Deep designs

The Australian Institute of Architects this month bestowed one of its highest accolades on Nonda Katsalidis. Not that the Melbourne architect is any stranger to awards, but as designer of the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Katsalidis shows why he is one of Australia’s most daring and successful engineers of the built environment.

Last week in Perth the Australian Institute of Architects gave its highest national award for public architecture to Fender Katsalidis Architects, the celebrated practice that has been responsible for some of the most iconic high-rise residential buildings in Australia. But this time Nonda Katsalidis was heading in a different direction. MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – the largest privately funded museum in Australia – was designed in collaboration with its founder, the eccentric art collector David Walsh.

MONA’s very existence is based upon presenting antiquities and contemporary art from Walsh’s collection. As a self-made millionaire, Walsh set out with MONA to subvert the very notion of what an art museum is.

The multi-million dollar gallery opened its doors in January 2011 and two of its exhibits give a taste of its distinctive content. One of its key works, Cloaca Professional, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is a machine based upon the human digestive system, which relieves itself at regular intervals and produces excrement. Another work exhibited last year was by Greek-born artist Jannis Kounellis; Untitled comprised a steel frame from which joints of beef hung that slowly decayed. It required a change of flesh every three days.

While such art might be considered on the nose for some, MONA drew 600,000 visitors in its first 18 months and recently won the 2012 Australian Tourism Award for best new development. David Walsh, who made his fortune by developing gambling systems, has described the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland

Carved out of a vast sandstone escarpment along the Derwent River, MONA’s giant subterranean sandstone walls provide the backdrop for its provocative exhibits. Its 6500 square-metre underground gallery space has no windows and extends over three levels.

Arriving by ferry from Hobart, the museum’s jetty transforms into a flight of steps cut into the escarpment. According to Walsh, the inspiration for the steps was the path to the temple on the summit of the Greek island of Naxos.

Australian Institute of Architects’ jury chairman Brian Zulaikha praised MONA’s temple-like, largely underground structure. “This beautiful, poetic and still very functional museum is imposing but it’s not unfriendly. You feel like you’re entering a new world of art.”

Nonda Katsalidis told reporters that whilst he had been initially daunted by the personality of David Walsh “who has got very strong ideas” the collaboration had been a pleasure.

“This museum has actually struck a chord and we’ve won lots of awards for all the participants – the lighting, engineering, and the graphics. It is very satisfying when the whole team gets this sort of pat on the back,” said Katsalidis.

Known for their distinctive sculptural qualities, Katsalidis’ buildings often feature diverse materials and textures such as exposed steel left to weather or rough-hewn timber.

Katsalidis was born in Athens and in 1951 migrated to Australia as a five-year-old. A graduate of Melbourne University and RMIT, his cutting edge high-rise tower designs – including Melbourne’s Eureka Tower – have won a plethora of awards in Australia and overseas.

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Talking surface language with Nick Hogios

Security is tight at Toyota’s design studio in Port Melbourne. It needs to be: the sleek and seductive designs conceived at Toyota Style Australia are not for prying eyes. With the long lead times of car design and the intensely competitive nature of the global automotive industries, protecting against leaks of images and information, is something that Toyota takes very seriously.

Once past security with my ID tag attached, Nick Hogios ushers me into, if not the inner-sanctum, then a meeting room close by. We pass a scale model of a sleek, sensuously-lined car. Perhaps later I can get a photo of Nick beside it, I suggest. Nick lets me down gently: “That one’s not for public consumption just yet.” Nick joined Toyota Australia in 2002.

This quiet achiever rose through the ranks to become Manager of Design three years ago. He now leads a studio that has become a significant part of the Toyota machine, designing state-of-the-art vehicles for the domestic and burgeoning Asia Pacific market.

Nick was born in Sydney in 1974. His father Stelios arrived in Australia as a teenager, from a village near Argos in the Peloponnese. Anna, his mother, was born in Egypt, her parents were  originally from Kastellorizo and Symi, migrating with her family as an infant. They set up home in Sydney’s Paddington, then Brighton Le Sands (where Nick was born) before settling in the Sutherland Shire, “which back then, wasn’t very European,” says Nick, “they paved the way.” “Dad had cafes at first and then worked in the building industry.” Nick speaks of his family’s experience as, “a typical story”, counting himself, “very fortunate that my parents were extremely hard-working. They encouraged my brother Basil and I to do what we wanted to do.”

Basil went on to study architecture, but would later give up the profession for music, becoming an award-winning composer and sound designer. Attending the local public schools, Nick’s own creative passion for design, surfaced early.

“I’ve been drawing since I was six. Some people are inspired by buildings, but for me it was the motion of a car and the promise that every year there would be a new one that came out that looked even more futuristic. I guess I’ve always been a future-thinking person.”

Having made the connection between his passion for drawing, and the technical processes of industrial design, Nick bumped up his sciences from Year 9, firmly focused on pursuing a higher education course that would lead to his chosen profession. In 1992, he enrolled at the University of New South Wales to study Industrial Design.

Four years later, he had duxed his year and graduated with Class 1 Honours. After uni, Nick freelanced, before winning the Young Designer of the Year award in a competition organised by Ford Australia and Wheels magazine. His winning entry was a design for a Falcon in 2020, “which seemed so far into the future back then,” says Nick, who was then invited to join Ford as a junior designer in Melbourne.

Promotion to a senior designer position followed two years later. In 2002, Toyota realised a long held ambition to create a design studio in Australia, that would not only interpret the company’s design vision for the domestic market, but in time, the wider region. Nick was in the right place at the right time.

“I always had a desire to work for a Japanese company. Japan has come up with amazing ideas and products,” says Nick, “though it was as a massive culture shock.” “Toyota has a very specific culture, a set of rules almost, called ‘the Toyota way’, and you live by that, you’re trained in that, and have to practice it. It’s a very powerful tool.”

With two design studios in the United States, one in Europe, and a number in Japan, Toyota’s only Australian design facility has increasingly focused on Asia. “We’ve just completed a major facelift on the Fortuner model for the Asian market that took about two years. They’re very pleased. Early sales are up significantly. The new design gave it a much more premium, fresh and strong feel.”

“It’s anything and everything – the Fortuner is an SUV, the Aurion, sold as a Camry in Asia, is a saloon, so we go right across the range,” says Nick. “A full model change from first pencil sketch to production is about four years, sometimes it can be shorter”.

And what of the design process itself, I ask. How do you begin designing a world-beating car? “As a rule of thumb, proportion is number one, how it’s proportioned out is extremely important, if it’s not proportioned correctly the car’s not going to be right, no matter what follows.”

“We get information from planning teams, we get engineering ‘hard points’ and we get the chief engineer’s vision. Then it’s our job to put all those things together and propose designs.” “People often say ‘you must know so much about aerodynamics’ and the truth is we don’t. We have people who provide us with that information. We’re dedicated to making the cars look as desirable as possible for the intended demographic.”

As Nick describes the workflow that comes together to create some of the world’s most popular automobiles, there’s an almost evangelical impetus to Nick’s mission as a designer. “I love exotic sports cars, but to me being able to design a more mass-market car that is driven by thousands upon thousands of people, and seeing them use it and enjoy it, is the most satisfying part of the job.”

“Good design has to be global now, it’s in the nuances of the design, where you can tailor it to certain markets, and that’s an interesting challenge,” says Nick, who ends our conversation with a telling and very appropriate remark. “One of the most powerful notions Toyota holds dear is called Kaizen, which means ‘continuous improvement’. It doesn’t matter how good you did it last time, you have to continue to improve.” But meeting the next challenge and seeking improvement is nothing new for this driven designer. Evidently, the Toyota way is Nick Hogios’ way.

Redrawing the station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the  launch of the $1 million Flinders Street Station Design Competition, Victoria’s Premier Ted  Baillieu described the initiative as a vital first step in the area’s revival that would require “creative brilliance from across the globe.”

Baillieu’s call-to-arms will attract the attention of the most revered international architectural practices, but as the world’s top designers sharpen their proverbial pencils at the prospect of transforming Australia’s oldest and most iconic railway station, Mike Sweet talks to two award-winning Melburnian architects about the challenges faced by those who have designs on, not just a Victorian icon, but a building at the heart of Australia’s identity.

Billy Kavellaris (35) is the founder of Kavellaris Urban Design (KUD). Though a small practice, KUD’s work both in Australia and overseas has become increasingly recognised for its ground-breaking urban design sensibilities. Kavellaris says that whilst any architect will set out to create a design that responds to universal principles, an intimate knowledge of the building and its functions will help.

“The site context and its history is of course critical, but the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the building, the things that need to be activated are unlikely to be in the experiential space of overseas architects applying,” says Kavellaris, who also believes a deeper notion of heritage applies for the station. “Melbourne has very much its own culture entrenched with our history of immigration over time, so that’s all part of our heritage. It’s not about ‘this is an old building, let’s preserve it,’ there are other stakes.

“Anyone looking at this project, whether it’s an architect or a lay person, the first thing they are going to do is want to understand the history, what it means to Melbourne.” Kavellaris suggests that one of the key issues that will need to be addressed is the station’s Flinders Street “interface”. “It’s completely inactivated,” says the young designer, “like a big fortress that people penetrate through small openings, and disabled access is always a problem.

“You’ll see a number of architects wanting to activate that street frontage, and engaging with the river will be an issue too.” Activation is a key expression for Kavellaris, who enjoys sharing his intellectual philosophies on the built environment.

“Understanding human nature and the human condition is the first step in understanding what architecture is,” says Kavellaris. Given that the 1997 competition to design Federation Square was won by a consortium headed by LAB Architecture Studio (a small local practice and relative novice in terms of large public projects), it’s perfectly possible that a small outfit with a creative vision can win the day.

Arthur Andronas (53) is director of Andronas Conservation Architecture (ACA), a practice that specialises in heritage projects. Andronas traces his passion for conservation architecture to the act of uncovering layers of history and meaning. “We ask, how do you live with all that layering? We’re not talking about today, we’re often talking about millenia old cultures, whether it’s post-contact European or aboriginal.”

A deep and insightful conservation agenda that supports a cutting-edge contemporary vision, will be the key to unlocking the Flinders Street Station challenge. Any competition entry is likely to involve a consortium of designers from the outset, and ACA will be in demand for their specialist knowledge. Andronas has already been approached by a number of architects who wish to compete, and who want him on their ticket.

“The most important thing is the vision. It needs to be a design that will compare with, or surpass Federation Square,” says the ACA’s director. Andronas believes that the competition’s project brief needs to clearly define the objectives of the project to realise the most successful outcomes. “The difficulty here, is how do you define what is important in terms of conservation – the whole of the main building, the platforms and the concourse are all important.” Another key question says Andronas, is what should be the scale and scope of the project.

“A successful architectural statement will maintain Melbourne on the stage of international architecture and that’s very exciting, but on the other hand, does Melbourne need anything more than a tidied up building? Re-enegrising can be done on a large or a small scale.” Andronas points to the recent rejuvenation of European stations as possible models for Flinders Street.

“All over Europe stations are being upgraded, but they’re not going necessarily for the full makeover. Look at London’s St Pancras, where they’ve done some wonderful work on the original Victorian building, but also added to it. The question is how far do we go?”

The Flinders Street Station Design Competition project brief will be available in mid 2012.

Industrial light and magic – a profile of architectural photographer George Apostolidis

Industrial light and magic – a profile of architectural photographer George Apostolidis

Atrium, Mandarin Oriental Barcelona. Photograph: George Apostolidis.

George Apostolidis is just about to head to Bangkok when I catch up with the award-winning photographer at his home in the prosperous Melbourne suburb of Kew. A two-week shoot in Thailand will be followed by work in Paris and then Barcelona, all for the same client: Mandarin Oriental – the five-star luxury hotel group for whom Apostolidis has worked for over twenty years. He will spend three months away with his producer-stylist, who just happens to also be his wife Cathy.

The inconvenience of their extended trip is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they’ll be put up and pampered at Mandarin’s fabulously luxurious hotels at each location. “I never bother telling people the job is hard,” says Apostolidis, “because they’d never believe me, so I tell people it’s easy.” Is it? “No,” he says emphatically.

Apostolidis was born in 1956 in Laimos, a village cornered by Greece’s border with Albania and what is now the Former Yugolsavian Republic of Macedonia. “I’m a hundred per cent Greek,” exclaims Apostolidis with a chuckle: he laughs easily and often. With a reputation for professional integrity that matches his artistic prowess, Apostolidis exudes the quiet confidence of a man at the summit of success, but this naturally modest artist is anything but ostentatious.

He talks with a quiet passion about his family’s story. “My grandfather had a general store in Laimos which was doing very well until the Communists closed the borders. Then they lost eighty per cent of their trade. Those villages became ghost towns.”

Apostolidis describes his background as that of “a typical migrant family”. “My parents married in Greece and took an incredible gamble. Dad came to Australia in 1960. We came out in 1963,  joined the railways as a labourer, worked for two years, then bought a house in Carlton, and then brought the family over. Mum worked as a fabrics machinist. “The goal for my parents was for their sons to succeed. They worked day-in, day-out to finance our education.”

Apostolidis says he was first fascinated with the photographic process as a child. “My aunt Anastasia gave me a camera when I was eleven years-old. I loved animals, and I remember the first thing I tried to photograph was a canary. It was a point and shoot camera in those days.” With the canary in the can, so to speak, Apostolidis’ passion for photography was sealed.

After leaving school, he completed a BA in Photography at Melbourne’s RMIT University, the period during which he met Cathy, who was studying ceramics. They’ve been married thirty years and have three twenty-something daughters: Anastasia – a jeweller, Christina – who works at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography, and Alexandra – who is in her final year studying fashion design.

Soon after his own graduation in 1979, Apostolidis was working as an assistant for a leading Melbourne studio and won the Australian Institute of Photography’s award for Professional Photographer of the Year. It would be the first of many accolades:  from that point on he never looked back. Soon after setting up on his own business, big-budget clients, from luxury-end tourism to multinational mining corporations, lined up to hire him for the extraordinary images he could create.

Apostolidis describes commercial photography as the art of creating a mood, “reflecting a place where someone would yearn to be, creating drama.” He specialises in big projects. As corporate photographer for Mandarin Oriental, he spends up to six months of the year photographing the hotels’ remarkable properties in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Is there a formula for working with a brand like Mandarin Oriental? “The formula is all about service and quality. There’s an ongoing brief to maintain the look that we have. Every property is different. Barcelona is contemporary: hard, modern. Patricia Urquiola did the interior design. Then you’ll go to an Asian property which will be very culturally distinct.”

For those interested in the technical side, Apostolidis uses a Nikon 35mm camera with 24 mega pixel image, and a medium-format Hasselblad that produces a whopping 40MB picture. Capturing the essence of natural and man-made environments is his forte. For ten years Apostolidis shot for Tourism Tasmania. He’s just back from Peru, where he photographed the operations of a massive zinc mine for global metals conglomerate Nyrstar. Epic industrial environments, luxurious locations and breathtaking landscapes are Apostolidis’ signature dishes. “I like vast spaces,” says Apostolidis, “I look at everything as a shape, whether it’s a drill, a diamond, the Taj Mahal or Ayers Rock.”

Bold compositions, dramatic lines and a painterly approach to using light, both natural and artificial, are the hallmarks of his art. “It’s all about lighting. You have to shoot at the right time of day. “First you find your location, an angle that you like, then you analyse how that angle is going to work in better light. Late afternoon is my favourite time for shooting exteriors – you can watch the light go down and make the picture, whereas at sunrise the light’s getting stronger.” For someone who grew up in the days of film, darkrooms and developing trays, George feels that digital technology has changed photography, and not for the better. “People aren’t lighting a subject to get the detail, because they know they can drag the detail out digitally. Too often today it’s just digital illustration.

“I don’t miss the chemicals, but I miss the slow process of developing something, just watching it form from nothing. In those days you had to construct in front of the camera, make it happen. You had to make sure it was pristine, from start to finish. “Something’s been lost in the craft. It’s like looking at beautiful old furniture that used to be made by hand, but now it’s made by robot. The robot makes great furniture, but it’s never as good as the handmade piece. Because it’s never a one off.”

After Bangkok, Barcelona and Paris, Apostolidis’ Frequent Flyer status isn’t in any danger of a downgrade: the calendar is as full as ever, with projects in Honduras, Chile, Canada and Macau to complete by year’s end. He and Cathy will squeeze in a holiday too, in the foothills of the Himalayas. “That’ll clear the head,” says Apostolidis.

The shock of the new

The shock of the new

Billy Kavellaris grew up living in a California-style bungalow in the Melbourne suburb of Reservor. Today the 35-year-old founder of Kavellaris Urban Design (KUD) is the face of a new generation of Australian architects who are challenging formulaic approaches to the unrelenting urban sprawl.

The son of migrants from Greece who arrived in Australia in the late ’60s, Kavellaris was an exemplary student: the future architect was school captain at his primary school, before excelling in high school. “I was always drawing,” says Kavellaris, who remembers the delight he felt unfolding his first Staedtler drawing board at the age of 14.

He left school in 1994, undertook a drafting diploma and then his Bachelor of Architecture at RMIT. It was while completing his degree that he began to learn his trade, and realised to what extent he despised the formulaic approaches to commercial architecture that he witnessed. In 2002 he went out on his own, creating KUD, a boutique architecture and interior design practice committed to pursuing what he describes as “intelligent design”.

KUD offered solutions for residential, retail and public buildings as well as large-scale commercial developments, and within a short time the new kid on the block was attracting serious interest.

In 2008, Kavellaris realised a very personal project; a new home for his young family. The house (that would later be known as the perforated house) was a brave new interpretation of a single-fronted Victorian terrace property in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. The ‘perforation’ refers to the 3mm anodised aluminium screen that Kavellaris created to become the main facade, upon which, an image of the traditional features of the Victorian frontage are displayed.

The thought-provoking design allowed the facade to change its transparency, enabling the house to appear both solid and translucent and questioning the idea of a static building. Inside and out, the perforated house illustrated the depth of Kavellaris’ passion for technical innovation. “Technology is always a driving factor in our work,” says KUD’s founder, who also teaches architecture at Melbourne University.

Kavellaris’ recent projects include include the award-winning Jewel Apartments, the centrepiece of a vibrant redefinition of the urban village, and the remarkable and recently commissioned Wills Skypark Tower for Melbourne CBD. On the international front, KUD has been invited to design a $150 million retail and residential complex in Ho Chi Minh City. Business has never been better.

At the heart of Kavellaris’ art, is the idea that successful architecture is not about structural decoration or paying lip-service to a notion of heritage. “The more you understand people and cities, how we operate, the better an architect you become,” says Kavellaris.

“We need to start planning our urbanism in a much more comprehensive manner and we should have more of a debate on what’s happening. We have a responsibility not just to the client, but a social responsibility – these houses are going to out-live us and our children.”

Kavellaris’ buildings, like those of all good architects, are about stories; stories of how we live and interact, and how the structures we spend time in and move through, can make all our stories richer.

A house in Athens

A house in Athens

The house Diligianis built. 19 Levidou, Kifisia.

An elegant long-handled knife sits under glass at the National Historical Museum, the old Greek Parliament in Stadiou Street, Athens. Beside it lies a leather bag with a monograph. It reads Diligiannis. This personal effect of a late-19th Century Greek politician Theodoros Diligiannis would have passing interest for most, myself included, but for the fact that the knife – which could so easily be an ornamental letter opener – was used to murder its owner.

Diligiannis, who was prime minister of Greece twice, was assassinated on the 13 June 1905 in revenge for reforms he had taken against gambling. His attacker, a professional punter, stabbed the politician as he was entering parliament.

The villa that Diligiannis built in the northern suburb of Kifisia, has for the last three years, been my home. The plaque beside the iron-gated entrance to the garden shows his dates – 1826 to 1905. It often causes passers-by to pause, perhaps to reflect on Diligiannis’ place in Greece’s political evolution.

At the time the house was built in 1850, the fashion for the Athenian establishment was to escape the stifling heat of summer in the metropolis, to Kifisia, fifteen kilometres to the north. Today’s owner of Diligiannis’ retreat is Lilaka Kritikos, the widow of an Azerbijani Greek businessman who made his fortune as a trader in Cameroon.

The house and the grounds in which it sits, were bought from the Diligiannis family by Kritikos in the 1970s. Lilaka lives in the apartment built by her husband beside the property. “It was a house  paysan for the summer – not a grand villa. It was a ruin when we bought it,” says Lilaka, who spends much of her time at a second home in Paris.

The house at 19 Levidou is near the swanky shops of central Kifisia, where the well-heeled sate their craving for expensive branded fashion accessories, seemingly immune to the deterioration of the economy. But business is down for the traders in Kifisia. Walk up Diligiannis’ street to the Kefalari Plateia, and you come to Trikoupi Street named after Diligiannis’ nemesis, the modernizer Charilaos Trikoupis.

The enmity between these two men, who vied for the leadership of the Nationalist Party, defined Greek politics in the late 19th Century. Living at this intersection of political history, one can’t help but reflect on today’s Greece, beset by its huge economic and social challenges, and with a political landscape as fractious and polarised as Diligiannis’ time.

As the second decade in the 21st Century gets underway, Greece is in limbo. For the first time in generations, young people face a future of fewer opportunities than their parents. Confidence in politicians has eroded completely, tarred by the irresponsible actions of past governments of all persuasions.

Deep resentment and loss-of-face is felt by Greeks at having had to go cap in hand to the European Union and IMF. Downtown, a world away from Kifisia, tensions are high.

A recent report by UNHCR has described Greece’s treatment of refugees as a humanitarian crisis. Vigilantes bully the immigrants that have nowhere else to go. A few days before Christmas at the church of Aghios Pandeleimonas near Exarchia, a classical music concert took place attended by the Greek President and Archbishop of Athens.

It was a brave, symbolic event, to encourage tolerance of immigrants and the issues they face. Outside and inside the church there were protesters urging against this call for toleration – many of the local resident protesters were infiltrated by extremist nationalist groups. Greece’s largest right-wing political organisation Xrysi Augi (Golden Dawn), with their Nazi salutes and rhetoric of intolerance, took close to twenty per cent in recent local elections.

The summer of 2010 was long in Greece. It seemed to last until year’s end, but as Christmas arrived, so did winter. With a sudden, chilling force, snow fell on the houses of Kifisia. These are times to wrap up warm, gather strength, and do what you can to prepare for better days.

The villa Diligiannis built was used to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation seventy years ago. Today, as racism stalks Athens streets, it is a time for courage and humanity; a time to denounce the fascists, to fortify a society under immense pressure, and to offer a safe-house to those  in need.

From Metarmorphosi to Madagascar – at home with the BBC’s John Humphrys in Greece

BBC journalist and broadcaster John Humphrys talks to Mike Sweet about building a villa in Greece, the book co-written with son Chris that grew out of the experience, and the charity which benefits from guest bookings.

John Humphrys doesn’t recommend building a house in Greece, particularly if you happen to live more than two thousand kilometres away. I’d called John on his way to a studio at the BBC. After forty years in broadcasting, John aged 66, is still very much in demand. Hugely admired, often referred to as ‘a national treasure’ in the UK, John Humphrys is best known for presenting the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 news programme Today and BBC Television’s Mastermind.  Eldest son Christopher studied at London’s Royal College of Music and has lived in Athens since 1993. Now Assistant Principal Cello for Athens’ Megaron Orchestra, Chris speaks fluent Greek and is married to an Athenian lawyer.

It was on a family holiday while walking in the north-eastern Peloponnese, that father and son together first experienced a view of the Argo Saronic Gulf which made John decide on the spot, that there could be no better location to build a family home. The saga of the villa’s construction in the village of Metamorphosi would last four years, and be documented in the co-authored Blue Skies & Black Olives – a survivor’s tale of house building and peacock chasing in Greece. Published last year, the book relates the trials and tribulations faced as Chris and John deal with the minutiae of buying the site and building what was to become Artemis Villa. In following the process, it is a story that celebrates contemporary Greece in all its glories, and frustrations.

John’s motivation for writing Blues Skies was twofold. “The whole thing at times was almost surreal, and there were times when it felt like a bloody nightmare,” John confides, “but it seemed too good to waste. Writing a book with my son had a certain horrific fascination – whether the relationship would survive such a dangerous enterprise.”

The chapters written by Chris tell a story of his own transformation in becoming, to all intents and purposes, Greek. Some weeks before his wedding in Naxos, he needed to be baptized.  Understandably, he remembers the occasion vividly. “I’m standing in my swimming trunks in the biggest Greek church in the Balkans, surrounded by my wife’s close family. Full immersion in a huge tank in the middle of the church. It was more embarrassing than the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Chris’ full account of this event is one of the book’s many gems, revealing the culture and living traditions of his adopted homeland. What comes across most strongly in the book is the authors’ embrace of Greece; unbreakable and passionate.

Artemis Villa has just completed its first nine months of commercial renting, and proved more popular than expected, to such an extent that even John has found it difficult to find a free week this summer. All the proceeds from rentals go directly to the Kitchen Table Trust, the charity founded by Humphrys in 2006 to support aid projects in sub-Saharan Africa. “The family have always been involved in charities” says Chris, “partly from having lived in Africa when Dad was a foreign correspondent. It’s very easy to understand what poverty is when you live in South Africa.”

In 2009, despite a drop in donations due to the knock on effects of the global financial crisis, the Trust was able to finance 52 projects, bringing the total to more than 250 since it began. This year’s projects include; ensuring water sanitation for three poor communities in Sierra Leone; reconstructive facial surgery for forty young Ethiopians who were suffering birth deformities; a new children’s home providing shelter and education for abandoned and orphaned children living on a rubbish dump at Nakuru in Kenya. The list goes on.

At a time of downturn in donations, proceeds from the villa have helped. “The first bookings we had meant four or five thousand pounds went straight to the charity, and that just about builds a primary school in Madagascar, one of the poorest places on earth.” John adds that every project supported by the Trust has the direct involvement of the local community. “It’s a pre-condition for almost all our grants. If we provide the materials for instance, they provide the labour. The children, of course, can’t help themselves. But I believe passionately that if we can give them even the most basic education – teaching them the “three Rs” – they have a chance of a better life in the future. And their local communities will benefit as well.

Humphrys senior has firm opinions on the shortcomings of many charities. “Most charity has become industrialized. People often suspect that a lot of the money is spent on administration, and doesn’t go to the people who really need it. We don’t have paid staff or an office. The only costs for us are those that we have to pay – bank services and auditing, which is less than one percent of our income.” Given the appalling statistics of suffering in sub-Saharan Africa, John acknowledges it’s a drop in the ocean. “The need doesn’t go away. It’s hideous. You can give vast amounts government aid for big projects, but it seems to have relatively little effect on individual suffering at a local level … but what we do on an infinitely more modest scale, is to help at a very local level. We rarely give more than £10,000 to any one project, but it does make a discernible difference. Children can be taught to read and write; farmers can grow crops in areas where they couldn’t before.”

The Humphrys villa really is the perfect location for that autumn or winter break from Athens. Three double bedrooms, a children’s bedroom and a large self-contained apartment, means if needed, everyone has their own space. Our children just loved the house and setting; being able to safely explore through the hillside forest garden, meet the resident peacock, and find the almost exclusive beach below. It was December, but still warm enough for some hardier family members to swim in the pool and the sea.

Just fifteen minutes from the island of Poros, it’s not much further in the opposite direction to the village of Vathi, with its great fish tavernas. A ramble around the extinct volcanoes nearby sharpens the appetite for some of the best value fish suppers in Greece. For antiquities, Troizen is on your doorstep and ancient Epidavros only forty-five minutes to the north. Mind you, just taking in that enchanting view, in serene peace and quiet at Artemis Villa, takes some beating.