The contemporary ruin: a manifesto

Birthplace of the classical ruin, Athens is now where the dreams of architectural modernism fall see their decline.

 

Architecture / Andreas Angelidakis

Modern Athens was formed in 1950s, when Greeks migrated to the capital in droves and required housing, creating a boom in construction,augmented by the rise of architectural modernism and the Marshall Plan (aka the European Recovery Program, the American financial aid effort to rebuild Europe after World War II). The promise of new buildings and a new life tempted Greeks to the city of Athens en masse who abandoned the struggles of village life for the opportunities in the center. The great need for housing found its ideal tool in the solutions of the Modernist movement: concrete frame construction could provide multistorey housing on time and on budget, quickly becoming so popular as to turn the city of Athens into a mono-building urban mass. Polukatoikia was the name of this typology, and it would come to serve as an icon for the Greek city. The typology was loosely modeled on Le Corbusier's systems of Dom-ino on pilotis, but where the original promise was for great buildings that can make you healthy, happy and efficient, these cheap reproductions were merely easy and fast to build, providing handsome profits for developers. After decades of furious construction and profiteering, Athens resulted in a modernist ruin of a city: unkempt, ugly, and chaotic—though very much alive.

The notion of Ruin is central to the city of Athens, as the city is built around the most famous ruin of all: the Acropolis. But now ad hoc construction and the cheap modernist knockoffs have resulted in a city that often appears as a ruin itself, an indistinguishable sludge of concrete, balconies and TV antennas mixed with cars and garbage. The sludge that has become Athens continues like a large scale favela until it hits the surrounding mountains. The ruin can be described as a building in transition.

A recent image of Chara, the largest housing block in downtown Athens. It is also one of the few polykatoikies with a habitable courtyard, a little garden and a playground.

The concrete frame became synonymous with construction, spreading from the center to the countryside in the form of 2–3 story concrete frame mini-polykatoikias. In the 80s and thanks to legal loopholes, one could proceed with construction of such a building even without a building permit, if the structural frame of the building was completed in two levels. In short, if you wanted to build on land that was not zoned for building and you didn't have the money for a permit, all you had to do was build a concrete frame quickly without getting caught in the process. This resulted in hundreds and maybe thousands of Dom-ino-style concrete frames going up under cover of night, and then becoming as iconic as any classical ruin. These frames where almost never properly finished as buildings, because the law said to have two floors of frame and people could only afford to complete one floor. So to be legal in an illegal way, Greeks semi-inhabited these sometimes completely unfinished frames as one would inhabit a tree or a cave. With a few sheets of wind-resistant fabric, some planks of wood and scrap material, and the concrete frame becomes a "summer house." One could say that these frames are ruins in reverse.

In a popular etching by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, Henrik Ibsen walks slowly with a gentle Troll in the main street of Oslo whilst the panic-stricken population flees the giant.

Ruins are half buildings and half piles of earth; they are half structure and half random accumulations of building materials. Ruins are mid-way to being piles of dirt, mountains perhaps closer to being organically alive. The moment of the inhabited building is seen as a transition between construction and ruination, both evolutionary stages in the transformation of land to building and vice versa. This would be an abbreviated modern history of how Greek land was filled by ad-hoc construction, but this could be the subject of another text and here we will focus on the center of Athens and a particular building. In this larger context of Greek economy and construction, we can consider the peculiar story of ?a?? (Chara: "Joy"). Chara is the name of the largest housing block in downtown Athens, built by Spanos and Papailiopoulos architects in the booming residential area of Patissia in 1960. The building represents the moment when modernist architecture became a welfare tool, providing low-income citizens with high-quality housing. In this way it is different from all the other polykatoikias because the purpose of the building was not gaining financial profit but delivering the original promise of Modernism. Standing alone in this sea of cheap concrete money makers, Chara seems to embody all that was going to go well for Athens, an ideal moment of urban civility, a proper student of Le Corbusier wearing her Sunday best stranded in a crowd of concrete frame hooligans.

Built by Spanos and Papailiopoulos architects in the booming residential area of Patissia in 1960, Chara (above an image of the 1960s) had the purpose to deliver the original promise of Modernism.

Chara is one of the few polykatoikies that take up an entire city block, and as such its one of the few buildings with a habitable courtyard. Typically the core of city blocks in Athens is left unused, because law prohibits construction. And where there is no construction there is also no profit, and so these city block cores named akalyptoi, were deemed unprofitable and left undeveloped, uninhabited and unused except sometimes as abandoned dumping grounds. So as the fortunate example of modernism called Chara (Joy) was not just a better building, with good intentions, it also had a little garden and a playground where all the others had garbage and neglect. The center of Athens received its second significant wave of migration in the late 1980s, this time not from the Greek countryside but initially from the Balkans and later from Pakistan, Kurdistan, African nations and so forth. The Greek state and even the Greek people were not at all prepared or educated to deal with this second wave of large-scale immigration, and the new citizens were and still are often ill-treated. Over the years the center of Athens became a sort of ghetto, and in a twisted political move a few years back, the city moved the methadone centers and drug addicts health services right in the middle of the immigrant concentration. Drugs, prostitution and illegal trade occupy the traditional center of the city, surrounding Omonia Square and further, while the most sought after residential areas of the 50s such as Kypseli and Patissia have become exclusive to the new citizens of Athens. The housing block of Chara is today almost exclusively inhabited by these new citizens.

In the short movie by Andreas Angelidakis, Chara transforms itself to leave the city. This is the ultimate reaction of the well-meaning modernist building that can no longer fulfill its goal in the urban context.

And suddenly the city finds itself transitioning into a major financial crisis, and the situation in these neighborhoods becomes unstable. The truth is that Athens is no longer a viable destination for immigration, and perhaps not even a sustainable solution for the people who have migrated here. In many cases the countries where they originally came from are better-off compared to Athens, and as a result many return to their countries, especially those coming from Eastern EU. The city of fast money from fast concrete, the architectural modernist ponzi-scheme, is suddenly going bankrupt. The concrete frame polykatoikia hooligans don't seem to care, they were already semi-ruined anyway, they know how to survive, but for a proper, idealistic modernist like Chara the situation is not as easy to accept. In a fictional scenario, the garden-housing of Chara could react to the decline of the city as if it were a living, thinking organism. Chara is no longer the happy destination for the new EU citizens, who seem to be abandoning the city to return to their home countries. The building reacts to this abandonment by transitioning to a peculiar type of ruin, one that draws soil and energy from its domesticated nature. Suddenly it becomes a "living" building that walks away from the urban context, a building fed up with being a building, a mass of concrete and soil more interested in becoming a mountain. A mountain seems to hold the modernist promise more effectively: you live close to nature, clean air, part of a healthy ecosystem.

Troll refers to the mountain beings of Norse mythology, who appear as half-human half-earth monsters. In a popular etching by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, Ibsen walks slowly with a gentle troll in the main street of Oslo whilst the panic-stricken population flees the giant. In the etching, the troll is larger than usual, almost larger in scale than buildings. One could imagine the troll as a wannabe building. Norway at one point offered to rescue Greece from the financial crisis with a bailout worth billions. In the short movie that constitutes the main architectural project, the role of the Troll is reversed. It is not a being that comes from the mountain; it is a building that imagines the role of the Troll. Troll is a building that exaggerates the fact that those plants grow inside it, imagines being filled with soil, becoming so fertile as to become a living organism. This is the ultimate reaction of the well-meaning modernist building that can no longer fulfill its goal as an affordable domestic utopia, because the city has made this impossible. In order to leave the city, the building needs to transform itself. Andreas Angelidakis

The divided Athens of Andreas Angelidakis
 

The divided Athens of Andreas Angelidakis

A guided tour through the ruins of post-Olympics Greece today.

 

Architecture / Maria Cristina Didero