Scholars' Association News
Issue 29
February 2014

01/05


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Reactivate Athens: 101 ideas
By Leda Bouzali

101 ingeniously effective ideas to “re-activate” Athens. This is the aim of the new “Reactivate Athens – 101 Ideas” initiative announced by the Onassis Foundation as part of the "Rethink Athens" project.

This is a research initiative directed by Urban-Think Tank, an award-wining interdisciplinary collaboration between professors Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner at the Architecture and Urban Design Department of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich. The initiative is being conducted under the auspices of the Municipality of Athens. The Reactivate Athens (RA) LAB Workshop is housed in a building in Omonia Square on the junction between Athinas Street and Lykourgou Street. These premises were offered by the Urban Rail Transport S.A. and will serve as the central offices of the Athens Think Tank where various activities and events will be hosted. Building on the study conducted in light of the “Rethink Athens” project, this new initiative will focus on developing the city centre’s unused spaces and old housing stock.

Mr. Panos Dragonas, Associate Professor at the Architecture Department of the University of Patras, coordinated the presentation of the new project at a press conference that took place at the RA Lab offices on November 18th 2013. As Panos Dragonas explained, the initiative aims to develop a rich “toolbox” from which ideas for the transformation of the city centre would emerge.

The Urban-Think Tank boasts a large group of associates and collaborating bodies, such as Professor Thomas Maloutas of the Harokopio University, Athens, and award-wining architect Maria Kaltsa, and will function as an intermediary between the city’s official authorities and citizens.

As President of the Onassis Foundation, Anthony Papadimitriou, stated, “We are here today to help create a think tank of 101 ideas from citizens under the guidance of committees consisting of acclaimed scientists. The ideas submitted shall be handed to the Municipality of Athens which will then be charged with the responsibility of implementing what the citizens, the residents of struggling Athens, have deemed necessary.”

Mr. Papadimitriou also added that, “The operation of such Urban-Think Tanks in other places of the world has proven that more often than not the ideas that come from the citizens are both original and effective, and they have truly transformed cities. The Onassis Foundation is not a mere observer, on the contrary it is really striving to change the bleak landscape, so as to help the city to regain its livelihood, to help business activity recover and to restore the relationship between Athens and its citizens.

Furthermore, the Onassis Foundation has also proceeded, in collaboration with the University of Thessaly, to conduct a research project in order to determine strategic measures for the urban and commercial revitalization of the centre of Athens. Our aim is to formulate a proposal for a set of measures and mechanisms to be implemented in the broader area of the city centre, and to restore and reuse the city’s housing stock and attract residents and enterprises which will breathe new life into the city centre.” The President also added that “This is an unprecedented initiative for Athens.”

Last September, after winning the Golden Lion award at the Biennale in Venice for the Urban-Think Tank intervention in Caracas, Professor Alfredo Brillembourg came to Athens in order to collaborate with the Onassis Foundation as a member of the evaluation committee during the first phase of the “Rethink Athens” program. The knowledge, the vast experience and the methodology of the Urban-Think Tank combined with the fact that citizens play a central role in this program have been the factors behind the Foundation's decision to support the “Reactivate Athens – 101 Ideas” initiative. Closing his speech, Mr. Anthony Papadimitriou stated, “We are convinced that Greek society has the creative force to move on to positive perspectives, and we are certain that Athens will succeed. If Athens succeeds, then we, the Greeks, will also succeed in everything.”

In his presentation of the new Urban-Think Tank program, Professor Alfredo Brillembourg affirmed that Athens has always been a source of inspiration for architects. “Nevertheless, the role of architects is changing”, he noted. “Besides building, we must also learn to think, because raw materials are not inexhaustible. The modern architect is more of an intermediary, an assistant who prepares the protocols based on which the city will be built.

The problems Athens faces are similar to those of other big cities, like Caracas, my home country. We must realize that although problems are local, they are interconnected and part of a global system. We may feel today that we are experiencing a kind of urban Darwinism, where everything seems bleak and we are fighting one another. But we want to change all this”.

Alfredo Brillembourg then compared the desired outcome with an Indian meal called thali, which is actually a round tray made up of a selection of various dishes. Every diner chooses from these and creates their own dish, which is ultimately unique in terms of composition. “To begin with, we must learn the ingredients that make up this urban thali, this is the reason why we invite the public to openly express their opinion. The best ideas will be openly presented for public comment and so, in this way, create a data and knowledge base. Training is the key. Citizens must be trained to live in the city and the city needs to prepare for the citizens it will welcome.”

And he went on to say that “As intermediaries and instigators, we will pursue diversity and a city shaped by its users. We don’t believe a city’s worth is determined by its GDP; a city’s capital is not measured solely based on its return. We need to search for new values with which to measure the potential of every city, and maybe these values have a social dimension. What an architect builds is simply a shell void of content. People are the subject and object of Architecture.

Athens is without a doubt a global city. However, we are also aware of the decay of such global cities like Caracas, Sao Paolo, Lagos and more. The new problem that has emerged is the ghettoization of poorer areas and gentrification. The 21st century challenge is to bridge this gap. Emphasis must be placed on research. We don’t come with set ideas; we are here to listen. We also need strategies, sustainable alternatives which will further highlight its distinct features.

We will need to study the examples of other cities: Amsterdam has effectively dealt with the issue of prostitution and Zurich with the problem of drugs, while New York has addressed the issue of education for the economically weaker social layers in Bronx and Harlem. Thus, we have a rich toolbox of ideas we can draw from to come up with hybrid solutions, solutions not imported but shaped based on local conditions” concluded Professor Brillembourg.

The initial phase of “Reactivate Athens – 101 Ideas” began in November 2013 and will run until March 2014. The results will be featured in a comprehensive design exhibition to be held in Athens next spring and in a forthcoming book to be published in 2014. The project will also produce a collaborative publication entitled Atlas: The Social Geography of Athens, which will bring together the wok of various researchers focusing on the social geography of Athens over the past 20 years.


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