A Greek Odyssey to C. A. Doxiadis’ past

29 Apr 2020
View from Corfu. Image: Sam Cranstoun

In 2016, Sam Cranstoun visited Greece to further a research project about the internationally renowned town planner, architect and engineer Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis (1913 – 1975).

His research would ultimately inform a body of work Cranstoun is currently showing with UQ Art Museum, To Speak of Cities. While in Greece, Cranstoun spent time with Doxiadis’ archives in Athens and also travelled to Corfu to meet with his daughter Cali.

The video below documents Cranstoun’s conversation with Cali and is accompanied by footage he shot both in Corfu (in Cali’s garden) and around the streets of Athens on his daily commute to the archives, and from the top of Mt Lycabettus – the vantage point just above the old Doxiadis and Associates headquarters. Cranstoun intended for this imagery to act as a series of landscapes – almost static shots, to frame both Doxiadis’ story and his own journey. Hear from Cranstoun below as he expands on his experience visiting Cali Doxiadis. 

“After having some trouble initially finding out if Doxiadis even lived in Brisbane, I stumbled upon the Wikipedia page of his son Apostolos Doxiadis, a prominent author living in Athens. There, in his ‘about’ section it confirmed what I had suspected – Born: 6 June 1953, Brisbane, Australia. Doxiadis and his family had definitely been in Queensland.

To find out more, I reached out to Apostolos. He informed me that his family left Australia in late 1953, mere months after he was born, and he had no recollection of his time in Brisbane, and probably wouldn’t be able to answer any of my questions. However, he suggested his older sister Cali might have some useful insights. After talking back and forth via email, Cali and I arranged to meet at her home on the Greek island of Corfu. I was able to tie this meeting with a research trip I was planning to Athens to visit her father’s archives at the Benaki Museum.

I remember the journey from the centre of Corfu to Cali’s house, about an hour outside of town. She’d sent her gardener to pick me up, and he didn’t speak a word of English. So we communicated mostly through awkward smiles, waves and nods.

When I arrived at her house, surrounded by beautiful gardens, I saw Cali standing there in head to toe black linen. We talked, and I remember being equal parts nervous and jet-lagged. After a few pleasantries she explained how the day was going to run: we could talk for an hour or so, then I could explore her gardens while she prepared for lunch. She had friends visiting from Scotland, and I was welcome to join.

She added, almost as an afterthought, that if at any point I heard them offering their condolences, it was because her husband had died a few weeks ago, and that’s why she was wearing all black. I instantly felt terrible – I had no idea – and said I’d be happy to come back at some other stage, even if that meant a return journey at a later date. She looked at me quite confused and said it wouldn’t be necessary and that the only reason she was wearing black was because it was a small island, and if she didn’t observe the traditional period of grieving, people would talk.

Strangely enough, her stoicism was both comforting and confusing. I wondered at first if she was just trying to make me feel better and to reassure me that I wasn’t putting her out, but as my time with her progressed, I realised she was not at all worried about how I felt (in the best way possible). She was the most at-peace, confident and comfortable person I have ever met, and I was incredibly impressed by and envious of that trait. I wondered if that was the result of being the daughter of such a prominent figure who was often approached about what her father was like, what she thought his lasting contributions to the town planning field were, and albeit with less regularity, what it was like to move to Australia with him in the early 50s.

I would find out more about her husband – a professor at Columbia University who had marched with Dr Martin Luther King in the 60s – and her sister, who in the 70s, married the Beatles’ sound engineer, with the Scottish musician Donovan and John Lennon sharing the role of the groom’s best man. Cali, herself an accomplished gardener, who had published extensively on the subject and continued to give lectures throughout the world about gardening in a Mediterranean climate, seemed to somehow exist entirely without ego. Perhaps this was the result of being part of a long line of worldly, knowledgeable and accomplished individuals who played an active role in shaping the history and popular culture of the twentieth century.

During our discussion we drank coffee and ate kourabiedes, [almond biscuits] and Cali described her time in Australia. She spoke of her schooling and I told her about how my grandmother had gone to Somerville House only a few years before she had. She talked of her father’s projects; which of them had worked, which hadn’t. And perhaps the most enlightening part of all, she spoke of her time with him on the farm. Doxiadis himself would look back on his time in Australia as a period of abject failure, a time when his career floundered and he was unable to find the recognition he felt he deserved. For Cali, however, this time was cherished. She was able to plant tomato seeds in paper cups with her father in the greenhouse, and bring sandwiches to him in the garden with her mother. Later, after the family left Australia, Doxiadis would spend months abroad in the Middle East or Africa or the US, and the days of long lunches with her father were a distant memory.

I remember saying to Cali that perhaps this time in the field with her father – planting seeds, tilling soil and picking fruit – could be the reason she found such solace in her own garden. She laughed it off, and dismissed the sentiment fairly unceremoniously. But later, as I walked alone through her sprawling garden, I couldn’t shake the notion.

I stayed for lunch, and together with her friends we drank wine and ate home-grown tomatoes. I wondered if this was a deliberate nod to her time in Queensland, an inside joke for her Australian guest, but I realised more and more that this visit was entirely unremarkable for her. One more person interested in one more aspect of her father’s life.”

Sam Cranstoun’s To Speak of Cities exhibition and front window commission is showing at UQ Art Museum until 16 January 2021.