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Architects Of The Elements

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“To design is to convince, and to design is to converse, and to design is to make a decision, and then to be able to make the case for that decision,” Dimitris Karampatakis tells me. Ostensibly, our conversation is about architecture – Dimitris, along with his brother, Konstantinos, founded the Athens-based architectural design firm K-Studio back in 2004 – but it becomes clear, the more we talk, that Karampatakis is articulating not just an ethos that guides the work of his studio, but one that he feels encompasses what is at the heart of being a creative.

For Dimitris and the team at K-Studio, central to that ethos is making sure to celebrate the location in which a project exists, and while the studio works on sites in countries all over the world, more often than not, that location happens to be the firm’s native Greece. At the outset, the conversations, the decisions, that inform a design, begin with an effort to “use what is already there since it is so beautiful, and not to dismiss it in an arrogant way, suggesting that you can do better.” What Karampatakis refers to as, “the economy of doing less.”

It’s important to note, however, that “doing less” does not imply inaction. Quite the opposite. Dimitris seems to delight in the idea of starting out by identifying all of the potential mistakes to avoid and looks to, “draw inspiration first from what not to do, and then what to do,” noting that a common conversation around the plans for a project can often build up around ideas as simple as, “’ok, we should NOT destroy any of these beautiful plants,’ or ‘we should NOT block that view,” and from there, an idea begins to take shape that focuses, “not necessarily on how [a project] will look, but how it will fit, how it will belong.”

Approaching Villa Mandra, a private residence on the island of Mikonos, from the North, one’s eyes pass over a broad, sun-washed swath of low scrub and seagrass stretching out to a long rocky escarpment that runs, loping down to the Aegean. Squint and you think you start to discern a low row of stone, a continuation of an unbroken horizon line, that from a distance, leaves you to wonder whether it’s deliberate or simply your eyes and mind creating order where there is none.

Of course, there is order, and the stone, which walls the courtyard of Villa Mandra, is deliberate. All of it creates what Karampatakis describes as the “Goldilocks moment, between the ‘in’ and the ‘out.’” It’s a blurring of interior and exterior. “It’s the patio, the courtyard, the pergola…it’s that kind of space which, as Mediterraneans,” he explains, “we understand to be of real value, of equal value, to the internal spaces.” The courtyard of the home is just such a space, and it serves as a prime example of the type of architecture K-Studio tends to explore: an architecture that, “stretches out to connect with the outdoors in order to kind of stitch itself into the landscape. Not in a visual kind of way but in a notional kind of way” - although the silhouette of the house stitches so seamlessly into the landscape as to be almost camouflaged, proving it can, in fact, do both.

If it’s possible to highlight restraint - to frame the absence of ostentation - Villa Mandra certainly succeeds in doing so.  It is the economy of doing less.

Living in these Goldilocks moments, where the distinction between indoors and outdoors becomes fluid, creates an opportunity to play with the elements in a way that doesn’t exist when focusing on clear delineations between spaces.  It also doesn’t exist in climates that aren’t as famously pleasant as the Mediterranean.  Unable to get the vision of the sun setting beyond Villa Mandra’s courtyard out of my mind, I ask Dimitris about the firm’s relationship to light.  To him, it’s an element of composition to be utilized like you would tile or stone.  “You can’t build with light,” he says, “but you build for it and in use of it.”  It’s a material, and while not tangible, its applications are no less real than those of wood or steel.

Karampatakis explains that, “we want to allow [light] to come through and animate and to give rhythm to the house.  Throughout the day and throughout the year, the light constantly changes and it animates the architecture, and we think that’s very important – that the house really allows this almost transformative quality, which the light switches on and off…giving it a rhythm.”  Light provides movement to that which is stationary, and life to the static space.

Before we go, Dimitris offers what he sees as an essential insight into the very essence of his people, and how it guides what the team at K-Studio does. “We are experts at leisure,” he says, “and not in the sense of the kind of leisure you have on holiday…but a true enjoyment of the everyday. We, as Greeks, have, deep in our culture, a sense of enjoying ourselves in everyday things: from having a morning coffee to sitting and taking a moment. We bring that with us. We bring that sense of enjoyment, that goal, for our buildings, our designs. We want to allow space for that, and to promote that…we want to design buildings that actually allow for, and push, urge enjoyment.”

If design is a conviction, and a conversation - a case to be made for our decisions, as Dimitris Karampatakis believes it is - then the team at K-Studio makes a particularly compelling one for the decision to enjoy the everyday, the slower moments, and for the spaces that allow us to enjoy more by doing less.