On a lonely highway
Life don’t work out my way”
Blue Hotel (1986) by Chris Isaac
An unassuming old motel next to a motorway outside Athens is an almost forgotten Brutalist gem with a glorious past.
In its heyday, the main motorway linking the greater metropolitan area of Athens to the city of Corinth in the south west was one of the busiest arteries in Greece’s road network. Built between 1960 and 1969, the motorway would hug the craggy cliffs outside the capital on a tiny strip of land, offering breathtaking, and somewhat dangerous views of the sea below. Vehicles would naturally slow down at the Isthmus of Corinth, the canal that allowed shipping to navigate the strip of land connecting the Peloponnese to Attica. The slow crossing of the Isthmus bridge enabled passengers to admire the view of the man-made chasm below, and traditionally led to a quick pit stop on the other side of the canal.
The Isthmus region was becoming a very popular weekend escape with Athenians post war. At about 1 hour drive from the capital, it was near, yet far enough to enjoy the sea and fresh air. Small villas and seaside hotels sprang out in local villages and hamlets for weekenders to escape the hustle and bustle of a rapidly urbanising Athens.
It is at this popular stopover area past the canal, where the strangely alluring hotel was built in 1969 : it was a collaboration between composer Iannis Xenakis and urban planner Panos Spiliotakos, two visionary friends expressing their common architectural heritage.
The language of Iannis Xenakis
Iannis Xenakis was perhaps the most well known of the duo : a Greek multidisciplinary artist with a passion for music and engineering, and an unquestionable aptitude in both. As a young man, he joined the Greek Resistance during WW2. He survived the war suffering a terrible face wound – caused by shrapnel from a shell fired by a British tank into a crowd of Communist protesters demonstrating in the streets of Athens. It was December 1944, the onset of the Greek Civil War. As a qualified engineer, he left for Paris in 1947, where he worked under the legendary Le Corbusier in his Unite D’Habitation and Couvent De La Tourette projects.
During that period, and through his own musical culture, Xenakis soon realised that the same complex spatial geometrical patterns applied in Le Corbusier’s architecture – the structural calculations, the intersecting tones and curves – could be applied to the composition of music too. His seminal 1955 musical work Metastaseis (lit. a transmutation) was inspired by the Einsteinian ideas about time and space, and utilised the mathematical principles of the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Section structured around Le Corbusier’s architectural calculations. It shocked the world of contemporary music at the time : this was original Brutalist music, with all the sonic cantilevers, rebar and board marking you could handle !! You can listen to it here .
Xenakis’ knowledge of architecture allowed him to use graphic notation to represent his music. The string glissandi and other musical motions of his piece, representing sonic beams with time on one axis and pitch on another, looked less like sheet music, and more like a blueprint. With Le Corbusier occupied in the construction of Chandigarh in India, Xenakis went on to design the Phillips Pavilion in Brussels Expo 58 on his behalf. It’s a unique marriage of music and architecture, with its hyperbolic paraboloid masses deriving from the musical landscape of his own Metastaseis. Inside the Pavilion, an expansive array of speakers and dials were arranged in an acousmonium : an avant-garde playback device used to spatialise musical scores. The array had been invented in the 40s by proponents of musique concrète, an experimental circle of composers with whom Xenakis was associated. Further musical scores by Xenakis and Edgard Varese were performed this way throughout the pavilion, creating a unique meta-experience that fused architecture and music like never before.
The rhythm of Isthmia Prime
True to the genius of Iannis Xenakis, the building by the Isthmus emanates a classical aura throughout. Built as a modern diversorium (a roadside inn), it reflects the long Graeco-Roman resort heritage of the area. The sulphur baths at nearby Thermae (today’s Loutraki) attracted visitors since the antiquity, where many classical villas and baths have been discovered through the years. It makes perfect sense that Isthmia Prime’s characteristic main entrance colonnade is made of 12 stern, board-marked concrete columns, a Modernist throwback to the Doric order of the nearby Temple of Apollo. The colonnade is supporting the 3-storey main residential block, with the rooms arranged obliquely to the main axis to maximise the beautiful views of the gulf of Corinth beyond.
The triangular concrete antefices on the flat roof is another wink to the floral anthemia of antiquity, the decorative palmettes that adorned the eaves of ancient Greek and Roman buildings. The triangular shapes are not merely ornamental : they also maximise sunlight through the windows. The block is intersected by the reception and services area at ground level, allowing for a practical green area at the front with a star shaped pond. Iannis Xenakis reminded us that rhythm, as symmetrical repetition, is the ancient, supernatural bond that links mathematics, music and architecture. Isthmia Prime is an elegant, if somewhat forgotten example of these classical and artistic traditions, fused together by virtue of his characteristic elan.
The hotel was considered a modernist miracle at the time . A host of local and international celebrities stayed there over the years, including members of the Greek and Spanish Royal families, composers such as Mikis Theodorakis, and a constellation of actors, singers and politicians. Although its glory days are long gone, Isthmia Prime remains an unusual architectural gem that will yet surprise the discerning traveller.
- a version of this article appeared on Architectuul’s Forgotten Masterpieces #37 in July 2020
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