The following is a discussion/intervention concerning the burning problems of Athens, its aesthetics, the relation between sculpture and architecture in the city and the new models of contemplating it. The participants are: Denys Zacharopoulos, Professor of Art History at Amsterdam’s Arts Academy and the University of the Aegean, former Inspector General of Modern Art of the French Ministry of Culture, and co-director of Documenta 9, in 1992; Yiorgos Tzirtzilakis, architect and art critic; and the sculptor Thodoros Papadimitriou, former Professor of Plastics at the National Technical University. Coordinating the discussion is art critic Vassilika Sarilaki.
Vassilika Sarilaki. Athens is an anarchic city of constant contradictions and surprises. It originated from the exclusion of the refugee settlements; it experienced the ‘glory’ of exchanging houses for apartment blocks during the dictatorship; its citizens build unlicensed homes; its ministers build unlicensed villas; its municipalities build without a license on its beaches. And then the State comes along and legalizes them. At the same time, there are downgraded zones and new immigrant ghettos in the center, while we also see the results of the new vested interests of modernization, such as the construction by Vovos, and the nouveau riche entrenchments of the northern suburbs. Moreover, the city is one vast construction site in view of the Olympic Games, which adds to our sufferings. What is in force today is a regime of "multiple singularity", as the architect Takis Koumbis so graciously put it; an egocentric philosophy of "not bothering", where both the citizens and the State act as private individuals, with no regard for any unity in urban planning. Given this environment and under these conditions, what can today’s urban planner or architect propose? And would there be a point to such an intervention? For there are schools of thought which oppose the taming of these contrasts, deeming disorder and improvisation to be components of the living personality of Athens.
Υiorgos Τzirtzilakis. The old tools of urban planning, with which we used to intervene in cities, are being utterly contested today. Besides, they were tried outside Athens and found to be unrealistic. The old concepts by which we would go to a city and plan streets and parks, putting everything tidily in its place no longer apply. If there is something interesting about the picture of Athens you presented, it is that, in a weird way, Athens functions as a city which innovatively overthrew the specters of urban planning. So if today we discuss what we can propose to a city, we can examine two sports models: one is boxing and the other is judo. Up until now, our attitude towards cities was based on the reasoning of the boxer. That is to say, we hit cities; which is the reasoning of modern architecture. We get done with the cities, we calm them down, we move the suburbs further out, we police the centers, etc. We attack the city frontally. The reasoning of judo, which is a modern strategy, consists in converting your opponent’s energy into your own weapon. That is to say, I reconcile myself with contradictions and make them my tool. So that if we talk about an essence of post-urban planning in cities today, we can see certain new strategies which do not transform a city into a tabula rasa, but begin with a reconciliation of the city’s contradictions and try to transform the city’s own dynamics.
Thodoros Papadimitriou. For me the city is a shell containing a cell of life. A cell which is evolving. It is a palimpsest on the level of recording in space. It has a depth of field. How this cell will survive is a huge issue within the evolution of civilization. The way I see it, all these formalist models tried by urban planning have to be viewed on a completely different level, which is that of the management of human energy and Nature, through which will emerge a new perception of space and lifestyle.
The city no longer means what it used to. It has ceased to exist. There is the diffusion of communication, through the Internet, etc., where space and time doesn’t function within the environment of the city’s organization. The city organized the time and space of people in such a way that it shaped the material base within which people’s needs were dealt with. Nowadays, global communication greatly influences the way in which we perceive this morph which we call a city.
Denys Zacharopoulos. In relation to what Thodoros said, I would like to say that I don’t know when the city could have had the function which we imply that cities had. If we are talking about a town-village, then that had the unity of the village but it was not a city.
From the moment the city becomes a large city –and large cities appeared for the first time in the 19th century-you can see straight away that there are two sets of weights and measures which come into direct juxtaposition. The one is the road blocks and the other is the police. The most substantial urban planning model that exists in the 19th century is that of Haussman’s, which was already put forth in the 18th century by De Pombal and which consists in a systematic layout of the city which allows the police to control the city and preserve order. There is also the other model described by modern poets and painters, which is the city as a promenade; as a peregrination; the city of Baudelaire; the city as a hybrid, multicultural space which comes in direct contrast to the previous model. The city of Delacroix, for example, is the city of trenches. The city of Victor Hugo, with the sewers of les miserables, is not only the city of the damned poets, but also of the revolutionaries. The modern city is a city of confusion; a farrago. This confusion allows for a continuous renewal of its forms and, according to modernist reasoning, it also concerns the forms of architecture, art, etc. But the fact that these forms are imposed from above, from a single authority, is the great problem put forth by architects. Architects believe that after Plato, God is an architect; that the world was built by architects; and that the more monocentric authority is, the closer it comes to the idea of an architect. Given that, I’m afraid that, for me, God is most probably a taverna owner –if he does indeed exist-and the city is thousands of little mezedes, pieces of charcoal, bones, cats eating next to the chairs, tables with and without tablecloths…
V. S. There is chaos, there’s no doubt about it… But how do we react? Recently, I read a statement by Takis Georgiakopoulos, the president of the Panhellenic Association of Architects, concerning the "defeat of architecture in Athens". And you too, Yiorgo, in the piece you wrote for the recent architecture biennale in Venice, you mention that the architect has ceased to be the uncontested lawmaker of form; that he is no longer the absolute judge of its correct expression; and you add that our moving away from modernist tradition with its lofty ideals and aesthetic values has led us to all available forms and to a kind of indifference. Further on, you also talk about the "death of the architect".
I agree with your ascertainments, but there exists a dangerous defeatism and a general indifference. But the question remains, and it is a crucial one. Because nowadays we are living at the peak of a large diaspora of inhabitants and places of production because of globalization and the redistribution brought about by the various waves of immigration, and architecture has access to public discourse, through its very works.
Therefore, isn’t it its duty to express a critical discourse? Because every day the citizens of Athens hear on the news about suspicious building contracts; newly built bridges which collapse; floods because of built up gullies; the glass buildings on Kifissias Avenue which raise the city’s temperature; its blocked air-ways; the concrete of Omonia Square; and so much more. Let us not forget that Attica is only 3.2% of Greece; it is home to 35% of the population and 30% of industry; while its privately owned cars make up 55% of the country’s total. So then the situation isn’t only a matter of aesthetics; architects also have a social responsibility…
Υ. Τ. There’s no question of defeatism, even though Nietzsche stresses the fact that what is most dangerous is the feeling of the victor. Nowadays we are faced with a transformation of the way we contemplate the city. You described a picture which, using the modern terms of urban planning and art, we would describe as "congestion". We are not living the adoration of the form, its idealization, like in the old days, but we are living in a reality which is more open, more fluid, and more contradictory, and that means that we are also living through a change of the role of the architect, who does not adhere only to the detail of the building, but also to how that building functions within the new dynamics. The field, therefore, becomes broader, and the architect’s social responsibility, his social action increases. This can occur in the form of other interventions in the city; more interactive and direct situations which correlate people and which are, in the end, more oriented towards public space. To the open space of the city. In the field of conflict. Because I would like to add that, actually, when we talk about cities, it is very easy for us to go back to a picture of a promenade, of beauty, of a sunset in the big city, or to Baudelaire, whom Denis mentioned earlier. In fact, many times we forget that the main component, the big mark in the eyes of the city is that it constitutes a field of conflict. In the old days we used to compare the city to a "living organism", as Thodoros said, in order to show that there is a balance. Today that balance no longer exists. The phenomenon of the city has changed, therefore we must adapt to the new reality and intervene in a dynamic way.
V. S. Thodore, you have emphasized the fact that the word polis (city) is the first part of the word politismos (civilization). And the word polis comes from the verb pelomai, which means to move, to live. The artist John Barret, emphasizing the concept of fluidity and movement, says that the concept of the public is not only spatial, but also presupposes the concept of a meeting, of the assembly of the city, of a dialogue.
T. P. Correct. And of conflict, as Yorgos mentioned.
V.S. In order then to arrive at the topic of public art, I would like to remind you of the fine example of Giacometti’s square, which was then defined by the human size and the meeting of people, even flirting, as is the case today in provincial squares. But in Athens, squares have been transformed into incongruous traffic hubs. Nobody frequents them, and their monuments and statues seem inopportune and funereal.
Even when, for reasons of visibility, monuments are made larger, like the monument to the National Resistance on Klafthmonos Square which is reminiscent of three upright goats joined together, there are cases of poor workmanship. Should monuments be abolished? And what can be the relation between modern art and public space?
T. P. Rare, happy coincidences in the modern city, when accompanied by an environmental sensibility for the feel of the city, have produced successful interventions by artists. Giacometti brought a historical message of the post-war city into the climate of existentialism. It was a coincidence. But it does not constitute a model, since today the coincidence has changed and often the artist doesn’t see it. Nowadays, art is suffering because it pretends not to see. No one sees the other. In the old days, the system of the city may have been conflicting, but it was necessarily communicative; it interacted with the ‘other’, with that which was outside. That no longer exists. Hence enforcement via institutions, as, for example, Richard Serra’s work which caused a great conflict with the public. A healthy reaction, even though Serra is a good artist.
D. Z. This all began with Mr. William Diamond, a conservative economist, who came to Greece as the Deputy Finance Secretary of the US, to promise the junta money. When he retired, he was made president of the National Endowment of the Arts in the States. By coincidence, his office overlooked the square where Serra’s work was installed. And so he, together with a bunch of other fuddy-duddies, began to demand censorship of the arts, etc. That these gentlemen spoke in the name of the people is of no interest. I don’t believe in polls, nor that the people can decide en masse if a certain kind of art is good or bad. The role of the experts and of the State is pedagogical, and you can call me an old fashioned modernist and a Marxist throwback. When the State tries to please the citizen we arrive at the fascism syndrome. Now, as far as monuments are concerned… During the Paris Commune, the artists made Courbet in charge of the visual arts. The first matter he put forth was that they should remove from the city not monuments in the broader sense, but whatever war monument divided people rather than brought them together. Whatever monument had no artistic value but simply a military and warlike dimension, which, instead of honoring man, honored the general.
The decision that an artist must have a personal oeuvre in order to enter the city was a very important one. That he will be judged on his personal opinion on art and not on the subject. From that moment on, commissioning a work doesn’t mean it is an order placed by ministers or generals, etc., but on the contrary, that the State recognizes the significance and the work of art. It should be noted that Courbet does not ask for the war monuments to be destroyed, but rather to be transported, as objects of historical importance, to the war museum. The relation between the city, architecture and art concerns society as a whole, and neither the architect, nor the artist, nor the minister, nor anyone else can solve it on his own.
There is no way one can think seriously about architecture without thinking of ownership. The architect either serves the owner of wealth, or, in order to construct new forms, he must change the concept of the plot of land, which means that society and its institutions agree to change the concept of horizontal ownership, of the uncovered space in the back of apartment buildings, etc.
Nowadays in Greece it seems as if the social model is being nouveau riche. Become richer in order to have a better house; move to a wealthier neighborhood. While it could be: learn better; feel better; imagine better; and then maybe you’ll have a better lifestyle. And then you can go ahead and adapt your home.
V. S. Going back to the issue of public art, I would like to point out that there still exists a psychological orientation of the public towards a way of looking at public art which belongs to the 19th century. That is to say, the work of art is the decorative backup of a building or a square. As if a public work isn’t entitled to define its own large space as a work of architecture would be. And that is how I explain the reactions to the great work by Richard Serra. Do you agree?
ALL Yes, yes.
Public space as an extension of the sitting room
V. S. Deanna Petherbridge, the editor of "Art and Architecture" magazine, writes that while in the late 19th century public architecture was inconceivable without the co-existence of sculpture, today this relationship is at its lowest point. Did this occur because architecture incorporated ideas from sculpture? Or because sculpture was deemed decorative and obsolete? Or because minimalism in the 70s preferred geometrical structures? What do you think?
Υ. Τ. I believe that the relations between architecture and the visual arts are at their highest point. I believe that we are past the period of the two fields being absolutely separated. In the early twentieth century these relations were very much alive. Then there were fluctuations, but now their mutual interest is being rekindled, and that is the most fertile event nowadays. That which is changing is the old concept of decorative sculpture.
So then today, new fields of action are being energized: the artistic field, the theatrical one, the architectural one, etc. But I must say that we are often wrong when we naively link the city to civilization, forgetting that the correct and true sequence of the chain is actually: city – civilization – citizen – war (polis – politismos – politis – polemos). We must not forget that. Politicians are always talking about the city and civilization. But if we explore the roots of these words, war is contained within them.
The two fields, therefore, of sculpture and architecture have broken down their certainties and entrenchments and we can no longer define their precise limits. That is to say, to what extent a building we see is sculptural or vice versa. This mutual transference of roles is one of the most interesting features of our time.
With regard to the concept of the public space in Athens, albeit in the wrong way, it has returned to the foreground. And especially concerning the three squares and their remodeling. It has come in the wrong way because public space is considered an extension of private space.
In Greece, politicians and mayors are always talking about public space as if it is the courtyard in front of their house; the extension of their sitting room! And many politicians and municipal lords –notice the term-often use the word "flower-stand" as a deus ex machina!
So the conversation turned to public space and suddenly everyone, quite hysterically, the media, the magazines, the newspapers, and the politicians: they all came out to describe to us how they imagine their "home"…
Therefore, I learnt the essence of how all these people imagine their homes to be from the discussions going on in the squares. But I didn’t learn how a square is supposed to be.
T. P. What Yiorgos is saying is right. How we perceive our life and what the relation is between public and private space is a huge topic. When capital began appropriating space, society and the shaping of the city changed. Thus, instead of the life of private individuals converging in public spaces, these spaces are simply extended as private.
D. Z. I’d like to go back to two points which were mentioned earlier. The relation between sculpture and architecture is something which has existed since ancient times. It is in fact one of the few cases where the correlation of two arts is so organic, that sometimes one cannot distinguish what is sculpture and what is architecture. It is precisely for this reason that the Elgin Marbles should not be absent from the Parthenon. The column and the relief are not two separate things. The static and the surface are not two different spaces, but one unified thing. Otherwise it is as if someone pulled off your skin in a way, and said: "Keep the skeleton and get rid of the rest".
However, we do have certain important and organized proposals by artists or architects, so that you can say that, e.g., a building by Gropius in 1920 has such a sculptural dimension that it doesn’t need anything else. Because it has stretched architecture to where it has become sculpture, in the sense that sculpture is a form, not a coating. I don’t believe in a postmodern viewpoint which has, regrettably, prevailed everywhere because it suits everyone. For example, by setting up this amazing layer cake in Bilbao, Mr. Frank Gehry transfers the problem by offering an imaginative, touristy dimension which satisfies political and economic speculation. Getting back to Athens, we have certain fine examples of architecture, as, for example, the Electric Company building on Tritis Septemvriou Street by Kartonelis, which needs no sculpture whatsoever. If only they cleaned up the street a bit and one was allowed to look at the building without the garbage cans and the parked cars, one would discover an extraordinary relation between architecture and space which has a sculptural dimension.
Moreover, when we preserve neoclassical houses, we ought to preserve the neoclassical sculpture that goes with them. In all that area around the Academy, the University and the National Library, they have restored the facades of the buildings but they have abolished the planning of the surrounding space and the role of neoclassical sculpture, which leads us to the eyesore of Klafthmonos Square. So then while people recognize Ziller and Cleanthis, they do not recognize the sculptors of that time. The two Vitalis of the 19th century, Drossos, Thomopoulos, etc.
But what can one say when the finest architectural buildings of the 20th century in Athens, which are not neoclassical, are abandoned? When there isn’t the slightest care for the works of Provelenghios, Konstantinidis, Mitsakis, Papadakis, Zenetos, etc.? Or when important collaborations, such as that of Constantinidis with Zongolopoulos or with Loukopoulos, et al., are neglected and destroyed? On the one hand we talk vaguely about our cultural heritage and on the other we cross out History and couldn’t care less what we leave our children. The State doesn’t know, nor has it prepared anyone to accept what architecture and what sculpture is in Greece. They tell us that sculptures are a bunch of things that are propped up at the entrance of the National Gallery, one next to the other, like the drug addicts in Omonia Square… One morning, in order to take his mind off the drug addicts, Mr. Avramopoulos suddenly called in an anonymous maker of statues and asked him to cast him a dozen or so heads of ancient philosophers, which he then placed in the square across from the Town Hall. And what is really amazing is that no one can understand why three of these heads have been placed next to the bus stop on Amalias Avenue… Severed heads in a row-one, two, three!-between the kiosk and the bus stop!
Even if Phidias came back to life...
T. P. Coming back to the relation between architecture and sculpture, I would like to add that after the Industrial Revolution, which constituted a cultural break in the history of humanity, that which we perceive as the relation between sculpture and architecture has nothing to do with the past. Unfortunately, afterwards there is no relation of continuity. The dialectics have changed. Because in the management of space as a relation moving up from land planning to architecture to plastics, there existed an interior continuity. Then, the autonomy of the architect or the sculptor was unable to split the social system of language which prevailed as a communication prerequisite. Up until the Industrial Revolution, the norms were not created by the artist with his signature. The signature occurred later. Even though the Parthenon had a signature, the evolutionary model of the Parthenon and whether its creator was called Phidias or Iktinos was historical. It was not something autonomous, built by Phidias. Therefore we must take into account the prerequisites.
V. S. I would like you to comment on the most important public works of art in Athens. The way in which they have been placed, the choices made, whether, for example, the Runner can be moved from Omonia to the Hilton because the municipal lords view works as "grown curios", in the words of Kessanlis, etc.
T. P. I won’t talk about specific cases, but I will say that the lack of cultural prerequisites in our society, the lack of culture displayed by architects, urban planners, politicians and the public does not create the right prerequisites for the incorporation of works of art. My slogan is that even if Phidias were to come back to life today as an autonomous artist and created a work of art which would then be placed somewhere the way works are placed today, it would pollute public space. Because pollution is also a relation to space. It is not good works of art that are lacking; it is culture.
D. Z. The picture of modern sculpture and architecture in Athens does not only show a complete lack of respect for the arts, but also a complete disrespect for democratic procedures and certain official posts. The transparency of these procedures is non-existent, as shown by the recent competitions for Omonia, Monastiraki and Syntagma. On the contrary, the arbitrariness of the people appointed by the State as its representatives is impudent, offensive, menacing and megalomaniacal. It intervenes everywhere drastically and has an answer for everything. Their swollen heads are now wearing crowns!
As for the sculptures you mentioned, what comes and what goes, whether it’s called the Runner or not, that doesn’t concern the artists but rather the inability of the city to incorporate proposals, whatever they may be.
ALL. That’s right. Yes.
D. Z. The State continues to pass on responsibility to the artists and architects, while essentially, the only one responsible in the public sector is always the State itself. Because an artist cannot go to Omonia and just do as he pleases. And if someone has no opinion about what Omonia is, or what Syntagma is, or what Klafthmonos Square is, then he can’t do anything. Regarding Omonia Square, here the State unknowingly did something amazing! It put upon a pedestal that which it wished to hide: its disgrace. Though I have never seen such a slipshod piece of work in my life, the fact remains that all the junkies and all those with nowhere to go, who were spending there days crawling from street-corner to arcade, suddenly came out into the middle of the square, becoming the focal point. The fountain became a mess of syringes and garbage, and Pandora’s box opened again! As for Syntagma, it was a square of marble and that’s the way they left it. What is tragic is that Syntagma was once the most pleasant and lively square of cafés in Athens, and now there isn’t a single chair to be had. Back then there existed an unbreakable bond between Parliament and the cafés. It would be interesting to ponder nowadays on the relation between the Unknown Soldier and the fast food restaurants, or that between Parliament and the banks…
Y. T. In the end, that which must be judged today is the focus on the object. And that is why our discussion keeps coming back to the social representation that is taking place there. Unfortunately, there is a bad pedagogy, which calls upon the artist whenever there is a difficult situation in a space, to save it. There is a messianic syndrome regarding the artist which dates back to the 19th century. And therein lies the biggest mistake anyone can make, because that which pre-exists in that thought is that sculpture embellishes. It’s like having a decorator come over to redo your sitting room. So they call upon an artist who has his own concept, and they ask him to compromise with the reasoning of the State which is distorted. Therefore, we call upon sculpture to save that which, for years, society, the economy, and civilization have been unable to solve… But the artist is neither a magician nor a conjurer.
ALL. Yes, exactly.
Υ. Τ. Nevertheless, there are also interesting reversals. For example, a bad work of art can create a strange, unexpected phenomenon in the modern city. Moreover, sculpture as a contemporary concept can be sought in the groups, the strata and the relations which occur in certain areas, like a kind of social sculpture.
The new public art
V. S. It is a fact that public art in metropolises today does not focus on the autonomous sculpture. We are going through a transitional period when public art is distancing itself from the concept of the monument, but still keeping vertical lines, large masses, etc., for reasons of architectural proximity. Nevertheless, many modern works of art are monuments. Remember, for example, Oldenburg’s huge clothespin in front of a bank. It surrealistically mocked the obelisk but still retained its form. If we move away from the concept of the monument, of the statue and of the authoritarian logic of monumental works, there are many others which are the result of community actions, such as the work by Maria Papadimitriou in Menidi, etc. These actions escape from the dominant spaces of authority, from squares, from the areas outside ministries and banks, and either go to downgraded areas of regional Greece, or even to places of work-i.e. places which are taboo where public art is concerned.
I would like to remind you of the pioneering installation of Kounellis’ in Berlin in 1990. He linked two old factories with rails and had a load of coal moving nonstop along them. The work was a comment on the unification of the two Germanies that had just occurred, and it seemed to be saying: "As long as the perpetual exploitation of work exists, what is the point of glorifying the Union?" These are certain new perceptions of public art, together with those of many other artists who, traveling as nomads, create works in situ, or act together with the local population. However, these works are often ephemeral and lack a certain historicity, such as the installations by Ilya Kabakov, Boltanski, Kounellis and others in other cities. We are going through a transitional stage.
Υ. Τ. Yes, doctor. We’re going through the transitional stage of the infectious phase of this disease! But it’s interesting that Denis has worked extensively along such axes. By intervening in dark and unobserved areas of the city, you learn to look at the city differently.
D. Z. We are indeed going through a transitional period, and, as far as culture is concerned, that is the best kind. The only problem is that during these periods there are no models. And so any work involving a community, e.g. Menidi, or other in situ projects must ensue from the personal vision of an artist, otherwise it makes no sense. However, each time artists come in contact with a specific community; it does not necessarily result in art. And therein lies the problem. More and more, when a mayor or a member of parliament has a problem in his area, he’ll call upon an artist. Thinking to himself that "If Maria Papadimitriou did it, then everyone can do it". But that’s not true.
V. S. Public works of art are usually commissioned by certain public organizations that are often clueless. The first to develop such a policy were the Scandinavians, as early as 1930, by incorporating in the expenses for public buildings a percentage for public art.
Today, this percentage in Europe and America varies between 1-5%. Would you like such a measure to exist in Greece? Or was the architecture critic Charles Jencks right when he wondered: "What would be the content of an art which would proceed to complement government policy and a certain architectural preference?"
T. P. No percentage can solve the problem unless society has the cultural prerequisites. And even then there will be deformities, pollution and incompatibility. Just look at some of the train stations in Athens.
Υ. Τ. I will be even more forceful: such a measure can be very dangerous. That wonderful metro in boring Sweden could be a disaster in the "living" city of Athens. The city would become filled with monsters!
V. S. How do you view certain pilot programs abroad, where urban planners, architects and artists collaborate towards an overall contemplation, sometimes even coming in contact with the surrounding communities which use the spaces?
Υ. Τ. The city is the hottest commodity of the future. And everyone is going to go for it. And art is the pre-eminently indefinable element in this magma you have been describing all this time.
T. P. I absolutely agree with Yorgo.
Omonia: nostalgic for the fountain…
V. S. Shall we return to Athens now?
D. Z. Regarding Omonia Square, the problem is irrelevant to the topic of the competition. It begins, for example, with the Hondos building.The fact that you take a hotel, you abolish the balconies, you cover it in fake marble, and you make a hollow surface which sets its seal on a square. So what’s the point of saying you’re going to fix up the neoclassical buildings?
Meanwhile there are two beautiful, symmetrical buildings right across the way-the Pangeio and the Megas Alexandros-built by distinguished architects, and they continue not to be used; they’re empty. Two of the oldest hotels in Athens… Because no hotelier would ever go and run them again, the way Omonia is today, nor would any bank ever go there… The koulouri seller of Omonia has been replaced by a fast food restaurant. But the hotelier has disappeared. So what’s an architect supposed to go and do there? When the man in charge of the competition for the square says: "We don’t see the Acropolis from there.” When did we ever see the Acropolis from Omonia? Most people has forgotten that Zongolopoulos fountain was a masterpiece..
V. S. And yet. Most passersby said o TV that they prefer it…And so do I..
D. Z. And they’ve forgotten that before the fountain, in the pre-war years, the train was outside. Omonia was a ditch, just like it is behind Monastiraki. It was open where the train went by..
V. S. To be fair, let us admit that there are also attractive sites in Athens. Plaka, for example, is improved. I also like the obstinate survival of times gone by. There are places I consider to be very “sixties”, such as open-air cinemas, Exarcheia, Lycabettus, Green Park, Phokionos Negri street.
Some places in Psyrri and Gazi are pre-war. Do you like anything?
T. P. I like the fact that certain parts of Psyrri are coming back to life again. It is very important that life is re-entering areas which urban transformation had altered, had deadened; places it used to make you heartsick to look at. Of course, I’m not talking from an aesthetic or formalistic point of view. These are the positive features which must be emphasized, and it is these which will go on to offer certain solutions; not formalist interventions.
D. Z. I agree, but I will add that the first big mistake in the urban planning of Athens occurred as early as the 19th century, when they didn’t listen to Cleanthis’ program of three main squares, but went ahead and cut Athens in two. It wasn’t that long ago when Athens was divided in the eastern part and the western part. That is to say, the rich people who left western Athens and went over to the other side of Lycabettus, which was full of vegetable gardens and sheep pens. One had to cross the Rubicon to be allowed past the Palace. So then suddenly, the social fibre recreates, of each own accord, the western part of Athens, and rediscovers a historicity, which is not refurbishment…
T. P. …but it is life going on.
D. Z. …where industry failed or where it became obsolete. In this social space, artists, architects and others, find a space for expression; a space where they can develop another dimension of the city.
For example, they are saying that the National Opera might go behind Gazi. Who would ever imagine that? No doubt, they meant for it to be built on Vassileos Constantinou street, or near the Caravel Hotel.. So will all the ladies in their long evening gowns be going down to the train tracks, where people used to be murdered; down to the ghettos of Athens, where all the immigrants live; but you can’t imagine how beautiful Athens is! And I don’t say it out of nostalgia. But precisely because, those parts of it which were abandoned, they are still open to anyone. When you go to Academia Platonos it is positively shocking.The way the modern inhabitants live together with the archaeological sites in their daily lives. It’s not the theoreticized hodge - podge which was presented at the architecture biennale in Venice, but the fragmentariness that maintains voids, silences, and unseen aspects in the life of the city. Every now and then there are pieces which breathe; there is breath in these places.
Y. T. I would like to close with a motto of the French Revolution. “The ephemeral is eternal”. Perhaps then, in the future, the ephemeral should constitute the best model for a discussion on art in the city. What is certain is that we have passed from the representations of the city – how a modern state of confusion is represented – to the representations which by definition are limitless. The representations and actions in the modern city leave all possibilities open. And returning to the concept of the ephemeral which you brought up regarding these actions I believe we must accept that, nowadays, we can no longer use givens of hierarchy in the city; but givens of coexistence. And above all, we must fully understand the field on which we are acting.
Discussion coordinated by Vassilika Sarilaki