Scholars' Association News
Issue 23
August 2012


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Rethink Athens:
The Modern City - The dynamics of the city centre and its planning
By Panagiotis Tournikiotis, Professor of Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens

Circumstances so dictated that I should write this article from Paris, a large city I know very well. Paris is obviously much different from Athens but it is also a large city with a long history, where one can discover significant contrasts and a much greater cultural stratification. This is true for most European metropolises and it was also the case in ancient Athens. Radiant, bustling cities become crossroads.

One of the biggest differences between the two cities over recent years is that in Athens the recession, and mostly the social and cultural crisis, has hit the centre, while in Paris, the suburbs. The centre of Paris, complex and polycentric, without underlying problems, is bustling with activity for a much greater length of time during the day and night than the centre of Athens. This activity has nothing to do with tourists milling around monuments and museums. The city is constantly moving and its people are moving within it because that’s where they work, consume, or enjoy themselves; they come from all walks of life from all neighbourhoods of Paris, and they mingle for a few hours with city centre dwellers. Thus, a colourful, bustling, vibrant blend is formed and a predominantly urban space acquires life. Its basic feature, urbanité, is the primary value of social coexistence expressed by the right to the city.

None of the above is self-explanatory, random or inherent. The city is shaped where cultural ferment and planning meet. Present-day vibrancy in the centre of Paris is part and result of long-term planning, aimed at making the city centre into a meeting point for residents from all over the metropolis instead of just another area with a historical, commercial and administrative role. It was planning of an urban, architectural, traffic, social and political nature.

The crucial question “Can downtown Athens become a living centre or are we better off in the suburbs, where we fled at the end of the 20th century?” is quite easily answered. It is a matter of choice, planning, strategy and ultimately of politics. The pressing question is what kind of centre we want Athens to have and this can be answered by a series of options which can offer various solutions, answers and perspectives, and determine implementation strategies. This is a type of strategy scheme which, after two years of research, pursuits and reflection, has shaped the proposals included in the “Re-think Athens” project.

Shall we abandon the suburbs and flock back to the city centre? Of course not. The desire for comfortable living in the natural environment of the suburbs and the desire for the bustling life of the centre complement each other, especially when the cities acquire public transport networks allowing for fast transit. Athens has recently acquired a constantly expanding network of interconnected fixed rail services, which connect many neighbourhoods and suburbs, and by necessity serve the centre. Of course, there are those who will never visit the centre as they are happy enough in their suburb and they do not miss the centre with its frenzied rhythm and intersection of meeting points; there are also those who are not interested in experiencing the “exile” of the distant boroughs, where you need your car to go to the nearest kiosk. These people will continue living in the place of their choice.

The complexity of the city is overwhelming and constantly changing, but it has flows and dynamics that can be redefined by decisive interventions in space, which can be designed. Although such interventions are not enough on their own, yet they can function as the driving force, the catalyst for changes which will then surge in and radically alter the centrality that governs the urban environment of the present-day big city. This is neither a vision nor an obsession, but an urban environment management strategy with long-term perspective. Nor is it a technocratic intervention in the city. The project is though definitely technical, as the studies for the various interventions must rely on technical projects, such as for example the tram, but it also includes the broader cultural, social and economic planning of the city’s centrality; a city which by geomorphological and historical definition boasts a dominant centre. This complex project consists of planning, architectural, traffic, environmental and other components, and their ensuing specialties and human sciences.

The objective is to formulate the conditions that will grant and ordain the right to a city for all by merging all functional tensions and pleasures that are fitting for a city centre, and not just any city centre but one of the most important hubs of our civilization. In this context, the title “Re-think Athens: towards a new city centre” conveys an invitation and a challenge to reflect on our common perception of public space and re-shape this public space architecturally; to re-consider what kind of a city we want to live in, what centre we want to meet, work or reside in. For this is the pivot of real change, which may even surpass the boundaries of imagination, unless we obstinately “mute” this inside the experience of present-day reality; a reality which is readily associated with traffic problems, recession, environmental distress and a general sense of dystopia

Cities do not just spring up. Cities and people are one, but the way they transform may either be left to fortune, to the laissez-faire of social and economic activity; or it may follow the strategic initiatives and decisive moves that can trigger major or even revolutionary changes. Thus, the “Re-think Athens” project aspires ultimately to such an innovative concept that would go beyond the recession and take into consideration the city’s past. What we love most in great European cities has been designed by people who dared to break new ground in the tardy and static composition of the place. Avenues, squares and urban complexes, pedestrian zones, roads and parks, even the pine trees in Rome, are all products of human intervention with far-sighted goals and vision in a city of monuments and history. What seems self-explanatory, as if it has always been there, is the outcome of decisive choices and strategic planning made at one particular – but appropriate – moment.

The inhibiting fear of traffic is fed by the traumatic experiences of the past. But the traffic in the city is also planned, and the crisis it reached was also the result of planning. Athens is a city that, like most European cities, envisioned the innovation of the automobile and was designed in the second half of the 20th century to better and more promptly serve private cars. On Patission, Amalias and Vassilisis Sofias avenues, long lines of trees, even perennial trees, were cut down so that a greater number of cars could be accommodated in more traffic lanes, and the number of cars went on increasing. Beautiful roads with rows of tall trees and human activity, like Kifissias and Syngrou avenues, were razed so that the speed of traffic flow could increase with sole consideration for quantity and with utter disregard for public means of transport, the environment and sustainable mobility.

By redesigning the city to make it friendlier to public transport, pedestrians and the bicycle, it will be able to respond promptly to the new conditions constituting the modernity of our era at an international level, as documented by numerous examples in Europe and around the world over the past 15 years. The metro lines which are constantly expanding, have already made a decisive contribution to this planning and will be supported by the new tram line which is bound to significantly boost activity in the centre, as well as by the planned diversion of through traffic from the centre and the gradual slowing down of high-speed expressways, whose urban character will be restored. We can reclaim our city, starting from the centre and the architecture of its public spaces. To this end, we call upon the youngest and most creative forces to contribute, with their stimulating ideas and active participation, to the attempt to give this city centre the dynamics, the image and the life that befit our times; to make it a modern city.

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