Elia Zenghelis | Great contemporary architects

elia zenghelis

Born in Athens in 1937, Elia Zenghelis is world-renown not only as an architect but also for his long career as a teacher.

The Greek architect studied Architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and graduated in 1961. When he approached the world of architecture, radical utopian ideas were being spread at an international level by groups such as Archizoom and Archigram.

During those experimental years, architecture was also utopia, a transformation of the concept of city planning and of the role of the architect. This new research was a sign of the widespread need to formulate new theories, a research towards a new way of interpreting space and the connection between form and function.

In the following ten years he worked for architects Douglas Stephen and Partners in London, starting his teaching career, and at the Architectural Association under the guidance of Hermann Senkowsky from 1963.

Professor Zenghelis stood out at the school for introducing the concept of radical avant-garde into education, an idea of which he was firmly convinced as soon as he started his studies. At first he was a fervent supporter of Archigram’s mindset, while later on he developed a large-scale vision of architecture.

Elia Zenghelis’ research on city planning

Elia Zenghelis’ research on city planning began early, during his academic years, first with Team 10 and then with Archigram. After meeting Rem Koolhaas when the latter was still a student at the Architectural Association School, their relationship grew stronger with their joint participation in the contest “La città come ambiente significante”, literally “The city as a meaningful environment”, which was announced by Casabella in 1971.

For this contest, the architects presented project Exodus, which consisted in a linear city over London’s urban pattern, delimited by two long parallel walls, like some sort of reversed Berlin Wall.

The Greek architect worked with various firms in London, Paris and New York between 1971 and 1975. After that he established the “Office for Metropolitan Architecture”, better known as OMA, together with Rem Khoolaas, Zoe Zenghelis (Elia’s former partner) and Madelon Vriesendorp.

Since they first met, Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas’s collaboration went on for over fifteen years. They had a common interest in the great dimension of architecture and, especially the Dutch architect, in Manhattan, from which a series of “imaginary” projects originated, such as the “big city”, that will become the leitmotiv in OMA’s works during the 70s and 80s.

Among the works by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Elia Zenghelis’ great influence can be seen in the first works, among which we must mention the Dutch Parliament Extension (1978), the Parc de la Villette in Paris (1982) and the Checkpoint Charlie Apartments in Berlin (1990).

While the first two projects weren’t actually implemented, the works for the Checkpoint Charlie Apartments started in 1982 and were completed in 1990.

After OMA’s project for the Parc de la Villette, Paris, Zenghelis opened an OMA section in Athens in 1982. Only five years later, in 1987, he ended the partnership with Rem Koolhaas and established Gigantes Zenghelis Associates with compatriot architect Eleni Gigantes. Despite the new firm, Elia Zenghelis’ main job was still teaching, first in Düsseldorf, then in Zurich, Mendrisio and Rotterdam.

The Checkpoint Charlie Apartments

The Checkpoint Charlie project carried out by Zenghelis and OMA takes advantage of the site’s hidden qualities. The building is structured like a series of pavilions for border control that together form a pedestal. The ground floor is meant for customs control activities, that also concern the rest of the site and include a parking garage.

 

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One of Checkpoint Charlie Building’s façades (photocredits)

The building is currently located in the area where the ruins from the pre-war and post-war periods prevail, in particular the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, which was the crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin.

The starting point for the drafting of the project was the clear separation of the military purpose from the private purpose. The building, on the other floors, consists of 31 apartments facing inwards, with a little garden for each duplex apartment. The apartments are simplex, duplex or even penthouses (the latter are located on the sixth floor) and thus have got different sizes and planimetric dispositions.

The façade overlooking the street consists in a vertical surface with alternating ribbon windows and thin black metal panels. The building’s appearance shows a clear connection with functional architecture, with clear references to Le Corbusier’s school, especially as far as the façade treatment and the use of ribbon windows are concerned. But Elia Zenghelis and OMA go beyond that and introduce elements typical of the 1950s architecture on the façade, while the choice of creating apartments of different sizes and on different levels comes from the Dutch residential interventions that were implemented in the same period.

When the Berlin Wall fell, the ground floor was no longer useful for border control and was thus destined for commercial purposes.

Conclusions

We can say that Elia Zenghelis’ life has been completely dedicated to radical architecture. From the early 1960s, when he realised that architecture was undergoing a crisis (thanks to the Architectural Associate where he taught), the Greek starchitect has succeeded in gathering other major professionals of the time in London.

During his long career as a teacher and an architectural theorist, he can boast of having been a chief for the great personalities of contemporary architecture, such as Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas to whom he has been a teacher (in a time when teachers and students would always debate on architecture) and Zaha Hadid.

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Elia Zenghelis and the firm Mino Caggiula Architects

Elia Zenghelis has been a “teacher” to Mino Caggiula and a “friend” to the entire firm. The Swiss architect obtained the Master of Arts in Architecture at the Academy of Mendrisio thanks to a project for the urban renovation of the entire Venetian Lagoon, developed with Architect Elia Zenghelis. The project was awarded first prize SIA, Switzerland, and first prize Veneto Region.

As already mentioned in the biography, the partnership with Elia Zenghelis has made it possible for the firm to enter the global market and bridge the gap that often exists between Theory and built Architecture.