NEWS

The pile of multicolored shards that is Athens will have trouble creating new urban identity

A book, once again, is the inspiration for the following notes and observations. The one in question is the massive tome just brought out by Papazisis publications, edited by Stavros Tsetsis (architect and planner) in collaboration with Voula Tsetsi-Schlyter. The theme is Athens, and the title, «A Future for Athens.» More precisely, it might be called the search for a future for Athens, a city with a past that is both long and short, renowned around the world yet at the same time troubled. When Greece’s capital embarked on its modern existence, it was a small to medium-sized town, where elements of a modern Greek urbanism and an agricultural and pastoral society mingled. Later, it swelled and grew huge, till it covered the whole of Attica, developing into an even more dubiously complex mixture in the process. This jumble of buildings, which emerged as a result of certain needs but in a haphazard, anarchic fashion, has been compared – I don’t know by whom – to a heap of shards of multicolored glass. The simile not only hints at the chaotic mix of heterogeneous elements and characteristics. It also poses the question whether this jumble has the power and inclination to take on form and shape that would express and serve a new urbanism (the culture and way of life of city dwellers). This, I think, is the central question in this voluminous tome, and its authors express optimism at one point but sheer pessimism at others. It is a timely question, for several reasons: first, because the recent draft bills on illegal buildings, forest and forestland, on wasteland and land use are of particular concern to Attica, presaging a new urbanizing drive leading toward the same chaotic end. The second reason that makes this a topical issue is the works in progress for the Olympic Games. Large-scale and grandiose works, costly and wasteful, will serve the needs of the largest and most flamboyant globalization fiesta. But it is by no means certain that this is what this city needs if it is to take on its new urban form. Leaving aside the economic, environmental and moral (in terms of corruption) effects, the works carried out in Athens over of the last 15 years have been truly impressive: these include projects such as the new airport, the Attiki Odos, the Western Hymettus Peripheral Highway, the metro, Kifissou Avenue, the landscaping of Faliron Bay with the tramway as a kind of garnish, the sewage works at Psyttaleia, and finally the various facilities for the Olympic Games. The works had existed in blueprint form for over 20 years, but only started to take shape once EU funds started pouring in. Two questions arise, which are variously answered by the book: first, whether these works will sharpen and widen the differences between center and periphery, and second, whether they will attract new inhabitants (or immigrants) from the periphery and spark fresh activity. The view expressed is that most of these works push the city’s boundaries outward, with the airport at Spata forming the new outer edge. Contributors also feel they will solve no problems, such as traffic and air pollution, because of the consequent rise in the number of cars, inhabitants and activities. Interestingly, the view is also expressed that in a city with a tendency to urban sprawl, the last thing one should do is to expand its infrastructure, because that simply creates new problems and needs. One improves the existing one. Athens’s size is essential to the form it takes. Over the last 50 years, both state and citizens have helplessly watched the continuous expansion of the city. During each phase, this is accompanied by the legalization of illegal buildings, which means that expansion is unplanned, unsought and unwanted. Consequently, illegal buildings are one of the city’s basic elements; more precisely, one can talk of an arbitrary and haphazard enlargement. Some figures indicate the future: 40 percent of the country’s population lives in Athens, which is unique in the world. A large number of activities are also concentrated there: 30 percent of the total, as are 75 percent of services. The city also produces 60 percent of the gross national product. The figures express neither a new or old urbanism. They smack more of processes and transformations taking place in the Third World, where the erosion of traditional occupations has not brought new and developed capitalist urbanism but distorted substitutes, in which the population has crowded into supercities such as Cairo, Tehran, Mexico City, Istanbul and countless others throughout the Third World. Modern Greece itself has not been shaped by capitalism as such, as by a late and distorted form, with a state-dependent ruling class and entangled interests. Today’s Athens, in size and from, does not seem to be the natural continuation of the old urbanism. Rather, it has violently overthrown it. This is probably the source of a sort of morbid nostalgia for everything old, confusion over tradition, the beauty found in ruins and the appeal of so-called listed buildings. Today’s Athens is a Third World city. Comparatively speaking, things are even worse, since in no other Third World country has such a large proportion of the population and activities been concentrated in the capital. By contrast, Frankfurt, perhaps second after New York as a capital of globalized and European capitalism, is a small city, indisputably the continuation of an old urbanism. What size of city, and in what form, will express Greece’s new urbanism? Frankly, Thessaloniki, or some other dynamic provincial city, offers more prospects and opportunities than Athens does. Athens may be a pile of multicolored shards. But I fear it is more of cultural refuse dump, where both concert hall and low dives are equally to be rejected.