Roof over Games venue marks a changing Athens

Few issues have caused Greeks to argue, wax sarcastic or lose their tempers with quite as much passion as the roof over the main Olympic Stadium designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, whose name has entered the Greek language as a noun, adjective and even as a scene in a theatrical revue. The project that has caused so much controversy was completed last month. As Calatrava himself said, it is «95 percent ready.» (Still left to do are the lighting and planting of trees.) The international jet-set architect gave a number of interviews over the past few weeks as part of the effort to highlight the work. «It is finished, you have to believe that,» he said. Those who have already visited the stadium, even the most skeptical, are impressed. Kathimerini spoke to Calatrava on his recent visit to Athens, where he prefers to get about by metro. «You have made a city that should fill you with pride and dignity,» he claimed. Many people have mentioned the high cost of the Olympic Stadium. Compared to other structures, in Barcelona or Valencia for example, what is your view? I have worked as an architect for 23 years, mostly on public works. We have constructed more than 30 bridges, stations, small and large concert halls, in over 17 countries. So I am able to judge how long it will take to build a structure. What everyone has to realize is that Greece has made a tremendous effort to give the world the Olympic Games of the new millennium. And this is something we should not stop emphasizing. You have made great strides – roads, highways, the metro, the tramway. These are projects that change everyday life in a city. The Olympic Stadium has acquired a roof with character. Sliding it into place was a technical feat which gives hope for the future. I think the stadium has a symbolic importance: Athletes surpass themselves in order to improve their performance, in response to the Olympic ideal. With the stadium, we have broken a record, we have gone one step further. After September 11, the general cost rose by 30 percent because there were more security demands. The cost of the stadium is comparable with the one in Sydney, but Athens’s stadium is even better. Do you believe the widespread fear of terrorism will influence architecture and urban design? No, I don’t think so. But we do take it into consideration now. However, as in constructing a station we consider the possibility of accidents, in building the Olympic Stadium, we have to consider the possibility of evacuation. Building specifications have not changed. Perhaps constructions are a little stronger. In public works, we work in the same way. However, September 11 is not going to stop the construction of tall buildings. I am already building two of them. We talk about Barcelona before and after the Games. Do you think this will also happen in Athens? Barcelona is a big city of 2 million inhabitants. Greece is a capital city with some 5 million. They are of comparable size but at the same time they are completely different. Athens, I repeat, has made an huge effort which its residents have not yet recognized, but it has been recognized by foreigners who visit it. I have been coming here every two months for the past three years and I can see the changes. I want to say that life in Athens has changed, as it did in Barcelona, which exploited the opportunity provided by the Games and has not stopped doing so – changes are still happening. With the Olympics, Barcelona discovered the city’s «essence.» I hope Athens can discover its own «essence» and exploit it to the utmost. I hope it will continue to renew itself, as Barcelona is doing, 12 years later. You have worked in many cities. What, in your opinion, is special about Athens? Athens is a megalopolis that bears traces of an ancient world; it has exit in the port, and is surrounded by nature. The city might seem densely populated, asphyxiating, but it has many points in its favor. It has acquired a post-industrial character without having experienced the zenith of the industrial era. That is quite rare. Just outside Athens, one can still see virgin territory. You don’t find that in many cities. For example, cities like London, Paris and New York are surrounded by industrial zones. That, I think, is Athens’s particular hallmark. Two things: traces of antiquity and nature. What was your incentive in undertaking a project for the Olympic Games in Athens? Was it to create architecture or personal ambition? I did not approach it as a job. I «saw» the project from the perspective of the desire of the Greek government and people to build the Athens of 2004. It is an extraordinary structure for an extraordinary situation. I do not feel flattered, but responsible. Of course, I have not done the work on my own but along with many tireless associates, Greeks and foreigners. We directed the project, but it was carried out by a Greek design office. We depended on the Greeks’ work. But it bears your signature. It bears the signature of Greece and the Greek people. Greece is showing the world that the spirit of the Olympic Games is not just an idea but a modern, efficient, and I hope beautiful, installation that was completed in a short time and to a very high standard. But we are faced with the paradox of having implemented the idea, completed the job, and yet you don’t believe it is finished. Your city has been transformed, believe me.