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06/18 THE CONTEMPORARY (GREEK) CITY

Forward to the 2nd edition

Yannis Aesopos

 
The project of Metapolis, organized by Yorgos Simeoforidis and myself, and the “network” of a younger generation of architects and visual artists around it, was depicted in two publications aiming at the critical approach of contemporary urban culture and the cities in which it was unfolding: Metapolis 1, After-the-City of 1997 and the present book M2001, The Contemporary (Greek) City of 2001. (An integral part of the project was the book Landscapes of Modernization, Greek Architecture 1960s and 1990s of 1999). As we mentioned in the introduction of the first edition, seventeen years ago, these publications were realized amid the “explosion of the discussion on the city in Greece”, when “critical issues in reference to the configuration of the contemporary urban landscape of most Greek cities and especially of Athens” were being registered. The works of Thessaloniki Cultural Capital of Europe 1997 were already carried out and Athens was preparing for the 2004 Olympic Games. We were in the midst of an intense urban transformation of the capital, as large-scale infrastructure projects –airport, highways and fixed-track networks– which were a prerequisite for the Games, would produce a different city in the following years: the “post-Olympic” or “diffused” Athens – the subject of research of a future publication.  

At the same time, the international architectural debate focused on the global sprawl of the urban, the separation between “center” and “periphery” and the consequent processes of drastic urbanization. This new emerging condition was based on the very large increase in land and air transport and the rapid development of telecommunications technology and led to the end of the “city” as a geographically defined entity in which both the public and the private sphere incessantly coexist. The “post-city” condition, the “metapolis”, was characterized by intense mobility, the reduced presence of public space, the domination of private housing, advertising and consumption, and the absence of history. These new forms of urban environments were described in different terms: métapolis, general city, edge city, middle landscape, città diffusa, ville émergente, telepolis, global city.

Since, in 2001, we were, undoubtedly, at a transition point, besides the investigation of the emerging “metapolitan” condition, we aimed at understanding the city we had and, to a great extent, we treated with depreciation. The contemporary Greek city, the post-war modern city –with Athens as its exemplary case– was produced without a theory. It was the product of a “process” (of drastic urbanization): with the use of the legal instrument of “antiparochi” (the exchange of land for apartment surface), the infinite repetition with variations –the répétition différente– of the building type of the polykatoikia made the city in the form of a homogeneous, built layer of equal height that indifferently replaced the pre-existing landscape.

The contemporary Greek city did not seek continuity with the (neoclassical) past through form. Its abstract form buildings, designed according to the principles of modern architecture, offered conditions of modern urban living and created an urban ensemble in which both private and public co-existed in a continuous negotiation while urban life unfolded with great liveliness. Therefore, the approach of the contemporary Greek city based on aesthetic criteria –as a “formless” city with “ugly” buildings, undesigned public space and very few green areas– did not make sense since the significance of form had been replaced by the importance of space and the experience of the activities that took place.

Free from any emotional burden due to the time distance from the decades of intense reconstruction of the 50s and 60s, the understanding of the logic of the processes of urbanization of the contemporary Greek city and its constituent elements, that this book offered, “exonerated” them and, by presenting them through a new perspective –a new conceptual framework–, allowed for the “familiarization” of the city. The city would no longer be perceived as the “necessary evil”, a “grey”, environmentally burdensome place of living and work, in constant comparison with the idealized condition of life in the countryside and the village, but a familiar, multidimensional, creative, and even exciting space, dense in events and impregnated with countless opportunities.

The new framework for the understanding of the city and its elements enabled their critical approach, the emergence and promotion of their positive aspects as well as the constitution of a “modern tradition” open to use, reinterpretation and production of new, inventive, original work. 

The main targeting of the abovementioned process of exoneration and familiarization that the book attempted had to do with the polykatoikia – the unit of the city which, through its repetition, shapes the private and, by extension, the public space. The polykatoikia is a simple to build open-ended, multi-programmatic building type that embodies the dimension of time and can be completed in phases. The polykatoikia is not a priori “good” or “bad”, its quality is determined by its architectural and construction elaboration: in the hands of a competent architect, its spaces can be amazing and even seductive, while, on the contrary, as a speculative commercial construction, they can only remain generic, utilitarian.

“Liberated” from the prejudices of the past, the polykatoikia can be perceived and appreciated as the prerequisite for the shaping of the city. The type and its parts –the pilotis, the stoa, the balconies, the staircase, the penthouses and the rooftop– can be reinterpreted and modified –either as a single building or together with other polykatoikias as the pieces that form the urban block and, finally, the city and its public space– to make up –both in Greece and abroad– an extremely popular object of architectural experimentation and historical research. The design proposals and research studies produced, and other future ones, define alternative directions for the redesign and transformation of Greek cities in the years to come. 

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