Scholars' Association News
Issue 25
February 2013

05/05


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The city of tomorrow: a discussion on the occasion of RETHINK ATHENS

We live in an era of rapid urbanization and rural depopulation on a global scale. It is estimated that over the next decade, 300 million people will be living in the ten largest cities in the world. These sweeping changes bring about changes in trade, the environment, cities’ interconnections and impose new urban designs. It seems we are heading towards a revival of the city-state, but in different, globalized environment. How will tomorrow’s city look like? How can cities that are already facing sharp problems such as Athens respond to the new developments? How will they adapt their infrastructure?

Around these and other similar questions evolved the round table discussion that was organized by ΑΩ magazine with four leading architects and urban planners, who visited Athens as guests of the Onassis Foundation and as members of the first stage jury of the evolving international competition Rethink Athens :

– Anthony Vidler is Dean and Professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Cooper Union School of Architecture, New York City and chairman of the 1st stage jury.
– Richard Plunz is the Director of the Urban Design Program and Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation at Columbia University.
– Ben-Joseph Eran is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning Head at the Joint Program in City Design and Development of MIT.
– Alfredo Brillemburg is an architect, Guest Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture & Planning at Columbia University, Co-founder of the Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory at the same University.

The discussion was moderated by Panagiotis Tournikiotis, Professor of Theory of Architecture at the School of Architecture of the National Technical University of Athens and Leda Bouzali, editor-in-chief of AΩ magazine:

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
We are in Athens; a city that in old times was a kind of ‘international metropolis’, a kind of ‘Center of the world. Then Athens became again the capital of the new state when Neoclassicism was a global idea. What about rethinking Athens in the global era, where everything is becoming global and maybe not the same? Difference and identity... Do you think there could be any more identities in cities or are we living in a kind of new internationalism?
Anthony Vidler:
I think in Architecture there has never not been internationalism. Since the establishment of the modern Greek state, since neoclassicism as you mentioned, there was a period of historical eclecticism across the world. Greek architects and all other architects from the 19th c. on have been training in international centers. Architecture has always been an international art. That internationalism is now global in terms of investment, in terms of development of cities in Asia, in developing countries. But much more important is that Athens, as a physical entity, has an identity, which is very different from Rio, from New York, and demands a specific response architecturally. It is not a problem of style, it is a problem of substance.

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
Could there be such a kind of regional or local identity together with global investment in Athens?
Anthony Vidler:
You cannot invent the local identity; it has to be invented by the local community.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
One of the most interesting things of our discussions in these last few days is that we actually reassess, reevaluate the potential, the power of actual design as a graphic and maybe buildable idea. There are global cities, there are global slums and there are also global places of conflict. In most places -where I work at least- there is conflict; in South America, Caracas, and in so many other cities. Sao Paolo has more than 1,000 buildings that are squatted. What is happening in Athens is super interesting because you go back to the birth of Democracy. It is not a matter of style; it’s actually programmatic. Rethink Athens should become a kind of portal, of website, a kind of media venture, in which the city liberates the core, the heart, the downtown of Athens, from restrictions and regulations. I understand that 50% to 60% of abandoned buildings are state owned or some government agency owns them. So if you tell young people you can lease them for 3 or 6 months, and if there is an intermediation NGO, (Rethink Athens as an NGO) it would bring programmatic content back into those buildings and liberate this invisible capital that is just sitting there. Because you may not have euros but you definitely have capital, human capital and built capital. I think it’s a question of orchestrating.
Richard Plunz:
In my view the local identity is key to being a global player. Of course we are in a moment of massive urbanisation again, as historically there have been cycles. The cities are more and more competing city to city and national governments are important, but they are not the only players. So for the large world- cities –Athens is a world city– the question of economic development is completely tied in being what a city is as a unique entity; that’s how they compete. That’s the basis of competition. How do you turn that human capital into the next phase of economic development? The question here is not so unique to Athens but of course the context is completely unique. That’s the importance of this exercise. A city can market itself as being interested in itself; not always looking at Singapore or New York. Self identity and self interest is very important.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
Maybe one thing that could be thought through in the 2nd phase of Rethink Athens could be staging , the staging of the execution. Because what if you can’t get the tram financed. Does it still work? Can you just close the street for a little while and do a test like on a Sunday. I understand it has already been done; it was a party on the street and maybe you can close it on a regular basis. A lot of the strategies can be implemented progressively to figure out what it is that the street can become.

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
At the beginning of this project we had an experiment, we closed the street to test. This year because we are implementing the project it maybe a regular test every few months. But phasing is a rule. We cannot change a city in a day like a drawing. Implementing will take many years, so phasing is necessary.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
It looks like liberating the zoning issue , what can go in these buildings and maybe liberating the way buildings work is the key to the first phase. Because if you cannot get the tram in the early phases you still can get a lot of human activity.
Ben-Joseph Eran:
Every city has to be unique in order to compete . The reason people chose to come to a city and to live in a place is because of its uniqueness, what the city has to offer. These are the things that make you both a domestic player and a global player. And it is that kind of generation you are trying to attract to the centre of the city, the youth, the new generation. For example: why do all young people want to move to San Francisco? And why do all the companies want yo locate there? Is it what the city has to offer? What is important in the long term is to be flexible to change; it is not the instant changes in the material, the design, but what happens if the population shifts and changes. What happens if more families move in? How does the city accommodate the need for schools, for playgrounds that do not exist right now? And to some extent protect the current population; that is crucial. If you get some gentrification eventually and other people move in, what will happen to the vulnerable population that is already there and that is not moving to another place? Those are all important questions that go beyond the design.
Anthony Vidler:
One of the reasons people move to San Francisco is that it is a relatively small, livable city, within reach of a huge investment center: Silicon Valley. Today Professor Plunz made a kind of comparison between Rome and Athens and the way Rome invested and treated its antiquities. Here I walk by abandoned sites that are not very well kept of. The Acropolis is one thing, but all the other sites seem to me to be just standing in the city. Rome is a city for people to work and also for people to visit and to understand its long history. Also the neoclassical buildings are shut, not used, not valorised, there is a lot of history there that could be refurbished.

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
Do you think we are making history in a city when we conserve heritage and long-lasting buildings, or when we take the next step, build the next building?
Alfredo Brillemburg:
The best way to conserve is to change. Paul Byrd would have told you that at Columbia University when he was there. He said that the best way to keep a historical monument is to give it new life.

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
We knew the metropolis as a motorized city, a machine city and maybe this was the first or the second modernity of modern times. We live in large cities which are asking to be the cities for people. Then, in the center of these cities we experience the shift from highways and railways towards pathways and pedestrianised ways. Even Times Square, Broadway and Frankfurt Maine are changing; and now we are discussing in Athens how to turn the most used motorised avenue to a people-friendly place. Do you think the third modernity will be without machines in the cities?
Anthony Vidler:
I think machines will be at the background because you always have to have a continuing machine, but there will be a lot more understanding of ecological, climatic and environmental conditions. I was just in Rio and Sao Paolo; every Sunday they shut the freeways, people walk on the highways and they are absolutely excited. It is only a 20 minute walk from the center of Athens to the Acropolis. You could have a bike path with a map to go from one era of Athens to another; you could signal where the Roman ruin is, where the Hellenistic is and so on. There is nothing to signal in the municipal coding the way one actually looks at a city. In Paris there is a horrible little spade that sits infront of every monument and tells you about the monument, which is cleaned up. They have guide books and you can do ancient Paris, medieval Paris, modern Paris. The city is open and accessible and they have bikes, you can pick up a bike with a credit card, move and leave it where you want. Athens has not realised the fact that it is for people. The problem with the Acropolis is that it is a heavy burden and people want to ignore it because they want to be modern. On the other hand it is there and if you accept it as part of a long and complicated history then you have an Athens which has an identity. You cannot make that identity from the outside, you can make it by valuing what you have from the inside. I feel a lot of the history and of the future of Athens is not valued by Athenians, there is a sense of not cultivating the culture.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
In that sense the interventions like the pedestrian street in Plaka that leads you to the Acropolis are good connections that were right on track.
Anthony Vidler:
And as we noticed they were filled with inhabitants of Athens not just tourists.
Richard Plunz:
This question of modernity is very interesting. The good and bad part of it is that Athens used modernity in quite a large scale and probably quite well because it came at a moment when Greece had the resources to do it. Now, because of that particular version of modernity, it is a little bit overwhelming the city, it is functioning I believe up to point, but it is now going to be in the way, so the question is how to do away with it. Coming from New York, Athens seems quite a modern city to me (New York is already antique) because of this tremendous layer of newness, the road system, the connections to the airport; it works better than what we have. It seems to me there was an overwhelming explosion that now has to be adjusted.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
Berlin is broke but on the other hand it is the most exciting city to be in . How do they do it? It has vast areas of no man’s land, ‘Eastern’ blocks that seem to be floating in the city; yet it has an incredible density of artists and young people are flocking in.
Anthony Vidler:
I have friends who work in London and live in Berlin because they can get larger apartments with lots of daycare for children and other facilities, and they fly to Berlin every weekend.

Leda Bouzali:
What do you mean when you say ‘Berlin is broke’?
Alfredo Brillemburg:
Financially it is broke; I know you are surprised. Its economy is broke.
Ben-Joseph Eran:
Most municipalities in the U.S. are broke, New York is broke too. Their municipalities have no money, like Athens. You have to find innovation and how to bring those resources to the city. But I would like to go back: you have to be careful with decisions such as ‘we are going to pedestrianize the whole of the city’, because in ten years you are going to be sorry, because we know that cars do bring vitality to a city, even to streets. Many places that in the ‘70s and ‘80s were turned totally pedestrian now they are trying to bring back the car, but of course in a more controlled way.

Leda Bouzali:
Can you give us an example?
Ben-Joseph Eran:
Many U.S. cities in the ‘70s closed their downtown and turned it to pedestrian malls. Boston is such an example. It totally collapsed and now they are talking about bringing back the cars in. Newberry street has cars, its congested but it makes the street vibrant. Plus the walkability to resources is very important, mainly for the young people who do not want to own a car. The idea of the ‘shared car’ is one idea you might want to look at; it is similar to the bicycle system that you rent by the hour or for a few hours. It is done by private companies. You don’t have to go to rental areas to rent a car but it is just two blocks away from you and gives you the freedom of not owning a car.
Anthony Vidler:
Universities in New York use this system. And in Paris, when the free bicycle came in, it wasn’t used very much; now, five years later, it is used continuously by tourists, by students, by professors, by people shopping; the traffic adapts, the number of accidents is very low.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
So the future is obviously the electric car, pedal pushed vehicles and the hybrid motorised bicycles that can go up some hills. By eliminating one lane you get wider sidewalks Now in Athens you have 30% reduction in cars because gasoline is expensive; so things can be innovative, because the conditions for innovation to happen are there.

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
In the ‘80s we experienced pedestrianization in the historic centre of Athens; it was part of a dream of historisation of the city center. Downtown Athens collapsed partly because of pedestrianisation, which eliminated commercial uses, walking people and cars. Finally we are willing to mix again moving people. The big project for the reconstruction of the main boulevards of Athens includes cars, tramways, bicycles and walking people together, overlapping, a kind of stratification of circulation. Let me come to the last question, a social one: we are living in a city which has been an international city for centuries. In the last two centuries it was a very purified city, in a purified society. After the ethnic revolutions of the 19th c. we had all around the Balkan pure states (only Greek, only Christian orthodox) and were proud of living with that identity. The collapse of Eastern Europe changed our country together with other countries after 1989. We are living in downtown Athens along with thousands and thousands of immigrants coming from all continents, all over the world . In Greece there is a kind of negative reflex against these ‘intruders’. Multiculturalism is a demand and at the same time it is quite tricky. You are coming from multicultural countries. What about multicultural projects for ‘rethinking’ the life of a city, ‘rethinking’ the future, mixing languages, beliefs, ideas, colour?
Alfredo Brillemburg:
But it has been written! The Alexandria Quartet is a great book that foresees the future in a Greek context, or Mediterranean context, of a multicultural, multilingual mix as the prototype at that time.
Anthony Vidler:
I live in New York where there is always prejudice against the newest wave of immigrants, partitions willing to inflame demagogicaly anger against this or that. But in the subway you see an incredible diversity of fellow New Yorkers peacefully going about their business. It will happen.
Ben-Joseph Eran:
Globalization will happen and of course it is a very difficult condition. If you go to Bronx you will feel you are in a totally different country, there are those enclaves...
Alfredo Brillemburg:
It has always been like that! I think that cleansing you are talking about, the dangers of nationalism Benedict Anderson talks about, and homogeneity mean going against the grain of the historic heritage. Because as professor Vidler pointed out, it is by accepting that immigrant, that ottoman culture invading the hellinistic culture, by accepting that mix, you will regain your identity. I find it exciting and vibrant to reconnect with your Mediterranean culture.

Panagiotis Tournikiotis:
The problem is how to do it. It is a complex issue. There is ancient history; fine. But in the last 200 years there has been tension between Greece, the Balkans and Turkey and a great deal of interference also. A piece of this design exercise is addressing the public problem. Maybe the competition has to go beyond making a ‘nice place’. It has got to be programmatic, to get into the social realm and I think there is pretty much consensus that mixing is good, not just ethnic but also economic. One sector feeds the other and this is what has kept New York going and also spawning. It is interesting that Silicon Valley is growing again and spreading from 15 years ago. What is also important is the ‘new generation software’, what we call ‘sharing privileged information’. This is what drives a piece of economy and I think it probably needs to be revived here in a new way. If you can not do it here I don’t know where you can. Athens historically is the most social place in the world, it is a Mediterranean melting pot.
Anthony Vidler:
I am talking to students and they say ‘we cannot afford to live in the center of Athens’. I am walking in your area of intervention and in every block 50% of shops and offices is shut up and closed; but it is owned by somebody, by the government or by investors. It seems to be a counter-economic, counter-productive operation just to hold on to all this property until it rises in value. What is happening in New York is that investors and property owners are in fact realising that it is much better to rent the condominium complexes that were built during the boom and the rentals are now at a point where people can begin to afford them. It is counter economic just to shut buildings, it is against the growth of a city and of an economy.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
Legislation policy can be used, for example if you decide that you cannot hold a building without any use for longer than 5 years otherwise you will be obligated to open up the ground floor and you will be given an incentive. Open it up! If you have no shops, just leave it an arcade. One of the most exciting places in Caracas is a roof that was turned into an open plaza; and in Sao Paolo Nemayer did it in the Ibapuerta Park, where all life occurs, from dance classes, to yoga, to bicycling...
Anthony Vidler:
The public life is messy and one has to be able to accept the vision of a city where the public is not seen as invading but as part of a public space. Open up those areas to different scales of commerce: you can have the T-shirt trader, the food seller where people flock from offices.
Richard Plunz:
There is also the imbalance of the automobile: the reason why New York did not have big riots like Los Angeles or Detroit among other reasons is actually the subway system. Because you cannot avoid the mixing. When people take the subway they are forced to mix, people from all layers, the poor and the person with a lot of money.
Anthony Vidler:
Actually I have seen Bloomberg twice on the subway...
Ben-Joseph Eran:
This is were the poor and the rich and the skateboarder and the yuppie and the entrepreneur might sit and be less fearing of each other: in the streets and the parks and the open spaces. I know it sounds idealistic but this is were it happens.
Richard Plunz:
You don not invent a single economic group in a single area if you are interested in change.
Ben-Joseph Eran:
If in 20 years this area is going to start gentrifying you have to protect those that already are there. A great example is San Francisco and South Market street: they made an effort to protect the homeless’ shelters, the single room occupancy hotels, all these other places that used to be the natural habitat, so that they would not be pushed to other parts of the city and then they would have to deal with that in 20 years. How do you actually allow for this one? It is complex but it is important.
Richard Plunz:
Clearly there are some legal issues and you cannot expect building owners to restore buildings on their own. The Mumbay project, in India, is disastrous from this point of view; they have protection laws with no resources to implement them. In Athens on can see that the proble will only become worse, unless there is a change in the legal infrastructure. So that is another pice of the puzzle...

Leda Bouzali:
The criticism that may come from the public regarding the results of the competition may be ‘We do not need a foreigner, a theoretician, someone from outside, to tell us what to do’. How can a person propose things for a city if they have not lived in this particular situation?
Alfredo Brillemburg:
We do not know who is going to win the competition, it could be a foreigner it could be a local, but that does not matter, because any scheme, when it comes to be landed in the city, will have to count on the local intelligence, the local legislation, the city mayor, the people, to approve whatever is going to be applied and to work with it. So eventually, whatever idea lands there it will be local.
Anthony Vidler:
Just as Neoclassicism was localised, just as Egyptian and Persian architecture was localised during the antique period, everything becomes localised by definition, because it can not emerge and be constructed without it being both accepted, adopted and reframed by the local.
Alfredo Brillemburg:
This process is absolutely the marriage of a top-down-bottom-up-open process that will be married and glued together by architects.
Anthony Vidler:
We all come from localities, but we are not ignorant of what happens in cities economically socially and architecturally.


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