Not A Number

Thessaloniki (Greece) — 21/06/2016

Interview Ermis Adamantidis and Dominiki Dadatsi, Not a Number, 06.21.2016, Thessaloniki.

By Maïlys Gangloff & Johan Soubise for Learning From Europa project

21st June 2016, while the British people vote to leave the EU, we meet the two founders of a small studio established in Thessaloniki from 2010, in the middle of the economic crisis. Over the purr of the air conditioning, they told us about the difficulties but also about the opportunities left by such context. They found solutions to survive as an architecture studio thanks to their international experience, and particularly their experience in London… The circle has been closed.

LFE : Just to begin, can you explain us how your studio was born, what was the beginning?

NaN – Dominiki Dadatsi : I think it was in 2007.

NaN – Ermis Adamantidis : Not as an office exactly, but we started working together on competitions, while we were working in bigger offices in London. In 2010, we set up this space, also setting up a name, and calling ourselves an architecture office, officially. So it was first testing how it works, and then getting to the decision to set up a proper office.

View of the workspace / Photo credits : Learning From Europa

View of the workspace / Photo credits : Learning From Europa

NaN – D.D. : Actually, we took this decision after working for a long time in other offices in London. So at the end we decided that it would be a good idea to set up our own office and start working together.

NaN – E.A. : Yes. In 2009, Dominiki had to come back to Greece, and there were still opportunities here, before the big crash [Ed. Note : the first Greek crisis in 2009-2010]. And we said “let’s do it now”. So we set up our office in the middle of the economic crisis. It was a bit contradictory, but that’s the way it happened.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, it was a great difference. I used to work in Zaha Hadid’s office, and Ermis in Norman Foster’s. I came back and, yes, there were opportunities in Greece but in a very different scale, topic, budget… But there were some opportunities.

LFE : And where did you study?

NaN – E.A. : Here, first of all, in Thessaloniki, in the architecture school. Then, Dominiki went to the AA [Ed. Note : Architectural Association school of architecture] for masters, in the Design Research Laboratory, in 2005. Then I did a master in London as well, in 2009 in the UCL [Ed. Note : University College London, Bartlett school of architecture], in Adaptive Architecture and Computation.

LFE : You said that you started working together in London, what was your first major project?

NaN – E.A. : It was the BVLGARI Pavilion in Abu Dhabi. The team was composed by the two of us and Madhav Kidao, a colleague in London with whom we started together. That was a project with a budget where we could test something more experimental in terms of construction, of materials and form. The client was very demanding and it was good for us. Time was really tight but it was a very interesting project, it was very nice to have it at the beginning of our office.

The BVLGARI Pavilion in Abu Dhabi / Photo credits : Not a Number

The BVLGARI Pavilion in Abu Dhabi / Photo credits : Not a Number

LFE : That was a competition?

NaN – E.A. : That was a private competition.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, a private competition, but that was an amazing opportunity to start. It is really hard to get a project, to prove yourself, to express your ideas, so for us it was a very nice beginning. And it was very interesting to work abroad, because it makes you design things very differently. So it was far away from home and it was very difficult as well, but very nice.

LFE : You said that you came back to Thessaloniki, why did you make that choice?

NaN – D.D. : In Greece, we used to have the chance to set up our small office, we had a chance to start our own firm and working alone in a way.

NaN – E.A. : At that time, you had the chance to try to do something from the beginning on your own, which is hard to do in bigger economies, like London, where it is easier to work in very interesting projects, but you are very specialized and you work on a small part of a huge project. Once again, it is very interesting, but when you want to test yourself and set up your own office, it is not the best place to do it.

NaN – D.D. : It is very hard to do it abroad. And I think that, in Greece, the things start to change, I’m not sure if young guys have the chance to start their own offices anymore. I think that we were the last to have that chance.

LFE : We saw that you have a lot of projects in an international scale, was looking abroad a way to find opportunities during the crisis?

NaN – E.A. : Yes, definitely, you have more time to try and search around for opportunities when you don’t have anything in your place.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, I think that’s the main reason.

NaN – E.A. : We like to see it as, let’s say, not a chance, but an opportunity.

NaN – D.D. : And I think we are a bit familiar with this way of working, like working for different countries, from far away. In our offices we used to work on projects that were so far away from London. So in a way we had the experience and we could support this.

NaN – E.A. : It is a challenge as well to try yourself in international competitions, or in a different cultural environment. It is very interesting to get to know it, and try to express this environment through your design. It is really exciting, but it is not something unique, it is done by many many offices nowadays. Everything has come closer and everybody designs for everywhere in the world, now I don’t think it is that special.

NaN – D.D. : And I think that it might have been a need because Europe was struggling at the time and it was really hard to get projects, but at the end, this interaction with different countries, different people, different cultures is really interesting. Maybe it started like a need, but at the end I think it is the most wonderful part of our job, to have the chance to interact with so different people and work with them, with different climates… It is every time so exciting.

LFE : Does the country in which you do a project influence the way that you carry on this project? Did you notice differences between the countries and the projects as well?

NaN – E.A. : Yes, because of the cultural differences, it is very interesting. It is very nice to see how the mentality is in the east, how the mentality is in some other countries where we had a chance to work, like in Romania, interacting with the client every time. That has to do, of course, with how you proceed with the project. You learn through this process, about such things. In terms of the projects, it depends on the client, what he wants, how is his own character… It is this interaction – the architects with the client – that defines the approach of the project.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, it is also the mentality of the client, it is very different every time. How much do you want to spend, how much effort they want to put on an architectural project. It depends if it is a private client, if it is a company, or if it is a group of people, you have to deal with so many different ideas and so many different opinions. So it is not just every time just the country or the culture, it is also the client and it is a very important aspect in the design. Every time you design for someone different, so, more or less, you have to follow his history or his ideas as well.

The Juice Bar Cabin in Bucharest, Romania / Photo credits : Not a Number

The Juice Bar Cabin in Bucharest, Romania / Photo credits : Not a Number

LFE : And the political context, does it influence as well? Maybe in getting a planning permission, the different regulations…

NaN – E.A. : We weren’t involved in such big projects outside this country to really get in this involvement with this process. But in Romania, we had to do something like that. There are only engineers to do these things, the administration, the building permits, the authorizations and everything… So anything is carried out generally with a local architect to deal with these things. So we were more involved in the design.

NaN – D.D. : In Abu Dhabi, the whole procedure was very fast forward, compared to other countries, but it wasn’t that formal. In Bucharest we had to deal every time with different authorities to have some paperworks or anything. But in Abu Dhabi everything was faster but in another way, not so formal. They were deciding to do something and they were doing it in five or ten days, so it is a very different mentality.

LFE : You told us about the time left by the context of the crisis in Greece, that it allowed you to search for projects abroad. Did you also use that time to develop self-initiated projects?

NaN – E.A. : We think a lot of things but we never pushed such ideas further… You have to think a lot before you start something like that, because the risk is always higher. Developing something like that means financing it, in a way. Some people found it was a solution during the crisis and had some ideas. But for my part, this is like starting something different from design, something else that, at least for now, I didn’t have the need to do.

NaN – D.D. : And also, in this way, you skip another aspect, which is the client himself. Sometimes it is very interesting to test yourself with your ideas, with no other external aspect or influence, it is like a competition for which, at the end, you gain the project and you build it. But to be honest, at the end of the day, every time the client was a very powerful guide for our design. It is very challenging to try to follow someone else’s needs.

NaN – E.A. : Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad, and sometimes it is that bad that you decide not to follow this kind of client.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, but every time you gain something. At the end you can say that there were some bad moment and some good moments. But you learnt more things about these good moments, from this interaction. So I think that self-initiated projects give you more freedom, but you lose this maturity that you gain after all these interactions that you have with a client.

"Thessaloniki's Wet Dream" - Proposal for a competition in Thessaloniki / Photo credits : Not a Number

“Thessaloniki’s Wet Dream” – Proposal for a competition in Thessaloniki / Photo credits : Not a Number

LFE : You said that working in Hadid’s and Foster’s offices influenced you, which are your other influences?

NaN – E.A. : I think it is the internet [laughs], our environment…

NaN – D.D. : Yes, in our offices it was a great experience, like a big school.

NaN – E.A. : Yes but in a subconscious way maybe, I don’t really feel it. But I would say everything are influences. Something that doesn’t seem very valuable or very interesting or doesn’t have a nice or very beautiful architecture, might have some details that might help you, maybe even an object can bring you something in mind for a building.

NaN – D.D. : I think most of the time it is the concept, it is the function of a building, it is the way that you imagine people living there or using your shelter. So all the time it is things that you see, like nature, like culture, tradition…

NaN – E.A. : Yes that’s more an abstract thing. But I don’t think that ideas come like that. I believe that you always start from something, even if you don’t know if it is something that exists, that you have seen and then brought. Sometimes you copy it in a way, but bringing it in another interpretation, in another dimension.

LFE : How would you describe your design process, your approach through one project?

NaN – E.A. : Fight! [laughs]

NaN – D.D. : This is the best way to have great results, no?

NaN – E.A. : And then sleep for some days, and then fighting again, and testing a lot of ideas…

NaN – D.D. : Yes, someone has to do the good guy and the other one has to do the bad guy [laughs], this is how it works. So it is like the angel and the devil. It is really hard when you work on something, you get so attached with what you are designing, so at the end you are not very objective on what you have there. You can not change your mind on some things, and you get more involved than you should. So if someone comes and tells you about the problems of the design, at the beginning it is hard to understand or to accept it, but at the end the outcome is getting better.

NaN – E.A. : Yes, discussion brings something very strong. It is a brilliant process that you can not actually define. Sometimes, you can start by thinking that what the other person says is stupid, and that you can not accept it, but then something triggers you, and you can not understand this process that might last one or two days, but finally you arrive to a different conclusion that you wouldn’t have reached without the discussion.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, it is really hard to sit away from your design and actually be the jury, so in a way, one of us always makes the jury, and the critics.

Detail of the office / Photo credits : Learning From Europa

Detail of the office / Photo credits : Learning From Europa

LFE : Ok, so the discussion is actually for you a tool in the design process, do you use other tools, I mean physical tools, like models?

NaN – E.A. : We would like to have models, physical models, but it is very time-consuming. It is hard to work in a small office, you have to invest a lot of time to make a model, and 3D modeling is just faster to test ideas. If we had a bigger project which give some time, we could use this way, but until now we had projects like exhibitions, installations with very tight time schedule. We have to test things very fast. And then, after we came with an idea through this, we do more test in one-to-one scale. We do this to actually see how we will build it, we are talking about a smaller scale, it is not a building. So, this is the kind of models we have used mostly.

NaN – D.D. : We know that the physical model can not be replaced by the 3D model but it is really hard to use it the way you use a computer, it is really hard to test so many different things so fast, and get more or less your final outcome.

Ermis Adamantis shows us some one-to-one models / Photo credits : Learning From Europa

Ermis Adamantis shows us some one-to-one models / Photo credits : Learning From Europa

LFE : Do you consider every project as an opportunity to test or experiment things?

NaN – D.D. : And every time I say that it is the last time!

NaN – E.A. : But that’s how it usually ends up! [laughs]

NaN – E.A. : Sometimes, consciously, we try to test something from the beginning. Other time it is like designing something and then testing different ideas of how to build it, and that’s a very interesting part of the design, together with a manufacturer or different manufacturers, testing materials. We had the luck until now to use different materials and it is always a new process for us. We don’t copy from previous projects, using the same material, which is always very hard.

NaN – D.D. : Yes, I think we like the materiality a lot and we are very interested in using different kind of materials and in different ways.

NaN – E.A. : We like how it defines our design in the end, because we usually start with a basic concept, but then we test it with the materiality and then this goes back and gives a feedback to the design, to the form.

NaN – D.D. : It is a very interesting process, very hard as well.

LFE : In which stage of the design process do you make the choice of the material that you are going to use?

NaN – D.D. : I think very early.

NaN – E.A. : Yes, it is not clear in the beginning…

NaN – D.D. : But after a while it is part of the design, the choice is not made at the end. We are not finishing the concept and then wondering “ok, let’s see now what kind of material we are going to use”. It is actually a force that leads the design. We really like materiality and we think that it is crucial to have it in an early stage of the design.

NaN – E.A. : For example you can think about how not to spend a lot of material to do your project, but also about the efficiency of the design in the way you use materials, without unnecessarily increasing the number of forms or objects used. We always try to optimize the way we use the material that we will choose.

NaN – D.D. : And also we try to incorporate the qualities and the properties of the material chosen.

LFE : And the one-to-one models allows you to do this more easily?

NaN – E.A. : Well, we always have an one-to-one model before doing the final step and constructing it.

NaN – D.D. : When you use a material that is not so rational or so common, you have to use it before the final application of it, it is very risky. So every time we use it, we do a mock-up model to be sure that it works the way we thought it works. For Dubai, for the BVLGARI Pavilion, it was the first time that the civil engineer had to build something with this acrylic tubes, so we had to test it in real scale to see if the material behave the way we thought that it will behave. So it is crucial to have this one-to-one scale before.

Detail of the acrylic tubes at the BVLGARI Pavilion in Abu Dhabi / Photo credits : Not a Number

Detail of the acrylic tubes at the BVLGARI Pavilion in Abu Dhabi / Photo credits : Not a Number

LFE : You also bring the engineers and manufacturers to test the material themselves in unusual ways for them?

NaN – E.A. : When we have the chance to have the time to work with engineers and have the time to test different things, yes we try a lot of things. Otherwise you have to take quick decisions and feel that you have taken the good or the right path. But yes, it is always testing together with the manufacturer, because they have some knowledge that you gain from that, and you are testing it together.

LFE : You set up your studio around 2010, now with 6 years of experience how do you see your practice in hindsight, and what are your expectations for the next few years?

NaN – D.D. : I think we had really good opportunities and we had the chance to do very nice things, but I think that in general the economical crisis didn’t really help us to take advantage of our youth, our newly established office and to show things… It is always very hard to gain these small opportunities, to prove our skills and ourselves.

NaN – E.A. : In Greece you have to try hard for everything. Compared to other countries in Europe, that is the way we feel it. Architecture is not that valued or popular from the communities, from the establishment. Things are very difficult in terms of all the administrations and the bureaucracy, and now with the crisis, even harder. They say that for an architect fifty years old is young in Greece, whereas a young architect in another country of Europe is considered to be someone thirty or thirty five years old. There are people having projects built at thirty five years old. So it is the good side and the bad side for this place here in setting up your own office.

NaN – D.D. : And in a way, this kind of crisis creates chances for experimentation, for new ideas, for startups, but on the other side it is a very slow procedure and a hard one. I mean, six years are not a big period, but it is not a small one.

NaN – E.A. : Yes, you need a lot of patience to feel good! [laughs]

NaN – D.D. : And yet, I really feel that we were the lucky ones, we were really lucky to have this opportunities. And we always try to be optimistic and to feel that things are getting better every year, and let’s see… But I think we are happy with what we have until now!

NaN – E.A. : Yes, we are happy! And you never know, it is up and down. There were worse times in Europe, it is not that bad, and it is always up and down in the economy. If you can at least survive in a way, and have some enjoyment with what you are doing and learn through the process, this is very interesting. You will always learn something in our profession, and that fills you with some enjoyment. And yes, you always expect for something bigger to come.

NaN – D.D. : You have the opportunity to test yourself, you have the time to try new things, to try new fields, to try competitions. Otherwise maybe if you have so many projects and you start being so corporate, you are losing your strength, you don’t have the time to do the competitions, to show your ideas… So in a way there are good things and bad things, so you have to take advantage of both. And let’s hope for more!

LFE : Do you think that people are aware of design and architecture in Greece? Do they accept contemporary architecture, what is their reaction?

NaN – D.D. : People in Greece are not so architecturally literate, I think that in other countries people are closer to architecture, they are following architecture, they visit amazing buildings, they have the chance to see and be familiar with so nice architecture buildings. In Greece we are very poor in contemporary architecture, we have not so nice things and people are not very familiar with this kind of architecture.

NaN – E.A. : Maybe it is in the education, from young, when you educate about architecture, I guess, they are more open. They have the sense of the art of space in bigger proportion of people. But here, people are stuck in some traditional forms, in Greek history. There are a lot of places in Greece where the architectural councils of the area protect the area. So you have to build with some particular kind of roofs and some old types, in order not to destroy the traditional setting. But they see that in a very narrow-minded way, they don’t let place for some new thinking on this typical, traditional forms.

NaN – D.D. : And for sure, we are not an open-minded population, as a nation, I think that we are very afraid of innovation in terms of architecture. Sometimes people travel abroad and see new buildings and really love it, they are impressed and they come back, they are excited about that but here it is not that much accepted.

NaN – E.A. : Even if they see the modern architecture in other countries, I am not convinced that they appreciate it that much… They like the beautiful cities of Europe but not for their modern architecture, mainly for the historic and touristic parts.

LFE : I think that in France it is the same, the cities have strong historic city centres, and that is where the attention is focused, from a touristic point of view. So it doesn’t help the population to observe the qualities of contemporary architecture.

NaN – E.A. : Well, here, if you look around, they didn’t preserve anything in the Greek cities from the time like it is in cities like in France or in other cities of Europe. Ninety percent of our cities were rebuilt around the 1950s and 1960s, where they let all the private parts of land to be rebuilt, destroying the old buildings and rebuilding some modern style of the time but not of good quality, just in a way, in a process that was really fast for the economic needs of the country at that time. So we have terrible cities in that way, we didn’t keep it the way you kept it in France for example. In this way, everything modern, for people, has been assimilated as something bad. Modern movement came and destroyed the cities. But obviously it is not the reality, it is the people that designed it, which most of the time were not even architects. There is a law here allowing civil engineers to design buildings, it is crazy…

NaN – D.D. : And it is always faster to design and build in one shot, when one person does everything, so it is faster. And this is how it worked in Greece, because they needed many many houses in a very short period, people were coming from villages to live in the cities.

NaN – E.A. : Yes it was a big industry until the 1990s, the construction industry of private projects.

NaN – D.D. : It was a big boom of construction because people just needed to have houses to live, no one was interested about design and this law didn’t really protected the way cities were built and designed. If you check our cites as one problematic in terms of design, very narrow streets, with high buildings… It was the test and trial way to learn, and some things are now protected by law, like this kind of proportion, but not the design, and it is too late!

NaN – E.A. : Architecture is very hard to remove, right? It is a very heavy industry, and a very expansive industry, so it doesn’t change that easy.

NaN – D.D. : It needs time and money.

LFE : And to finish this interview, if you had an advice to give to the new generation of architects and designers, what would it be?

NaN – D.D. : To be strong, and not to lose their dreams, it is very easy to stop imagining, to stop being optimistic, innovative, it is so easy to forget everything that you were taught during your studies, and this flame that you had about designing and change the world, so I think that you have to keep it!

NaN – E.A. : Yes, don’t lose your passion and also adapt, adapt in order not to lose your mind. It depends on how difficult your environment is. In a way, if you are a passionate architect, you really want to do it the way you want to do it, but as you grow up you realise that it is not always that way. You have to learn to adapt, and develop your profession through the circumstances and learn from that.