Finding Complexity in Simplicity. Interview with Architect & Designer, Theo Galliakis.
At TERMINO, we're fascinated by the rich cultural contexts which underscore meaningful design and works of art, which is why it was truly a delight to speak with the thoughtful and talented designer and architect, Theo Galliakis, for this week's TERMINO Dialogues.
Originally from Greece, Theo has achieved Masters degrees in both Architecture and Geo-Design and has worked for renowned offices such as Kengo Kuma associates and Kizi Studio, alongside a broad diversity of projects ranging from objects to exhibitions to buildings. We talked about Theo's balancing of different practices, his affinity for simple works, and his time spent living with monks on Mount Athos.
Our discussion began on the topic of where Theo locates himself on the border between disciplines.
"Let's say, at this moment of my life, I don't like defining whether I'm this or that. I was just always fascinated with how I could give meaning to what I'm doing. Because when you're working as an architect, you're dealing a lot with what the client wants, according also to his financial status. There are a lot of aspects like this. So it's these kinds of norms that architecture is giving you, and I would like to escape this."
I was curious then as to what Theo's escape route looked like, from architecture into other spaces of design.
"I decided, ever since I was in architecture, to do a Masters that would allow me to give a bit more meaning to what I'm doing. Geo-Design was that kind of choice; considering environmental, historical and socio-political issues. I wanted to develop these research skills and also to discover a smaller scale; to start playing with my hands. Because architecture is about designing, but it's less about making things on your own; usually other people are doing it for you."
Amphora, 2021 (left).
What struck me when I first came across Theo's work was the depth of research that underscored each project. I wondered how long he'd had this enthusiasm to dive so deep into so many contexts.
"Interestingly, when I was deciding whether or not I wanted to go into architecture, my other option [was] political science. Because I was always fascinated by history and politics — I'm also politically engaged back in Greece, so I'm trying to keep this kind of aspect in my life."
"I think the fact that I'm Greek has to do with this. Because you're raised with this kind of understanding of how important it is to keep these references when it comes to history and religion, and when it comes to politics. In my work though, I'm always trying to keep things simple. I like simple stuff. I like to present things that might have deep complexity, but in a simple way. And I was always attracted to spiritual things."
"Last year, for my final project in the design academy, I visited Mount Athos, which is a group of monasteries in Greece that's actually an autonomous community. I spent 10 days living like them. I'm really fascinated in this kind of simplicity that also contains a kind of equality."
The concept of simplicity had shown its face several times already in our conversation. I wondered where Theo's interest in 'the simple' came from.
"I grew up in a family with parents that were — especially my Mother — let's say chaotic in organising things. I grew up in a house that was full of little things. So I guess my interpretation is that I was trying to find my own kind of identity in the sense that I always like things to be a bit more organised and clean."
"I really like when — on a physical or digital level — I clear things out. And I do that pretty often, actually. Whether it's selling clothes, giving things [away], throwing things out or also using leftover food. The other thing is that ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated when I was entering a religious space; this kind of tallness. And combining the two is what I'm trying to bring in my work; this knid of serenity or spirituality, in an object or in a space."
Theo's time spent living with monks on Mount Athos was certainly not a topic I wanted to gloss over. I insisted he tell me more about this experience.
"Interestingly, it began as an exploration to discover how these people live. But in the end, it became a project about going against all these things that I described to you; this organisation, this cleanness, this kind of perfectionism. I discovered a lot of paradoxes that you can find in the life of a monk, or in, as it's called, simple living. For example, in the case of architecture, although they have this kind of common facade of simplicity and essentialism, and voluntary poverty, behind, we have an excess of space, an excess of materiallity, an excess of everything. Even though the monks claim to be living with absolutely nothing, in reality, [they are] living in a huge palace with huge spaces and very valuable objects around [them]."
A minimalist architect's cell (Ratio for an architecture of "simple living"), 2023.
I was curious how this experience influenced Theo's practice.
"It informed a lot my work in the way of how you can create something that's actually honest. That's what I'm trying to do. And I'm trying to present things that you don't need to read a lot [about]; that what you see is what you get."
"I find it a very creative process to go against what you like. I think for a designer or an artist or an architect, it's really, really valuable. Architects especially — but I guess in other fields it's the same — we tend to admire a lot of big names, but we never think, does this apply today? Is this actually true today? Is this something we can learn from and make better? Because every architect, artist, and designer is tasked with building upon the foundations laid by their predecessors. So I think that's where we are right now. That's where I am."
"It was a very difficult — but at the end of the day creative — process to go against what [I] like and find paradoxes. It's so vital to go through this because it's only in this way you can actually see what you can improve and how you can put your own kind of input into other things. And that's what I get mostly from this project. It was not about the aesthetics, it was not about anything else than this. It was an ending and a starting point for the rest of my career."
I was interested to hear if he could trace a single conceptual thread throughout his broader practice.
"I think the common line would be this kind of approaching everything in a spiritual way. Creating simple things in a very naive way. Like if in the end, I look at my career, I would like to see this as a common thing between all my projects. Spirituality, and this kind of simplicity."
I asked Theo how he would map out the evolution of his practice.
"I would say my work has evolved not so much in a scale-specific way, but it's more about giving an essence to what [I'm] making, whether it's spaces, or whether it's chairs."
Ytong stool, 2020.
As a person who lives on the border between several disciplines, I was keen to understand how Theo's approach differs between his object design versus architectural practice, for instance.
"First, I try to see what the project is about; what is the starting point, what are the cultural references, what are the meanings I want to give when someone experiences a space or an object or anything? And once I find the story, I start exploring. When it comes to architecture, you explore scales, masses, volumes, you explore with lines and models."
"When it comes to design, you explore materials. When you have the story, you find the right material, and when you find the right way to work with this material — everything makes sense. And it's not what material you use, but I think how you use the material that matters. I'm not working with a specific material, I just want a project, in the end, to have a meaning. I want it to be out there, and the moment you see it, you understand what it is."
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