“Softscapers, not hardscapers!” – Interview with TOPIO7 – Olga Ioannou

Topio7 was established in 2012 as a landscape and architectural design practice, and the three have been working together ever since. Having to cope in the chaotic, post-crisis Athenian metropolis is one of their greatest challenges, as the city lacks design infrastructure and is currently struggling with introversion. “Athenians would rather spend time in their semi-private balconies than outside,” they say, “and who could blame them? Open or green spaces in the downtown neighbourhoods are so scarce or fragmented.” At the moment, all three of them agree that public space is not designed to allow people to move freely and to feel that flow; the city lacks the design connections necessary to achieve this sense of fluidity, while public space is constantly besieged by private owners and commercial and recreational uses. In this context, reclaiming public space is for Topio7 a necessity. And so is introducing a softer and greener management of urban space, using nature as the structural element in a human-centred ecology. Their two recent first-prize awards for the competitions “Regeneration and Reuse of former lignite mines in the Western Macedonia region” and “Regeneration of a former Cemetery in Neapoli” both vindicate their intention to preserve or restore the natural landscape by limiting built space to a minimum, all while making public space open and accessible to everyone. A10 correspondent Olga Ioannou went to see them.

Olga Ioannou: You’ve recently won not one, but two major national competitions, and both were large scale, landscape oriented. Does this signal a turning point for Greek competition themes?
Katerina Andritsou (KA, see biography below): It’s interesting how themes have shifted from buildings only to urban spaces as well. In the past, landscape design was nonexistent in competition themes, but now – and this is pretty impressive – there are even more competitions that deal with urban space or landscape design than there are for buildings. This is a huge leap forward, and PPC is one such example. There had never been a competition of this scale or kind before. This was a first time for us as well.
Thanasis Polyzoidis (ThP, see biography below): In both competitions we have noticed that the participants are predominantly architects. As a consequence, most entries deal with public space in terms of built space. Even in the case of PPC this presented participants with a completely natural landscape; most design proposals implied an intensive building programme and organized open spaces around museums and other buildings. This is evident of our misconceptions on who does what, or that landscape and nature must comply with architectural objectives.

OI: What does your experience tell you about how competitions are run?
Panita Karamanea (PK, see biography below): It depends on who has curated the brief and how thorough they’ve been. Sometimes the goals are unclear and it takes a lot of effort to figure out how to handle things. It also depends on the jurors; how they interpret the objectives of the brief and how they prioritize the criteria during the selection process. There have been cases where the brief was well written and argued for but the jurors’ deliberation nominated a project that defied most of the original objectives.
ThP: It also has to do with the jurors’ expertise, and this is why it is important that the people who are assigned to take part in a jury committee are well equipped to evaluate the proposals.

OI: Do you think that competition results are sufficiently disseminated? Do they reach the public?
PK: PPC was exemplary in that regard. They set up two separate exhibitions, one in Ptolemaida and then another one in Athens. A seminar was organized in Athens, where all awarded participants and other selected guests were invited. There were talks and there was press and people attended and joined in the discussions. The organizers wanted people to know about the competition and how PPC was responsible for it.
ThP: In Neapoli not only was there no exhibition, but results were never publicly announced.
KA: In fact, we haven’t even received our award yet. It’s been more than a year, and it is still unclear whether there will be a disbursement. They even failed to give us a certificate, an official document of some kind stating that we won the competition.

OI: It has become very common to see competition projects getting postponed or even cancelled. What are the chances that the two competitions you’ve won will be implemented?
PK: We have every reason to be optimistic for PPC. They have reassured us of their intention to proceed, and it seems that it is only a matter of time until we move on to the next phase. However, this is not the case for Neapoli, as the administration is not clear as to how they are pursuing this. In fact, the most recent law on public projects gives the organizers the right to auction the subsequent stages to various bidders and commission the final designs and the construction to the firm who’s offering the lowest bid. This means that whoever eventually gets the job won’t necessarily be the one who won the competition, and that competition winners would have to decrease their fees significantly if they wish to see their ideas to completion.

OI: How do you approach urban scale in design?
KA: Our first priority – and this is something we have all agreed on – is to visit the place, so our toolbox depends a lot on what we retrieve during these visits. We write everything down and then we discuss thoroughly with each other and we start making hypotheses. Having studied with the same people and having worked together for so long, we have developed a common understanding and we hardly ever disagree.
PK: Our approach draws from the place and its historicity, its relation to nature and its ecology. It is impossible to ignore these parameters. And then, of course, this ecosystem is in constant flux, so we try to capture its temporality and monitor its evolution over time. There are things about a natural landscape that are beyond our control, so we always try to stay open to change, and to integrate it in our designs.
ThP: I totally concur with this, because nature and natural processes constitute a structural element in our design thinking, along with man and the broader ecosystems and their interconnections. So the concept of time, as in change, traverses all of these systems. Another thing we are very interested in is the synergy of different design scales. We use many scales in our design approach, and we go back and forth in order to make the landscape accessible to people, despite its size. After all, people are the end receivers of our work and it is their needs we try to address.

OI: Having seen your work, I’ve noticed that you usually organize your proposal around a core concept. I refer to eco-corridor for PPC and the elastic limit in Neapoli.
PK: This is usually an idea that tunes in and integrates the data we come up with, while at the same time it proposes something new. It is like an umbrella that includes all sub-strategies, because it is not enough to have one organizing concept; you need to find the necessary gestures that respond to all systems and traverse all scales.
KA: We always try to find the cohesive substance between the different layers; it could be something symbolic, or it can just be a concept that holds everything together.
ThP: Yeah, and there are some palettes that we like to use as far as the architectural elements are concerned; we prefer the soft, earthy approaches, but we also like Cor-Ten very much; we think its erosion relates to nature very well.
KA: We like to consider ourselves as softscapers, not hardscapers!


About TOPIO7

Topio7 is an award-winning architecture and landscape design office based in Athens. It was founded by Katerina Andritsou, Panita Karamanea and Thanasis Polyzoidis, architects from NTUA and landscape architects from ETSAB UPC.

Katerina Andritsou is an award-winning architect (NTUA), landscape architect (MLA UPC-ETSAB), and also holds a postgraduate degree from the postgraduate programme “Architecture Space Design.” She has collaborated with various design firms and has vast experience in large-scale urban design, landscape design, and architecture projects in Greece and abroad. Her work has been presented in exhibitions and publications worldwide.

Panita Karamanea is an award-winning architect (NTUA) and landscape architect (MLA UPC-ETSAB). She has collaborated with various design firms in Greece and Barcelona, and has taught landscape architecture at NTUA. She is currently an assistant professor at the School of Architecture of the Technical University of Crete and a visiting professor at the postgraduate programme of Landscape Design in Barcelona. Her work has been presented in exhibitions and publications worldwide.

Thanasis Polyzoidis is an award-winning architect (NTUA) and landscape architect (MLA UPC-ETSAB). He has participated in numerous landscape and architectural design projects, both as a freelancer and as a team member at design firms, and has wide experience at all design scales (private properties, urban regenerations, public space, and natural landscape) in Greece and abroad. His work has been presented in exhibitions and publications worldwide.