collecting drawings of construction of Greek temples.  Seeing these drawings, Alex said with characteristic clarity, that I was not to design a classical building.  In the end, the project did not fulfill my expectations, but it seemed to please the jury and my critics.  

 

I spent the five years at Cornell trying to follow the program and figure out how to work with a world that on one hand I embraced, on the other that I was at odds with.  Visiting faculty members Panos Koulermos and Aldo Rossi took time to talk to me and challenge my skepticism of those still turbulent times and with a positive view of the future. Both had a gentle view of tradition, having Mediterranean sensibilities and sensitivities that allowed them a sense of scale, the vernacular and urbanism. They were also committed to the beauty of technology, loving cars and other industrial objects, as I remember in a kind of Felliniesque manner.  Although I was probably too immature to understand it at the time, Cornell taught me principles of composition, urbanism, how to think analytically, and how a part could inform the whole, the whole can inform the part, and further systematically be present in all aspects of a design.  In later years, this education taught me to better understand the fluidity of thought that my teachers had tried to impart to us.

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Graduating in 1979, in the middle of a recession, it was not easy to find a job, much less a good one.  After searching in Boston for over a month, the architect and Cornell alumnus Earl Flansburgh took pity on me and offered me a two-week stint lettering for one of his projects.  At the same time, the Miami health facilities design firm of Smith Korach Hayet and Haynie was embarking on an expansion of their engineering practice to engage design and airports.  After a brief telephone interview, they offered me a job for which I was very grateful.  After a year the economy started to improve and I joined the firm of Spillis, Candela in nearby Coral Gables.  There, I made friends with my colleagues who were teaching at the Department of Architecture at the University of Miami.  There was commonality in our education, values and belief in urbanism and tradition.  The advent of Postmodernism allowed me the chance to believe that traditional architecture and urbanism were making a comeback into the mainstream.  Although, it was filled with irony and kitsch, the Postmodernists were open to some form of dialogue and the movement itself spawned a renewal in reprints and books on modern theory that included the instrumentality of history.  

 

While at Spillis Candela, I was poring over the latest edition of Progressive Architecture and saw a small article on a new courthouse in Connecticut by Allan Greenberg.  I thought that this was the best postmodern design I had ever seen.  In reality, it was a serious classical building façade despite it being a recladding of a strip mall supermarket.  I looked up where Allan Greenberg was located and after seeing that the office was in New Haven, realized that I would never get a chance to go there.  After graduate school and another two-year stint back in Athens, now as a Greek registered architect, I returned to live in New York.  It is there that I remembered Allan Greenberg’s firm after seeing the State Department Treaty Rooms project as the cover story in Architectural Record.  Now within my reach, I sent a letter and my resume to Allan and within a few weeks was hired by the still young office. 

 

At Allan Greenberg, the second wave of my education unfolded.  Allan’s office was one of two in the United States that actively pursued classicism.  He ran the office as an atelier, all members of the staff were expected to use his library and a myriad of new names, buildings, cities and ways of thinking were cascading into my mind.  The years at Allan’s office taught me to think of classicism among other ways, as a system by which one sees the relationship of construction to architectural form.  Of course, Allan himself was a natural teacher.  Our meetings were design reviews and philosophical musings.  It felt more like graduate school but with the pressure of production and getting things built. 

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The other staff members in the office at the time also took time to explain things to me and gradually I became capable of holding my own.  Charles Barrett, Donald Rattner and others were especially helpful and collaborative in discussing and understanding classicism.  I owed much to the examples of my fellow administrators there, David Harlan, Daniel Lee and Theresa Angelini, each of whom brought another dimension of what it takes to run a practice and to build classicism in the modern age.

 

In 1990, I heard that Thomas Gordon Smith was at Notre Dame and that he was looking for new faculty members. I joined the School in 1991 and was able to focus on my own practice and had the time to think about what mattered to me and the world. 

 

The last 25 years at Notre Dame were and are a continuation of my formative years. My life has been rich in experiences but also fragmented.  Fragmented between the past, the present and the future, between Greece and the US, between tradition and modernity.  At Notre Dame, my colleagues, my students and the staff all have been instrumental in my thinking about how we build and live together at all levels; as families, communities, nations and the planet.  To them I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for giving continuity and clarity to an otherwise increasingly disjointed world.  

 

The classical mind, by definition examines the future and the past as a continuum.  In that way, Classicism is a philosophy that embodies the principle of sustainability.  The ever-evolving character of classical and traditional architecture reflects the changes in conventions and the renewal brought about by each generation as the architectural elements of continuity remind us of our debt to the past.  The lessons learned from tradition continue to be relevant to resolving tomorrow’s problems.  We are told that certain Native American tribes never made any decisions without considering the consequences for seven generations forward and back.  Today we barely think of the next financial quarter or of what happened the previous day.  We could think of tradition as the projection of society’s highest aspirations into the future thus ensuring the best and perhaps the most sustainable aspects of a culture.  Tradition therefore is not duplication but rather a process that is always inventing upon itself.  It is the inventive quality of tradition that allows each generation to shape the future in its own image and it is tradition’s projection of the past that provides the sense of stewardship that is required for sustainability and durability.   While the idea of the classical reappears every so often, it does so as a reincarnation of itself.  Perhaps it has lost its original consciousness but it contains the same essential characteristics to be readapted to the conventions and needs of its time.  What we do with this inheritance is not up to us.  Our role is to send forth to the future the accumulated wisdom of the past and to preserve the earth in such a way as to allow our descendants when their time comes to send it forth as well.  

 

In addition to ideas, cities and buildings, we need to preserve the experiential part of our formative years. There is no substitute for feeling the brine of the North Atlantic or the smell of the dew on Roman cobblestones in the early morning.  All humans want to be from somewhere.  The sense of place and belonging cannot be replaced by smartphones and the technology of our brave new virtual world.  While we need that too, it can only work if there is a connection back to the earth that is identifiable and clear. When I am asked what formed my ideas as an architect, it was these visceral and tactile experiences between North America and the Mediterranean that engaged all my senses, emotions and mind.