For one Nicosia based architect the financial crisis and parenthood have made him reassess his approach. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
I’m standing in the offices of AI Architects in Nicosia, being given the grand tour by Aristotelis Irzenski. I say ‘grand’, but in fact the place is so small he could show me everything in 10 seconds if he wanted to. Two young women named Sophie and Elena huddle over their AutoCAD computer models, politely pretending they can’t hear every word we say in the tiny office.
There’s a family photo on a shelf, showing Aristotelis’ wife Marianna and their two kids, six-year-old Stephanie and four-year-old Alexandros. Otherwise, every available space is crammed with plans, photos, blueprints and artists’ impressions of the company’s various projects. This is the Cyprus Tower, he explains, pointing to a picture on the wall. It’s 20 storeys high, the tallest building in Nicosia. It’s a joint venture with Boogertman & Partners, a South African firm who are among the Top 100 architectural firms in the world (they built Nelson Mandela’s house and the ‘Melting Pot’ World Cup stadium). But the Tower doesn’t actually exist, of course. The project has been “on hold” since 2011, sighs Aristotelis, moving on quickly.
That becomes a pattern as he leads the way around, a lean 39-year-old with horn-rimmed glasses and close-cropped, receding silver hair. “This is no longer valid,” he says by way of addendum, speaking of this or that project. Here, for instance, is the Co-Op Bank Headquarters on Athalassa Avenue, another joint venture with Boogertman, an elegant assemblage of four interconnected trapeziums – but in fact the project stalled at Competition stage, sunk by the economic crisis. “That fell through,” he notes of another slick-looking picture. “Well, it just died. Because, you know, everything is up in the air.”
“This office is a bit of a graveyard,” I say light-heartedly.
“Well,” he replies with a shrug, “most offices are”.
Most offices in Cyprus these days, he means – after two years of recession, and a construction sector that seemed to grind to a halt. “Is it difficult? It was a disaster last year!” he says, answering his own question. “For me, 2013 was the worst year, I could barely pay my electricity bill. I went from making tens of thousands a month to making – well, maybe [for] six months, zero”. Even clients who weren’t directly affected by the crisis chose to scale back. He tells me of a man with a one-million-euro house (he points to the relevant spot on the wall) who got cold feet after things started going south. “I have the money,” he remembers the client telling him, “but I don’t want to spend €1,000,000 on a house. How am I going to sell a one-million-euro house if I have to leave Cyprus?”. The project was hurriedly re-jigged and eventually became a smaller, €800,000 house – a happy ending, under the circumstances.
There are many happy endings in this profile. This isn’t a gloomy account of a once-successful architect bowed down by the crisis – indeed, I first heard of Aristotelis Irzenski a few weeks ago, when he gave an inspirational talk at TEDx Nicosia entitled “Turning my life into the all-time hobby that it is today”. It’s not exactly accurate to say that he’s made the crisis ‘work for him’ – but it’s true that the past couple of years, when things were tough on the work front, have also been the years when it’s all come together in terms of his life in general.
What changed? The training, for one thing. He’d always done sports and gone to the gym, but he’s now involved with a group who take it much more seriously. (They’re into ‘Iron Man’ triathlons, meaning a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride followed by a marathon.) He trains every day, but “we have to train together four times a week – so a bike ride on Sunday, a two-hour run in Machairas on Saturday…” Next Sunday, he tells me, he’s going on a “vertical challenge” run near Kyperounta, a kilometre’s climb across five kilometres as the crow flies – in fact they’re “going to make it a family day”, so the wife and kids can picnic while he almost dies on the mountain. Marianna initially rolled her eyes at his new regime, but now she understands: “If I don’t go training, my wife says ‘Go training!’,” reports Aristotelis. “Let him go, so he can come back all bubbly and happy and better,” is what he imagines her thinking. “So I get my dopamine fix – my high – and I come back!”.
What’s a typical day like? “My typical day would be 5 o’clock wake up, 5.30 running up the English School pitch. I take 10 minutes to get out the door – I don’t do this wake up slowly, coffee kind of stuff, I feel it’s a waste of time. I go there and there’s 20 people already there, it’s great. I’m usually home by about 6.50. Shower, get ready, breakfast, kids to school. Straight to office, office 8 o’clock”. On Mondays and Wednesdays he’ll do a one-hour swim at 1.20, at the Olympic pool. Every couple of days he comes here, he says (we’ve now relocated to the Second Cup down the road from his office), to discuss things with contractors and project managers. After work he’ll go on a run, or a bike ride – then home around 6.30, see the kids, “bathe my son”, chat with Marianna, watch a bit of TV, then lights out at 10.30 at the latest.
Not much time for going out, I point out. “We don’t go out,” he admits, with the shamefaced sincerity of the young parent. “When you have kids, you see how most people fall into that [attitude of] ‘We don’t WANT to go out’”. After all, he still has to set the alarm and get up at midnight every night, to carry his half-asleep son to the bathroom for a pee. “I wasn’t able to sleep for the first four years of my kids,” he recalls rather grimly. “Just the kids waking up, the coughs, the sickness, the crying, they don’t want to be alone…”
It may seem odd to dwell on such banal details – after all, it’s not like Boogertman & Partners chose to go into business with him because of his carrying-Alexandros-to-the-bathroom skills – but that’s actually a central part of what Aristotelis tells me (and what he told the TEDx audience), that a person’s life is a question of balance, an organic whole with the various parts feeding into each other. It’s all interlinked, like the four trapeziums in his Co-Op design. He used to be short-tempered, but parenthood has made him more patient – and the skills he’s learned with naughty kids also work with stroppy clients or unhelpful builders. He tries to apply the same passion to home, work and leisure – that’s what he means by an “all-time hobby” – not just go to the office (as most people do) and let the rest take care of itself.
“This is what works for me,” he says with an amiable shrug. “Everyone has some button they can push, if they find it. Some people find it at the age of 50. Some people die, and they don’t find it. Some people are born into it. I had to find it.”
Finding his ‘button’ took years, then again he wasn’t really looking. His life hasn’t been exceptionally difficult – but it has been mixed-up, as befits his mixed heritage. His father is Polish, a musician and band leader. He and his band toured the Middle East in the 70s, playing the Bee Gees in hotel restaurants – and they also played in Cyprus where, at the Ledra Palace in Nicosia (now UNFICYP headquarters), Aristotelis’ dad met his Cypriot mother. Aristotelis himself was born in Baghdad, moved to Tehran after two years, moved to Kuwait six months later – then came to Cyprus at the age of 12, as a boarder at the Falcon when they still had a boarding school. That was hard, he admits – “it was very regimented” – and he also suffered some bullying, mostly the kind of silly pranks where “you fell asleep, [and] you’d wake up somewhere else”. He was physically small, not unpopular but easy to pick on. “I made friendships that I still have today,” he recalls of those years, “but I also met people that I don’t ever want to see again. Which is normal life, right?”
He wasn’t good at school; “I just didn’t click”. Once again, he found it too “regimented”. In his last year he suddenly became good at maths, purely because “I found a way to visualise things” – but he’d always been good at drawing, even back in Kuwait when he ran around the neighbourhood with the local Arab kids. “I’d play outside a lot, in the dirt, with my hands. I’d do a lot of Lego. And I would draw – any time I could, I would draw”. Oddly, architecture wasn’t his first choice. He was going to be a structural engineer, and got into UMIST in Manchester – but his family ran out of money, and Poland offered scholarships, and Krakow had a School of Architecture, and the entrance exam (three hours of drawing) was viable even for someone with very poor Polish. It all made sense.
So here we are 20 years later, with Aristotelis Irzenski busy navigating the precise contours of work, life and crisis – and still navigating his own status as a kind of ‘in-between’. He’s an outsider, from his half-Polish background to his childhood abroad to his whole way of working: “I work Germanic,” as he puts it, meaning less talk, more action. (He tells me of a client whose house was delayed for three years by one of the big offices.) But he’s also an insider. He worked at a big office (Nicos Mavronicolas) for five years before founding AI as a kind of “boutique practice”. His kids go to Greek school. He used to favour the more cosmopolitan ‘Aristo’, but is now veering back to ‘Aristotelis’. He also does more networking than he used to – doubtless a result of the hopelessness he felt after the haircut, when he even toyed with the thought of emigrating to Australia. “I couldn’t afford to go for a coffee. Honestly, it was really bad.”
The irony is that, as things improve, all that carefully achieved work-life balance may have to be re-adjusted, all those hours of training curtailed. Still, it must be a relief that things are improving. His walls may still be dotted with projects put on hold, but new projects are starting to mushroom: “I’ve caught a lot of business in the past year”. Partly it’s because he has contacts, from his time with the big boys – but it’s also because he’s multi-lingual and multi-cultural, hence attractive to foreign companies. His new clients include Russians and Lebanese – and now “the Koreans are coming to town”, though I’m not sure which Koreans. The age of the big local office may be over; “Now the foreigners are the big players”.
Aristotelis isn’t easy-going. He’s intense, emotional, critical. “I think it’s really important to not get too comfortable,” he says at one point. It takes a special kind of person to drag himself down a running track at 5.30 every morning. “I’m very hard on the girls in the office,” he admits – and being a parent was hard as well, for a man of his temperament (Stephanie was the “test patient,” he says wryly, having endured him before he’d fully “acclimatised” to fatherhood). He needs his own rhythm, his own way of doing things. He used to be prickly and defensive, before having kids taught him patience.
“I would say I’m in-between,” he muses – in between the various aspects of his life, in between Cyprus and abroad, in between crisis and a possible end to the crisis. “I know [local] people, but I’m also kind of a satellite architect. I’m not anti-social, but I don’t want to be in these communities where you all do the same thing.
“I don’t want the office to be categorised as ‘He’s just one of those Cypriot architects’.” He shakes his head, looking very serious: “Worse? Better? I just want to be me.”