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Hooked on Classics


After his unlikely alliance with Allies and Morrison at Brindleyplace, leading Classicist Demetri Porphyrios is again mixing it with the Modernists at King's Cross It is a safe bet that Demetri Porphyrios is not exactly to everyone's taste. While he has always had a steady stream of work, the unapologetic Classicist has never actively sought the approval or support of mainstream architects or developers.

But slowly, and rather surprisingly, this has recently begun to change as some of the Classical approaches to urban design have won greater - if still limited - approval from within the architectural community.

This has perhaps most famously manifested itself in Prince Charles' Poundbury. It has become possible for people to be heard muttering positive things about its masterplanning without holding their heads in shame. While almost everyone in the mainstream still reacts with horror to the architectural pastiche, there are now those looking to learn lessons from its urban design.

Another example of this thawing of the well-chronicled cold war between design approaches was the alliance of Porphyrios with Allies and Morrison at Birmingham's Brindleyplace. No one, least of all Porphyrios himself, would have predicted this move two decades ago.

Even less likely would have seemed the opportunity to work with the same Modernist firm on the transformation and regeneration of 27ha of London's King's Cross hinterland. But that is exactly what has happened, and last week we got our first real opportunity to assess the results of the collaboration's labour (AJ 3.6.04).

At first sight, the scheme seems to mirror any of the very many regeneration masterplans you can see dotted all around the UK.

But on closer inspection it becomes clear that Porphyrios has had a serious influence on the scheme. Not in a columns and facades kind of way but on its layout and street pattern.

'This for me is a very exciting project at this moment in my career, ' he says. 'And it is great to be working with Allies and Morrison again.'

A question that has to be asked is how easy it was for someone like Porphyrios to work with the Southwark-based practice. It is easy to imagine shouting and screaming as the two design philosophies clash over every little detail on the masterplan.

Perhaps predictably, Porphyrios denies that there had been any conflict. But what is more surprising is that the past winner of the Richard H Driehaus Prize - the Classical version of the Pritzker - says that there's a meeting of minds with his collaborators.

'We have a great deal in common. We believe in a rationalist approach to design and have a similar understanding of how cities work.We also believe in the concept of the human city and the primacy of public spaces. But there are several areas in which I have influenced the project - such as ensuring that it knits into the rest of the city, that it is mixed use and that it is relatively low rise and high density.

'There has been a change recently in the attitude of many people to the kind of work that I do and it is very gratifying, ' he says sounding satisfied. 'I'm not saying that I have achieved this change single-handed - there were lots of people doing this kind of work - but in the UK I was one of the first to really start pressuring about it.'

What about background? Porphyrios was born in Greece and largely educated in US universities before emigrating to England to teach at the Architectural Association in the 1970s. What? The AA in the late-'70s? It is not exactly the kind of place you imagine an arch-Neo-Classicist hanging out.

'It was a wonderful time, ' the 52-year-old says with a sigh. 'There were so many great people that were around.' Contemporaries included people such as Rem Koolhaas, Ed Jones, Daniel Libeskind, Leon Krier and, a bit later, Zaha Hadid.

'We were all questioning many of the same things and were all of the same opinion that functional Modernism was dead and we all really wanted to get rid of it. What happened later was that it became clear what we meant at the time - each one of us was on a different path, ' he says. 'We had the same agendas but were on completely divergent paths.'

It is quickly becoming apparent that Porphyrios is no stereotypical reactionary Classicist. However, it does not mean that he can't have a pop at the trends in today's architectural scene.

'I don't have a problem with Modernism per se as long as it's with a rationality of mind; Modernists need to consider the city as the most important thing - more important than any one building. They also need to understand the importance of good quality construction, ' he adds.

'High standards of construction are really what I am about and this is why I've been so critical of Post-Modernism, which, in my opinion, is just wallpaper.'

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