Rising from the ruins
The city centre of Athens is an idiosyncratic void. Many older inhabitants abandoned it years ago. Some of the newcomers were dislocated during recent police operations.
The city is changing constantly: there are many homeless people on the streets. Landlords do not rent out their apartments, preferring instead to leave them empty. In a similar way the small, ground-floor shops, so typical of Mediterranean street life, are closing as merchants find it impossible to survive. Many once-vivid streets now look like abandoned remains.
My architectural practice, Antonas Office, has investigated this peculiarly empty city environment with the assumption that the existing structures, with minimal alteration, can host or create spaces that will work in different ways for the city’s inhabitants.
Athens owes much of its character to the constructions that were built after the 1950s: the polykatoikia blocks of flats are still in good condition, and are ripe for reinterpretation. Using “urban protocols” that are in tune with the new economic and social realities of Greece, we have looked at giving a different content to this field of urban remains.
Urban protocols can be seen as benevolent versions of internet viruses, spreading and filling parts of this emptiness in new and – unlike the viruses that spread online – benevolent ways.
These protocols would expand not because of commerce or profit but because they produce scenarios of unprecedented function. They would bring together small communities by making concrete the functions that the communities need in what could be termed “overlapping abstract neighbourhoods”.
These can be thought of in terms of the internet’s open-source culture, where individuals collaborate to build free software: as with the software, these functions would be formed from individual acts within the abandoned city.
Again, as with open-source software, these protocols do not necessarily guarantee positive results. Social mechanisms would arise if a legislative platform allowed them. A research area for social applications or communal assets could foster good ideas, and control or discourage bad ones.
The first protocol concerns the terraces of the city. The fragmented spaces at the roof level of each Athens city block constitute an unused, deserted, semi-public space. Every block’s roof terrace could be given over to ownership by a co-operative or similar legal entity. Canopies could cover the unified areas, connecting them with metal bridges and stairs, and allowing the areas to function as simple public spaces.
Gardeners could use these roof spaces to grow vegetables and plants, while the covering grid could also be used for photovoltaic cells to generate power for the people who live in the apartments.
The second protocol is open-air and public working spaces. Uncovered parts of the city could be furnished to create outdoor office spaces for all.
Free internet access and water would be the prerequisites for such communal spaces, in which a new type of real networking would emerge.
This communal space can be thought of as corresponding to a cinema, but with people viewing individual screens instead of a communal one. In this way, the abstract idea of digital networking would become a concrete city space.
The bare-bones urban projects do not support beautification – empty spaces, unused streets, city-centre voids are all suitable. In this way Athens could take a lead on treating a problem that could soon become global.
Minimal intervention, such as lighting the public tables, in such insignificant empty places could charge them with meaning while maintaining their image.
The first open-air office was created last year, sponsored by the furniture chain Ikea. The project was then commissioned by ReMap, a project that uses the derelict spaces to host art events.
The third protocol is the urban hall, which would be the bankrupt-city version of the Fun Palace proposed in the 1960s by visionary architect Cedric Price.
Instead of Price’s flexible building, in which he imagined visitors creating their own entertainment, the urban hall would use an empty area as an adaptable space to serve the temporary needs of different users.
The urban hall in Athens is intended to give new purpose to a city square that was, until recently, openly used for public buying and using of illegal drugs. The users of the hall would depend on its programme, which would serve as a cell for various gatherings of different visitors.
The uses and even the changing details of the new architecture of the square would be decided by the public, either online or curated by a chosen individual.
The building could perform functions as varied as an open-air hospital, a theatre, a concert space or an open office.
A constantly flexible responsiveness, counterpointed by the stability of the surrounding buildings, would mean the space could be adapted to the needs of the city and its people, or follow a strategy of reform controlled by the neighbourhood.
Aristide Antonas is an Athens-based architect