by Jincy IypeAug 10, 2023
Does approaching contemporary architecture, in all its forms of experimentation, limitations, complacency and nuances, as an active narrative feat instead of a passive one, invoke landscape and heritage? Block722 illustrates a response with O Lofos, a thoroughly modern and soulful dwelling articulated in stone and wood, where clean Scandinavian design sensibilities meet Japanese organic minimalism in a succinctly natural, Greek setting. Set on the northern foothills of the Thrypti mountain in Greece, O Lofos borrows copiously from the green, wild and sloping Cretan landscape it calls home. Confident, natural, and timeless, the built plays peek-a-boo from within the setting of trees and shrubs at certain angles, its character bordering on the monastic with clean, austere lines.
Context and abundant nature drive the artisanal planning and seemingly rudimentary aesthetics of the 280sqm residential design, with varying textural and smooth tones of calming beige, soft browns and glorious whites. The layout balances the needs of the client's simple brief by framing picturesque vistas of mountains, plains, and the Mediterranean Sea, which was considered critical in the design solution by Block722. "The architecture was driven by a desire to create a modern house that is discreet and respectful to its surroundings. The design seeks to enhance slow living, taking its cues from the island’s lifestyle," the Greek architects relay, who carefully negotiated the site's angle with means of levels instead of steps, resulting in a relaxing environment confident in its topographical setting.
The complex’s hefty size is cleverly broken down into smaller, straight-lined, boxy volumes which find interconnection with uncluttered circulation routes and "in-between" spaces, some indoors and some open air. The main home is divided into two low buildings linked by a semi-enclosed area with an envy-inducing water feature. The powerful, journeying, Greek sunlight guides and defines the spatial arrangement inside, as well as the shapes and surfaces of the contextual design, playing with the textured materials, drawing on the feel and rhythm emanating from the ground, for both the interiors and exteriors. "Each section and route is carefully planned to support functionality and frame vistas, through visual journeys and spatial narratives that blend inside and outside, the natural and the human-made," says Block722, who also carried out the interior design for O Lofos.
This design solution, as seen across their oeuvre, always keeps paramount, a craft-based approach and collaborations with local artisans and artists that interpret the Mediterranean spirit and traditions for the 21st century. STIR spoke with Sotiris Tsergas, (Architect Engineer, Managing Director & Partner), Katja Margaritoglou (Executive Creative Director & Partner) and Francesca Balfoussia (Design Director) of the Athens-based multidisciplinary firm to recollect their approach of conceiving the idyllic O Lofos, materialising it as a contemporary architecture in soulful continuation to its environment, as a sensorial invocation of the graceful Greek landscape.
Jincy Iype: What does O Lofos mean and what concept does the residential architecture base itself on?
Sotiris Tsergas: For us, the site's nature and its location are ever-evolving sources of inspiration. The house is perched on top of a hill between an imposing mountain and a valley blessed with olive trees that end in the sea. The Hill, O Lofos in Greek, is where the owner and we envisioned this house existing in glory and fullness. It is a special landscape, with three strong frames, the winter frame at the back with the steep mountain range, the spring frame in the middle with a large valley and the summer frame at the front with the water element. These were the inspiration for the design of the house.
Katia Margaritoglou: The main source of inspiration for us always remains the place (Greek named topos), the relationship with the owners and their way of life.
Francesca Balfoussia: It is the poetry of the place and the way in which the house gently merges with the wild Cretan landscape, the strong architectural framework, the variety of spaces with different qualities, the constant intensive interaction with sunlight, water and air that defines the sense of belonging to the place.
Jincy: Could you elaborate on the brief shared by the client?
Katia: The clients are a non-Greek couple carrying pure, great love for Crete, the largest and the most populous of the Greek islands, packed with ancient ruins, buzzing cities and breath-taking beaches. They have been living here for many years and have been visiting for periods throughout the last decade or so. As they were quite well-versed with the location, with its wild weather changes and ever-changing landscape, they had some great ideas of what would work for them and what would not.
The house had to be designed for maximum comfort, regardless of the fluctuating, moody seasons. They requested a well-equipped kitchen, both inside and outside, for private or informal dinners with neighbours, friends, and family, a sustainably heated seawater pool for year-round swimming, guest rooms, outdoor relaxation spaces, a home cinema, a gym, as well as a billiard room with bar area. The couple were well aware that they wanted to be able to enjoy various aspects of the surrounding nature as well, which eventually, became the heart and driving force behind the project. So, although you would think that the stunning sea views in the amazing direction would completely dominate the user experience, there are other views framing a completely different piece of nature that is just as calming and impressive.
Francesca: Rightfully said - they are not Greek, but they probably know the place better than the locals. They already had a house here and wanted to create a home from scratch, tailored to their needs, and drawing from the context. Throughout the project, they were sure of what they wanted, and we were surprised and inspired by their simple and powerful way of living.
Jincy: In what ways do the location and landscape influence the structure? What were some challenges faced while building O Lofos on a sloping piece of a hill?
Sotiris: We were asked to place a 280 sqm house on top of a hill that, including outdoor spaces and pools, encompassed 800 sqm. One of the major challenges was to incorporate 800 sqm of surfaces while having minimal impact on the natural landscape. The abode is not articulated as one monolithic volume, but as many, smaller, interconnected ones, keeping in mind the human vs. nature scale – we were mindful of keeping open spaces or vistas to open areas between or above the volumes, to be in dialogue with an, or several elements of nature, at all times.
Katia: Another challenge was to determine the ultimate position of the house on the plot, to ensure that all rooms and living spaces have the maximum view of the different perspectives of the landscape.
Francesca: The steep intensive landscape also posed a challenge. We were asked to design a discreet hilltop home, while trying to achieve a balanced blend between architecture and nature, forging a symbiotic relationship rather than an unbalanced one.
Jincy: "Negotiating the site’s angle through levels instead of steps was also critical in moulding a relaxing environment that embraces its setting” – what does this mean in the context of residential architecture?
Katia: The house is embedded and placed on a (steep) slope, so to bridge the level differences that usually occur on uneven ground, the placement blocks on these levels had to be done carefully so that a nice, steady flow could be introduced when moving from one area to another. This also includes some “in-between” areas with no specific use, but nevertheless helps the whole experience of blissfully discovering all the indoor-outdoor spaces as you traverse the house.
Jincy: What comprises the material and colour palette adopted for O Lofos and could you take us behind your reasonings?
Katia: The landscape surrounding the architectural intervention is strong, lively and serves as a perfect, almost cinematic background. Because of this, we felt it was right to work with materials that would beautifully complement this natural and untouched environment without overly interfering with it. To build a house that would co-exist harmoniously with its surroundings.
Most of the materials were left in their natural state and are in their original discoloured hues, giving a sub-textural and relaxed look. In addition, there are some intense and darker woods that add a nice contrast. All the dark woods were either smoked and therefore naturally coloured or treated with another natural process that would give that duskier touch. We worked hard to achieve the right finishes on materials that were mostly natural, always trying to balance the importance of maintenance, accepting the natural ageing as well as alteration process, and getting the look and feel ‘just’ right.
Most of the materials can be termed quite "simple", but at the same time, we worked almost obsessively to get the right details. These were treated with great care by various craftsmen, such as carpenters (woodworkers), stone workers, traditional weavers, and more.
Francesca: We chose a neutral colour palette inspired by the colours of the earth and used local materials such as wood and stone. However, it was necessary for us to describe a minimal aesthetic based on textures and forms that are characteristic of Cretan tradition, the Greek passion (taste) for the sense of handmade. This required numerous workshops with local craftsmen and manufacturers to achieve this unique effect with exclusive elements such as bespoke furniture, woven cabinets, handmade bed headboards and solid marble structures.
We collaborated with local craftsmen throughout the construction, applying expert manufacturing skills to a large array of elements in the house. This applies to both high-end architectural details and furniture pieces, the majority of which are bespoke and created specifically with this project in mind, using marble, wood, stone, and terrazzo.
This approach, rich in artistry and locally sourced, natural materials, elevates the design into a truly custom-made residential gem. Neutral, earthy colours dominate, and quality is prioritised over quantity.
Jincy: What are some sustainable features?
Sotiris: O Lofos is the result of the collective effort of local manufacturers, craftsmen, workers, and specialised designers, with a unified commitment to using local, organic, and sustainable materials, to create a bioclimatic space. Thousands of plants were planted in the area that surrounds the house as well as in the terrace garden. Thick walls and roof garden ensure the thermal insulation of the house. In addition, utilising captured heat for warming water is also used.
Jincy: Could you give us a walkthrough of the O Lofos residence?
Sotiris: The journey starts from the point where you leave the main road and turn downhill to meet the house. As you descend you observe it from different angles and levels as well as the relationship it develops with the hill. You notice how carefully it has been integrated into it. There are two main volumes set high up and the others are one level below them around the perimeter. The materials that have been used are the same or similar to those that existed on the plot and even the vegetation from the rock against which the house rests are carried over to the roof. Thus, you see the house being submerged in the hill and blending harmoniously into its surroundings.
At the end of the route, you find yourself with a large square in front of the main entrance of the house. A set of steps to find yourself in front of the entrance. You open the door and see the magical view between the two volumes of the house over a water feature and behind an olive tree which has been placed in this spot and appears to float. This is a very powerful moment that the house gives you, pulling you in instantly. The house is built on different levels following the slope of the land, from the highest point and gradually descending. There is a central corridor that crosses the main entrance and that connects all the rooms of the house. To the left of the entrance is the master bedroom and to the right, you find the living room, dining room and kitchen in succession. Externally, leaving the living room you meet the swimming pool which is one level below and progresses forward along the entire length of the house.
What makes this home stand out is that the great majority of things have been specially designed and manufactured for this project.
Francesca: Access to the plot is from the top of the hill and you discover the house once you go down the paved path that is filled with lavender and aromatic herbs. You follow the steps and pass through a water path that leads you to the main entrance. In the centre is a semi-enclosed area, which connects the communal areas to the master bedroom and provides a stunning view of the pool and a large, floating olive tree. The living area is arranged in three levels due to the uneven and steep landscape, offering a variety of intimate spaces with unobstructed ocean views. An impressive 2.8 x 1.5m sculpture by Greek artist Pantelis Chandris is installed on a wall in the centre of the space.
The kitchen is located on the north side with direct access to the outdoor breakfast area and a magnificent view of the imposing mountains of Thriptis. The master bedrooms and guest rooms are located on the southeast side providing panoramic views and the desired privacy to the owners and their guests.
The artwork was also important in the overall composition and the project. The specially commissioned piece in the living room was developed in parallel to the architectural design, beautifully displaying the retreat's perfect marriage of scales and disciplines.
Jincy: What is the story behind your firm's name? What is your design philosophy?
Katia: As we started working together, Sotiris and I had to find a name for our studio. We came up with something quickly, as we often do instinctively. Our first office space was in an area in the centre of Athens, where the square had the number 722 and a few digits after it. So, we cut it out and just kept 722. Also, a square in general is the fundamental concept, an initial shape for something that's going to be developed. It always starts with a block, at least in our case, and then it evolves into something else.
I think that Greek and Scandinavian influences in our work are an integral part of our identity and the way they are combined is interesting. The Greek approach is about emotions, feelings, light, wind, and all the beauty reflected from the Greek land and its people. These are contrasts and some strong conditions to consider, but they are also very useful when coming up with a design. And on the other hand, there is the Scandinavian approach, which is balanced and more refined and rather sophisticated. So, the fusion of these two approaches is a unique combination.
Francesca: The design of each project results from a thorough conceptual research. Simple geometric volumes, clean lines, high-quality materials, and small, precise details work together to create a unified space that conveys a strong yet humble feel; a feeling that defines each project and has become the company's signature.
Name: O Lofos
Location: Crete, Greece
Area: 280 sqm
Year of completion: 2022
Architect, Interior Designer and FF&E: Block722
Art and Creative Direction: Block722
Executive creative director: Katja Margaritoglou
Managing Director: Sotiris Tsergas
Design team: Sotiris Tsergas, Katja Margaritoglou, Francesca Balfoussia, Michalis Grylakis, Christina Kontou, Yannis Mantzaris, Sofia Badeka, Eva Dimoula, Danai Lazaridi, Aristea Topizopoulou
Construction and Project Manager: Nani Kapsoritaki
Lighting design: Skia Lighting
Landscape design and planting: Outside landscape architecture- Eva Papadimitriou & Marina Tsintikidou