Athens, a city of ongoing changes and developments

As the date for the Olympic Games approaches and large-scale construction works are being carried out everywhere in Athens, the emerging face of the city is becoming a current topic of discussion. A one-day conference organized by «highlights» magazine (a bimonthly publication on art and culture) and held under the auspices of the Athens Municipality a few days ago at the Municipal Cultural Center, reflects this growing concern about the transformation of Athens. Held under the general title «Athens: The Lived Experience,» the conference addressed issues of architecture but its focus was to examine how the constructed environment influences the daily life and experiences of the city’s dwellers. The early part of the conference included three lectures by select specialists. The greater part was a discussion conducted among the main panel, which comprised art historian and curator Denis Zacharopoulos, art critic at Kathimerini Nikos Xydakis, architect Giorgos Tzirtzilakis and sculptor Costas Varotsos, who is also arts adviser to the Athens Municipality. Art critic Vassilika Sarilaki was the coordinator. Although some of the points made by the participants were interesting to hear, the discussion lacked any specific focus and failed to examine in sufficient detail the issues it raised. Those included the role of the squares in Athens (Omonia Square was repeatedly brought up), the renovation of old buildings and painting facades (a project implemented by the current mayor of Athens, Dora Bokoyianni) as well as the role of public sculpture and art in shaping a city’s life. Other issues that are of interest were not raised, such as the construction of the Athens tramway, an absurd project rightly attacked for destroying the urban environment and creating more congestion. A city’s buildings, planning and transportation are not the only factors which shape its character. The social behavior of its residents, the priorities of the police and the way in which people drive or walk are also what influence the urban daily experience. The extremely high level of noise in this city is, for example, largely due to the way people drive their cars or motorcycles but also due to the fact that the police, although willing to issue speeding tickets, will let motorcycles with sawn-off exhaust pipes circulate freely. But in the end, the source of all these ills is that Athens has a larger population than what its infrastructure can handle. One of the most commonly heard things about Athens is that there is no concern or respect for its inhabitants. This, in turn, is generally ascribed to a lack of «sophistication or culture» and to an embedded social reality. This is a widespread notion heard repeatedly at the conference. It is, however, a disappointment to notice how the very people who often complain about all the wrongs done to them in this city do not amply stress the positive aspects of its transformation. True, this city may often feel unlivable-in but Athenians can now enjoy a diversity that was unimaginable a decade ago. In the end, one left this conference with no image in mind, no projected picture of what Athens will or should look like in the future and with no concrete plans. Generalities rather than concrete ideas was one of its weaknesses. All in all, the event was more valuable for venting frustration than for working toward any specific goal. Perhaps the problem is broader: An argument repeatedly heard at the conference, for example, was the lack of an organized state policy on issues of architecture and urban planning. A city is, after all, a reflection of its politicians and governmental policy. But it is also a reflection of its people – a well-stated argument heard from Nikos Xydakis, mostly in reference to the influx of immigrants and the new diversity of its population. A contemporary city is too layered and multifaceted to define along any specific lines. A city evolves as the life within it evolves. What once seemed like great architecture (such as the modern apartment buildings) may now seem ugly and outdated. Each generation leaves its own imprint. In this conference, one would perhaps like to have heard more about what our imprint on the city’s physiognomy will be.