Life Among the Ruins

  • Kostis Kourelis, assistant professor of art history  

Kostis Kourelis is scouring his shelves in search of a book about architectural history. He stops, then ducks into the small room connected to his office—the one with an old sink and bathtub.

The assistant professor of art history emerges, book in hand. Flipping through the book's pages, he explains that the tiny space on the second floor of the Heugel Alumni House once was a private washroom in what used to be the College president's house. Later, it would become the photocopy room for a departmental office. Today, it serves as home to some of Kourelis' library.

Uncovering history is what Kourelis does best, even in his own office. The architectural historian joined the Department of Art and Art History at the beginning of this semester, bringing to campus interests in urbanism, landscape archaeology, architectural theory and historic preservation. In his short time in Lancaster, he has also developed a passion for local architecture.

"One doesn't have to go abroad to see bits of ancient Rome or medieval England," says Kourelis, who specializes in the architecture of Byzantium, Islam and medieval Europe. "Frankly, I'm overwhelmed by Lancaster's architecture as I slowly discover the city. What surprises me is the quality, variety and degree of preservation. It's astonishing. I want to use Lancaster as a laboratory of architectural knowledge."

Born in Greece, Kourelis and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 12. He eventually landed in Philadelphia, where he studied philosophy and architecture as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a master's degree in architecture at Penn.

"In my first life, I became an architect," he says. "But after working on summer field projects in Europe, I realized that I enjoy architectural history and archaeology more than designing new buildings."

Kourelis has spent summers in the Mediterranean excavating structures in Greece, Italy, North Africa and the Black Sea. At the sites, he uses Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Total Stations (EDM), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellite images and 3D modeling software to survey ancient communities in an attempt to reconstruct the past.

"With traditional surveying methods, you must shoot thousands of points along the walls of each building," Kourelis says. "Surveying a single settlement can take months. But we can fly a balloon or kite, take an image from really high up and survey only a few control points. Then we process the image through GIS and produce a georeferenced plan of the settlement in just a matter of hours."

Kourelis uses new mapping technologies to study Crusader-period villages on the remote mountains of the Peloponnese. "It's detective work," he says. "It raises a broad range of questions about urban organization, agriculture and ecology. And we're not spending time in the library doing this. There's excitement because we produce new evidence, like discovering a new manuscript."

When he's not attempting to recreate ancient cultures, Kourelis enjoys writing about popular music. "I've been going back to my own college years, the 1980s, when I played in an alternative rock band," says the professor, who has written a series of entries titled "punk archaeology" for his personal blog. "I'm interested in the history of American subculture and its relationship to the post-industrial city."

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