When the winds of change blow, some build walls. Others build windmills. Chinese Proverb.
History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake. James Joyce
1. Emergency Machines
Every Winter or Summer of the past 12 years, Athens delivers itself a major surprise. Consistent and transformative, these are either significant, unexpected event or new public project. Both claim the spotlight, for a short period, producing functional, material or hyper-mediated states of emergency and creating a dispute over the nature and use of Athenian public space. As a result, theykick-start a series of incidental, makeshift policy responses, design initiatives or regeneration campaigns for festering urban problems, and in so doing eclipse, overwhelm or erase other ongoing, problem-solving projects. In their short-term state of exception, they transform an area of Athens and redefine the idea and use of its public space.
The emergency events are complex, singular and contained: they are catalysts for unpredictable urban change. The 1999 earthquake; the 2002 floods; the Olympic Summer of 2004; the 2007 fires; the 2008 G-riots; the 2010 indignant occupations. The concluded public projects disrupt the city: off-scale, off-budget and off-schedule, they create zones of exception, join poorly with the urban fabric and remain insular. The Attic Metro (2000); the new Airport (2001); the Unification of Archaeolgoical Sites (2003); the new Highways (2004); the Acropolis Museum (2009); the Onassis Cultural Center (2010); the Niarchos Cultural Center (2015) [p1,2,3].
The sequence of these event-projects causes uneven, unplanned, localized, short-sighted, start-and-stop, radical urban transformations. These have worked in patches of Athens over the past decade, in competition
with urban planning and regional ecology in times of activity, collecting the reaction to this contest in times of inertia. They are formed against the local Mediterranean climate and geography, through the socio-political condition of the hyper-mediated, popular democracy of late 20th Century Greece, and have resulted in a catastrophic growth process (Davis).
A cyclical pattern emerges for the urban enclaves of Athens where these events and projects occur: long periods of inactivity, deterioration and slow, entropic change, followed by short bursts of extreme activity –either catastrophes born of entropy, or human responses to them: the design and construction of new infrastructure, building, and short-lived public space (Babasikas I) [p4,5].
Once this extreme intervention is over –and its attendant works complete– the city begins a slow, subcutaneous resistance to its exceptional reforms. The memory and significance of the event-project evolves (or in some cases Athens pretends it never happened). Entropy takes over once again, absorbing change into the ground as ruin, sediment, or waste. Longing as if to return to a previous, irrevocable state of equilibrium, people, landscapes and institutions join the cycles of inertia. The resultant, next catastrophe, is unpredictable and potentially ruinous, because it is based on conflict with its context: against the urban landscape, denying history, undermining change.
This start-and-stop random process of urban transformation is not necessarily problematic, but endemic to the expansion and contraction of a specific type of Mediterranean city. Here, a catastrophe is the violent and irrevocable dent wrought on a topology once the forces present in and emerging from it entropically combine, from successive states of equilibrium to a point of no return. Once the dent is made and registered a new state of equilibrium is reached. (Kwinter). Entropy represents a level of uncertainty in potential combinations of local forces on this field, a moment in time and space containing a multitude of outcomes;
Thus, the changes of Athens, between entropy and emergency, may be understood as a given pattern: not a problem to be solved, but a dynamic to be exploited. Architecture and urban planning may react to this not by identifying local problems, naming failures and then envisioning responses as new projects, but by accepting that, in Athens, such problem-solving is beyond the point: here disaster may actually be creative (Berger I). As such, the site of Architecture is not a specific patch in urban space-time, where landscape, infrastructure or a building can be designed, but the pattern of urban change itself: its project may be the design of vehicles and tools channeling change. These are neither buildings nor landscapes, but mediation instruments: virtual and mechanical navigation and experimentation assemblages: machines for surveying and ‘planting’ new buildings and infrastructure onto a transforming urban landscape. The ideal operators of these emergency machines are Athenian citizens.
2. The Constant Crisis; History as Branding
The cycles of urban transformation of the past decades have thus been both vicious and magnetic. Athenians are lost in them, in detached anticipation of upcoming surprises. As changes layer on top of each other on different urban patches rhythmically and episodically, never forming a unified whole, Athenians are progressively faced with a city that they cannot recognize: an alienating place in clement weather, where familiarity and community are few and far between. This alienation is exasperated by the economic crisis of the past five years. Its usual cycles of entropy and emergency morph into a ubiquitous, sustained, continuous state of exception, a constant crisis where periods of inertia and action are indistinguishable. A greater transformation emerges: not a cycle of change, but a change in cycles.
The one dozen catastrophes of the past decade –and another dozen currently in the making– seem to be finally working, from their respective patches, to a combined effect. The ecological degradation of the Athens basin –an increase in median temperatures, extreme weather, fire deforestation, atmospheric and water-pollution, droughts, a collapsing waste-management system, a deeply flawed infrastructure policy– and the constant crisis –the imploding middle class, welfare state, family and ownership structures, post-fordist localities, uncontrollable illegal immigration, the end of Europe as an open political union– are radically transforming the underlying fabric and therefore the urban type of Athens. In the perpetual present tense of the crisis, this paradigm shift is evident not only in the system of urban expansion and contraction, but also in the construction of the virtual city: the mediated memory and public image of the event-projects, and their recording in history.
In the accentuated present of the constant crisis, the once-exceptional events and projects grow instantly old; they broadcast and disseminate their public image to the city; this image is then replaced by a stream of other images. Constructed, manipulated and inseparable from its physical presence, this stream of media representations affects, defines and finally eclipses their particular moment in urban time. The event-projects become emblematic –postcards to, and from a specific era of, the city. Their record and identity settle to a positive or negative average. Mediated and oversimplified, Athenian history is written from a bang (a demonstration) that dissolves into a million urban whimpers (the demonstration’s feed) [p6,7].
This decade-long media story and its event- and project-postcards are biased and manipulated, necessarily two-dimensional, consumed by their own image, simplifying the history of their visible and invisible transformations into the captions of a slideshow. They montage themselves and usurp the identity and history of the city into a branding operation (Babasikas II). This montage is viral, looping and self-contained: it permeates the urban collective unconscious through social media and defines the citizens’ image of the city as a non stop, ubiquitous flow of self- and civic-images; it is re-broadcast by major cultural institutions, practiced by patrons, architects and curators; it contains sensationalist images of contest, branding campaigns and mixes images of the contemporary city with loosely drawn projects for a wished-for, future city. Athens is thus split between a reality of social and political violence in its radically changing public spaces and a virtual, 2D, escapist reality to a series of imaginary, hybrid visions in its social networks, museum galleries and public displays. In an interesting inversion of the 1960’s spectacular city (Debord), the contemporary virtual advertisements of Athens do not sell new products, but confused versions of an urban future broadcast onto the constant present [p8,9].
The aforementioned emergency machines –mediation and intervention instruments that may allow architects, planners and citizens to create and locate new projects and produce new events onto the changing urban landscape– must also work in the above virtual context. Breaking the hypnotic flow of the media montage, helping Athenians navigate, visualize and comprehend their contemporary position in urban space-time, the ultimate function of these machines will be to claim new public and communal spaces, in the time of their ultimate extinction and a city consumed by images, ecologically degenerate, socially and politically collapsing, diffuse and violently motivated by brand new patterns of change.
3. Four Aspects of a New Mediterranean Metropolis
The catastrophic growth process catalyzed by the one dozen event-projects discussed so far defines one dozen corresponding enclaves or fault-lines within the Athens basin; a series of insular non-places, exclusively worked by entropy and emergency, witnessing cycles of random development, collapse, neglect and new development. Athens exists around them: they are voids of opportunity, cyclically opened and closed to the city, outside the constant crisis and its media montage yet deeply impacted by ecological and socio-political decline. Unimaginable, non-representable and usually uninhabitable, these terrae incognitae are the ideal sites for the deployment of new emergency machines, and appropriate sampling grounds for the paradigm shift in the expansion and contraction of Athens [p10].
New aspects of the contemporary Mediterranean Metropolis may be glimpsed at these drosscapes (Berger II, Allen) emergent in inertia, vis-à-vis the effects of irrevocable ecological and social desertification, against the event-projects of the last decade:
(1) A semi-functioning, disintegrating historic center and a sprawling, village-like, messy Mediterranean suburbia working in complement within the diffuse city are firmly established, transporting public spaces to virtual social networks, allowing for the ad-hoc appearance of informal common spaces at the edge of, as well as for the opportunity of complex design proposals for, these terrae incognitae. (Lukez, Waldheim)
(2) Rather than the core of a Western Metropolis, the old civic center becomes a Modernist ruin in a post-Fordist city (Aureli). The inner voids and communal spaces among and inside its dense building fabric (the Greek polykatoikies) may be re-claimed and re-organized as new common spaces by the city’s new inhabitants –freelancers and immigrants– as spaces of growth and negotiation within the ruin.
(3) Two opposite kinds of limits are enforced in the inner city: extremely hard physical thresholds –fences, gates, surveillance checkpoints– intensifying the separation of different neighborhoods from each other and from their adjacent drosscapes; and extremely soft virtual borders encouraging the connection between different communal spaces, enclaves and institutions in virtual space –seamlessly connected online venues, networks and imagined communities (Benjamin, Corner, Sassen).
(4) Rising amidst this hyper-real urban desert, new cultural, athletic, media, financial and civic projects create a new type of civitas. These are privately funded islands of culture, order and security within a city covered in the ruins of Modernism: Feudal edifices, dominating and protecting their surrounding communities, motherships and beacons creating perimetric buffer zones of consumption and economic development that are only accessible by their card-holding, member-citizens [p11,12,13].
In the above context of urban voids, Feudal islands, hard-soft borders and the diffuse city, the great lost public spaces and civitas of the 20th Century take on the same role that the 18th and 19th Century’s Arcadian countryside held for the Modern city: a cultural memory and romantic ideal sacrificed to the industrial revolution, two World Wars and great infrastructure projects. The constant crisis makes the very conception, design, construction and perseverance of Athenian public space (Dragonas), a top-down intervention of the state onto the city, designed and available to all, practically impossible: the scarcity of resources or, worse, the collapse of the state itself impose this. At the same time, local communities self-organize and begin to produce Common spaces from the bottom-up, available to the socially-blinded -those who have no recourse to communal space or basic social commodities. In that context, the architect operates more like the producer rather than the director of an unraveling urban movie: organizing resources, community structures, emergency machines and their collective deployment in order to suspend collapse, rather than controlling their aesthetic union or composing them to a meaningful whole in order to achieve success. There is no design synthesis to aspire to, but a vital social role: the dense carpet-ruin of the polykatoikia and its leftover interior or exterior voids become a viable new site of architecture -an operative art and collective process of reformation and reinvention.
At the ageing seams, large and small voids of the 20th Century Athens, at the shadow of its new Feudal venues, under the extreme pressures of climate change and the collapse of socio-political structures, a trans-urban, post-catastrophic civic migration toward a new, inner or extra Metropolitan Commons may be at hand – to edge-spaces, inner city voids, new Feudal castles or a reclaimed countryside. The navigation, imaging and project-building machines of this migration have yet to be designed, as do the networks and structures of citizenship that will re-organize them.
- PODIUM, YORGOS PRINOS
- NEW MUSEUM, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- UNDERPASS, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- DRAPETSONA, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- GLASS FACTORY, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- FIRES, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- FOUNTAIN, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- KISS, YORGOS PRINOS
- WINTER, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- TERRACE, YORGOS PRINOS
- SUMMER, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- TOWER, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
- YIAYIA, CHRISSOU VOULGARI
The photographs included in this essay are from Yorgos Prinos and Chrissou Voulgari’s series’ Eclipse (2004) and from Chrissou Voulgari’s series Rear Window (ongoing).
Yannis Aesopos, “Identity Mutation” in The Contemporary (Greek) City (Athens: Metapolis Press 2001): 197.
Yannis Aesopos, “Diffused Athens,” A10 #30 (Nov/Dec 2009): 60-62.
Stan Allen, “Mat Urbanism: the Thick 2D,” in ed. Hashim Sarkis, CASE: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital (Munich: Prestel 2001) 122-125.
Pier Vittorio Aureli, “Labor, City, Capital” (paper presented at the Home: Design, Build, Think Symposium, Department of Architecture, Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece, 25-27 February 2011).
Petros Babasikas, “Faliron 2014″ Pidgin Magazine no.10 (2011): 182-184.
Petros Babasikas, “Athena, Bender of Vision, in Transit,” in eds. Panos Dragonas, Anna Skiada, Made in Athens, Greek Participation at the Biennale di Venezia 2012, Catalogue (Athens: Ministry of Environment 2012): 124-126.
Walter Benjamin, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1999): 141/88.
Alan Berger, Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press 2006): 239-243 and 26-43.
James Corner, “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” in ed. James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press 1999): 160-161.
Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books 1998): 179.
Guy Debord, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books 1995): 137-147.
Panos Dragonas, “Made in Athens: the Greek Participation in the 13th Biennale di Venezia” (Lecture at the Department of Architecture, Patras University, Patras, Greece, 10 October 2012).
James Gleick, The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood (New York: Vintage 2011): 282-286.
Sanford Kwinter, “Landscapes of Change: Boccioni’s Stati d’Animo as a General Theory of Models” Assemblage n19 (1994): 116-120.
Paul Lukez, Suburban Transformations (New York: Princeton Architectural Press 2007): 185-188.
Saskia Sassen, “Open Source Urbanism” The New City Reader, Issue 15 (2011): 2.
Charles Waldheim, “Landscape as Urbanism,” in ed. Charles Waldheim, The Landscape Urbanism Reader (New York: Princeton Architectural Press 2006): 47-51.
 Olympic highways were built in record-time on top of Athens’ rivers in order to decongest main traffic routes, causing, shortly after their completion, repeated major floods in the neighborhoods near the sea. Nearby, at opposite ends of the city’s main bay to the Saronic Gulf –the rivers’ delta– two new coastal parks opened to the public; they were briefly successful as public waterfront spaces; yet, due to poor connectivity and lack of administration and programming, they deteriorated; eight years later they are urban voids, unused and dilapidated, slowly disintegrating into the landfill that surrounds them. More recently, two new major construction projects broke ground across from these dead parks, on the last remaining patches between highways and waterfront, again aiming to regenerate the area and open up waterfront access in the wake of previous failures.
 In the Athenian public eye, the Earthquake of 1999 marks the transition of the city from the poor periphery of Europe to the strong core of the Eurozone; soon after, this transit is embodied by the new Athens airport, carving a generic city in the middle of the historic Mesogeia plateau. The Summer of 2004 is recorded as a time of drunken and mindless reverie celebrating yet also burning out the financial and political capital of this transit, opening one remarkable public space in the historic center (the Unification of Archaeological Sites) and simultaneously leaving a ruinous legacy of concrete infrastructure projects and crumbling sports venues at the Athenian perimeter. The natural and man-made disasters of 2007 and 2008 signal the arrival of the diffuse city (Aesopos) as the tipping point of the city’s ecological decline as well as the abandonment of the open, civic center for a periphery of shopping malls;
 On December 1 2008, the Golden Hall shopping mall, a conversion of an ex-Olympic building, opened in Maroussi, 10km away from the historic center, causing a perpetual holiday season traffic jam in the neighborhood;
 The bay of Faliron; the post industrial areas of Drapetsona and Elaionas; the river-avenues of Kifissos and Ilissos-Syggrou; the line of the old railway from Acharnes to Pireaus; the old airport at Hellenicon; the historic neighborhoods of Metaxourgeio-Kerameikos, Gerani-Psyrri-Monastiraki, Panepistimiou-Syntagma-Omonoia; the abandoned plots and houses of Patissia, Kypseli and Exarcheia; the Kountouriotika refugee housing and Stadium at Alexandras Avenue. [p4,5]