A Workshop on the present state of the Urban Center of Athens

This paper was read at the Workshop on the Present State of the Urban Center of Athens , which was held at occupy Embros Theater on May 28, 2013. Participants included Constantina Theodorou, Encounter Athens, Nikos Kazeros, Eleni Tzirtzilaki, and Nikos Anastasopoulos. The Workshop was organized as part of an ongoing open discussion on the subject.

The Right to the City as a Right to Difference

Truly these are dark years I live in
Innocent talk is inane talk. An unfurrowed brow speaks of indifference.
He who laughs has yet to receive the terrible news…

-Bertold Brecht, The Fatzer Fragment, 1929-1950

The play is set in 1917 during the last year of WWI. The current adaptation was presented by Egfka at Embros, the Free Self-organized Theater. In this adaptation the setting has changed to present-day Athens, a crossroads where the financial crisis and permanent state of emergency this has triggered, racism and exclusion policies meet with new forms of self-organization.

This workshop aims to develop new structures from which another architecture will emerge, a different architecture for the city and its planning that is better suited to the needs of its inhabitants in this critical state of emergency that is our present reality. At this stage, we are involved in a systematic investigation that includes research on several proposals regarding the transformation of Athens. These proposals have been put forth by representatives of the brand of post-Fordist capitalism that the so-called “Memorandum” stands for: this new form of colonialism manifesting itself across the European south, to which Athens is a particularly coveted piece of realty.

As Lefebvre points out space is a political instrument used with intent, although such intent may be masked by the relevant representations of space (Space and Politics, The Right to the City).

This space, Embros, where we are currently at, is already a new structure as it is an occupied self-organized space that aims to produce new forms of art and living through self-management, solidarity, and collectivity; through actions such as the Queer Festival, or “Fighting Tooth and Nail for Our Rights”. It is a space that makes room for difference in the city and its many diverse artistic voices.

We aspire to make a process not a commodity of the spectacle: an opportunity for human interaction (Guy Debord).

Athens is inhabited by a multitude that finds itself living in unfamiliar circumstances – forms of life changing radically, the life of the foreigner suddenly made visible (Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude). There are many in Athens who find themselves in a state of exception, living the bare life of biopolitics, many still exposed to precarious conditions whose most salient feature is the abject destitution of poverty irrespective of where the poor come from. Fear  grips the city center.

A city of silence (see A. Gramsci and his comments on the Italian cities, 1987, and Lila Leontidou’s ‘Cities of Silence: Athens and Piraeus in the Early Twentieth Century’, in The Mediterranean City in Transition: Social Change and Urban Development) is what downtown Athens has become with very few exceptions. Shuttered shops and vacant buildings combine with deserted city squares (Syntagma, Omonia, Kotzia) to become the setting of a fierce hunt that targets those who are different. HIV-positive women, immigrants without papers, drug users and street vendors are often captured and taken into custody at the nearest police station or sent into camps. State discourse presents such operations as beneficial for the city as the names these are given suggest: “Xenios Zeus “(Zeus Hospitable) and the “Thetis Program”.

Athens must change. It is considered an outpost of Fortress Europe and as such it needs a new face.  The kind of civil disobedience that is so prevalent a characteristic of the Athenian multitude must be suppressed through the strategies of space.

New planning for the city center effectively excludes social participation. Strong participation would ensure the emergence of a fairer order of things, but strategies implemented thus far tend to exclude society from the planning process. And yet self-organization is gaining momentum: examples include the squat at the refugee housing complex on Alexandras Avenue and at Philopappou Hill, the activities of the Social Center on Tsamadou St. and of Embros, and many more forms of expressing opposition to the authorities’ vision of reforming Athenian urban space, including the action taken at Akadimia Platonos Park, and the neighborhood meetings held at coffee shops in the area of Metaxourgeion that are aimed at organizing resistance to the investment plan of Oliaros. This is now (is) a war to determine the fate of the Athenian center. It is a novel experience for Athens and it involves a number of rhizomatic and nomadic networks.

As Lila Leontidou notes Greece differs from Mediterranean Europe and Latin America in that the prevailing spirit regarding housing issues has long been one of paleo-marxist contempt, at the same time that the country’s elites consistently tried to make the most of what opportunities were offered already from the days of the refugee influx. One may say that ‘arbitrary construction’ in Greece has been a movement that would eventually founder (Leontidou, 288).

The movement that aims to address issues of housing, public space and public life was launched in the wake of the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos and has become visible through actions such as building the parks on Navarinou St., and Kyprou and Patission St., through the Kypseli Market squat, as well as through the number of individual urban movements it has spawned.

I will briefly discuss three cases of planning which although seemingly different at first glance have actually a lot in common inasmuch as they all uphold the vision of a gentrified Athens, a city reserved for a new species of citizen, ready to welcome tourism and new investments. Space becomes the object of a new strategy of disenfranchisement that facilitates rampant profit-making. Spatial disenfranchisement runs parallel to increasing loss of access to basic utilities such as water and power.

‘Rethink Athens’ proposes the transformation of the city center by means of turning Panepistimiou St. into a boulevard. The concept of the boulevard itself is altogether foreign to contemporary Athens, a city that is the product of successive additions and eliminations, whose charmingly chaotic landscape is typically Mediterranean. The proposal that won first prize in the competition hopes to address the problems that face contemporary Athens by planting trees and building fountains, which would compromise the particular appeal of  a street that is a foil for an array of different urban qualities and tensions. Panepistimiou St., a main artery for most protest marches in Athens, is currently ‘pedestrianized’ by the bodies of protesters themselves as opposed to fountains and trees. Moreover, one cannot but point out the fact that no fountain is presently running in downtown Athens, that all public lavatories are closed and that benches are being removed so that the homeless cannot use them as beds. ‘Rethink Athens’, originally a research program launched by NTUA under the supervision of architecture professor A. Tournikiotis, demonstrates no concern whatsoever for buildings in disuse that are being eroded, shops shuttering one after the other, artisans and their businesses in the city’s commercial center struggling to survive, or indeed for the city’s homeless population…

Collaboration between the City of Athens and OLIAROS Real Estate Investment Advisors, a project dubbed ‘Revitalization’ (of the Kerameikos-Metaxourgeion area), is the second case in point. Mayor of Athens G. Kaminis and Deputy Minister of Development N. Mitarakis were both present at the meeting held on April 16, 2013,  which discussed funding for the project secured through the JESSICA program. The project has secured €70 million from the JESSICA program and €7 million from the NSRF, and although a private initiative it includes interventions to a number of streets and squares (renovating Avdi square and turning a formerly pedestrianized street into a bicycle lane for example), along with construction (and renovation) of as many as 30 buildings, creating spaces to house an entrepreneurial community, building a complex of  private student accommodations on Marathonos St., and establishing a market on Iassonos St., not to mention shutting down the brothels in the area in collaboration with both the police and the City of Athens. The company stresses the issue of public safety and points out that the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection must take action to evacuate buildings that may house illegal activities. However, the most immediate effect of the project to look out for will be a general gentrification. The area’s new economic status will drive the better part of its current population away from their former homes, while many more will be displaced as one might infer from the proposal itself. The area will eventually lose its quality as an alternative space. A new population will move into it to take the place of its present inhabitants. This is an objective which the company has long pursued; it has in fact laid the foundation for it in collaboration with the city’s artists through such projects as the Remap art platform and the 1st Athens Biennale. The Remap project has been housed in buildings owned by Oliaros: in this case, artists are paving the way for new investments. The issue has already been pointed out in an essay titled ‘Remap KM and the Displacement of the Residents in the Area of Kerameikos’ and was further addressed in a discussion held three years ago at the offices of Futura Publications. On that note, it might be useful to observe that in London, where gentrification policies are frequently applied to parts of the city such as Hockney Wick for example, artists have refused to play that part, opting for resistance instead.

Of course, this may still happen in the case of Metaxourgeion after plans for the area’s upgrading have materialized, as many artists will be forced to abandon what was until recently an alternative neighborhood. Local communities including artists must engage in self-organization with a view to claiming their right to space. Low-rent affordable housing must be defended and with it the area’s squats as manifestations of a common good that is inseparable from the notion of public space, which cannot be privatized; socially vulnerable groups must be defended (Romani, sex workers, etc); the area’s particular character must be defended. We should keep in mind that there have been cases abroad where this kind of funding ultimately went to improving housing conditions in specific areas through collaboration between the City and community councils and the establishment of social housing collectives.

The third case is that of Akadimia Platonos Park, where investors plan to build a mall on the site of the Mouzakis factory at the same time that the archaeological authorities plan to seal the park off as an archaeological site. Both plans meet with continued resistance from local communities that rally at a collectively run cafe. On March 30, and 31, the residents’ committee organized a weekend of events bringing together many collectives, artists and artists’ groups under the general call for a “free open public archaeological and cultural park”.

This workshop at Embros Theater –a follow-up to which is already being considered– views Athens, the shaping of the city, as a process of co-configuration. Mobilizing to occupy vacant spaces across the city so that they may be used to provide housing or other common goods is of the essence. We believe that improving existing structures by means of participatory planning is crucial as is the establishment of open communities out of which autonomous zones of self-organization will emerge.

The question we ask is this: how can the active life – la vita activa – be achieved in the public sphere? (‘Only the existence of a public realm and the world’s subsequent transformation into a community of things which gathers men together and relates them to each other depends entirely on permanence.’ Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition)

I will conclude this discussion by quoting Cornelius Castoriadis: ‘We must seek to establish free collectivities composed of free individuals, who are capable of filling their lives with meaning beyond the acquisition of new commodities, and who may work toward opening up new spaces’. (Excerpt from a lecture given in Buenos Aires in 1993, titled ‘The Possibility of an Autonomous Society’.)

Eleni Tzirtzilaki

Dr .architect-community artist