Architects’ designs are slighted

Architects protesting at the drastic changes made to prize-winning projects under way or due to start within the next few months in Athens’s four major public squares – Syntagma, Omonia, Monastiraki and Koumoundourou – have received a cynical response from the president of the office for the Unification of Athens Archaeological Sites (EAXA). «If we were to start over, I would not hold [architectural competitions],» said Yiannis Kalantidis. It appears that the Pan-European competitions have been subjected to orders from above and compromises. Fifteen months before the Athens Olympics and under pressure of deadlines, EAXA is about to bypass significant elements in at least two of the projects (Monastiraki and Syntagma), while the final result of work under way in Omonia Square will bear little resemblance to the original design that was so enthusiastically received four years ago. Koumoundourou Square appears to have met with fewer difficulties. What is important, however, is that at this crucial point in time (in view of the upcoming Olympics, and the worldwide activity in refurbishing city spaces and competition between cities), the Greek State, in this case represented by EAXA, appears to be missing a unique opportunity to accord architects the role they enjoy throughout the advanced Western world. However, given the activity on the sidelines of these competitions in recent years, Greek architects are paid almost as little attention as an artist who has nice ideas that he might as well keep to himself. Their role is taken over by other people who have «a point of view» – such as the mayor, various «presidents,» advisers and so on – that is, not by established institutional bodies but by groups who have the power to impose their views, a phenomenon that is suggestive of the postwar development of Greek cities as well as the spectacular disregard for public space. A glance around suffices – Athenian squares with their armies of statues that is the heritage of former Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos’s term in office, the new airport that has no clear architectural identity, and the dozens of Olympic projects being built without any architectural competitions being held. The lack of trust between architects and the State does not augur well for the future. Unfortunately, we do not learn from our mistakes. The cities we are supposedly hoping to emulate have adopted mechanisms in which the architect is allowed creative freedom. Greek architects have to be continually on the alert, ready to explain, to defend their ideas and to do battle for what should be self-evident. Barcelona, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Manchester and dozens of other European cities have put their faith in architects and are now reaping the benefits. The results have not always been a masterpiece, but in order for masterpieces to be created, the procedures have to be appropriate, and less innovative solutions presented before innovation can occur. This is how real creativity flows, this is the history of culture. And therein lies the importance of architectural competitions – ideas are presented, a winner chosen, a dialogue held, and the eye of the public is trained, helping to produce a sense of aesthetics. In Greece, this chain of events is still not self-evident.