villages and tribes
Villages and tribes is an analogy and a contradiction. An analogy which talks about collaboration and competitiveness, empathy vs apathy, personal identity vs the collective. It is also a contradiction. In the transformation of the Imaginaries into the Global, the world promised us peace, unity and equality but instead have been greeted by conflict, alienation, and territoriality. With public spaces being the classical device for connecting people, can these architectural devices live up to the reputation of the past? Or have they fallen out of vogue in favour of metaphysical devices? This is a study of public spaces, but not one that considers spaces in isolation, rather one which cross references spaces across the world to identify patterns in how we use public spaces in the 21st century and their potentials for the future
The world is restructuring but are our public spaces keeping up?
The imaginaries evolved out of sociologists’ desires to express the creative and symbolic aspects of humanity. It imagined wonderful ways for people to live together, create societies, gather, learn and create. It imagined metaphoric villages where collaboration and inclusion was promoted. Such ambitions gave rise to the National Imaginary, the promotion of unity amongst people based on intra national relations, a scope with limited outreach to other communities based on geopolitical boundaries. Eventually the strength of the National became its weakness and its political abuse led to the search for a new imaginary - the Global. Coined by Manfred Steger in 2008, the “Global Imaginary” emerged with the help of advances in technology in the early 20th century and represents a post-modern phenomena which breaks down the imagined walls of nationhood, bringing a “shared sense of thickening world community”. It imagines a world no longer defined by Nationality and Geography but rather creates a platform for identities to reform independently from nations and continents. With the shift, people no longer required their neighbours, but can now frame their life in relation to others across the world.
We are now placeless and no longer is the life of an expatriate considered a rare phenomena, in many cases it’s a necessity. But are we really placeless? and is the National Identity really willing to step aside for the Global? We clearly live in a time where tension between National and Global Imaginaries exists and this transitionary moment presents an interesting condition worth studying. Not just in the transitions between paradigm shifts, but between moments of work, life, and home. As the world is shifting both physically and metaphysically, are the traditional devices of spatial communication such as nodes and public space still relevant? Or perhaps these spaces are now more necessary than ever to ground us in the constant act of people’s geographical relocation?
The term tribes has emerged in recent years and praised by authors such as Seth Godin and Douglas Atkins for its ability to fuse people into strong and powerful groups. They are the communities and cultures of the contemporary world and although neo-tribalism is based on the traditional tribes, it distorts the classical definition. These neo-communities promise the end of alienation by offering people a common manifesto and aim at building social cohesion through competitive spirit and brand loyalty. Although an effective system for intra-tribal relations, the system risks jeopardizing individuality for the common good of the tribe and promotes hostility between tribes. What were once defined by National flags and symbols of religious faiths, tribes have now swelled to include brands like Nike, corporations such as Amazon and festivals like burning man. Like any organism, they grow, divide and multiply. They are also ones that vary in scale and one is not limited to membership of just one - adding tremendous complexity and confusion to contemporary social interactions. To complicate matters further, tribes are no longer immobile, they overlap and can shift between geography at any moment. Breeding further tension as tribes attempt territoriality in a non-territorial world. The term village on the other hand is untainted. It symbolizes unity by expressing the collage of identities rather than focusing on a single purpose - an inspirational model for building empathy. Which beg the question, can public spaces play a peacekeeping role to help guide the world towards a collage of collaborative villages?
How can public spaces evolve to connect diverging people within today’s modernized world?
Public spaces are not being designed for effective inter tribal linkages due to a misreading of their respective
Global Imaginary canon.
Talking about cultures in isolation is getting us in trouble, and designing public spaces which fail to create cultural awareness risks conflict in humanity’s paradigmatic shift towards the Global Imaginary. The importance of today’s spaces at the intersection of program could not be more relevant and the claim that physical gathering spaces are dying is a myth. As we increasingly spend more and more of our time indoors, the encounters from destination to destination becomes all the more important in maintaining awareness of others. These spaces are nothing new, they have taken the form of intersections at streets, markets, town squares, transportation hubs etc for generations, but their mere presence is not enough. It is rather their spatial specificity that is more important than their existence. To design more appropriate public spaces, understanding its traditional components such as the cultures it impacts, climate, spatial tools available and craft are elemental but so is the typological understanding of space. Given humans are still human, our physical environment is still a critical component to be nurtured for our mental and physical well being. However as our interests and desires have diversified with time, the way we use spaces has changed and evolved. As we sit back and contemplate the centenary of the Bauhaus, it’s time we think about spaces for the next 100 years. In this study, I hypothesize five canons for public space and ask how public spaces of the Global Imaginary have changed in the context of these canons:
collective effervescence (spectacle)
This is perhaps the most well known function of public space as it represents the power of gathering. Markets at public squares, outdoor concerts and rallies all create an intensity which builds bonds between people with lasting impressions. Its effects have been studied since the 19th century and coined “Collective Effervescence” by the French Sociologist Emile Durkheim in 1912. Although originally used to describe religious rituals, secular events can have the same influence in exciting individuals towards the unification of a group. Attempts to recreate such an atmosphere in the digital world have been greeted with only moderate success - a sign that power in numbers is still best represented in real life. In the pursuit of promoting relationships akin to villages, the promotion of collective effervescence between members of different tribes presents an important role for public spaces. In a time where knowing your neighbour becomes less and less common, how can public spaces build empathy between neighbours of different mindsets?
Nested tribes (territoriality)
This canon of the global is one of potential conflict and a curious case as its formation can come about multiple avenues. Inspired by a recent visit to Plateia Eleftheria in Athens, a tribe of Syrian refugees have sought to transform this public square into a cultural node for themselves. Shops transitioned to ones catered for the new people, the language diversified, the signage changed, smells evolved and music shifted. Yet once this happened, the Greek tribe to which this space belonged to, receded. In this example, the tribe of Syrian refugees found themselves in a foreign context requiring a home within another tribe. In other cases, a tribe could encroach into the territory of an existing tribe, triggering the formation of a strong nucleus as a territorial response to the new neighbour. In all cases, it’s about community building and in many cases, about territoriality. It wonders what is spatially required to define a tribe’s nucleus and asks, is this nested territoriality a necessary component of coexistence?
Symbols are the most elemental forms of communication. They predate language and have been used for thousands of years as orientation devices and material representations of culture. They can take on many forms based on the political or social agenda of the place. Large monuments can be used to represent the power of collectives, or misused to symbolize the power of an individual. They can also be misleading, not all symbols are what they appear - a common game of trickery which is being deployed across public spaces in the world. The Amazon Spheres in Seattle are an example of such a device, which after many ill attempts to relinquish their conditioned space to the public, they stand to remain a symbol of Amazon’s power rather than a symbol of the city’s success.
This canon identifies symbolism in public spaces and asks about the 21st century role of symbols in placemaking. Traditionally, such spaces have been of monumental proportions and include the Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but as our life shifts into the metaphysical, are such monuments relevant anymore? Perhaps symbols are finding themselves in other forms?
Flexible and malleable spaces have been essential components to our urban infrastructure. They are loose, unprecious and adaptable spaces that allow people to experiment, personalize and taylor an experience to their individual needs. A form of self expression necessary for our psychological well being. A clinical trial by Neuroscientist Charles Limb found that people’s brain patterns differed when in a situation of improvisation - helping them activate their brains and in turn aiding cognition. This encouragement of creativity is what promotes a community of free thinkers (villagers), dampening the development of a lotus eater society. But how has improvisation changed in public space? Originally associated with Markets, big flexible plazas and shops open to the streets, these spaces have become much more private in recent years. In Northern California, suburban garages became the genesis for improvisation and the scale of urban infrastructure leaves little room for self expression in many North American cities. Is this trend true for other places across the world? Has improvisation shifted to other spaces? and if so, is this shift driven by a desire from the people or investors?
Although escapism can be interpreted as an anti-interaction, moments of contemplation away from your own context is an important role of public space. In many cases, it establishes necessary mental breaks for generating clearer thoughts and therefore building a capacity for more meaningful encounters. Parks are what comes to most people’s minds, but what happens in places of intense density? As spirituality is becoming less and less a focus in contemporary society, the ritual of contemplation is fading with it. However, we can not avoid being human and our minds require this mental pause. With the emergence in popularity of noise canceling headphones, the desire for personal space still clearly exists, which makes me curious as to whether public spaces can help. Can small urban gardens or introspective pods be public space’s answer to the human need for contemplation? What are our other options - do any other forms of contemplative public space exist in the world?
The art of interesting people is both physical and metaphysical. The spaces we occupy are nothing more than anthropomorphized forms of ourselves and thus best manifested as a celebration of life. As such, the most compelling spaces still spawn out of an understanding of sociology and psychology. By documenting public spaces across the world in relation to the five canons of the global identity, I aim to explore the elemental properties of public space and understand how this has changed in the 21st century.
The research is divided into two parts and seeks inspiration from both the arts and science to examine public spaces across the world. The first is field research, taking me to 5 cities across the world for examining their cultures and identifying patterns in how people use public spaces. The second is lab research, which collects and dissects data and observations from the field research to create a comparative study for the proving or disproving of the hypothesis. The five selected cities are a sampling of cultures I have never visited and not fully understand. They have been selected based on a curiosity of the place, an interest in their public spaces and their ability to add a further understanding of how public spaces are used across contexts:
1 Dhaka, Bangladesh (manufacturing)
Coined as the rickshaw capital of the world, Dhaka is Bangladesh’s Capital and a city full of intrigue and mystery. Home to contemporary masterpieces in public space by both Louis Kahn and Doxiadis, the two architects’ distinctively different approaches to design speaks to the contradictions of the city. With Louis Kahn’s top-down master architect approach, his spaces display a geometric rigour of sublime atmosphere whereas Doxiadis’ preaching on the importance of bottom up design through his theories of ekistics, caters to the everyday needs of the city’s citizens. It’s social division is of contention, most apparent in its manufacturing industry. Bangladesh holds the title for the world’s second largest readymade garment industry (second only to China), accounting for 45% of industrial employment but only 5% of Bangladesh’s total national income. Curiously out to explore public spaces of both economic demographics, one wonders - how are the public spaces of the affluent fundamentally different than the poor? And do these demographics ever mix?
2 Bangalore, India (technology)
It’s hard to imagine a city that lives in the digital world more than Bangalore. As the hub for India’s tech center and home to one of the largest talent pools, it’s no wonder Bangalore is the world’s fastest growing megacity. Curiously driven by a comparison to my previous hometown of Seattle, Bangalore is said to be the city which will overthrow Amazon. According to the Economic Times, “India has everything to go beyond what Amazon did, digital native talent, thriving retail and e-commerce market that is open to experimentation. Also the cost of failure is lower here too.” Theoretically, such a scene should be more open to experimentation, but how about their public spaces? With Seattle’s urban encounters amongst people lagging behind other cities across the world, one wonders if such a phenomena is a product of the technology industry, climate or superimposed cultures?
3 Beijing, China (symbolism)
For centuries, Eastern Civilization developed in parallel to the western world. Its culture was one of great myths to Westerners; spiritual, mythical, poetic and gentle yet paradoxically also bold, monumental and direct. But to the Chinese, these are not paradoxes but harmonious dualities; a series of necessary yings and yangs to organize the world’s chaos. At its heart is Beijing, a city that has retained its political relevance for eight centuries - an accomplishment few Capitals of the world have managed to sustain.
At 21.5 million, Beijing is also China’s second largest city and with growth continuing, it will soon become the center of a 150 million supercity. Its public spaces are both of cultural heritage (such as Tiananmen Square) and contemporary (such as the plazas of CCTV). In both cases, one wonders how these spaces are being used. Are public spaces in Beijing used in a different way than similar spaces in the west? Also what happens in a big Global event when cultures mix? Do the use of its public spaces diversify? or do people fall into patterns of the place? Slated to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Beijing will become the first city in the world to host both Summer and Winter Olympic Games and presents an interesting learning opportunity for public space design.
4 Moscow, Russia (power)
Throned as “Third Rome” after the collapse of Constantinople in the 16th century, Moscow’s monumental proportions presents itself as nothing shy of modest. As the Northernmost and coldest Megalopolis in the world, it takes on a very different approach to public space. Known for its lavish and impressive network of 222 metro stations, its underground infrastructure is curiously considered while its streets above afford very little space to its pedestrians. A study by Jan Gehl in 2013 described the overwhelming presence of the automobile and vastness of its public spaces as insufficient in providing comfortable spaces for people. But is this vastness sometimes necessary? The Red Square and Gorky Park are both of monumental proportions yet highly praised. Which makes one wonder about the presence of both scales.
5 São Paulo, Brazil (identity)
With 200 different nations and home to the largest Arab, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese diasporas in the world, São Paulo is a melting pot of nationalities. Although its identity crisis is of a different generation, the relics of Nationalism left behind are considered to be some of the most important public spaces in modern times. Oscar Niemeyer’s symbols of the new age and Lina Bo Bardi’s buildings out of love through her collaborative spirit has left a lasting legacy. Her community center, Pompeia, was one of the most celebrated public spaces of all time. Today, Brazil is the largest producer of coffee in the world and São Paulo (the country’s economic center) has the largest economy by GDP in the Southern Hemisphere. With São Paulo being a true “working” city under constant evolution, how are the masterpieces of modernism being used today? and have any new public spaces, (both formal and informal) come to overtake the public interventions of the past?
desmos: collaborative city
In 2011 McKinsey presented results of their economic study for Greece, Greece 10 years ahead. It revealed many of the economic weaknesses of the nation and proposed solutions to the ongoing economic crisis. In line with the media, the country was differentiated against the powerful northern nations which stand as exemplars. Many findings in the study were valid, yet suggestions such as expanding tourism with all inclusive resorts and the creation of bigger, more efficient companies are transplanted ideals that fail to reveal potentials of Greek citizens (Adelman 2012, 9-25).
In comparison with other European Nations, Greece has by far the highest concentration of small 0-9 employee business, constituting thirty percent of all businesses. Even second place does not come close at nineteen percent (Portugal) while Germany has the lowest percentage of small businesses at less than five percent (Adelman 2012, 19). Statistics as such allude to the small scale character of Greece.
With the economic downturn of 2009, Athens is witnessing a new type of growth. As unemployment is currently an all time high of twenty-seven percent (Euronews 2013) the number of self employed professionals is increasing and desires for collectives and shared workspaces is growing. It is a pattern which moves away from the desires of the EU governing body, proving that Greece does not fit the imperial model.
The need for change in Athens is non-disputable, but it is during these times that it becomes important to reflect on the tendencies and forces of the citizens, re-thinking architecture to more accurate curate the city’s activities. In 1973, E. F. Schumacher released the first edition of Small is beautiful, promoting the human-scale of economics. It was considered ground-breaking for its recrimination of the modern “bigger is better” mentality that was (and still is) present in most economic models. The philosophy resonates well with Greece’s small business culture and its relevance can not be more timely as the country transitions from economic crisis to economic recovery. Schumacher states that small businesses bring their own energy and allow a much higher quality product to be brought forward, something mass production can never achieve. By doing so, value can be added to products that would normally be sold for a much lower rate. Three points he considers to be fundamental in function of work are: give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. They are principles reinforcing the necessity for people to create a work culture as a product of their lives. The Indian philosopher and economist J.C. Kumarappa summarizes it well:
If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality. (Schumacher 2010, 59)
Empowerment of people and exposing their strengths should not be underestimated and is at the root of innovation and the discussion on innovation can not be more timely. Athens is home to one-third of Greece’s population, stands as the political center for the country and attracts roughly 6 millions international visitors annually. As the country is now entering year five of recession, we are now contemplating the built environment’s role in recovery and more specifically on innovation.
This thesis seeks to understand what it means to innovate by understanding and revealing the potentials of the city. It seeks to evolve the architectural discourse towards an emphasis on the workplace and its intersection with public space. Doing so demands a curation of Athens at all scales; understanding why the city expresses the present urban form and how the urban form can evolve, not as a “lets start over” approach, but rather what are the interventions we can build upon the current urban form. The proposal takes lessons from the past and tries to understand current patterns of Athens to create a sequence of micro-agoras within city blocks of Athens’ informal sector.
Today’s economic crisis brings light to the long standing urban crisis. Greece as a small nation needs to produce better exports rather than more products. Services by the city need to be more useful not more plentiful and therefore Athens must be better, not bigger. Such traction is spreading through smaller communities in Greece, where public squares still create a heart, uniting communities which the Greeks call Desmos. Strong unity encourages collaboration and reinforces an understanding that we are part of a system. Transposing such an ideal back into Athens translates the city from a compartmentalized individualistic centric structure, into a collection of community nodes, encouraging progress and innovation.
Planning for Athens
Athens’ history of settlement dates back further than any other capital in Europe yet is also considered one of Europe’s youngest cities. Until Approximately the 1820s, Athens adapted a medieval structure. The first documented city plan was designed by the Engineer Goubault in the early 1800s but was quickly superseded by a more formal strategy. The plan was released by the architects Gustav Eduard Schaubert of Prussia and Stamatios Kleanthes of Greece in 1834 as new modern strategy aimed at enlarging the population of Athens from about 4000 to 10,000 people (Tung 2001, 256-60). By 1875, the population had already swelled to 44,000 residents and the urban form had already diverted back to a less formal, bottom up approach. The frequency of urban change, partly attributed to the geographical location has branded Athens as a city in constant transition. The period surrounding the civil war of 1949 gave rise to a entirely new Athens once again. In the course of a couple decades, Athens transformed from a small urban center to a vast dense metropolis (Aesopos 2012, 44).
Polykatikia Athens: A New Type of City
Shortly after the civil war, small quaint homes and shops were gradually demolished in favour of dense Greek versions of Modernist apartment buildings coined Polykatikias (translating to “multi-dwelling”). This polykatikia extended across the city with minimal variations from building to building, constituting to this day, Athens’ “urban unit” (Aureli 2012).
Non-coincidently, this new form of density spread across the entire Attica basin shortly after the debut of CIAM’s fourth conference, “Functional City,” at the National Technical University of Athens in August 3rd 1933 (Mumford 2000, 81). Modernism was greeted with open arms by Greece and its then current Prime Minister (who inaugurated CIAM’s conference) and seeked to re-interpret and extrapolate lessons towards Athens’ rapid population influx. The first wave of immigration into Athens was a result of an obligatory population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, followed by an influx of residents from villages whose homes were destroyed in WWII (Katrini 2009,1). Influx of residents into Athens continued after Greece’s civil war of 1949 and through the dictator Georgos Papadopoulos regime from 1967-1974. But while construction slowed down during the 1980s, the polykatikia continues to be built today with little adaptations but tweaks to the building envelope.
Athens, the once neoclassical city, quickly became a city of Polykatikias by the 1970s. The homogeneity at the scale of the city resulted in a blanket of concrete for as far as the eye can see. Open spaces and plazas ceased to be designed.
It was a paradigm shift for the city where the previous model based on a rhythm of private and public outdoor spaces was displaced for a fetish on tectonic form. Accommodating for public spaces was considered a luxury and therefore displaced by the necessity to build for the bourgeois nuclear family. Although considered as a viable solution, It became an urban crisis in the making. With time to reflect, we must now consider outdoor spaces as social connecting tissue and how they can be integrated back into the city, within a culture of polykatikias.
This new typology of the polykatikia was raw and honest, expressing a modern feel which reflected the presence of a new age population immigrating into Athens. The simplicity of the concrete post and beam construction allowed for maximum flexibility and the same structural system could then be repeated across the city and easily adapted by each specific program after the construction. Construction therefore progressed efficiently by developing a workforce that specialized in the polykatikia typology. Manipulation for program would then occur independently from the erection of structure, resulting in a Fordist system of development at the scale of the city (Aureli 2012). The construction industry emerged strong, providing as much as 60 percent of employment, transforming the city into a factory and bypassing the need for Athens to develop a strong industrial sector.
Corbusier’s Dom-ino typology forms the predecessor to the radical polykatikia and inherently shares its benefits. Both building systems were designed to maximize possibilities of production in the interior (Aureli 2012) - a design that would allow the typology to evolve overtime, adjusting for unforeseen developments. With floor plans relatively constant from floor to floor, the section is as homogeneous as the plan is flexible.
The flexible polykatikia would then evolve after construction, where its surroundings dictate programmatic use. A vibrant Mediterranean street culture makes the ground floor of polykatikias most valuable to restaurants, bars and shops. The top three floors are setback 1.5-2m from each preceding floor, which allows for light to penetrate down into the street. The setbacks create ideal balconies while being elevated above the city permits views towards the Acropolis, both significant factors for being used as housing. The middle section (about 2-3 floors) became the least valuable real estate and is used for offices and workshops, or is transformed into more affordable housing by extending balconies outwards.
The former is the case in downtown Athens, while the later occurs as you move away from the center of Athens. Over time, building bylaws mandated a stoa to be accommodated at the ground floor for protecting pedestrians from the strong Mediterranean sun, a modification that pushed the Maison Dom-ino inspired typology even further towards the polykatikia vernacular we know today. The capitalist ideals dictated a desire for private ownership with a lack of communal public spaces. Such spaces are still absent from the building program today, presenting a challenge in the configuration of polykatikias. The streets absorb much of this function, yet they are far too narrow to fulfill requirements of public nodes at the city block scale.
The need for rapid construction resulted in the bottom-up urban planning strategy called Antiparochi. Antiparochi was a building contract strategy put in place by the city which motivated Athenians to sell their small properties to contractors in favour of receiving a percentage of the newly built polykatikia (Katrini 2009, 1). Because it was difficult to convince multiple property owners to sell concurrently, the polykatikia became very small in footprint - resulting the polykatikia to become Europe’s smallest modernist building in a city already home to one of Europe’s smallest city blocks. For the city, Antiparochi seemed like a miracle to the need for rapid urbanization where time consuming top-down master planning was bypassed, allowing the contractor to dictate building siting (Aureli 2012). The repetition resulted in a “layered cake” condition, a result of homogenous horizontal distribution of program. Over multiple buildings, the striations are expressed clearly, contributing to a layer of residential life at the top floors and roofs - segregated from the street by a layer of in-between floors.
These in-between floors which were once office spaces, workshops and storage are now increasing in vacancy, further isolating the top and bottom layers of the polykatikia. The only hope of communication is via circulation cores, but those have been paired down to such minimum dimensions that they fail to provide interaction between floors that polykatikias now demand.
A Networked City
The construction of Athens as a collage of individual urban units continued strong until the late 1990s when Athens successfully won the bid to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The city shifted from an individual centric composition towards one that focused on gaining international presence, leading to the emergence of an entirely different Athens described by many as “Olympic Athens” (Aesopos 2012, 44). New metro and tram lines were constructed, freeways connecting Greece were modernized, public spaces to house the large international crowds emerged. In 2004, at the pinnacle of Athens’ renaissance, the city was a glorious place. Today, these images of Athens are little but a nostalgic memory, as much of the infrastructure is underutilized in post-olympic times. The International Airport was constructed as a generic box positioned 30 km from the center of Athens, replacing the Eero Saarinen designed Hellenikon Airport, only 10 km from the center. New roads and metro stations made affordable plots of land in the periphery more accessible, leading to emergence of large shopping centers and big box stores further and further from the core of Athens and naively focusing on a consumerist culture. Collectively these projects were intended to unite the city but resulted in a diffused Athens. If it wasn’t for the archeological sites, the dispersal of Athens would have jeopardized its urban center too. The Parthenon, a monument, free of program, simply a symbol has proven to be the most significant urban intervention in Athens of all time. Its presence has cascaded a series of projects, from Bernard Tschumi’s new acropolis museum (arguably the most successful contemporary building in the city) to public pedestrian green spaces fanning from the Acropolis, functioning as an escape from the repetitive polykatikias. In such a case, it stands as an example of how past city layers never completely disappear - the strongest urban gestures pass the test of time.
Chapter 4: Informal Athens
Since the 1800s, desires for a strong, powerful capital resulted in establishing a series of boulevards of large monumental interventions between Omonia Square to the North and the Parliament to the South East. Consequently, areas outside this “city center” zone were of little interest to the city allowing for a far more informal, bottom up construction and occupation. Today an informal city core coexists with the political and commercial city center, separated by a not so invisible line, Athinas Street. It is this informal area which is most eclectic, features the widest demographic and is most condensed in terms of programmatic diversity and therefore has the most potential for new ideas to emerge. Informal Athens is expressed in three districts; Metaxourgio, Gerani and Psiri.
New Forces in the City
Despite the economic crisis forcing many Athenians to smaller rural communities, the core of Athens has maintained its vibrancy. Stephania Xydia talks about the organization “Brain Gain”, a movement for those returning to Athens despite challenges in the city (Xydia, 2013). Such young professionals are moving as close as they can to the center of Athens. They are seeking to form collaborations and cross-professional networks in order to create new employment opportunities for themselves. These tendencies in Athens are therefore increasing the number of self-employed workers. In addition, workshops are still operating, artists are emerging and taverns are still full of life. Yet such character is not expressed at the scale of boulevards, but rather this energy is concealed deep within the city block.
The Athens biennale has recognized these potentials and had based the third biennale (Monodrome) on revealing the character embedded deep within informal Athens. For 2013’s fourth biennale (AB4:AGORA), the venues are active workshops. The intention is to establish a communication network for small businesses and spark interest from Athens’ visitors. Eleanna Pontikaki, assistant curator for the biennale discussed with me how the current biennale’s theme was based on a forward looking direction for the city. In 2012, the exhibition, followed by the publication “Made in Athens” was presented at the Venice Biennale showcasing architectural projects, thoughts and theories which have emerged from young Athenian talent.
Amogst a movement of professionals seeking to express the character of Athens is SARCHA (School of Architecture for all), an underground architecture collective of architects, urban planners, writers and other professionals whom take interest in the built environment (SARCHA 2010, 6). The intentions of SARCHA is to become a platform for dialogue amongst professionals and seeks to propose feasible built works for urban regeneration.
The influence and notice SARCHA has received from other European countries stands as an example of how bottom-up collectives are gaining traction in Athens. It is a movement that considers that ideas need to emerge from the people, not just through legislature, therefore re-building Athens from the informal sector inwards towards the “government centric” center is critical to the health of the city. It is a strategy that is not meant to attack the current political system, but one that is meant to alleviate pressures from the larger “democratic” system. The most recent package to the ministry of culture by SARCHA suggests a series of interventions for a better Athens within this informal city. Simple suggestions such as benches and garbage disposal brings light to the lack of seating and garbage bins along street-scapes. The issues of quality paving is also raised - claiming that damaged, unaligned and tall curbs make navigating this part of Athens unpleasant and inhibits a pace of leisurely strolling - necessary for encouraging mixing of Athenians through the streets (SARCHA 2010). Stoas are also an element of the Athenian street and have been integrated through the polykatikia typology. But its poor quality space in terms of materiality and articulation have many people dismissing them as unsuccessful. Architect Eleni Tzirtzilaki defends these stoas, claiming their protection from the sun and refuge from automobiles has immense value and we should focus on improving the space underneath. In parallel to improving their material quality, Eleni suggests we utilize the voids of Athens to create nodes of exterior spaces along the stoa (SARCHA, 2010). Street vendors and pedestrians can continue to use these stoas, while exterior spaces can act as rest points to escape the dense concrete centric city. The abuse of concrete in the city has led to an even greater challenge - unbearably warm summers. In the most extreme months of July and August, temperatures reach highs of 42 degrees Celsius and it is during these months that most residents choose to escape to the country side. The conditions result in a very unpopulated Athens during the summers with many people returning in September. The landscape of concrete radiates heat from the already hot sun and with little soft landscape to regulate the heat, the green house effect generated is of serious concern. Outside, full shade is sought under retractable canopies. The stoas provide some protection while traveling, but they are un-continuos and many find walking under tree lined streets to be much more comfortable.
The successes of innovative thought in classical Athens can be attributed to the Agora (Market). A system that embraced the notion of desmos, encouraging cross-disciplinary interactions as opposed to the compartmentalized polykatikia. The Agora of modern times is based on buying and selling of products, but in contrast, the ancient Agora was based on knowledge. However the terminology still translates into the contemporary market place. In the present day, when you are actively listening to someone, you would say “I am buying (agorazo) knowledge.”
The attributes to the Agora which contributed to its success can be broken down to three key features. Stoas provided relief from the strong Mediterranean sun. As opposed to the stoas of polykatikias which are for traveling, Stoas of the Agora were fragmented extensions of interior program and treated as nodes in which to converse. The second feature is location. The Agora was constructed at the intersection between converging streets. It was essential that the intersected arteries would lead to significant public nodes at each direction, preventing “dead end” streets. The third critical feature was the creation of a platea, functioning as the node along arteries it intersected. The collage of buildings is nothing but scattered pieces without the platea to bind them together.
People’s tendencies towards a more collective and collaborative environment makes the Agora more relevant than ever before. As the urban discourse for Athens needs to be diverted from specialized large scale infrastructure towards interventions which impact the everyday routine, it becomes important to take lessons from the Agora and apply them to the Athenian city block. Interestingly, traces of the Agora are present in contemporary Athens. Stoas, although mismanaged appear along streets. Open spaces exist and the flexibility of the polykatikia’s concrete frame has potential to be re-adapted towards more collective nodes for exchange in expertise.
This thesis proposes careful injection of common work spaces, public nodes and revised circulation systems. These three elements are orchestrated by the lessons learned from the ancient Agora, re-imagining the Athens’ city block as a micro-agora in the city.
Urban Composition of Athens
By looking at Informal Athens in its entirety, we can distinguish specificities in character for each block which make each city block unique from its neighbour. In addition, by knowing what the public nodes are and where people congregate, we can ensure the intervention at the scale of the city block still relates to the city scale. Monastiraki square is the intersection between international visitors and local Athenians seeking to experience the city. To the north lies the public market and in between is the district of Psiri. The thesis challenges a city block deep within Psiri and attempts to intersect the two aforementioned public squares. The case study block is at the corner of Pallados and Miaouli streets not only embodies all the prototypical characteristics of Athens, but is also at close proximity to other public nodes of the city.
City Scale Circulation
The street and the way one moves through it is the city’s lifeblood. Its flow informs who meets who, when people cross when, and most importantly what you find where. While in motion, you are exposed to the greatest range of events and people. The coincidences, the exchange of information and encounters will happen during the unexpected. The act of moving through the city is therefore a force much larger than the building components that attach to it. By moving through Athens, the destination can be less important than what happens along the way. The street drives not only movement of people but also acts as a platform for selling, trading, meeting and communication, its dynamic nature make peripato (περίπατο), or leisurely strolling, one of Athens’ greatest past times.
The most successful circulation systems are those which have no clear end or start, but rather are loops through the city. To integrate the micro-agora into the system of the city, Figure 39 reveals pedestrian circular loops of travel and seeks to intersect these existing loop patterns of the city with movement through the city block.
Re-designing a City Block
As we begin to re-imagine spaces in the city, it becomes important to be critical about proposing new structural technologies. With every modification on familiar construction methods comes the need for more time to invest in research and leads to potentials for added costs in transporting materials and knowledge from foreign sources. Structurally, few changes have been made to the polykatikia’s concrete post and beam construction system since the 1960s, resulting in a local expertise of this building type.
As the thesis is about creating spaces and circulation systems, it is also important we do not limit ourselves to the existing structure. Yet a series of studies (see Figures 125-148) revealed that we do not need a new structural technology to create the desired spaces - the possibilities of the polykatikia have not been exhausted.
Not only does the thesis use the familiar concrete post and beam construction, but typical brick plastered walls are also maintained as part of the architectural palate. The play on spaces occurs by re-arranging floor slabs and walls to articulate new relationships between inside and out. Once we start thinking about the structure, walls, floors and stairs as a kit of parts, we can mold these elements to work more organically with the forces and ecology of the site.
Circulation in the City Block
Not only is it important to plug architecture into the circulation system, but it is important to extend circulation loops from the city scale into the city block. Multiple passages create redundancy in circulation, encouraging exploration of the city block. The thesis designs paths through the platea and between polykatikias. The circulation networks within the architecture and platea are designed in parallel and are intersected with the street network to allow public engagement with the activities of the block.
Three interventions have been designed to form a more networked city block. The aim is not only to link the program horizontally, but also vertically, helping reduce the “layered cake” effect of the city. The bridge links the NE and NW polykatikias. The Tower links the W, SW and SE polykatikia. The creation of the platea in the center forms a hinge between the Tower and Bridge intervention, providing a central node for the users of the block at the point of converging paths.
The thesis does not seek to displace the existing demographic, nor their existing workplaces. Their personal spaces are part of the worker’s identity and take enormous pride in their workshops. Instead it is about introducing additional common workspaces which link the existing workshops through a new circulation network. The approach is to think of the city block in terms of served and service zones. Currently the compartmentalized nature of the workplaces creates a system of almost exclusively served zones. In other words, the city block is an amalgamation of private workspaces for each worker without any common service spaces to be shared amongst the users of the city block, inhibiting desires for resource sharing. The new program seeks to fill the void of service zones by providing ares such as bookstacks, print shops, meeting rooms etc. These new spaces serve the existing demographic at the scale of the city block.
Additionally, Athens today is growing in a different way than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. The extreme rise in unemployment is forcing many Athenians to seek self-employment. The second form of programmatic intervention provides open workplaces injected between the newly built service quarters and abandoned layers of polykatikias. These new workplaces allows Athens to absorb the new self employed professionals. By providing spaces in an already dynamic system, the users benefit from working along side a myriad of professionals all within a compact system. Resources are shared and ideas are exchanged, providing framework for a new type of exchange network.
The new interventions target the users of the site, yet their public nature provides opportunities for public to enter. The platea is most public, and the newly built spaces can be accessed by the public during exhibitions and events.
Designing shared workspaces began with studies at the scale of a room. The number of people working in a desk, the circulation through the space, the rhythm between served and service spaces and the presence of exterior spaces were all factors of the study.
Merging New and Old Program
The design is based on harmonizing new workplaces with the existing. Proposed program is treated as if it is a second phase to the current program, supplementing the existing system based on its current needs rather than displacing people and workplaces that already exist. The preceding studies provided the principles for creating new spaces while the design takes lessons learned and merges the desired workplaces with structure and circulation needs. The desires for blurring boundaries between what is new and what is old allows for a more natural adaptation of the new spaces and ensures the spaces are accessible to the users of the city block. The plan expresses activity of the streets and restaurants and illustrates the activities of the new program with the same graphic language as the old.
The architecture is not a an imposition of form onto the site, but rather it manifests and heightens the conditions already present. Their relatively low construction quality has made people fearless in adapting their physical environment. Walls are painted over, facades are removed and informal structures are built on the rooftop, all attempts at disintegrate the monolithic building expression. Heightening the tendencies that are already present, the design transforms the tectonic expression from monolithic to planar. Occupying the architecture that occurs between planes, rather than confined inside volumes. The composition of planes expresses occupied volumes. Double height planes reference double height spaces and single height spaces are contained behind single height planes. The planes, in typical Athenian fashion are expressed as a series of canvases. Allowing for artists to express their thoughts and professionals to disseminate their ideas.
Beyond stronger connections between inside and outside, the expression of walls as planes rather that solids allows for greater light control. The majority of the opaque planar surfaces are positioned along the south, while the north has the most glazing. By combining planes of different angles, natural sunlight can be deflected against walls to provide a softer, more uniform interior lighting.
We often think of great architecture as specialized destinations intended to be glowing beacons for the city. Places targeting activities outside people’s daily routines. Spaces in excess of minimal requirements for the functionality of a city. They are places in which culture allows to flourish and are imperative in maintaining people’s pschological integrity. No one doubts its importance, yet when an economic crisis arises, excessiveness is questioned. Do we need more public spaces? Should we even be building? What happens when we revert to a purely functionalist state of mind, does it yield stagnation in the road to economic recovery? Assuming so, the question became, what do we create in excess? and which parts of the city need to be thought in such terms not only to benefit the turbulent times of Athens, but for evolving the urban fabric?
This thesis challenges the notion of excessiveness in the workplace. It reflects on resources and facilities available to those in bigger companies and strategized on a program aiming at resource sharing. As such, it provides spaces of larger companies while still allowing small scale businesses to operate autonomously, a model which closely resembles that of the ancient Agora. The necessity for sharing facilities and ideas amongst young professionals sparked a design which provided service spaces such as workshops, print labs, meeting spaces and social spaces, woven together with a circulation network in excess of minimal requirements. It was an injection of collaborative based workplaces into the already vibrant informal center’s city blocks, where the high energy and presence of people with a myriad of expertise makes the architecture worth investing in. It positions architecture within underutilized voids, allowing Athens to make better use of its spaces and therefore become a much smarter urban center. Flexibility of the polykatikia’s concrete post and beam construction served as framework to the new system. Here, adapting the old structure was not an intention for the thesis, but rather a vehicle for a structural solution which avoided the need for testing and investing time in new structural technology. Focus could then be diverted towards creating spaces and designing circulation networks, superimposed onto the existing system of Athens.
Since my research began in Athens, the city transformed from a platform for protests, to a place with a degrading social center, to now, an urban center with a focus on low cost community activities - transformations that have reflected Athenian’s psychological state and has resulted in a city of constant change. The current tendencies have proved that resource sharing and collaborations are not a fad, but mechanisms for survival. They are fundamental principles of desmos which holds a special place in Greek culture. Therefore evolving Athens based on desmos not only fosters economic recovery, but becomes an opportunity to re-design the built environment reflecting Greece’s cultural tendencies. By focusing on the workplace and the spaces that interconnect them, the discourse of Athens can evolve from the previous focus of dwelling towards innovating based on what the culture of Athens has to offer from within.