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A life of consequence

A leading architect advises people to use their work to get through times of crisis. THEO PANAYIDES meets the man behind Nicosia’s GSP stadium

 

Theoharis David sits in his office at Theo. David Architects + KAL Engineering in Nicosia. “I don’t run,” he tells me firmly.

He has snow-white hair and a snow-white beard, and the most extraordinary smile: when he smiles his face scrunches up in quiet mirth and his eyes close almost entirely, giving him the air – along with the hair and beard – of a twinkly Father Christmas. It’s so blatant it’s almost self-parody. His soft American English is punctuated with a “’kay?” every couple of sentences, which may well be a teacher’s tic (as if to say ‘Are you following me?’) – and he is in fact a teacher, Professor of Architecture at Pratt Institute in New York and Visiting Professor at the University of Cyprus, as well as being among the most successful architects on the island.

“I don’t run,” says Theoharis. “I refuse. I refused in ’74, and I refuse now. I’ll give it my best shot. For my own self-esteem – but also I think I owe it to this practice, and to the practice of architecture”. It’s no secret that times are tough, not just for him but for everyone, especially in the construction sector. “Everyone’s saying close the office, you have no work – you’re right, we have no work. I mean, we struggle. Like others, we had to lay off 50 per cent of our staff. But here I am.”

The twinkly, avuncular air is something of a sham. Theo (people call him Theo) comes across as a tough customer, the kind who won’t back down easily or, I suspect, suffer fools gladly. “I have no patience for small talk,” he admits without embarrassment. He’s emphatic when making a point, and won’t be derailed or interrupted. He shows signs of impatience and bristles, for instance, when I talk about the atmosphere of pessimism that’s smothering development in Cyprus almost as much as the economic crisis. “I’m not interested in pessimism,” he snaps. “And I told people here [at the office], ‘When you’ve told me once how bad things are, that’s enough!’ I’m not interested.”

“I need to be optimistic,” he adds with feeling. “And I feel fortunate that I have a profession, ’kay? – the profession of architecture, ’kay? – that allows me to lead a meaningful life. A life of consequence.”

It’s true, both literally and metaphorically – “a life of consequence” in the sense of creative drive, but also in the sense of tangible ‘consequences’ he can see all around him, fragments of his legacy around every corner (most have been collected in a recent book, Built Ideas). He can’t even drive into Nicosia without seeing one such consequence, the new GSP Stadium which he designed some years ago – and if we ever get Famagusta back he’ll behold one of his proudest achievements, the church of Ayia Trias that was “only the third truly contemporary Greek Orthodox church in the world” when he forged its contours back in the day. Even the buildings he didn’t build count as consequences, reminders of this or that long-ago anecdote. Somewhere in Makedonitissa there’s a Swiss chalet built in the late 1960s for a female client who knew exactly what she wanted, and came to the firm of J&A Philippou toting magazines with photos of Swiss villages. Theoharis was chief designer, then in his 20s but already acerbic. “Does it really snow that much in Makedonitissa?” he asked dryly. The woman went somewhere else.

profile2-The GSP stadium
The GSP stadium

His office is strewn with models and photos, filling the small space with reminders of past projects. Classical music issues from the computer. ‘What are you listening to?’ I ask, and he beams unexpectedly: “WQXR!” he announces, as if introducing an old friend. This is apparently the only classical-music station in New York City – and significant in two ways, first because Theoharis David is himself a musician (albeit jazz rather than classical; he plays string bass and tuba), and second because Theoharis, for all his projects in Cyprus, is himself a New Yorker. He nods along to the music: “When I’m here in Cyprus it’s kind of an interesting link for me, psychologically, with the United States”.

That’s where he was born, 74 years ago, to a rather unusual father who came from extreme poverty in Morphou and became “a maniac about education”, taking the family to the Natural History Museum and ploughing through encyclopaedias in the wee hours after a long day at the restaurant he owned in Farmingdale, Long Island. His father died young, at 56 (Theoharis has lost both parents and his younger brother to cancer), but “he lived to see his son – me – graduate at the head of his class from Yale University. So that was an enormous leap for an immigrant who came to America with one pair of shoes”. Theo himself, the elder son, was a rather dreamy boy who liked to build things, designing sets in the basement so his friends could stage little plays, or else coming back from a movie and constructing a fort or a ship like he’d seen on the screen. He lived partly in a fantasy world – though “not in a reclusive way,” he adds quickly.

What was he like as a teenager?

“A fish out of water,” he replies. “I was not very good at sports…”

This made a difference?

“In the Long Island suburbs? You’re goddam right!” He smiles, and the eyes contract to a squint. “I had immigrant parents, growing up in a lily-white suburban community. I was not interested in the normal things that 16-year-olds are interested in. I was unusual, whatever that means. I was a bit of a loner – not unsocial, just a loner”.

Music was his passion, and he played in the famous Farmingdale High School Dance Band (they were even on TV!) which made him a bit more popular; “Thank god for music. That really kind of saved me socially, if you will”. He started going into New York City as soon as he was able, away from “the mediocrity of the suburbs” – and the city still serves as an inspiration. Often, he relates, if he’s stressed or having a bad day, he’ll go listen to music at Lincoln Centre or Carnegie Hall, or pop into a gallery at lunchtime, or just walk around and gaze at the Chrysler Building or the Empire State, and it instantly relaxes him. He gives a rueful shrug: “It’s more difficult here”.

He shuttles between NYC and Nicosia, spending about a third of his time in Cyprus. “Go where you can build!” urged his professor at Yale, so Theoharis came back to the land of his fathers. He was instantly accepted (being top of his class at Yale must’ve helped), and allowed much more freedom than he’d have found in the States (even now, he says, he couldn’t have built a sports stadium like the GSP in New York: “It’s too modern”). Did he always have a stylistic signature? “I don’t like to use the word ‘style’,” he replies, a little cryptically – but his work has always emanated from the same approach, favouring “very simple, very powerful forms” often inspired by older prototypes. Ayia Trias, for instance, is “an abstraction of the Byzantine”, and he also raves about the ancient churches of Cyprus (Peristerona, say) with their “powerful ancient geometries”.

Then again, almost anything can spark inspiration in the mind of an architect. Nature, and natural forms, can inspire. Human beings – “clients or students or whoever” – and the things they say can inspire. History, the buildings of the past, can inspire. Landscape, the general morphology of a site, can inspire. So a major part of being a good architect is just being alert to the world around you? Theoharis laughs: “A major part of being a good anything – architect, musician, writer, philosopher, anything; an interesting human being that you want to have drinks with, or have a conversation with or whatever – is being curious about the world around you”.

Maybe that explains his own sociability – a surprising trait when you consider his past as a teenage misfit, yet his friendships are many and eclectic. “I have friends that are my age, even a bit older than me – ’kay? But guess what, I also have friends that are 24, 25 years old, and everything in between. I’m blessed that my former students say ‘Theo, let’s go out’ – sometimes I even feel a little bit awkward – and we go to places that usually people with white hair don’t go! [But] they don’t even think about it. It’s normal, it’s just Theo. So my social life is very mixed, if you will – and I love it.”

What does he talk about with a 25-year-old? He tries to be interested in what they’re doing, he explains – “but we also go off on tangents about Life, about music, about art…” It’s actually harder to socialise with some of the older ones, those “that have given up on living. They’re retired – which I don’t believe in retirement, can’t imagine it, you simply go to other phases in your life – and they talk about the weather and their grandchildren, and football, which I couldn’t give a damn about. I mean, I love a good soccer match, but…” he shakes his head, as if to say ‘within reason’. “And they’re talking about their grandchildren – you know, come on, enough already! I have two wonderful grandchildren. I love them, obviously. [But] talk to me about the substance of Life. Talk to me about things I can learn from you.”

I recall his earlier comment about having “no patience for small talk” – yet he’s also surprisingly collegial, sitting on boards and committees where small talk surely comes in handy (maybe that’s why he’s developed that twinkly smile). He’s on the Board of the Cyprus-US Chamber of Commerce, and also chairs the Advisory Committee of the University of Cyprus; it’s as though he feels duty-bound to give something back to the motherland. “Cyprus has been very good to me,” admits Theoharis. “I can’t complain.”

Maybe it’s a tribute to his father, the rare Cypriot-American who came back to visit – instead of just sending money – and made sure his sons were fluent in Greek; Theo’s own children (Melissa and Alexi) were born here “by design”, to ensure they were raised bi-culturally. Maybe that’s why he’s kept an office here for the past 25 years, despite being successful in New York (his firm have been shortlisted for the new Greek Orthodox church to be built on the site of the World Trade Center) and busy with his teaching career. Maybe that’s why he keeps shuttling back and forth, even now. And maybe that’s why he doesn’t run.

He was here in the invasion, he tells me. “I was obviously very young at the time. Had a one-year-old kid. In debt. Just starting to work here – and the invasion came. I lost 100 per cent of my property – like a lot of other people,” he adds, lest it sound like he’s whining. “Like a lot of other people. But I didn’t run. I didn’t leave. And I could’ve – ’kay? Because I had my position, even then, at the university in New York. And they said ‘Theo, come back, blah blahblah, you have your job’ – I said ‘I’ll come back when I’m ready’.” He designed refugee housing, using small contractors and local materials. He met with the Americans, who were pouring (inadequate) funds into the war-torn country.

Above all, he took refuge in work – the noble profession of architecture. “Use your work,” he tells students now, when they come to him with personal problems. “Don’t take pills, don’t get drunk, don’t kick the cat, don’t abuse each other. Get immersed in your work”. His advice to students is also his advice to fellow architects, as we muddle through another big crisis. Helping to revitalise the economy, hopefully not to the detriment of the environment (the big mistake of 1974), is a cure for pessimism, and the sacred duty of every architect.

“Do not give up on your profession,” urges Theoharis David, speaking not to me but to his colleagues, “and the possibility of your profession”. He looks serious, almost messianic, totally committed to his great lifelong quest for ‘a life of consequence’. Then he smiles, and he’s twinkly Father Christmas again.

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