Building inside out

By Harry van Versendaal

They were both born in Portugal but first met in the Netherlands as postgraduate students five years ago. Joao Prates Ruivo, 29, and Raquel Maria Oliveira, 28, had hardly settled in Athens when they won their first prize as an architectural team for an ambitious project in the scruffy but promising Kerameikos/Metaxourgeio (KM) district.

A competition launched last summer by the urban development company Oliaros invited architects under 35 to submit proposals on a model student housing complex. A total of 242 architects from 41 countries took up the challenge, which involved building 18 student residences on a 200 m2 plot on Marathonos Street. “18 Steps” was eventually picked by an international jury in combination with SMS voting by the public.

In an unconventional design twist, the architects have arranged living space around an inner courtyard, pushing private amenities such as WCs and showers out toward the exterior of the building. The 18 residences are organized along 18 common use landings that ascend from the ground floor to the roof terrace, merging communal and semi-communal areas. Revolving partitions separate public from private areas, allowing students to interact or withdraw from the rest of the community.

The design is “an open conflict between privacy and extroversion, movement and pause, interior and exterior – a bit like the life of the students themselves,” Oliveira said in an email interview with Athens Plus earlier this week.

An exhibition of the projects submitted by the five finalists is on display at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum (Pireos 138 & Andronikou) through April 4.

You are an architectural duo from Portugal based in Athens. Why did you decide to move here?

Joao moved to Athens in order to work with some friends that were based here. Later on he decided to work on his own. We took part in the competition together and after we won I decided to move here so we could work closer.

What are the opportunities for you here? What are the main difficulties you have had to face as individuals and as architects in a foreign country?

We are presented now with the opportunity to build our project. We have been living abroad for some years now and enjoying the benefits of a borderless Europe.

Do architects in Portugal face similar challenges as their Greek counterparts?

Architecture has had more visibility in Portugal for a longer time. In Greece there is more space for architecture and new things as there is less prejudice regarding what architecture should be or look like.

Like much of Athens, the area that will host your project is a dense urban jungle. Do you think Athens and that particular neighborhood has room for improvement?

This particular neighborhood actually has more space for improvement then the rest of the city. The example is the empty plot that will host our project. There are many new things happening in this neighborhood.

Critics say that the area of Kerameikos/Metaxourgeio is in danger of gentrification – with the displacement of low-income residents together with an unchecked invasion of overpriced lofts and recreation centers. What is your opinion?

The future residents of KM that you suggest (students, artists, etc.) will hold no prejudice against the local inhabitants, unlike those who fear the area and move to the periphery abandoning the center of the city. It is much easier to start from scratch away from the problematic areas than to try to live with and next to them.

Could you tell us some details about your project? The competition asked for “new typologies.” How did you respond to that?

The most interesting aspect of the competition was the request to find a balance between the private and the communal. We took it literally, and developed a scheme that materializes it as an open conflict between privacy and extroversion, movement and pause, interior and exterior – a bit like the life of the students themselves.

What are the main obstacles you have had to overcome with this project?

One of the main obstacles was to comply with the strict Athenian building regulations and, at the same time, come up with something new.

Rent prices for the student housing you have designed are estimated at 590 euros. Don’t you think that is too high for the average student?

We were asked to design affordable student housing. We are not involved in deciding the price of the rooms.

This was an innovative competition; the public also took part in picking the winner through SMS voting. What was your impression?

This was a very exciting competition because it was targeted at young architects, it was an international competition, the jury were very well known architects and for us the most motivating thing is that the prize is to actually build the design.

What is your next project?

At the moment we are involved together with Metamorfossis Architectural Design in the design of a new space for The Breeders Gallery in Athens. We hope to continue working with Oliaros in the implementation of the 18+Student Living project.

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