Rising from the Ground – a house in Sikamino, Greece by Tan Architects

Article for Uncube Magazine, March 2013

Photo by Filippo Poli

Apparently in Greece, not everyone appreciates the added quality that architectural design can contribute to living space. In a country where an architect’s title is protected but not their practice, architects sign few of the new building permits and contribute to the design of even less of them. Such a lack of appreciation cannot be said of the clients of Tense Architecture Network (TAN), who commissioned this young practice to design this luxurious rural house, set in an olive grove, as a new home for them in the northern part of Attica. According to these clients, their curiosity about the outcome of the architects’ vision, and its reflection of both them and their lifestyle, turned into a fruitful collaboration at all the stages of the design process. They still enthuse about how they wandered around the house even when it was still on paper.

TAN is a young practice established in 2004. A small and flexible team of between 3 and 7, they have realised projects throughout Greece. Though their built work has been mainly residential, they’ve also been successful in several public competitions, including winning first prizes for a municipality building in Arkalohori and the restoration of the Herakleion shipyards in Crete. Their design language was already evident in previous residential projects such as the sculpted, exposed concrete of their house in Kallitechnoupolis or the rigorous geometry of a house in Kifisia, and paved the way for the dynamic rhombic shape of this residence in Sikamino, which still incorporates a clear spatial organisation of program and an easy-to-read plan. Their architecture is an inseparable amalgam of material properties and structural requirements, with each of their buildings, radically different due to their response to specific site conditions, consistently materializing a tension between existing and new: landscape and building.

From the siting of ancient temples to the intense search for a specifically “Greek” modern architecture in the mid-twentieth century, the landscape has always been a defining force in Greek architecture. Architects have been seeking to integrate their buildings into their surroundings, without surrendering them to the bewildering range of topography in the country. According to TAN, their aim in this house in Sikamino was to make its architecture both disappear and yet manifest itself vigorously. In this, it successfully draws on the legacy of two significant architects of Greek mid-twentieth century modernism: the subtle integration into the landscape mastered in the work of Aris Konstantinidis, and the dynamic forms in the pioneering work of Takis Zenetos.

From the street, the building is hardly visible. But on approach, what slowly unfolds in front of you is a strip of earth emerging from the ground, which rises to form the roof of the house, all set against a spectacular view towards the mountains on the island of Euboea in the distance. At 60 meters long, and planted with lavender, thyme and other herbs, this roof is accessible and forms the top level of series of contrasting qualities of living space: from the darker, part-buried storage basement level, to the lighter, half-open living spaces of the ground floor, to this hovering, almost natural experience of the green roof.

The form of the shell of the house reflects the complete synergy between the architectural and structural design, which defines its roof and walls, all constructed of exposed reinforced concrete. From the cultivatable part of the surrounding field, an opening allows a curvilinear car-ramp to enter down the length of the rhomboid shape of the house. On the ground floor, the bedrooms occupy each end of the plan, while a roughly 5 meter wide central section hosts the living space. Below, the basement contains the kitchen, a guest room and storage of agricultural tools and machinery.

In the living spaces, the ample light entering through the glass façades creates a sense of continuity between indoor and outdoor life, a daily contact with the encompassing nature, while the evening twilight transforms the surrounding landscape into a cinematographic scene.

The recent completion of such a spacious and affluent home as the Sikamino house, which has been nominated for the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award, might seem odd in the midst of an ongoing socio-economic crisis – which following the pre-2004 Olympic Games building boom, has now seen a virtual halt to all architectural production in Greece. But it is a reflection of the practice’s attitude of not being afraid to spend time in developing a project, one that has proved vital to the practice’s survival through the crisis to date. Tilemachos Andrianopoulos, founder of TAN explains: “Our practice was not part of the previous euphoria: all our projects take time both in development and realization. So we were obliged to refuse several pre-crisis proposals which had a quick agenda. We have a small house for instance that was conceived in 2004, which for many reasons – including economic – is still under construction. Many of our projects, mainly residential, were commissioned before the crisis, and are still ongoing, keeping the practice running.” Tense Architecture Network bring a passion to their work that means potential clients need to be willing to allow the time and persistence for a design to develop – and eventually manifest itself in such refined living spaces as those seen in this house in Sikamino.