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Eleni Bastéa on Architecture and Theory

Interview Date: 10-10-2012
(More interviews from this person)

You live in New Mexico, where you teach general courses on the history of architecture at the school of Architecture and Planning. You are also author of many books and the recipient of several brands and awards.

How important is the history of architecture? How do we evaluate architecture in historical terms?

If I were to put on just the teacher’s head and think like a teacher right now, I know that colleagues who teach design encourage students to study history of architecture in order to become better architects. I see the value of architectural history being too fold. On one level, we can say it’s only history, but there’s a historian called Colin Wood who has a line, a paraphrase explaining why we study history and he says “The best way to know what a man can do, is to study what a man has done”.

I see that in architectural history, also, we are allowed to understand the human condition better; we can study monuments like the Pyramids and wonder why those were constructed, when obviously most of people did not live in the lap of luxury. So, I think, if we are looking at architectural history as humanity’s feel, it is a key to history and it helps us understand what man can do.

Now, if I look at architectural history as a field that will help architects in design, I think that in that case, it doesn’t even matter what the year was, or even what the name of the architect was, because I’ve watched my students in cases they have troubling on the design and they’re stuck, then they might open the book, or go to a website or whatever, and look for some building that is similar which may help them with the answer. So, on that level, I think it’s more like a tool key that allows you to see how other people; other architects deal with the problem and what solution they give to it. That level is much more of a direct search. I don’t think, as they say it, the particular period or the name of the star or whatever matters, it’s more like ‘how can I do this better’.

Maybe, one could talk about right brain, left brain, where the right brain is the more creative and direct, while the left brain is more memorizing and cognitive. I see those two operating in studying architectural history; so, if you are trying to summarize, let’s say, or even trying to achieve a certain period, for example, the 18th century, then it’s more left brain activity; on the other hand, if you are trying to understand orders and how to move through spaces and scale, trying to draw some of the principles into your design, all this is a more creative process.

What I ‘m saying, is that there is the more formal aspect of architectural history that helps you in the design, process and then there is the more humane aspect of architectural history that allows you to understand the culture. And I know that some students are more drawn or have a greater aptitude than some others; usually you have to choose: I think it’s very regular choosing between a maker and an interpreter. That’s what happens in the United States, the famous architects are just architects and the famous critics are critics or historians, even if they have trained in both.

You are the editor and the contributing author of the Ecology Lemony and Architecture. On this book are examined the ways institutions and individuals construct national memory. Can architecture nowadays construct national memory?

In terms of the messages that architecture can communicate and help establish the national identity or questioning, I utterly oscillate myself that the building itself can communicate meanings, but it’s also how we describe the building that communicates meanings. For instance, the White Tower is one of the symbols of Thessaloniki, but we do not necessary say that it used to be a prison; we just see it as a cell or they are still questioning when it was built.

I see the debates of scholars, as well as politicians, actually and majors, about buildings, more telling about the role of architectural and national history than the buildings themselves; it’s the interpretation of the buildings that can become very heated, but it’s also about the function of the buildings. For example, how do we decide again, in Thessaloniki, what is the function of Rotonda? Do we want to see it as a church again, or do we go back to its original function as a museum? Those are difficult struggles, because they show everyone that the meaning of the monuments is not defined, they can become hot issues; I think that makes my job more interesting, because it’s always reflecting the meaning we attribute to the monuments if that’s how we see ourselves today as Greek citizens, or as part of the European Union, or as part of the Middle East and so on; but on the other hand, it’s also true that architects can have their own edits about a building, but they cannot force you and me, for example, to agree with that.

In architecture schools we tend to assume, still I think, that architect is God and we just breathe new meanings into his or her structures. The truth, no matter, is that the architect will come and go and the people using the building have the ability to layer their own meanings. So, it’s conflicted. I see the conflict of the meanings of architecture and national identity, they play their role with monuments as opposed to new buildings, because in new buildings you can assign the government, the commission, the prime minister, so we can assign with specific periods in our pre-history, it’s clear.

Is the world financial crisis an opportunity for everyone to consider the ways of re-designing constructed buildings and the urban environment?

I guess the opportunities are, for one, the effort to make the city’s plan better, not with expanded infrastructure, but work with what we have and improve it. To me, that’s a wonderful challenge for architects. Since I tend to appreciate that sense of environments better, it’s hopeful to see the architects are working on improving structures and making them interesting. Also, improving them, leads to energy efficiency and so on.

Maybe painting or adding fenestrations improves their efficiency as well. Lately, they have been dealing with small houses and that’s very nice, because we do not need to have a plan with single family houses of 5000 square meters each. Another possible positive development for architects is the effort to invest in public transport and create opportunities for entertainment, which involves people coming together, like taking care of parks, open spaces or places of educating, instead of assuming that everybody who wants to can just get the car and go somewhere. So, I’m optimistic; I know that we are learning some things because of the crisis, but the question is “do we remember them after the crisis is over?” Unfortunately, it seems that people forget all about recycling, reusing, refurnishing and electro feeding. Fortunately, in some way, there is, certainly, an effort in the United States to look at some of the vernacular buildings that were more energy efficient.

So you think that this economic crisis is the main reason we focus on ecology?

I know that this crisis had already been an issue for the last ten years. Mostly, I think, developing Europe where the students we have are more interested in new materials, building materials, structural systems that have high efficiencies and so on and also studying the materials that are produced, is something that helps us deal with the energy efficiency and as a result the finance. In that respect, I think the United States still has a lot to learn. I would say that understanding the effect of the global warming is what leaded to this recent concern about energy. When I was getting my Master Degree in the University of Berckley, there was research of solar energy that was started and Berckley was a good place to pursuit that. I don’t think it’s just the economic crisis; possibly the economic crisis comes as a setback where fewer opportunities are given to students to research new materials. I’m not saying it’s easy, but maybe we will end up in wiser.

Can an architectural book influence ordinary people, non-architects to deal with architecture and demand better urban environment? How can this be done?

I don’t have any book in mind, to deal with an example that people have read that book and have changed their mind about the place of architecture and the world; if you know that people, let me know! I’ve always been looking for books that could inspire our students and make them decide whether to be an architect or not.

Well, there is a book, it’s been a long time ago, called “The Fountainhead” that describes a very individualist young architect, but in a good line like he is the hero and the rest of the world cannot see his vision. From my perspective, it ends up in a very educative book, as you probably know that architects work in teams; they do not work as a single God looking for solutions. But, I cannot think of a book that has impact on non-architect people.

Maybe the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” I can say that helped the Americans see the problems of the slavery and it touched people. I would mention that maybe the descriptions of places in novels, or maybe watching movies or documents, for instance, often make people think “I would like to go there and experience that place”, or watching Japanese movies and want to visit what they show, the downtown parts of Tokyo or the ancient sites. That’s probably a way the non-architect people are connected with architecture and travelling. In addition, there have recently been some small videos that are posted on Youtube, for example, seeing Florence and hearing the people singing opera in a marketplace, or seeing, for instance, Covent Garden and the performers there and wanting to go. So, my answer is that I cannot think of any book, maybe I haven’t come across them yet, but I am drawn to the power of media to inspire you, to make you long for a place you haven’t seen and want to go there and maybe that’s the way we get to experience architecture better.

Do you think that for those people who are travelling more than others or have a foundation from the younger ages would be easier to hold an architecture book and read it?

It depends on the architecture book; if it’s boring no! I may be critical of the way we write architecture books, especially for the United Kingdom for English language publications; they can be a little bit cold, they can look a little bit like a telephone book! Maybe it’s because the person they have in mind is somebody designing.

For instance, if you are struggling with the entrance for the building, there you can find solutions and be inspired, but it wouldn’t mean for the book that somebody, who is not an architect, can read before going to bed, right? So, in that respect, I think actually some of the more reflecting travel books do a better job. They have photographs, but also essays containing valuable information about places. Those can guide you more to go and experience places, because there is the personal voice of the author saying, for example, “we went to Bombay and stores were closed on Monday and we couldn’t see some things” and so on. I do want to see people reading these books and spend time on travelling, because all that allows you to see that you are not the center of the universe.

For example, I get a little bit impatient with all these people who are comparing everything with what’s going on in Greece, in the context of “Greece is the best place”. So, it’s good just to allow your perspective and consider that maybe for the person who is reading the book, Rome is the best place or have in mind, that for somebody living in New York, there is no place like New York, or for somebody living in San Francisco, they think that it’s the most beautiful city, same with Istanbul.

Respecting the different perspectives is the main value you bring home after travelling around the world. To me, that’s important, because it can show that everyone can travel, but I get a little bit impatient with people who see travel almost as another form of capitalism and say “yes I have been here and there, I just know everything”; but they actually don’t. They just had the financial ability and language facility to do so. You should be respectful to many of the people you visit in your travel who do not have the opportunity to do the kind of travel you’ve done, especially if you go to, let’s say, Cappadocia, because it’s not a central place that people who are not well-off can visit. I realize that it is a privilege to get to know where they live, but also, to be aware of the fact that you remain a kind of mystery to them, because, even if they have interest in your place, they may have no money to visit it.

If travel can open up your mind, your heart and your head, then it does bring you back wiser, rich and more impressed with the ability of human kind to leave its mark and its talent. You don’t forget your roots, to look around where you are and to respect the fact that you really know very little, even if you have lived in a place for a long time.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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Eleni Bastea

Eleni Bastéa

Country: Greece


Eleni Bastéa was born and grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece. She holds an undergraduate degree in art history from Bryn Mawr College, and a Master’s of Architecture and a Ph.D. in history of architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. She is the recipient of several grants and awards, including the Graham Foundation Grant and the ACSA New Faculty Teaching Award.Bastéa is the author of The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth (Cambridge University Press, 2000), co-winner of the John D. Criticos Prize, and a finalist for the Sir Steven Runciman Award. The book was also published in Greek (author’s translation): Αthens 1834-1896: Neoclassical City planning and Greek National (Libro, 2008). She is also the editor and a contributing author of the anthology Memory and Architecture (University of New Mexico Press, 2004). She is currently working on two books: Time of the Doves: Cultural Exchanges among Greeks and Turks and The Hungry Heart: Feeding the Creative Spirit (working titles). She has lectured at several universities in the US and Europe.

Bastéa teaches general courses on the history of architecture, as well as seminars on 19th and 20th century architecture and urbanism, memory and architecture, and contemporary indigenous architecture (co-taught with Professor Ted Jojola). Her new course, “Greece and Turkey, 1922-Present: From Conflict to Rapprochement,” offered through the history department, received support from the European Union Center of Excellence (2010). She has joined the team of the British art magazine .Cent as creative associate and architecture editor. Her short story “The High Heels” (2005), written in Greek, won the Navarino Foundation Prize, and is included in a Modern Greek Reader at Dartmouth College. She spends most of her summers in Greece with her family

:: Photo information and credits: © Eleni Bastéa, Mark Fonte