Few architectural memory-joggers to remain after the Olympic Games

Let’s suppose you’re in Athens and some friends from abroad come to visit. Five months before the Olympic Games, they ask you to show them areas in the city where they could get a rough idea of the architectural works for the great event. Where would you take them? What would you show them? The question is not purely theoretical. It was posed to me very recently. And it was at that moment that I became conscious of the fact that Athens is putting on a Games shorn of architectural interest, with a possible sole exception in the roof over the Olympic Stadium at Maroussi, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, as well as the footbridge by the same architect over Mesogeion Avenue at Katehaki Stadium. That’s all. And the next question is: so many stadiums, so many facilities, so much refurbishment of hundreds of acres and the result is nothing? Zero? You need to ask around, to search for a good while, in order to discover that this paucity, nevertheless, hides at least some major works that have been designed by well-known and important Greek architects. Alexandros Tombazis designed the Olympic sports center at Galatsi, Kyriakos Kyriakidis the Main Press Center (MPC) on Kifissias Avenue, Dimitris Potiropoulos and Liana Potiropoulou the tennis courts, Harry Bougadelis the Olympic Equestrian Center and the new Athens racecourse at Markopoulo, while Thymios Papayiannis was the architect of the beach volleyball stadium at Faliron. The fact that their names appear hardly anywhere (the responsibility lies with the ministries involved and with organizing committee Athens 2004), are not even publicized (the signboards do not display the name of the architect) and that they are consigned to a compulsory oblivion can only mean one of two things (both serious): Either the Greek State and Athens 2004 are not proud of the quality of Olympic works, thus acknowledging a by no means negligible shortcoming (the product of asphyxiating time limits), or they triumphantly confirm the widespread impression that, at least for the Athens Games, architects and architecture are the lowest and least. Obviously, both are true. For the overwhelming majority of Olympic works, an architectural competition was not declared (whether open or closed). When Jacques Rogge waved the yellow and red cards, one after the other, Athens, having already lost three years’ worth of preparations, was left without options. The result was that in many cases the architect was forced to simply dress up a study that had been preselected. Beijing, the venue for the 2008 Games, has already held two international architectural competitions, attracting the greatest names in the architectural jet set. The impressive, prize-winning studies by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (known from the Tate Modern in London) for the new Olympic stadium and the water sports center went around the world, and promise much with respect to architecture, in contrast to Athens. Different perceptions of architecture in this country, where it is regarded as an artistic eccentricity, superfluous luxury or useless romanticism (an attitude that pervades any reading of Calatrava’s work at the Olympic Stadium) has created a currently unbridgeable gap with other advanced countries. Architecture there receives more recognition: Good architecture, apart from being a self-evident tool to creating a better way of life, has also proved to be an engine of growth. Barcelona, which we are supposed to be modeling ourselves on, invested in architecture and today is reaping the fruits in many ways: Tourism has skyrocketed, entrepreneurship has flourished, thousands of new jobs were created, quality of life has improved inconceivably, and so forth.

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