“A Journey with the Architects of the World” – In dialogue with Vassilis Sgoutas, Past President of UIA

“A Journey with the Architects of the World”

In dialogue with Vassilis Sgoutas, Past President of UIA

sgoutas interview

Architect Vassilis Sgoutas, co-founder of Sgoutas Architects and Past President of UIA, will be present at SHARE Bucharest 2019, on April 18th, during which he will introduce his recently published book, “A Journey with the Architects of the World”, a book that documents, in a special way, moments in the evolution of the profession and his architectural encounters over the last twenty years. SHARE publisher had the honor to speak with him on September 5th on the occasion of SHARE Athens 2018 about his exquisitely crafted book, in the interview that follows.

Andreea Robu-Movila, SHARE publisher: I would start with one of your thoughts from your book “A Journey with the Architects of the World”: “It’s our task not to leave the future undefended” What do you mean by that?

Vassilis Sgoutas: Well, undefended really means that you should not let it happen by itself. You should strengthen it by defining what this future is going to be. And give it a road to follow. 

SHARE publisher: How do you perceive the role of the architect changing during time?

Vassilis Sgoutas: Well, in recent years we have witnessed a disastrous evolution, or rather devolution, of the role of the architect because from being mettre de l’ouvrage, he has now usually become just one of many entities in the process of building. We have new “players” such as project managers etc., and the architect is no longer in command of the project. Just to give you one example, which actually appears in the book as well: Paris has two Opera Houses. Everybody calls the first “Opera Garnier” from the architect Garnier who won the competition to design it. The second opera is not called “Opera Carlos Ott”, it is just called “Bastille Opera” from its location. This is just one sign of the devolution of the importance of the architect in projects, so we have to do something to address the problem, but in order to do something we must not give away tasks which many of us, in recent years, thought were not up to our level, up to the high level of creating and of intellect, meaning that we must not give away tasks such as coordinating and being the leaders of the team, even going into the financial parts of projects. We should do all that, if we really wish to be in control. And then clients will rely on us, first and foremost.

SHARE publisher: Reading your book, I found many passages where you advocated for a deep understanding of the problems of the future of the field. So what do you think that will be the next challenges of the future in Architecture? You had a paragraph written in 1998 “Vision of Global Practice“, where you said, “my scenario for the years to come, what I envision for 2020, is that the practice of architecture will be harder, more demanding, more competitive, also more challenging and rewarding“. Is this vision still valid? 

Vassilis Sgoutas: It is threatened by what I consider a terrible misconception of what environmentally friendly in architecture is understood to signify. I think that we are following a mad road. There is also the adulation of star-architects, which doesn’t help either.

SHARE publisher: Referring to one of your thoughts: “The best service for architecture will be to build as little as possible”. Is this part of your vision regarding sustainability?

Vassilis Sgoutas: The first part of the vision about sustainability is that we need to have a “quid pro quo“- these are the words – because the resource of land is not exhaustible. We talk about water being exhaustible, we talk about clean air being exhaustible, but we don’t often talk about land being exhaustible. I think that we have reached a stage when in order to build a project you would need to demolish an equal surface. The footprint of the building on the land. This is a major issue.

SHARE publisher: Having the role of President of UIA for so many years would you advise young architects to get involved in politics, to be more visible in media or to have public appearances?

Vassilis Sgoutas: No, I think that the architect’s job is to stay in his office. But some architects, who have a natural talent to do other things, maybe better than architecture, should be welcomed to sit in Parliament or to promote the role of the architect in high political offices. Because they will eventually help shape the overall picture of the profession we aspire to. So we need them too.

SHARE publisher: Therefore you recommend focusing on one’s strengths and capitalizing on them accordingly.

Vassilis Sgoutas: Yes, it is important to be able to understand one’s self and to find one’s way. But in society, the architect’s presence is very necessary. Can I give you an example from my book, which I find very pertinent? The French Order of Architects had a full page spread in Paris newspapers – I think it was in 2002. In it was a statistic stating that 68% of the buildings of France were not designed by architects. The key to this was the rhetorical question with which this sentence was introduced: “Can you imagine a country where 68% of planes were not flown by registered pilots?”

SHARE publisher: This is indeed very intriguing. I would dare to ask another absorbing question: what is architecture for you? 

Vassilis Sgoutas: Well, it is everything. It is the present and the future. It is also history. And, above all, it is the fact that we are lucky to have a profession that encompasses not only the actual physical result of our work but also all the thinking, and the creative part that went into it. It is a profession that addresses a wide spectrum of what the world is and what the several societies of this world are striving for.  

SHARE publisher: What project from your whole career as an architect gave you the most satisfaction?

Vassilis Sgoutas: I would say that although the early part of my career was focused on pharmaceutical factories (we designed nine pharmaceutical factories for multinational companies), later we started getting involved with theatres and auditoria. I think that there is magic to designing an auditorium, and it is not only the auditorium per se but it is also all these, undiscovered by the public, spaces below the stage, above the stage, above the hall. And as you walk in these spaces sometimes you’re not even standing upright. You hear what sounds like distant music, sometimes even noises. When you have the opportunity to watch and to listen to rehearsals, it all becomes a totally magical feeling. In a building that you have designed, in a space that you have designed, you start to see artists, dressed in normal everyday clothes, singing or playing an instrument and being corrected by their conductor. I had many opportunities to experience this because there are always teething problems in new buildings and sometimes I was called from my office: “Please come tomorrow”. And that day was rehearsal day, and there I was together with the actors and the performers. All that, while looking at a specific problem that occurred in my building. This is all very exciting and very rewarding. 

SHARE publisher: And about your work in the UIA for so many years, what do you think that was the most important accomplishment? 

Vassilis Sgoutas: Visiting countries, particularly the less sophisticated countries that feel forgotten by the world of the developed countries. There I really felt the vindication of the role of the UIA because I saw to what extent we were accepted. And needed. They welcomed us because they were treated as equal in the international arena. 

SHARE publisher: I have recently found that the UIA and UNESCO have signed a pact for establishing the World Architecture Capital. What do you think about this endeavor?

Vassilis Sgoutas: It is an excellent initiative of the present board. It is an excellent endeavor to further develop our ties with UNESCO. It is good for architecture, good for architects and good for the UIA.

SHARE publisher: You also wrote some words about the state of architecture in Greece. You mentioned that past times were different and during the crisis things have changed. Travelling so much and seeing so many fragments from other worlds, what would you bring to Greece if you would have the chance?

Vassilis Sgoutas: It is a very difficult question because we architects don’t rule the game. We don’t define the system, because our role has become secondary. But, I would focus on encouraging the highlighting of the work of young architects. For instance, putting a plaque on a building to let people know that this building won an architectural award. These buildings may not be greatest buildings, but such plaques could prevent indiscriminate alterations and demolitions. This would constitute a gain for architecture.  

sgoutas interview 2

SHARE publisher: This is, also a type of live educational process, for people who are not architects. It would also help them to understand what we consider as being a valuable building and which is not, because the public taste is very bewildered, and often barely understands the qualitative differences, the same way that we perceive them.

Vassilis Sgoutas: You are right, this is very important.

SHARE publisher: If a young architect comes to your office, by which criteria would you asses him? 

Vassilis Sgoutas: I would like to see a thirst for practising architecture while at the same time remaining an architectural dreamer. 

SHARE publisher: These are basically the attributes that we find also in the architects we admire the most. For instance Le Corbusier: if he didn’t put his thoughts on paper, he wouldn’t be the Le Corbusier that we know. He would not have been understood in the manner he wanted to be understood. 

Vassilis Sgoutas: That is true, and good. But there are some architects that go a little too far with writing explanatory texts. I am, maybe, a little cynical when I say that some even think of posterity right from the day they graduate.

SHARE publisher: Do you think that the “Vassilis Sgoutas Prize” accomplishes its declared target, that of architecture alleviating the inequalities of the world?

Vassilis Sgoutas: This prize is not addressed to the big names and the large careers. The idea is to unearth and honor architects who work away from the limelight, often unknown to other people and to our profession at large – architects striving to improve living conditions in areas below the level of poverty. These architects maybe do not even know there is a prize, so I have sometimes been a little disappointed by the number of entries. I think that we have to find a way to reach out to them and access their works. In short to help them come forward. I am personally convinced that many such architects do exist and do really meaningful work, architecturally and socially. 

SHARE publisher: How can humbleness be translated in everyday activities as an architect? You are in a situation where you are expected to direct, to order. How can you still remain humble?

Vassilis Sgoutas: You need architects with strong egos, and it’s correct to say that in history we remember, first and foremost, these architects. And probably in our era the same thing will happen. But in order to make this world more equal, we need those other architects as well. I was very moved for example, by one of the recipients of the “Vassilis Sgoutas Prize” when, before a trip to Moscow, I wrote to him to say that I would like to come and see him.  He said “of course”, so I went to his relatively small office in Moscow, and he received me, with his partner and staff, in such a friendly way, showed me their projects for Moscow and some theoretical projects. It was all so much in keeping with his overall style and with the project he had submitted for the Prize. That day I was very happy. 

SHARE publisher: Does the UIA prize honoring you, define you?

Vassilis Sgoutas: Yes. It defines me at least in my thinking, not in my work. I have, sadly, not yet been personally involved in a project alleviating poverty.

SHARE publisher: I believe that the “Vassilis Sgoutas Prize” is relevant today because we experience a paradigmatic shift in architecture. We see today many prizes that go to architects that provide not only a very good architectural practice but also added value to society and deliver valid answers to environmental problems. I think that your prize is valuable for this changing paradigm, and somehow it foresees future tendencies in architecture. 

Vassilis Sgoutas: That’s a huge compliment. Thank you!

SHARE publisher: Thank you for this captivating discussion!