A glimpse through the iron gates into the front courtyard of Hellas House in central Shanghai is enough to give even casual passersby an inkling that the building is taking design cues from somewhere other than its colonial-era surroundings. The pair of imposing Ionic columns guarding the entrance is a dead giveaway. Hellas is the name Greeks use for their homeland—officially the Hellenic Republic—and the job of transforming a 1930’s brick-and-wood villa into a center for the nation’s culture fell to one of their own: expatriate architect Kostas Chatzigiannis (@kostaschatzigiannis), who has lived in Shanghai since 2007. The gut renovation took a full year for the design phase and five more for construction. “I spent the better part of my youth on it,” Chatzigiannis says with a laugh.
The true challenge, according to the KCA/Kostas Chatzigiannis Architecture founder, was to follow a brief that demanded the 5,380-square-foot Hellas House “scream Greek” without tipping into kitsch. “There is a stereotypical ‘Grecian’ style for this kind of project,” he continues, “one that can’t seem to escape the blue-and-white thing or laurel-wreath crowns or chitons. It can go over the top very easily.”
Chatzigiannis’s client, Pavlos Kontomichalos, a fellow Greek expatriate who has lived in Shanghai for 25 years, has various Hellenic-centered business interests, including a honey, olive-oil, and wine import company and a boutique travel agency. Greece is a small country and the number of its nationals residing in Shanghai is correspondingly small, just a few hundred. So it was determined that while Hellas House should be a nexus for Shanghai’s tiny Greek community, it would also be available as a social and corporate events space where other groups can experience what Kontomichalos calls “the best Greece has to offer: history, culture, natural products, hospitality, and healthy lifestyle.”
Accordingly, along with an office for the travel agency and a store for the imported produce, the five-level center comprises a basement cellar stocked with Hellenic wines; a ground floor open kitchen, history gallery featuring replicas of ancient Greek artifacts—“My favorite room,” Kontomichalos says, “where visitors are immediately immersed in the essence of Hellenic civilization,”—and lounge, which backs onto a garden, pool, and dining patio; a mezzanine exhibition space; a second-floor dining room, living room, and terrace; and, tucked under the pitched roof, an attic retreat, its restored ceiling beams among the few remaining elements from the original house.
To evoke ancient Greece, Chatzigiannis drew on materials and color palettes commonly used in antiquity: marble, bronze, and wood; black, white, and gold. For floors, walls, and columns, large slabs of raw marble from the Aegean islands of Naxos and Thassos were shipped to the southern port city of Xiamen where they were cut and polished before being hauled to Shanghai—with more than one piece breaking en route or, worse, during installation.
Each space channels a different era in ancient Greek history. The entrance hall “starts at the beginning,” as Chatzigiannis puts it, with the Cycladic period, whose elegantly austere Bronze Age aesthetic is represented by a 5-foot-tall cast-plaster replica of a female figure from 2800–2300 BCE. Chatzigiannis complements the statue’s minimalist style with equally restrained custom elements: a graphic metal console in matte black, a simple geometric brass stair rail with a matte-gold finish, and a subtle, white-on-white plaid-pattern floor of polished marble.
The liberal use of customization—which, the architect estimates, includes more than half the project’s furnishings and architectural elements—is largely due to necessity. “When you renovate a period building on the Bund or design a new villa for a Chinese client, you can find many local suppliers familiar with Italian, French, Spanish, or even Arabic style, because they’ve all infiltrated the market,” he says. “But when you want to go classical Greek, it’s impossible.”
Custom solutions to the problem include a plethora of chairs, chaises, and stools that reference the work of T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. The 20th-century designer, famous for giving principles derived from ancient Greek furniture modern form, moved to Athens in the mid-’60s where he had classical pieces accurately reproduced. Chatzigiannis tracked down the few elderly Athenian craftsmen who still produce Robsjohn-Gibbings’s signature curved-wood furniture. “The tricky part is making those curves,” the architect confides. “Basically, they boil the wood, bend it, let it dry; boil it again, bend it, let it dry, and so on. It’s a long, painstaking process for every chair.”
Alongside the reproduction furniture, statues, and ceramics, Hellas House also showcases contemporary Greek art, such as paintings by the 84-year-old Athenian artist Alekos Fassianos, pulled from Kontomichalos’s private collection to hang in the lounge and offices. Most of the custom fixtures and furnishings are no less up to the minute. The primary design inspiration behind the center may be the ancient world but moving through its free-flowing spaces—mostly connected by wide column-flanked portals rather than divided by solid doors—is a surprisingly light, even ethereal, experience. “We’re in downtown Shanghai, so you can’t give people a museum,” Chatzigiannis reasons. “You’ve got to give them something contemporary. It has to feel right.”
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Project Team: Damos Bao; Candy Chen: KCA/Kostas Chatzigiannis Architecture. Matthieu Courtin: Graphics Consultant. Bluce Lighting: Lighting Consultant. Hongmen: Woodwork. Quality Essence: Stonework. Shanghai Anyu Decoration & Engineering: Structural Engineer, MEP, GenEral Contractor.
Product Sources: From Front: Flos: Pendant Fixture (Lounge). Saridakis: Klini Chaise (Lounge), Klismos Chairs (Lounge, Living Room), Diphros Stools (Lounge, Gallery), Trapeza Table (Hallway). DG Art Space: Custom Tables, Custom Sofas, Custom Armchairs (Lounge, Attic), Curtains (Lounge, Dining Room), Custom Chairs, Custom Table (Dining Room), Barrels (Wine Cellar). Socratis Grigoratos: Custom Sconces, Custom Olive Tree (Lounge), Custom Wreaths, Custom Olive Branches (Entrance Hall). Nishaburi: Rug (Lounge). Amforeas: Ceramic Vessels (Living Room, Lounge). Hank Chen: Statue Bases (Gallery). Fybox: Light Boxes, Custom Membrane. Estiluz: Pendant Fixture (Dining Room). Foscarini: Sconces. Xtos: Fresco. Throughout: Archaeological Receipts Fund: Wall Reliefs, Statues, Busts.