From Dom-ino to Polykatoikia

A group of teachers and researchers from the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam harks back to the precursor of infill architecture, Le Corbusier's Dom-ino construction system, and finds in its cousin, the typical Greek polykatoikia tenement, the possibility of generating a host of collective and shared spaces in Athens.

This article was originally published in Domus 962 / October 2012

In recent years there has been a resurgence of the "informal city" within the discourse on architecture and urbanism. In times of economic recession, the "informal" is often advocated as the solution to the evils of the neoliberal city. A protagonist of the informal city is "infill architecture", in which housing is reduced to a flexible framework customised by the inhabitants. This conception of the house responds to the rapid growth of cities, but it is also promoted as a way to encourage participation from the inhabitants themselves in building their own environment. Against over-designed architecture, the infill model is celebrated as a way to give space to inhabitants' creativity. Indeed there is a thin line that divides this model from the reality of many shantytowns in which do-it-yourself is a forced option rather than a fancy model for housing. The same model can be interpreted as a cynical solution that confirms the status quo in which low-cost constructions and adaptability are exploited in order to socially and politically tame an increasingly homeless population. Perhaps the best way to discern the ambivalence of the infill model is to reconsider its progenitor — Le Corbusier's Dom-ino construction system — and one of its most radical applications, the Greek multifunctional dwelling also known as polykatoikia [1] .

Dom-ino
Designed in 1914 as self-help construction system, Dom-ino (from the Latin dooms , "house", and an abbreviation of "innovation") has become the ubiquitous form of construction in all developing countries: a reinforced concrete framework open to any infill and thus to any spatial interpretation. In developing this model, Le Corbusier was inspired by wooden pillar buildings in Turkey [2] on one hand, and Flemish houses on the other. Le Corbusier looked attentively to vernacular construction systems in order to shorten the distance between architecture and everyday building processes, but he reinterpreted these vernacular examples within the logic of a typically industrial plan and the new developments in concrete construction.

Le Corbusier developed his prototype imagining a post-war reconstruction in which the urgent need of housing would demand new and more flexible ways to build houses, especially for the low classes. In this sense the Dom-ino principle is the best embodiment of Le Corbusier's motto "Architecture or Revolution". In Dom-ino, architecture is not simply a shelter, but in the words of Michel Foucault, it is a "dispositif", an apparatus that puts to work and controls the most basic faculties of unskilled workers.
Top: Manolis Baboussis, <em>View of
a polykatoikia skeleton under
construction</em>, 1987. Photo and courtesy of Manolis Baboussis. Above: Perspective view of the
Dom-ino system, 1914.
Source: Le Corbusier
and Pierre Jeanneret,
<em>OEuvre Complète Volume
1, 1910–1929</em>, Les Editions
d’Architecture Artemis,
Zürich, 1964
Top: Manolis Baboussis, View of a polykatoikia skeleton under construction , 1987. Photo and courtesy of Manolis Baboussis. Above: Perspective view of the Dom-ino system, 1914. Source: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, OEuvre Complète Volume 1, 1910–1929 , Les Editions d’Architecture Artemis, Zürich, 1964
The seeming informality of the Dom-ino is the perfect housing counterpart of the rigid Fordist-Taylorist organisation of work in which workers were uprooted from their native environment and taken as pure labour force devoid of any specific skill by the automatism of the assembly line. The Dom-ino system has proved to be effective beyond the industrial age, thanks to its extreme genericness and adaptability. In the Dom-ino model, flexibility is not only a positive quality, but also a fundamental apparatus of social engineering that controls the economic development of supposedly spontaneous settlements from the Brazilian favelas to the Turkish gecekondu . First of all, while it exploits the cheap informal labour force, Dom-inos are also based on industrially produced raw materials that drive the profit back to larger scale corporations. Secondly, beyond the rhetoric of offering a house to everybody, this apparatus boosts — sometimes artificially — the construction sector, a sector that breeds a new range of small enterprises. In this way, the possibility of social unrest is tamed by building a class of home-owners and micro-entrepreneurs who, while economically not privileged, are however sceptical towards the possibility of corporativism, sharing, and the demanding of social equality. The subjectivity of the Dom-ino, in spite of what Le Corbusier had hoped, did not result in a shared effort to construct readable urban environments, but rather in the myth of self-entrepreneurship. If this result is often blurred by the poverty of such developments, one of the best illustrations of this phenomenon is perhaps the Greek polykatoikia , which on the contrary addresses primarily the middle class, and which had a major impact in the development of post-war Greece.
Dimitris Philippidis, <em>An Inner
City Squatter Settlement in
Athens</em>, 1966. Source: Dimitris
Philippidis, “Town Planning
in Greece”, in <em>20th Century
Architecture in Greece</em>, Prestel
Publishers, 1999. Courtesy of Dimitris Philippidis Archive
Dimitris Philippidis, An Inner City Squatter Settlement in Athens , 1966. Source: Dimitris Philippidis, “Town Planning in Greece”, in 20th Century Architecture in Greece , Prestel Publishers, 1999. Courtesy of Dimitris Philippidis Archive
The polykatoikia
The polykatoikia was originally conceived in the 1930s as a multistorey apartment building for the Athenian bourgeoisie [3] . The proliferation of this type was supported by the State in the form of a general building regulation and a property law [4] , which directly produced the basic rationale behind the architecture of the polykatoikia . This law allowed landowners to barter tax-free their buildable ground in exchange for built indoor space, effectively deregulating the construction industry. Another goal of the polykatoikia as promoted by the State was to advance (and thus appropriate) local construction knowledge towards a coherent and yet flexible system of building techniques, materials, details and structural schemes. Like in the Dom-ino model this system combined advanced industrial solutions with low-skilled manual labour. Through the apparatus of the polykatoikia , the project of the city was advanced no longer through top-down master planning, but through the production of abstract legislative frameworks, which materialised in the bottom-up practice of self-building.

This building logic was extensively mobilised with the post-war reconstruction of Athens. After World War II, Greece entered a bloody civil war that ended with the defeat of the Communist forces. The new "democratic" government put forward a plan to tame the rebellious potential of the working class. A fundamental issue was to avoid big industrial concentrations and encourage a small-scale building economy in order to fragment and thus control the population. By advancing the small-scale building system of the polykatoikia , the government promoted the reconstruction of the country and the consequent economic recovery with minimum state intervention [5] . In this way increasing housing needs were met without a welfare programme [6] , while a large part of the population was guided towards private ownership [7] . The generic form of the polykatoikia was able to absorb all classes and allow any kind of infill and thus became a type suitable for all sorts of urban densities.
The polykatoikia was originally conceived in the 1930s as a multi-storey apartment building for the Athenian bourgeoisie
Dimitris Philippidis, <em>Typical
View of Athens</em>, 2000.
Source: Dimitris Philippides,
<em>Modern Architecture in
Greece</em>, Melissa, Athens 2001. Courtesy of Dimitris Philippidis Archive
Dimitris Philippidis, Typical View of Athens , 2000. Source: Dimitris Philippides, Modern Architecture in Greece , Melissa, Athens 2001. Courtesy of Dimitris Philippidis Archive
From the 1950s until very recently, the construction industry was a major asset in the economy of Greece. In this way the polykatoikia has transformed the city itself into a gigantic factory (the city as a factory of itself). The massive development of this building process produced a middle-class subject that was simultaneously owner, producer and consumer of space. Just before the economic crisis, Greece had 84.6 per cent of home ownership, ironically the second highest in Europe after Spain [8] . In spite of its questionable political origin the polykatoikia has been often celebrated as a successful experiment in informal, bottom-up housing building. However, its implementation has produced a subjectivity based on radical individualism in which the household itself became a source of economic speculation. It is precisely this subjectivity that is under pressure with the dramatic economic crisis that has been affecting Greece since 2008. If with the beginning of the Cold War Greece was forced to develop a radical laissez-faire agenda, promoting a deliberate social fragmentation of its working class, within the current economic crisis this fragmentation has proved extremely problematic as private ownership becomes unsafe ground in times of recession when the value of properties dramatically decreases.

At the same time the architecture of the polykatoikia itself, with its small scale and lack of collective spaces, has developed an urban ethos completely locked within its extreme individualism. And yet if the politics of post-war Greece were advanced through the architecture of one single archetype it is precisely by altering this archetype that it is possible to promote a large-scale reform of the city without recurring to a master plan. An important premise of this reform is to show how in spite of the urban fragmentation, the polykatoikia , as an architectural language, manifests itself (in its utmost radical intensity) as a common and thus deeply collective construction system. The fundamental goal of this reform would be to overcome the fragmentation provoked by the application of this building type, by working towards a reconstruction of collective urban formations.
The proliferation of
new archetypes in the
<em>polykatoikia</em> carpet would
create a new anatomy for
central Athens through
architecture rather than
through abstract legislation.
This map does not represent
the real geography of
Athens, but rather an ideally
reconstructed, analogous
collage of its main urban
conditions: the analogical
character of the drawing
serves to underline the idea
that no coherent master
plan is put forward here, but
only a catalogue of possible
actions that will unfold in
different ways depending
on the context, changing the
city through physical space
one act at a time. Research
project “Athens: Labour,
City, Architecture. Towards
a Common Architectural
Language”, conducted at the
Berlage Institute, Rotterdam,
by Pier Vittorio Aureli,
Maria S. Giudici, Platon
Issaias, Elia Zenghelis and
postgraduate researchers
Juan Carlos Aristizabal, Hyun
Soo Kim, Ivan K. Nasution,
Davide Sacconi, Roberto
Soundy, Yuichi Watanabe, Ji
Hyun Woo, Lingxiao Zhang
(2010-2011)
The proliferation of new archetypes in the polykatoikia carpet would create a new anatomy for central Athens through architecture rather than through abstract legislation. This map does not represent the real geography of Athens, but rather an ideally reconstructed, analogous collage of its main urban conditions: the analogical character of the drawing serves to underline the idea that no coherent master plan is put forward here, but only a catalogue of possible actions that will unfold in different ways depending on the context, changing the city through physical space one act at a time. Research project “Athens: Labour, City, Architecture. Towards a Common Architectural Language”, conducted at the Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, by Pier Vittorio Aureli, Maria S. Giudici, Platon Issaias, Elia Zenghelis and postgraduate researchers Juan Carlos Aristizabal, Hyun Soo Kim, Ivan K. Nasution, Davide Sacconi, Roberto Soundy, Yuichi Watanabe, Ji Hyun Woo, Lingxiao Zhang (2010-2011)
A project for Athens
In the financial and urban crisis that Athens has been undergoing since 2008, we have developed at the Berlage Institute a project that starts from a critical evaluation of the polykatoikia protocol and the subjectivity it has produced. Both the economic rationale and the social functioning of the urban condition created by the polykatoikia have shown their limits. The disastrous current situation makes the rethinking of this model a very urgent task. With this project we aim to expose the generic nature of the polykatoikia , while recovering the architecture of the city beyond the pixel of the single dwelling. Instead of a master plan we propose a catalogue of architectural actions that aim to connect the fragmented dwellings into coherent and formally finite collective urban forms. These forms are the courtyard, the block, the street, and the most collective layer of the city: the ground floor. The flexibility and openness of the polykatoikia is thus manipulated towards the opposite scenario for which it was developed. While the Dom-ino approach encourages the individual house owner to become an independent entrepreneur who fills in, organises and manipulates his part of the skeleton, the forms we propose all imply a form of collective will and collaboration. The courtyard, the block, the street, and the ground floor become figures that can be rescued from the polykatoikia carpet. Our proposal radicalises these figures into distinct architectural archetypes.
Left, Cloister. By constituting a block
community, the inhabitants
of a block could transform
together the empty space in
its middle, and the possibility
of a new, generous courtyard
would emerge. The courtyard
could become a cloister,
hosting an enlargement of
the existing properties in
the form of a shared balcony
framing the collective space.
(Ji Hyun Woo, Berlage
Institute, 2011). Right, Platform. With the demolition of
all the non load-bearing
partitions of the ground
floors — which are almost never used except for
retail — the street level
becomes a private, yet
publicly accessible platform.
The platform would expose
the genericness of the
<em>polykatoikias</em>: a continuous space punctuated by a loadbearing
structure, ready to
be used for new activities
(Ivan K. Nasution, Berlage
Institute, 2011)
Left, Cloister. By constituting a block community, the inhabitants of a block could transform together the empty space in its middle, and the possibility of a new, generous courtyard would emerge. The courtyard could become a cloister, hosting an enlargement of the existing properties in the form of a shared balcony framing the collective space. (Ji Hyun Woo, Berlage Institute, 2011). Right, Platform. With the demolition of all the non load-bearing partitions of the ground floors — which are almost never used except for retail — the street level becomes a private, yet publicly accessible platform. The platform would expose the genericness of the polykatoikias : a continuous space punctuated by a loadbearing structure, ready to be used for new activities (Ivan K. Nasution, Berlage Institute, 2011)
Repetition and discontinuity, paradoxically, are the two hallmarks of contemporary Athens: at a large scale, the Athenian urbanisation is repetitive and homogeneous — it lacks hierarchy, public space and a clear anatomy — while on the other hand, if we look at the scale of architecture, every city block is built in a fragmented and chaotic way. The archetypes we propose are part of the grammar of any Mediterranean city, but they are unreadable in Athens today: courtyards are cut up by fences, poorly maintained and never used simply because they are divided between too many owners; city blocks are built without logic because the properties are too fragmented; and the streets and ground floors of the city are plagued by thousands of failed, discontinuous attempts at building stoas that end up becoming unpleasant pockets rather than social spaces. Our archetypes suggest looking again at the strength of these basic figures to reconstruct spaces that can be shared. The archetypes of the cloister and the platform are based on sharing (i.e. demolishing divisions) in order to reclaim residual interstices revealing physical and linguistic possibilities for an architectural "common". Other proposals focus on the need to insert new spatial arrangements, since in Athens the space for work, production and interaction is often stuffed into the straitjacket of bourgeois apartments that do not fit the need of the users anymore (see archetypes entablature , roof and stoa ). Beyond the manipulation of existing forms through demolition and localised insertion, the proposed grammar also puts forward archetypes that challenge directly the polykatoikia as a tectonic model. The Dom-ino skeleton can be rethought as a framework where different productive and social activities can happen (see theatre , wall and in-transit ).
Left, Entablature. Urban blocks could be
improved by the insertion
of an extra rooftop level
on existing buildings—a
continuous beam, a sort
of entablature that hosts
wide working spaces and
contrasts the fragmentation
of contemporary Athens,
offering new readability to
the block as a distinct piece
of city (Davide Sacconi,
Berlage Institute, 2011). Right, Roof. An added linear structure
hovering above the
fragmented façades of the <em>polykatoikias</em> gives definition
to the street alignment
while providing areas for
production and education
dedicated to the inhabitants
of the existing buildings. The new roof underlines
the street as architectural
space and seeks the
establishment of urban
continuity (Lingxiao Zhang,
Berlage Institute, 2011)
Left, Entablature. Urban blocks could be improved by the insertion of an extra rooftop level on existing buildings—a continuous beam, a sort of entablature that hosts wide working spaces and contrasts the fragmentation of contemporary Athens, offering new readability to the block as a distinct piece of city (Davide Sacconi, Berlage Institute, 2011). Right, Roof. An added linear structure hovering above the fragmented façades of the polykatoikias gives definition to the street alignment while providing areas for production and education dedicated to the inhabitants of the existing buildings. The new roof underlines the street as architectural space and seeks the establishment of urban continuity (Lingxiao Zhang, Berlage Institute, 2011)
These archetypes — cloister, platform, stoa, roof, entablature, theatre, in-transit and wall — are not meant as definite projects, or as parts of a large-scale plan: they are examples [9] of how it would be possible to act on the existing tissue. These examples are not normative: their principle can be applied in a variety of sizes, shapes and characters depending on the context. They are paradigmatic actions that can trigger different reactions and evolve in unforeseen manners. By the same token, they have not been developed as diagrammatic universal principles: they are presented as precise and concrete pieces of architecture, because examples work by doing, by having an effect, rather than by prescribing abstract rules. In this, the idea of remaking a city anatomy through examples radically opposes the logic of the master plan; a proliferation of these examples would change Athens through architecture, adding gardens, galleries, promenades, and attics. In short, through making space.
Left, Stoa. A free-standing layer of
stoa added in front of the
current facades, eating a few
metres from the street, would
provide a new public portico
as well as the possibility
to close the existing
discontinuous stoas and turn
them into productive spaces
(Roberto Soundy, Berlage
Institute, 2011). Right, In-transit. Logistic spaces are
proliferating at the ground
level, especially on large
thoroughfares, making
street life impossible. This
archetype proposes to group
such spaces and implement
them with temporary
living accommodation for
precarious workers and
visitors. It is conceived as
a screen shielding smallerscale
neighbourhoods from
traffic and providing a largescale
architectural backdrop
to suburban highways (Juan
Carlos Aristizabal, Berlage
Institute, 2011)
Left, Stoa. A free-standing layer of stoa added in front of the current facades, eating a few metres from the street, would provide a new public portico as well as the possibility to close the existing discontinuous stoas and turn them into productive spaces (Roberto Soundy, Berlage Institute, 2011). Right, In-transit. Logistic spaces are proliferating at the ground level, especially on large thoroughfares, making street life impossible. This archetype proposes to group such spaces and implement them with temporary living accommodation for precarious workers and visitors. It is conceived as a screen shielding smallerscale neighbourhoods from traffic and providing a largescale architectural backdrop to suburban highways (Juan Carlos Aristizabal, Berlage Institute, 2011)
This new city would not be another Athens. It would be Athens as it really is, hidden under the chaos of an apparently informal development that is actually one of the most violent bio-political projects of the past century. The apparent individual differences that gave the budding bourgeoisie in Greece the impression of having unique lifestyles have ended up as a rather dreary and monotonous environment. It is the hope of this project that through sharing, rather than fragmenting, we might gain back real spatial variety; that maybe by exposing the polykatoikia skeletons in their genericness, rather than praising the fake originality of their fillings, a more habitable and straightforward city might emerge. Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria S. Giudici teach at the Architectural Association in London; Platon Issaias is a PhD candidate at the Delft University of Technology (@cityasaproject)
Left, Theatre. By simply manipulating
the vertical circulation into
a promenade sequence, the
skeleton becomes a theatre
of sorts, a covered public
space offered to the citizens
of the neighbourhood. This
archetype bares the bones
of the <em>polykatoikia</em> as all
non load-bearing partitions
disappear and the typical
apartment building becomes
again a Dom-ino structure.
It shows how the Dom-ino
approach makes the wall
itself, as an architectural
element, irrelevant (Hyun
Soo Kim, Berlage Institute,
2011). Right, Wall. This archetype looks at the spatial qualities that wall architecture—the opposite of the <em>polykatoikia</em> — can offer: the possibility to define boundaries, to distinguish inside and outside, to create privacy. Such a wall is an alternative to the <em>polykatoikia</em> landscape: a thick slab containing services, opaque towards the street, supporting ample balcony apartments facing an inner garden. While the service wall could be fixed, providing continuity on the outside, the balconies can be occupied flexibly — thus reusing the infill logic of the Dom-ino (Yuichi Watanabe, Berlage Institute, 2011)
Left, Theatre. By simply manipulating the vertical circulation into a promenade sequence, the skeleton becomes a theatre of sorts, a covered public space offered to the citizens of the neighbourhood. This archetype bares the bones of the polykatoikia as all non load-bearing partitions disappear and the typical apartment building becomes again a Dom-ino structure. It shows how the Dom-ino approach makes the wall itself, as an architectural element, irrelevant (Hyun Soo Kim, Berlage Institute, 2011). Right, Wall. This archetype looks at the spatial qualities that wall architecture—the opposite of the polykatoikia — can offer: the possibility to define boundaries, to distinguish inside and outside, to create privacy. Such a wall is an alternative to the polykatoikia landscape: a thick slab containing services, opaque towards the street, supporting ample balcony apartments facing an inner garden. While the service wall could be fixed, providing continuity on the outside, the balconies can be occupied flexibly — thus reusing the infill logic of the Dom-ino (Yuichi Watanabe, Berlage Institute, 2011)
Notes:
1. The term poly-katoikia is a composite word, from poly , translated as multi, and the noun katoikia , dwelling. In Greek, polykatoikia stands for the multi-storey apartment building, eventually becoming a term that describes every housing building except for suburban single-family villas.
2. See Adolf Max Vogt, Le Corbusier, The Noble Savage , The MIT Press, Cambridge 2000.
3. For a thorough analysis on the birth and the evolution of the polykatoikia type in the 1920s and 1930s see Dimitris Emmanuel, The Growth of Speculative Building in Greece: Modes of Housing Production and Socioeconomic Changes , PhD Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, London 1981.
4. See "The General Building Regulation of the State" (April 3rd 1929) and the 3741/1929 law "On Horizontal Property Divisions and other provisions".
5. On the particularities of this economic model (in Greek): Panos Kazakos, Between State and Markets: Economy and Economic Policy in Greece, 1944-2000 , Patakis, Athens 2009.
6. Dimitris Emmanuel, Housing Public Policies in Greece: The Scale of an Absence , National Centre for Social Research, Athens 2006.
7. This particular process and the political implications of this economic project were thoroughly discussed and described in a fundamental text of 1951, the report "On the Economic Problem of Greece", by the Greek economist Kyriakos Varvaressos. The report foresaw and analysed the particularities of this major reform. Recently republished (in Greek): Varvaressos, Kyriakos, Report on the Economic Problem of Greece , Savalas, Athens 2002.
8. N. X. Rousanoglou (in Greek), "84.6 is the Percentage of Home Ownership in Greece", Kathimerini, 04/01/2006, figures from the General Report on the Activities of the European Union-2005, European Commission Brussels, Luxembourg 2006.
9. As an example, we refer to the essay by Paolo Virno, "Virtuosismo e Rivoluzione", in Mondanità , Manifesto Libri, Rome 1994.

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