I have always been fascinated by Greek architecture. It has an unusual romantic aura, unlike other architectures of the world. Marilena Sifaki is the second-generation architect to take over the successful mantle from her renowned father Georgios S. Sifakis – a Civil Engineer and the founder of ‘Chωros – Sifakis Architecture Studio’ – a 1975 established studio based in Athens, Greece. An architect-engineer, Marilena graduated with an architecture degree from Kent University, Canterburry, UK in the year 2001. She went onto complete her Masters and Diploma in architecture from Brighton University, UK.
In the year 2004, Marilena returned to her homeland Greece to join her successful father. Georgios Sifakis did not hand over projects to Marilena on a silver platter. She reminisces with a smile, “I had to prove myself worthy of earning my place in my father’s office. I realized later that this was one of the most valuable lessons he taught me. My father showed me that nothing will be handed to you on a platter. If you want to achieve something, you need to create on your own.” Marilena Sifaki comes across as a meticulous person with great communication skills. Her acumen towards any work getting to perfection is infectious for her staff as well.
Johnny D talks to Marilena Sifaki about her quest, success in the architecture world and award-winning project ‘Serifos – Extended’ project.
What was your childhood ambition? Did you always want to be an architect?
My father used to take me in his lap during site visits, so I have been role playing as an architect since I was three (smiles). I was not the doll-type of a girl. I enjoyed building Lego houses like my father. Architecture grew in me from my early childhood. However, I never really thought I would become an architect. I always wanted to be a pioneer – doing what, was really not important for me (laughs). As an architect, I am able to break new frontiers and create my own designs in unique manner.
During your growing up years, what is one important thing you learned from your famous father Georgios Sifakis about architecture?
My father was never really the teacher type. I had to prove myself worthy of earning a place in his office. I realize now, this was one of the most valuable lessons he could ever teach me. My father taught that if you want to achieve something, you need to do it on your own. Nothing will be handed to you on a platter. This priceless principle runs in the office even today.
I was always amazed by my father’s ability to build relationships of trust with his clients. He taught me that you need to listen carefully and understand the hidden messages behind your clients’ briefings. You need to reassuring clients that you are here to solve their problems and work together towards their dreams’ creations.
What are the various projects ‘Chωros – Sifakis Architecture Studio’ is currently busy with, in various cities and countries?
We are currently designing two residential projects in Serifos Island, a restoration of a historic mansion and its reconstruction into a boutique hotel in the island of Crete. In Athens, two residential semi-detached houses, while additionally reconstructing a major building block – a mixed-use projects including offices, flats, shops and one of the first open-air cinemas in Greece, which was opened in the 1950’s.
What really goes in your mind when the client states the brief?
I have the tendency to interpret the ‘hidden’ characters of every person I meet. I try to decipher the deeper meanings of their words. Reading between the lines to gain a good understanding of client’s true needs based on our conversation is the key. The narration of a client’s life story reveals their actual dreams which, in many cases, can be different than what they state in their brief.
What was the brief of the ‘Serifos Extended’ project?
‘Serifos EXTENDED’ is a project very close to our hearts. It has become one of our favorite design proposals! The family’s brief was very clear – they wanted an extension to their wonderful pre-existing vacation house, overlooking the cliff above ‘KaloAmpeli’ beach. They needed additional space as their family was growing in numbers. They wanted an independent guest house to accommodate 2 to 4 people, while maximizing the views towards the beach.
You have brilliantly used the Serifian rocks to create a masterpiece. What were the major challenges of the project?
The Serifian rocks were extensively used for the design of this project, as the guest house is designed to be a sub-terrain caved structure. One of the main challenges was the stability and integrity of the house’s structure, which needed unique handling, different from all our other projects so far. Having the guest house’s structural components located inside a cliff meant that special treatment was needed to create a structure strong enough to support the cliff’s weight and load against the building’s walls.
One of our main design goals was to create a ‘chameleon – scheme’ that would mimic the surrounding colours and textures with the rise and fall of sunlight. This was another big challenge, as we had to find a way to visually unify the house with the existing cliff.
How did the team overcome them creatively as the project progressed towards completion?
In terms of the structural challenges, the Chωros Architects’ team managed to overcome them by placing monolithic concrete columns and slabs alongside the perimeter of the site’s excavation to support the heavy earth-load that would be placed upon the structure. Design-wise, the slabs were also placed on the guest-house’s roof to create a planted roof design that would serve us both practically and aesthetically – to combat the island’s climatic conditions, while also visually incorporating the design into the Serifian terrain.
To do the latter, we had to carefully choose our external materials, reusing the rocks that were excavated directly from the site’s cliff, while also choosing plants from the local flora to be placed and grown on the green roof.
Briefly describe the ‘Elegance of Design’ of ‘Serifos Extended’ project?
Through our design creation, we have tried to achieve to recreate the minimalism found in nature, one that I would describe as the highest form of elegance that gets rid of all the nonessentials – keeping only the basic forms of beauty. The project’s colour palette and material selection was inspired by the Serifian landscape, using colours found in nature and materials that were carefully taken from the island’s terrain.
Serifos’ infrastructure is underdeveloped in comparison to other Greek Islands. Hence, Serifos Extended’s elegance of design is hidden in the efforts made to mimic the natural element in its design to maintain the island’s ‘raw’ form, instead of trying to mimic the Cycladic architecture.
Please mention 5 major ‘Sustainability’ features you incorporated in the project.
The ‘Serifos Extended’ guest house is designed as a caved house. Having the structure enclosed in the cliff aids in maintaining a comfortable temperature by utilizing the earth’s stable temperature, which remains relatively constant, at approximately 22.5°C, all round the year. The house’s green roof provides it with natural sound and thermal insulation.
The roof’s design allows for rainwater harvesting. The water collected is directed for secondary use in the house, which is finally led towards the land to be used as fertilizer through the implemented underground waste management system.
Locally sourced materials were reused for the building of this project, supporting the local economy and minimizing CO2 emissions for material transportation. Focus was also given in the use of renewable energy sources as solar panels are used to heat water in the house.
What is the total area, estimated cost and the design-to-finish time period of the project?
The plot’s size is 4.565m2 with the house being 155m2 in total. If we include the surrounding floor area of the terraces and exterior spaces shaded by wooden pergolas, its total size reaches 350m2.
Our estimated cost is approximately 150.000 Euros and the design is scheduled to be completed in the next year and a half.
How much significance would you attribute to the conscientious efforts of the structural / civil engineers in this project?
In general, once our team of architects conceives the conceptual design of a project, essentially we collaborate with our engineering department, in order to make our dream design come to life. In this particular project, the structural aspect of the scheme was of great importance due to the house’s placement in the mountain baring all these earth loads. For the structural stability and integrity of a caved design, our structural engineers did a magnificent job to make the project come alive in a feasible manner without compromising our vision.
How different is Greek architecture from the Western and Asian architectures?
In my opinion, there is not a specific notion existing in today’s Greek architecture, contrary to the Western and Asian architectures which present a more uniform design. This occurs as the latter have largely preserved their traditional architectural character through the Centuries, contrary to Greek architecture which has been shaped by the numerous conquerors, who dominated over the development of a separate Greek architectural identity.
Additionally, in Greece we have more than 300 days of annual solar exposure, one of the longest in duration globally. Combining that together with the Greek’s extroverted character, I would say that even though there is not one dominant Greek architectural style today, there is one common denominator – the need to design open spaces creating close contact between interior, exterior and the natural element, contrary to the Western and Asian architectures, which feature more private and enclosed spaces.
Arguing all the above, there is one Greek architectural style which is broadly and profoundly renowned throughout the whole world; Cycladic architecture. In terms of design, after Le Corbusier spent time in the Greek islands his designs were majorly influenced by the local cubic forms something which, in extent, impacted the notion of modern architecture as a whole, having cubic geometries dominating the architectural world. Finally, in terms of colour, the Cycladic white tones used to deflect the large amounts of sunlight come in great contrast to the darker colour palettes of the Western and Asian architectures.
How can architects of the world be able to minimize the catastrophic effects of ‘Climate Crisis’ to safeguard the future of Planet Earth at a ‘fast and furious’ pace?
I may sound redundant, but I am a firm believer that the key for architects to be able to minimize the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis is through implementing the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – in their design and construction approach. There is greed to produce new and striking architecture. However, the earth is unable to respond to this mass consumption. Hence, it is essential for architects to take a step back and work with the earth instead of against it to safeguard its future.
Rethinking waste management to reduce the surplus produced during the construction process, reusing existing structures instead of expropriating them using heavy machinery, to minimize CO2 emissions and the amount of additional materials needed for construction, as well as to use recycled materials or scraps from old projects when working on something new will benefit everybody at large. Reusing and preserving the on-site resources is also a good starting point for innovation, as it renders each project more unique by pushing architects to come up with creative ways of thinking that could lead to diverse architecture.
Which significant aspects of the global platform www.zerobeyond.com did you liked the most, and why?
One of the main things I enjoy about ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ is its versatile content. Discussing an array of subjects does not limit the reader to a specific topic but rather leaves room for various important matters to be explored by them. Following its versatility, I greatly appreciate the platform’s universal character that is not restricted by borders or nationalities.
Paying closer attention to its name, I immediately contemplated how in all truth ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ is, in fact, the mere existence on no frontiers at all, which is what we all, as individuals, regardless of professional choices, should aim for in the future.
How would you describe Marilena Sifaki as a leader and a person?
My grandmother describes me as an authoritative soul (laughs). She used to tell me how in my kindergarten years, I would gather other kids around and teach them a new language that I had invented. If any of them dared to leave my ‘classroom’, I would chase them around. I have never been afraid to impose myself and take risks, something that I try to bring into the office and in the male dominated construction sites today, however, in a more polite way (smiles).
As a pioneer, my efforts to be in charge of a pro-feminism office may sound as unconventional in a male dominated profession. I strongly believe in the internal power a woman processes in leading major constructions as a strong workforce.
Please state recent award wins.
2022 6th Triennale of Architecture in Crete: Nominated for ‘The Teacher’s House, Boutique Hotel’ project;
2022 Masterprize Architecture: Nominated for Conceptual Landscape Design – ‘The Decoded Path: UNESCO World Heritage Monument’ project;
2021 Interiors Awards: Silver Award – ‘Serifos EXTENDED’ project;
2020 Best of Houses Award: ‘Expressive Repitition of two Villas in Kifissia’ project.
Photographer: Katerina Passa
Image Courtesy: Chωros – Sifakis Architecture Studio