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Chinese can't get enough of Greece, says Shanghai-based architect

The Chinese are thirsty for more things Greek right now in a trend that is likely to continue, says the architect of Hellas House in Shanghai, Kostas Chatzigiannis, in an interview with

Originally from Thessaloniki, Chatzigiannis has travelled to Kazakhstan, India and Malaysia designing buildings, and recently completed Hellas House, a hub of Greece in China. The building aims at combining everything Greek with the urban Shanghai landscape and is the brainchild of businessman Pavlos Kontomichalos, who has been based in China's biggest city for 20 years.

Hellas House architect Chatzigiannis talks to

Hellas House (Photo Anne-Sophie Heist)

The design and construction of Hellas House, a 1930s building made of brick and wood, took five years to complete and posed many challenges but is a significant link between the two countries.

Caught up in a trade war with the US, China is using Greece to transport more of its products into Europe, while Athens is looking to the Asian giant for investments that will help get the country out of an eight year economic glut.

In an interesting account of life in the fast moving Asian country, the 35-year-old Greek architect talks about the "can do" attitude of the Chinese, questions on the white and blue houses in Greece and his favorite word in Chinese.

Can you tell us a little about about how you ended up working in China? What were you doing prior to China?

I came to China in 2007 as an intern to an American-Chinese company, after completing my studies in Thessaloniki, Greece. I had done internships in Holland and Kazakhstan in the past and I was intrigued in continuing to work outside of Greece and, at the same time, see the world.

You designed Hellas House,the first Greek cultural center in China. What was the main goal in the design of this project? What were the main challenges?

(Photo Joshua Tintner)

Hellas House architect Chatzigiannis talks to

Hellas House is supposed to function as hub of Greece in China. It is meant to bring the best of Greece (culture, gastronomy, art, travel) to the Shanghainese, and further more, to the Chinese people, and it is the brainchild of Pavlos Kontomichalos, a businessman based in Shanghai for over 20 years. The challenges we faced during this project were many and on different levels. To begin with, it was a difficult task to define the key characteristics of what is "Greek' and had to be showcased in the overall design planning, but still remain relevant to the surrounding urban context of Shanghai. Later on, during the construction period, together with the structural engineer, we faced many issues with the stability and reinforcement of the building, which was a brick and wood only structure from the 1930's. Adding to the complexity, in Shanghai, and especially in these historic neighborhoods of the city center such as the one where Hellas House is located at, there is a social component that every project needs to satisfy. Different neighborhood committees and authorities have a say on the changes proposed to their neighborhood and the streets' facades.

Finally, after 5 years of design, construction and decoration, Hellas House opened its gates in May 2018, with the presence of the Greek Minister of Tourism, Elena Kountoura and Chinese officials.

You have also been involved in other projects in China, such as the GuoLong hospital and Shaoxing resort. What would you say are the key differences in dealing with the Chinese when compared to the Greeks?

I have been lucky enough to be involved in projects of various sizes and typologies, such as the Guolong Hospital that you mention, which is located in one of the smallest provinces in China, with a Muslim population. Working with Chinese clients has its own set of rules and it requires effort and commitment by someone in order to deeply understand those and be able to operate in China. One of the key qualities that I like in the Chinese mentality is a 'can-do' attitude that the Chinese people have when it comes to new ideas and projects. This often helps overcome all the future obstacles and difficulties that any project will most likely face.

There has been a pick up in Greek-Chinese ties in recent years. The Chinese have started investing and visiting Greece but only after having already done so in other parts of Europe. How do they view Greece? A serious partner? Or a country where everything is cheap?

Indeed the Chinese have begun to show a strong interest in Greece as destination, not only for investments, but also a place to travel to or as cultural experience. This comes of course after they have started visiting other major European counties in the recent years, which in turn came after US, Canada and Australia, countries that traditionally came first in the minds of Chinese in terms of travel, invest or living abroad. I think the Chinese value the history and culture of Greece and they have a strong respect of other 'old countries' such as their own, even if they don't necessarily have a deep understanding of it. Naturally, the Olympic Games or the Aegean Sea are familiar words to most Chinese, but there is still a long way to go. I am optimistic that this current infatuation with Greece will develop further, as more and more Chinese people visit Greece and learn more about our culture, the ancient or modern one. As for the investment opportunities that Greece offers, including the Golden Visa program, of course this can be appealing to many potential investors and this is something that I come across on a daily basis, living in Shanghai. I'm happy that in a sense, Hellas House helps to move forward in that direction.

Your colleagues in Greece complain that construction companies have completely devalued architecture in the country, particularly with the onset of the crisis. Why is architecture important?

Greece is unfortunately a country where architecture, as a profession has been undervalued. Maximizing the built area has always been the primary concern of everyone and this was often at the expense of all other architectural qualities. We are lucky enough to have some many architectural jewels -some say wonders- such the ancient temples and theater, the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments or even the industrial and neoclassical heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries. Architecture is essentially everything man-made that surrounds us and gives us shelter, every building where we live, work, play and eat in, every unit that is part of what we call urbanized environment.

Architect Chatzigiannis talks to

Light Tower rendering for a landmark structure across Shanghai's Huangpu river

What would you change about living and working in Shanghai, if you could?

The intensity and speed of everything! The dynamism that is prevalent right now in China is a very good opportunity for growth, but this often means a lack of personal time to enjoy other qualities in life. I guess it all comes down to finding the right balance and follow your own path at your own speed.

What is the first thing you teach the Chinese about Greece? What is the last thing about Greece that you tell them?

I am surprised every day by the curiosity and knowledge of the Chinese people in regard to Greece. I've had a taxi driver draw the Parthenon on a receipt when I told him I am Greek and I get asked about basically anything: the white and blue houses, the taste of Greek food, the weather, football, the ancient Greek history. The Chinese people have a curiosity and a thirst to discover new things! My advice to them most of the time is to actually visit Greece and see for themselves!

Can you get any good Greek food in Shanghai? Or do you just wait to return to Greece?

There are a few Greek restaurants in Shanghai, but the best Greek food is served in Hellas House :)

How is your Chinese? What is your favorite word in Chinese?

My Chinese is ok in terms of being able to communicate on a daily basis and in my work, but there is still room for improvement. My favorite word is my Chinese name given to me by my first colleagues. It's 'Kang Xi', the name of a popular Emperor in China, but also with a twist in the spelling, that relates to the Chinese name for 'Greece'. It's an ice breaker in meetings and it always makes people laugh.

What are your future plans?

My plans for the future would ideally have me spend a bit more time in Greece, as I miss it more and more after 11 years in China. My work recently takes me on projects out of China, such as Malaysia, India and the Philippines, following the outbound move of Chinese capital. I hope this movement will soon bring me more often to Greece too.

Architect Chatzigiannis talks to

A rendering of a Citizens' Center in LuoHe, Henan Province

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