Autumn 2002

Visual cleaning in Athens

Minos Zarifopoulos
Report: urban renewal

An ‘urban facelift’ challenges the Greek city’s visual mosaic

A city centre always represents the nature and culture of its inhabitants. In the case of Athens, antiquity meets the present, East meets West, tradition meets modern life. At the beginning of the 21st century, some major regeneration projects are attempting to create a new, user-friendly urban environment which (it is hoped) is still capable of reflecting the vivid character of Athenian everyday life.

‘It’s going to be very nice’, says the girl next to me to her friend as we walk by the construction site of a new pedestrian thoroughfare circling the hill of the Acropolis. A little further down, the heat and smell of Monastiraki adds immediately to the oriental atmosphere of the flea market, the street vendors and the antique shops. The jigsaw is completed with the Psiri district, which presents a mix of bars and restaurants together with the small and vibrant shops of ethnic minorities proclaiming the new status quo created by the new global economy. Athens has formed a unique urban experience which is different from those of western European or American cities, due to both its geographical positioning and its climate – factors that affect every aspect of daily life, including the behaviour of its inhabitants.

With every glance one is treated to a multi-layered visual and social experience. From ancient Classicism to Byzantine and postwar phenomena, this layering is always visible in the graphics and the architecture shaping the surface of Athens. Traces of old houses form part of modern buildings and ancient ruins are displayed in half excavated squares. Due to historical changes, random human activity and the speed of urban expansion to accommodate a vast internal and external migrant population, a new complex – but vivid – environment has been formed.

Athens’ most lively spot lies at its heart: the area that surrounds the Central Market. The vast food market is situated alongside the Stock Exchange along narrow streets with all kinds of shops, bars and contemporary art galleries. The commercial character of the area has largely come about as a result of its strategic position adjacent to the train line that connects Piraeus, the port, with the centre of Athens. It is here that immigrants from the rest of Greece arrived in search of a better future at the beginning of the twentieth century. They transformed the morphology of the place by drastically intervening in its architectural and visual environment. New floors were added to buildings, ground floors were transformed into shopfronts marking the creation of a new and unique graphic mosaic. Today, people come to Athens from all over the world for the same reasons. Their habits and traditions enrich the established local culture with multi-ethnic qualities at both a social and a visual level.

The visual language used manifests the passage from tradition to modern life – from the art of the signwriter to digitally produced letters on aluminum light boxes. Early forms of signs showed the title of the service and name of the owner. These were followed by a westernised type of sign vocabulary with trendy foreign words written in Greek characters and the ‘all singing, all dancing’ animated neon signs together with more recent, ethnically targeted signs set in Russian, Indian or Chinese.

This chaotic mixture of visual patterns provides great source material for Greek type design references and sociological analysis. Over the years, some of the commercial activities have given place to new ones extending the local flux beyond working hours. A closer looks also reveals the harsher aspect of the ravages of time in the shape of closed or dilapidated shops.

‘Cleaning up’ the city

The centre of Athens is positioned roughly between two main squares – Omonoia and Syntagma. This includes the famous landmark of the Acropolis, with its surrounding districts, and is known as the city’s commercial and historical triangle. Over the past few years, large-scale projects have been instigated to reform and recreate the Athenian image to meet the standards of a European capital; also the standards of a city that will host the Olympic Games in 2004. These projects are a collaboration between the Company for the Unification of the Archeological Sites of Athens (EAXA) in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment, Physical Planning & Public Works and the Ministry of Culture. EAXA has planned, and is now applying, an ambitious scheme called ‘visual cleaning’ aimed at improving the urban image through ‘light’ interventions: i.e. ‘redesigning public places, removing visual disturbances (signs, billboards and other advertising structures) from buildings, and aesthetically improving “blind” walls and building façades.’ The Organising Committee of the Olympic Games is taking part in the process as an observer and to ensure that their applications (stands, navigation signs, information points etc.) will have the space they need.

Part of the EAXA ‘visual cleaning’ plan is to strip every degenerative element from buildings, thus revealing an old image that was hidden behind the layers. This restoration of their façades aims to regain some of the city’s lost qualities. According to the press release, the main aim of EAXA’s programme is, ‘to elevate the traditional character of the historical triangle of Athens, its scale and typology, and to include the archeological sites in everyday life as well as to highlight the modern urban web, redefining the sense of urban culture for Athens.’

This process will have a nostalgic effect on the visual appearance of the area, bringing back memories of its former glory which, as Italo Calvino writes in his Invisible Cities (Harvest Books, Washington, 1986), is noticeable and appreciated only because of its juxtaposition with the current state. ‘Metropolis’, he concludes, ‘has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back, with nostalgia at what it was.’ In art restoration practice there are ethical theories about the extent to which one should reveal the original image of an object, without losing its aura and without alienating it from its original use and function. In an old wooden Orthodox painting, for example, the metallic plate ‘offerings’ that cover the painted surface are part of its religious function. Their removal is a denial of that function, even though in time they may damage the underlying colours.

In the case of ‘urban lifting’ as a restoration technique, several issues arise. Time is one of them, as the decision where to ‘freeze’ time is the main factor that will determine the visual outcome of the project. Changes of style occur in different periods of time, and help to unify the visual appearance of dissimilar groups of buildings. Because the ‘visual cleaning’ process is localised, it is possible that the restored buildings and streets will appear isolated and alienated from their surroundings – just like artefacts in an exhibition – because of the purification of their image and the disappearance of the traces of their many uses. This may give the impression of walking around an open-air museum of how Athens used to be. Although one cannot argue about the advantages of the project – the organised and clean street layout, the picturesque views, the new, sorely needed public spaces and the beautiful pedestrian thoroughfares – there is still a big concern in maintaining the originality of the area without transforming it into yet another tourist site: as has happened at the Plaka and other districts after previous renovation plans.

Perhaps the Venturis’ Learning from Las Vegas can help us understand the importance of studying the vernacular and everyday culture. Although one cannot make direct comparisons of scale and style between the two cities, both have used their unique visual environment as an urban image. There are other examples of urban areas acquiring an iconic status: New York’s Times Square as a quick reference to the American dream; London’s Piccadilly Circus with its strict layout of advertisements and neon signs, which joins English tradition with global culture; Zurich’s clean and neat centre; and the colourful Marrakesh markets.

Signs of all kinds are the ‘wrinkles’ of the living city. Each one has a story to tell, revealing something of a city’s past life. Even the Parthenon has ‘graffiti’ carved on its marble columns, an act which in past times was considered as damaging the monument, but nowadays is seen as a valid source of Athenian history. Human beings are like water: they corrode everything in their passage. But then again, this is what makes cities interesting. The city is immersed in a constant stream of change. Just like humans.

Thanks to Giota Goni, Anni Vassiliou, Theodora Mantzaris, Elina Dallas and Phil Baines.

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