Martin Knuijt: The man who rethought Athens

Martin Knuijt is an incredibly affable man who is also passionate about his job as an architect. He wins me over instantly with his smile, but seems to clam up when he sees me pulling out my notebook. I can’t really blame him. The chief architect of the Okra firm, which won last year’s architectural competition for the Re-Think Athens project, is wary of publicity because of the involvement of the Onassis Foundation as the biggest bankroller of the studies for the project, and essentially his employer.

The 48-year-old Dutch architect eventually relaxes during our interview in Athens as he knows that the final details of the project have been completed and his Athens experience has basically come to an end.

“It’s been a fascinating year,” he says. “Even though it was spent chasing deadlines. The time frames were incredibly tight and we had absolutely no leeway because the funding for the project was at risk.”

“So you’re done?” I ask him.

“Yes, we’re done. At least with this phase of the project.”

The Re-Think Athens project, which was named by the Onassis Foundation, is centered on the overhaul of Panepistimiou Street, the central thoroughfare that links Syntagma and Omonia squares. Not that the competition is over and funding has been secured: The competition for the construction work is expected to be launched by the end of spring so that the project can hopefully be completed on schedule by 2016.

In its final form, the revamp will not look exactly like it did in the winning mock-ups sent in for the competition.

“First of all, the area that will undergo a revamp has been expanded,” explains Knuijt. “The City of Athens requested that we include all of the side streets running off from Panepistimiou to Stadiou and Academias so that the broader area serves the same goals and carries the same signature. It was a challenge but it ultimately strengthened the network and allowed us to do more than an isolated boulevard,” says the architect.

The team needed to make a significant technical change to their original plans that will have a huge impact on how the downtown area will look in the future. “As we perfected our design we also wanted to make it more imposing, but we realized that the irrigation needs were getting much greater than we had originally anticipated,” Knuijt says. “Look at Mitropoleos Street, which has large, healthy trees thanks to the traces of the Iridanos River than run below. We needed to find a way to plant 800 trees along Panepistimiou and allow them to grow so that they can shelter pedestrians and help improve the microclimate, and we knew that it would mean having more water. So we expanded the system for storing rainwater and the network that supplies it. Now the underground tank can store enough water to irrigate the trees and clean the public spaces for three months. I must mention that these changes did not cost a lot of money, just 3-4 percent of the budget. Overall, we are very excited about the work we have done and believe that the end result could serve as a model for other Mediterranean cities.”

Other than the changes that arose along the way, the designers also had to bear in mind the particular characteristics of the area they were planning to revamp.

“For example,” explains Knuijt, “we know with certainty that there are antiquities between Syntagma and the so-called Athenian Trilogy [the Academy, University and Library designed by Theophil Hansen] along Panepistimiou and this means that we cannot dig at a depth of more than one meter. Everything has to take this factor into account. In contrast, other spots like Dikaiosynis Square have been excavated in the past and we know that any antiquities lie at a greater depth and allow for more complex construction. Of course this is information we didn’t have when we first entered the competition. You learn the details later and adapt the plan accordingly.”

Knuijt is also excited about his collaboration with Greek architects and especially with the Studio 75 firm’s Dora Kotsona and Tasos Rigopoulos.

“We became a team very quickly. The Greeks are more precise in their methodology. The Dutch, we start with ideas, while our Greek colleagues spend a lot of time with details from the very first stages of the design, which is something we look at later. Generally it is easier to work with Greek architects than it is, say, Italian ones, because everyone speaks perfect English, they have normally spent a few years living and studying abroad and they have an international perspective,” says Knuijt.

Now that it’s over for Knuijt, he casts his mind back on the experience and the moment that he remembers most fondly.

“When we finished, we cracked open a beer in the office and celebrated. This is one of my most special memories from the project,” he says.

“Now I can’t wait for the project to materialize. I promised my parents, who are now elderly, that we will come to Athens for the inauguration of the ‘new’ Panepistimiou,” adds Knuijt.

“The Panepistimiou project is very special to me. I fell deeply in love with Athens. When I first came, I knew that it was beautiful and I also knew about its problems. I have a better feel for it now. I saw beneath the surface and this made me believe even more in the positive change that the Panepistimiou revamp will bring,” says the Dutch architect. “No, it won’t solve Athens’s problems, but it may boost the city’s morale. Let’s not forget that, from an architectural standpoint, even the most celebrated cities, such as Barcelona, had to start from somewhere. So let us hope that Panepistimiou becomes a catalyst not just for the rejuvenation of the city center but for more initiatives and more major interventions in Athens.”

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