Scholars' Association News
Issue 29
February 2014


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Reactivate Athens will be a diverse toolbox of ideas
Alfredo BRILENBOURG’s speach at the inauguration of Reactivate Athens project

For centuries and especially in the 18thcentury, Athens has always been the inspiration for architects. So I think it is so important that once again Athens will be the inspiration for 21st century architects.

Architecture is changing, like all professions; in fact, the new architect of the 21st century is also a builder. It is important that we understand the discipline and the logic of the profession. Before we build we must learn to think. Resources are not unlimited. We used to build in a frenzy; in the 20th century we were building up the modern Era. Now we need to think carefully about the things we build. So an architect is more of a facilitator, a producer of the city, a mediator in the city; maybe he is making the protocols for the city to be built.

I am cofounder (together with Hubert Klumpner) of the Urban Think Tank, which is an interdisciplinary design practice, operating at high levels all over the world –now in partnerships in Cape Town, in Sao Paolo, in Caracas, in New York City and the Bronx and now in Europe. It took us three years to think where in Europe we could start to think about the city. Europe obviously needs this discourse.

When I came to Athens, as member of the first phase jury of Rethink Athens, I was very fascinated by the issues, because it is very unusual that an urban project be taken on at such a scale. This is what is creating the discourse, the conflict and the discussion about the city. I believe that this is only the first phase of a long discussion on the city, which needs to go on. Although we have a first research phase set up for 6 months, we may continue with the local actors who can carry on with this discussion.

Athens is burning for ideas; this is in fact the idea of Rethink Athens, an initiative on which we build and we call it Reactivate Athens. But the crisis I am witnessing is very close to me. I am coming from Caracas, where for centuries my family has been building, a city that is also in a whirlwind. In fact, since 1998, we have been in a political and economic crisis. I am reminded of many of the same scenes and discussions.

But we are not thinking globally. We have to understand that the problems are local but interconnected to a global system. At the moment we might think that we are in a kind of “urban Darwinism”: it is dark, everyone is eating each other. I want to change that idea to a kind of urban ‘thali’. I am just coming back from India and a ‘thali’ is a superb analogy of what we are trying to achieve. A ‘thali’ is a banquet where you have different dishes. The beauty of this urban ‘thali’ is that you compose your dish in whatever proportion you think is appropriate and everyone’s dish is different. Each user creates his own dish. We need to know the ingredients, to open a discourse in a public call on what are the best ideas. Then we need to put them online for people to comment and we should build a whole knowledge base. Education is the key. Citizens have to be educated to live in the city and the city needs to be prepared for the citizens that are coming.

This is what we are trying to achieve as mediators, activators: diversity and a user generated city. The city will be built by the actual users. It is not some top down strategy, nor the bottom up homegrown strategy; we have to meet in the middle. The architect is the good professional -who is already in combination with so many other disciplines: engineers, anthropologists etc.- to become the glue that brings together. So maybe the new architect is just writing the protocol. He has to get his ego a bit out of the picture.

The 21st century is a littlie bit about vague things, about diversity, about complexity. We cannot reduce the city to simplification. We believe no more that the value of a city is its GDP; its capital is not only measured in terms of its rates of return. We have to look for new values in which to measure the potential of a city. Maybe those values have a social dimension. How can we measure social density? What architects build in a city is just an empty shell that means nothing. This space (the STA.SY. ground-floor office), empty as it was a few months ago, meant nothing; it’s only now, with you and me in this space, that it gets a meaning. People are the object and subject of Architecture. The architect has to listen to what people want and create platforms for these voices to happen.

Athens is certainly a global city. On the other hand we have the global decay or the informal global city, which is like Caracas, Sao Paolo, Lagos etc. We know that these two are intimately interconnected. Two sides of a coin. The city has to prepared to receive the people migrating to it. We cannot build housing fast enough. The global metropolises are in the process of linking up as hub spots. For the first time in history you don’ t have to live in a city to have an urban lifestyle, because you are interconnected in so many virtual ways to be urban city in your mind. The urban planet is our goal. But we have a problem that did not exist before: it is the city’s fraction into ghettoes of wealth and ghettoes of poverty.

The challenge for the 21st c. is to bridge these things. Science is much more useful. Our focus is research; municipal administration and the general public must sit down together and draw an agenda for planning our environment. This space here is an open neutral platform, an academic research project that wants to lead to the 3rd phase, to rebuild. We will get very direct solutions, but we need to think for a while. Developments can be meaningless, because if it’s not a process generated by the public it will not be accepted. For things to be sustainable over time they need to be accepted. People need to identify with these projects. That’s why the open consultation is so important.

We have no preconceived ideas; we are just here to listen. But we also need strategies, viable realistic solutions. Athens has unique characteristics: its hills, its monumentality. It’s a beach city like Rio, like Tel Aviv. We need to bring up that characteristic; we need a new identity, not the one based on the past. But we need to understand lessons of other cities: Amsterdam has already dealt with prostitution for a long time, Zurich has dealt with drugs, New York with Bronx and Harlem has dealt with education at the poorest levels. There is a diverse toolbox of ideas that we can use to create hybrid solutions; not ones imported, but ones that are grown out of localities.

The principal function of a city is a political discourse and we need to build this proper space in which we can live in the city and dialogue in the city. But it is also to open up a series of subjects that are in the city and disclose the operation going on. Values change over time, so we need to discover our new values. We want to make an open call through the Press, saying that we are looking for 101 great ideas. We will get a thousand ideas, but we need to distill it down to maybe 100.

It seems as if winter has returned to Athens; it seams it is frozen now; the capital the buildings are frozen in time, so we need to reach out to the subject of its participants and to produce this kind of recipe, to regenerate the city and to dream a little more. We need to forget ideologies, why the Left cannot recognize that some things are done well by the market, and why the Right does not understand that some things are better administered by the State. So we need to find this hybrid, with an incentive by intellectuals and academics, who, with their critical thinking, will create a new state which is neither one nor the other, but in that median state where we can all dream and be positive. We cannot build a solid bridge standing on just one foundation; we need a bridge that actually connects to the other side. Why is it that ideologies have not evolved? We must return to a positive, optimistic view of the world and scientifically construct these bridges, so that knowledge builds a better world. And I believe we can.

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