11 . 09 . 2015

Learning from Athens – A report

OPEN LETTER

photo point supreme -Sigrou-Car copie

Having spent the year focussed on Greek tragedy with a sense of “terror and pity”, we decided to organize a summer course in Athens. In that way we met a series of emerging actors, architects, journalists, publishers and media agencies on the Athenian scene. This seminar wasn’t initiated with a clearly defined project but we felt sure we’d find similarities between the architectural and urban realities of France and Greece. Both nations are creaking under the pressure created by the increasing scarcity of public purchasing power. And both are dealing with the necessity of inventing new working methods, or even more radically, to reinvent themselves fully. Whether the crisis is an ongoing process or merely a starting point, we suggest that the French and the Greeks have many similar experiences, and have much to share on lessons learned.
Analogies between Paris and Athens are obvious; there’s the decline of both public spaces and public transport for one, then there’s the latent urban vitrification, the tricky cohabitation between housing, urban activities and entertainment, and the outdated mega projects weighing on both the moral conscience and the budget. There were even in both cases the very large scale international competitions launched to shape the future of these cities, as illustrated by the 23 sites of “ReinventerParis” and “Re-think Athens”, that was unfortunately aborted in December 2014 with the withdrawal of European funds.

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We also believe that there is no better way to design the future than to design it ourselves. In Athens we were struck by the reality of the Polykatoika model (compared by researchers at the Berlage Institut [1] to the Dom-Inno of Le Corbusier highlighting its potential for appropriation and extension). But myriad other aspects caught our attention in the Greek capital. We were intrigued by the crazy parcelling of the city in familial mini-plots; built individually, with the blessing of the Athens City Hall, which tried to avoid a real urban policy and which continues to survive on this heritage. We were also surprised by the quasi-absence of large real estate development programs that the familial parcelling implies. Moreover, public spaces are under-qualified as they are generally simple residual areas between properties, not invested in or developed into commercial galleries whose appropriation is fragile if not precarious. Other aspects are quite noticeable on the streets of Athens, such as the manifest lack of green spaces and playgrounds or the large number of abandoned plots and salubrious, run down buildings.
Greek operators nowadays are living under precarious circumstances. They face an environment where public commissions are virtually non-existent and where competition is fierce for tenders and invitations. Their survival relies heavily upon private clients to build a shop here or an office or house there, often a beautiful villa on an island for a foreign client. Yet many of them have an international visibility and their work is being recognized abroad. Point Supreme, to whom A’A’ magazine devoted 12 pages in 2012 written by the Director of the Pavilion de l’Arsenal [2], has been invited to participate in this year’s Architecture Biennale of Chicago. It has developed projects in the Netherlands and also recently in Tel Aviv [3]. Divercity works a great deal in London as well as Athens, Buerger-Katsota gets invited to teach at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design, and maintains active links with Austria. They practice an architecture with strong links to industrial and archaeological heritage as well as its landscape (Dimitris Thomopoulos) [4], which is inventive if not subversive (Point Supreme) [5], while developing a research and teaching project between Athens, Patras and Cyprus.

Our first reflex as specialised consultants is to encourage this architectural scene to federate itself, even informally, because ignorance of their current or mutual problems and a scarcity of opportunities to meet struck us. Accustomed to distrusting governments and political parties, these players seem to forget that their work is part of what we call “a vision for the community and public service.” The first step would be to share their experiences and then jointly develop the beginnings of a manifesto or recommendations they could address to the public authorities. By addressing french and greek institutions and foundations that play a key role today in Greece, such as the mayor of Athens or more strategically, his successor. The time has come to gather local energies collectivly, especially since the desire to work on Athens is strong. Indeed, under the influence of its artistic director Adam Szymczyk, the next five-yearly Kassel event Documenta will be held for the first time of its history both in Kassel and in Athens. The roadmap for this dual exhibition has been entitled Documenta 14: Learning From Athens. Meanwhile, the brand new National Museum of Contemporary Art [6] that was delivered in August in Athens will not open, since there was no mone to run the museum. Meanwhile, at the Benaki Museum, the exhibition “Ametria” [7], displayed by the Foundation DESTE, intends to explore the radicality and the immoderation in action. To do so, the first rooms of the exhibition are dedicated to the early urban plans of Athens dating back to the end of the XIXth century, to then focus and question artistic proposals. Here again, we notice less the obvious interdisciplinarity of practices between art, architecture and urbanism, than the proof of a flourishing context.

And so our project emerges. We wish to federate French and greek institutions, investors, foundations, universities, architects, journalists and critics around a new project “Learning from Athens – A Report” that will be launched during the Venice Biennale 2016 in line with the concrete actions wanted by its exhibition manager Alejandro Aravena. An adept of radical solutions and brave incursions into extreme environments [8]. In 2016 we coverage our energies and observations on Athens. In 2016 it is towards Athens that our attention must converge; in 2017 it is in Athens that we need to be.

[1] Pier Vittorio Aureli, Maria S. Giudici, Platon Issaias, From Dom-ino to Polykatoikia, Domus 962 / October 2012. [2] Alexandre LABASSE. Surrealist Odyssey. L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, n° 390. [3] Serpantina, Holon Design Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2015. [4] Olive oil factory, Pylos, Dimitris Thomopoulos architect, 2015. [5] 8 Projects for Athens, Point Supreme architects, 13th International Architecture Biennale Venice, 2012. [6] National Museum of Contemporary Art, Stylianidis architects, livraison 2014.[7] Exposition Ametria au Musée Benaki, Pireos St, 12 juin – 11 octobre. [8] Alejandro Aravena was one of the hundred architects invited by ORDOS to take part in a project lead by Ai Weiwei in Inner Mongolia. He belonged as well to the eight teams invited to work on the pilgrimage route of the Ruta del Pelegrino.

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