|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2023|
[ID:1035] Staying sane in the land of crisis
“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” - Winston Churchill
Five years ago, I stumbled on the most baffling response to a simple request for directions to Omonia (note 1) square. Moving from a small town to the big capital of more than three million inhabitants was a big change, and I had to figure my way to move at least in the city center. Greece's 'Place de la Concorde', initially designed for the royal palaces, has been placed since the very first city plan of Athens, by the Greek architect Kleanthis and the Prussian Eduard Schaubert, at the vertex of a triangular shape connecting the landmarks of the city. “Why would you even want to visit that place?” the local asked and gave me rather reluctantly the information needed, underlining "he wouldn't suggest a young girl going there", and so I marched towards my quest of knowing Athens on the verge of the upcoming economic crisis.
History underlines the misfortune of the area, narrating that in order to choose the proper place to position the palace for the Bavarian rulers four pieces of meat were hung in tall pillars on the four candidate places in order to see which micro-climate is more appropriate. Syntagma square, which even today is far more cooler during the summer months due to its level difference and better ventilation, won the prize and Omonia was left as a square facilitating the labor districts adjacent to it, suited to the lower-middle class.
While studying the innumerous changes of Omonia square, I recall a story narrated by the Greek historian Plutarch, in his 38th essay of Moralia named 'On Talkativeness' (lat. De garrulitate). The main character is Heraclitus of Ephesus, who upon asked from his fellow-citizens to express his opinion regarding the way concord could be achieved in the city, he stood before his tribune, simply asked for a glass of cold water in which his poured barley flour, stirred it, drank it in front of the audience and departed without speaking a word. His gesture suggested that simplicity, composure and avoidance of luxury are the essential prerequisites for concord and peace in the city. Unfortunately, in the case of Omonia square, Heraclitus' lesson had been long forgotten, with exotic palm trees and lawns replacing the Mediterranean oaks, pines and cypresses in the beginning of the 20th century, old buildings being demolished in order to build new bigger, cheaper and gaudy ones with the capacity to serve the need of a soon becoming overpopulated city by the end of the '80s, ending to the today's form of a concrete roundabout for the passing vehicles (image 1).
If Roland Gérard Barthes' view of a city center as the place where you meet the social “truth”, as in participating in the 'wonderful' repleteness of the “reality” is valid, then the truth I experienced at my first visit in the area was truly shocking. An endless surface of concrete intensifying the already suffocating, air-polluted atmosphere made breathing a challenge, while the heat emitted turned an already scorching hot day into an insufferable one. Homeless people laying outside, while there are empty uninhabited buildings surrounding the square. Manic automobiles honking and speeding, not allowing you to hear your own thoughts- thoughts of survival screaming “I have to get out of here”.
Running late for an appointment under Acropolis a few days later, I ended up taking the wrong turn heading to a spiral path. I had unknowingly entered the world of the Greek architect and painter Dimitris Pikionis, which is described as a 'secret conversation with eternity' and spans today to one of the biggest free public spaces of Athens and important Mediterranean habitat.
This project marked the first work of open public space of great importance for modern Athens. From May 1954 until February 1958, the architect worked with great dedication for the formation of the paved roads, paths, premises for stops and views, plantings, as well as for the church of St. Demetrius Loumbardiaris and the touristic kiosk positioned in the courtyard of the church. (note 2) It comprises two main spiral paths, which resemble an elaborate mosaic (image 2)· one goes north the Acropolis hill up to the temple of Athena while the other separates itself from the first, creating two unique viewing conditions of it. The final formulation was over traces of ancient paths and configurations of the rocks in the area, a logic that derives from the design of the Panathenaic road, which was not pre -planned, but was gradually developed. The original design stems from the path paved by the Pelasgians and the Kekropides who went for water supplies to the northern slopes of the Acropolis and Kerameikos. The beginning of the walk on the hill was decided in accordance with the traces of the ancient road entering the city that was so prominent at the time, whereas the development and ending of the Panathenaic road at Propylaea expressed, symbolically, the democratic values of Athens' society.
The delineation of the course on the hill was not decided on the drawing board but in situ, on the ground, after repeated visits of the architect on site. Pikionis uses as a synthetic tool an heterogeneous collection of fragments from different eras, incorporating human scriptures and relics of older habitation along with nature. The limits of the formulations in many places are not clear and it is seems that the configurations “fade” in the natural and historic landscape. This incompleteness also allows nature to penetrate in the work, get intertwined with the history and the past culture, sometimes in such level that it is indistinguishable from it. Visual perception is also used as a synthetic tool with a spatial system of optical alignments connecting the landscape - close or distant - with its history. These contrivances of Pikionis aim to encourage the walker on the hill in a parallel reading of his work and to intuit how the myths and the history of the place converse with not only with the natural landscape, but also with the modern history. The configurations seem to be born from the earth, to manifest themselves and reach again in it. "The walker understands, both with his body and look, of the specific characteristics of the soil, the geometry of the relief, the particular vegetation and, of course, the games of revelations and hiding of the view of the Acropolis directed by Dimitris Pikionis. In this way, the visitor can, even now, realize the power of the earth, the underworld features and the mythological dimension of this place.” (note 3)
Five years later, Greece is living in the crescendo of an economic, social and cultural crisis, thus the conclusion of the National School of Public Health's survey comes as no surprise: “The decline in health expenditure due to the economic crisis has downgraded the level of health, use and patient access to health services”. The survey was conducted in February and March 2013 to 1600 adult patients, men and women, studying the effects of the economic crisis in the use of health services in the general population for four chronic diseases in mild or moderate stage, among them cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary diseases, cancer, diabetes and mental illnesses, such as hypertension, diabetes Type II, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and dementia-Alzheimer, in 11 big Greek cities. The results show a dramatic raise of these chronic diseases which could have been prevented with the elimination or management of risk factors, which have dangerously increased the recent years.
Omonia's image today depicts this in the severest of ways. Smog, not only caused by the exhaust gas of the vehicles but also by the continuous usage of fireplaces as a cheaper mean of heating covers the square during winter months. The combustion of wood produces sulfur dioxide and other particles, and this combined with the inhumane, overpopulated, mostly humid area of Omonia makes it an air polluted hazard. During the summer months, the heat emission by the vehicles and the concrete surfaces adds on the already disadvantaged position of the area. Psychologically, the square is a source of stress, anxiety and the manifests in its entirety the depression -economic, cultural and psychological- of Greek citizens.
Au contraire, I still have the same feeling every time I visit Pikionis' work. Anxiety and stress are replaced with serenity and harmony. Addicted to the metropolitan frenzy of Athens, overwhelmed by a general crisis, we might sometimes seem unable to grasp the message Pikionis wanted to deliver. However, the serene cruising of the promenade is one of the richest urban experiences we have inherited from the 20th century. It provokes you to think on multiple levels, thus the walk emerges to a spiritual experience. It feels like you enter a world where time flows in a different pace, where perception is altered and the true meaning of Democritus' philosophy is embodied. It is a kind of resonance, like the rustling of the foliage of different trees. Fresh air, quietness, beautiful views accompany you all the way till the end of the paths. And there, you are rewarded with the most exquisite of all views. People sitting in groups talking, laughing, singing at the aftermath, reminding you not everything is lost. (image 3) And maybe that is the biggest legacy of this work. Ancient monuments, buildings, rocks, bushes and people, all like one entity recount the story of Attica.
If Winston Churchill's quote is correct, the necessity of an Omonia square taking the lead role in the city as a central space where people's activities are rooted and maintained and creating a healthy and inviting 'hestia', proves to be more imperative than ever. Using Pikionis' conceptional tools and general philosophy as a starting point and guide towards this change, we realize that a healthy conversation with our roots, our past and nature can not be omitted in order to build solid foundations, both physical and mental. Pikionis himself has poetically spoken about the links between the soul and the earth: "It was times I felt that at the foundation that delved deep into the earth , in the massive walls and arches, it was my soul that was embedded in their anonymous crowds ... ".
This constant speculation on our city center is, fortunately, not limited to the inhabitants of the center. In 2012, an initiative organized and funded by the Onassis Foundation brought forward once again this imperative necessity of change in Athens' city center. The project was centered around Panepistimiou Street, which starts from Omonia square, and expanded to the whole center. A European Architectural Competition was held, organized under the auspices and in collaboration with the Ministries of Environment, Energy and Climate Change and of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks, the Attiko Metro S.A., the Region of Attica and the Municipality of Athens. The winning team of the competition was OKRA, in collaboration with Mixst urbanism and Wageningen University, whose proposal aims to boost Athens as a contemporary lively metropolitan area, improving the environment while activating it economically. I would like to use OKRA's proposal as a starting point for commenting and realizing, in plausible terms, what changes can be made.
OKRA proposes the creation of a city center resilient, accessible and vibrant, which links the area to adjacent ones and becomes a catalyst for the city. Their attention is focused, amongst others, on the reduction of vehicular movement and therefore accessibility for the pedestrians, the creation of a green network where Panepistimiou street plays the role of the central spine, and a greening and water strategy aiming to heat mitigation of public realm. Omonia square becomes, together with Dikaiosynis Square and the University, one of the three characteristic green urban squares, part of a green public framework linking to the adjacent neighborhoods. The element of nature and water on the square appears vivid (image 4). Vacant buildings from Omonia square up to Panepistimiou are used for the concept of the 'theater of 1000 rooms', where cultural events and programs related to Greek philosophy, science, drama and art will be organized.
This proposal offers an Omonia square which sheds off the vast concrete, the abandonment and inhumane living conditions. It provides its visitor with serenity and contact with nature. Rationalistic and easily applicable due to its obvious low-cost manufacturing, it surely justifies its selection for the first prize of the competition. However, there are questions yet to be answered. Will this proposal incorporate the dominant role of Omonia square as a transportation hub sufficiently? Is its key position with the axial view to the Acropolis going to be highlighted or long forgotten? Will the new Omonia square prove to be a square conversing with its history, which provokes the thought and stands up for its name-concord?
Only time can tell. I strongly believe that Pikionis inherited us a priceless legacy, and through the comparison with Omonia square I managed to further realize what it is that makes his creation an example of healthful environment. The health doesn't lie in a superficial selection of plantation or paving, but to a careful linkage with our roots. Pikionis' work is plural, contains the element of the handmade and even possible imperfection. It is a collage of the multiple disparate elements Greece's spirit consists of. And as Heraclitus teaches us “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony”.
1. omonia (greek): concord.
2. This project was declared by UNESCO as a monument of modern architecture with world importance in 1996, with the exception of the church of St. Demetrios which was declared monument since1958, and in 2003 the "Paths of Pikionis below the Acropolis of Athens" received the International Carlo Scarpa Prize.
3. P. Dragonas - After (the) Acropolis
-Greek bibliography can be given upon request-
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