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Monday, June 28, 2004


City of Chaos - Part 2

What Went Wrong in Greek Urbanism

In the mad rush to “equality” with the US and northern Europe, automobile ownership in Greece has skyrocketed. In rural areas, this is understandable, since cars have provided an efficient connectivity, perhaps for the first time in history. In cities, however, severe problems have resulted since no thought was given to how all these cars were going to get around; as a result, roads are now choked. In parts of Athens, even the smallest side street is crowded day and night with traffic. There was also no thought given to parking all these vehicles, either for the night or once they reached their destination. The present state of commuting in Athens is the result of a monumental misunderstanding. Cities are transportation networks connecting pedestrian nodes. The quality and density of connections within and around those nodes, and connections among spatially separated nodes, are what enable a city to function. How efficiently a city works depends on the degree to which distinct transportation (including pedestrian) networks are integrated. Government planners, however, have visualized cities as buildings fitted into an abstract geometry, allowing them to cover every available space. Their idea of connectivity is to build a highway to a group of isolated villas or highrises. This philosophy naively supposes that the urban fabric will magically reproduce and expand by itself.

The old courtyard house fronted by a calm side street provided Athenian urban life with a ground-floor pedestrian realm connecting internal, private space to external, public space that was available to children and the elderly. This was replaced by the four-story apartment building, with shops on the ground floor. The street, consequently, carried a high traffic load, thus leaving only a narrow sidewalk for the urban realm. The lost pedestrian space was shifted to a number of small neighborhood parks, which represented a workable but primarily car-free solution, since the main transport in this pattern functioned through buses, trams, and subway. The increased pressure from cars promptly made it unworkable, although we were left with semi-functional pieces throughout Greece. What killed this model were greed and a total lack of government oversight.

The typical phenomenon of the highrise (four- to six-story) apartment house was both forced upon and eagerly adopted by the Greek public, for two reasons. First, it was propelled by the huge population (that is, internal-migration) pressure, which led to vertical stacking. Second, it was itself a driving force behind the construction boom that heated up the Greek economy in the Fifties and Sixties. For many citizens, the speculative building of apartment buildings became a gold mine, an employment opportunity, a route to a higher standard of living, or even all of the above. Politicians were unwilling, therefore, to criticize the postwar urban model in any way. The available ground space was far more useful (and valuable) for erecting more buildings. It might indeed be possible to return to the four-story, mixed-use apartment model. Today, however, one has to provide for underground (as well as limited surface) parking. Sidewalks have to be much wider, and urban space better defined, to enclose protected portions of the pedestrian realm. A lot more greenspace needs to be made available. Finally, balconies have to be at least two meters deep (roughly); otherwise, they don’t work as raised living spaces. These improvements would not, in themselves, solve the circulation and parking problems in the city, however. Although the destruction of any vestige of urban greenspace amounts to criminal negligence, the consequences of ignoring the parking and circulation problems are just as serious over the long term.

I cannot overemphasize that urban society forms in the pedestrian realm, which itself has to be nurtured at street level. But the postwar residential urban model evolved into new and unsustainable typologies. The height of a typical apartment building has now increased beyond four stories, which surpasses the critical limit of density capable of sustaining urban life. Above four stories, there is no visual or spoken exchange with the street level. Children and the elderly are virtually imprisoned in their apartments, thus disconnecting society.

Even more serious is the elimination of mixed use. The parking garage has replaced the traditional commercial ground floor. A cheap solution — easing parking problems at home by putting cars under apartments (but not underground) — has dealt the final blow. Today, monofunctional apartment highrises sit on stilts, with the ground floor entirely taken over by parking (following the 1922 Citrohan model of the hysterically antisocial Le Corbusier). This disconnects inhabitants from urban life, reconnecting them only through their cars. It is the same disconnection seen in North American suburbs, with their well-documented social alienation. We have vertical isolation in Greece, as opposed to the horizontal isolation of the United States. Since there is no longer any connection with the ground, sidewalks have begun to shrink, and apartment buildings stand apart from each other, thus failing to define any urban space. The pedestrian realm has been totally sacrificed to the needs of the automobile. A facile parking solution is to accommodate vehicles underneath the new, freestanding apartment buildings, but this is an illusion. Those cars start off in the morning to jam the streets and fight for nonexistent parking spaces at their destination. Some residents pretend that they need their cars only to take their families out of the concrete hell of Athens, so that they can live a “normal” life in the countryside for a few days. It never occurs to them that it is possible to live a more connected life in the city itself — with the correct geometry.

Sustainable urban models exist today. They are promoted by architects who truly understand urban and social forces. These include several distinguished Greeks who are part of the neo-traditional movement outside the country: Richard Economakis, Michael Lykoudis, Demetri Porphyrios, and Stefanos Polyzoides. To their urban solutions must be added the contemporary scientific developments of the “network city,” a concept with which I am involved. Accomplished urbanists in Greece share our visions, but they are, unfortunately, outside the circles of power. We have the solutions in our hands. It only remains to convince industry and government to implement them, not for any ideological reason, but because they are cheaper and more effective in the long run. They represent a far better investment than the madness now being pursued. The ecological dimension A radically new urban philosophy can emerge from these suggestions. It is but a small step in the direction I am proposing to bring the natural environment into the picture. This way of looking at the built environment gives priority to human beings and small-scale structures. It represents a drastic reversal of twentieth-century urbanism, which emphasized the large scale and ignored the individual. An urbanism that destroys the small scale and treats human beings as expendable objects will never respect the natural world. On the contrary, it is an expression of humankind’s arrogance regarding nature. A new urbanism, which respects our sensibilities in the built environment, would also appreciate our natural environment.

Once we begin to salvage the old, and now mostly lost, regions of our cities, we can also begin to appreciate the living elements within those cities. A tree grows naturally next to a low, crooked wall, and within a courtyard. A wide, uneven sidewalk has space to accommodate trees. An archeologically open space provides a habitat for some urban (if only avian) wildlife. This is more a philosophy of nature and of the earth than a conscious approach to urbanism. In the event, and as I said, an urbanism that is modest and respects human sensibilities will also respect the natural environment; it goes hand in hand with a modest architecture of human proportions and textures. The alien look of polished metal, glass façades, and smooth, windowless walls breeds an intolerance for living things precisely because it represents the opposite properties.

I am looking to the future, when we will use scientific knowledge about complex systems and their interactions to better plan our cities. Critics of such ideas dismiss them as nostalgic, belonging to the past. That is not accurate. What I propose has a striking commonality with some aspects of traditional urbanism, which accommodates human beings and not machines or abstract geometric forms. Those critics are stuck in an obscurantist mindset of inherited urbanist dogma. To them, any revolutionary proposal for progress threatens their own false promise of a “progress” possible only through modernist principles. Those principles are the same failed ideas of the 1920s, recycled over and again. Each time, cities and nations are promised that they will work now, and that their previous applications were sabotaged by factors “beyond” their planners’ control. Like a pathogen, modernist urbanism is easily recognizable once one knows what signs to look for. Some of its principal characteristics are: monolithic buildings and vast open spaces; geometrical alignment to arbitrary rectangular axes; elimination of the intermediate and smaller scales; insistence on industrial materials; insistence on the “purity” of form and surfaces. This goes hand in hand with an intolerance of whatever helps to reinforce the urban fabric, such as pedestrian spaces, semi-enclosed urban spaces, permeable interfaces, folded urban boundaries, remnants of the past, modestly-sized structures, street furniture, and anything that “clutters” an empty minimalist geometry.

Most telling is a static mindset that deceives anyone considering modernist solutions that look neatly regular on paper. A dynamic city constantly evolves because of urban forces, much like any ecosystem. Only those who are supremely arrogant assume that they can impose static, geometric solutions, and that people will follow them exactly without eventual change. The same foolish assumption is made about materials: modernists erect smooth, flat walls and complain that they stain and weather badly. They have never understood how materials age, nor how urban structure evolves in time.

Modernist prescriptions destroy cities by reversing hierarchies of connectivity. They remove organized structure and differentiation from the human scale. At the same time, they eliminate connective paths within human reach. The end result displays an artificial, mechanical movement as services have to be forced into the over-concentrated downtown office nodes. Human beings need both structures and paths on the human scale — an obvious biological fact that has escaped modernist planners. Further, as in an ecological system, when certain levels of life are missing, they are replaced by organisms from nearby strata. This has led to many downtown areas being occupied, after hours, by homeless persons and/or petty criminals. It is not their fault; there are just no socially healthier elements willing to occupy that hostile niche in the urban ecosystem. A new generation of urbanists A separate but subtler danger comes from postmodernist architects who appreciate correct urbanist principles, but misuse them to promote their own alien buildings. Such people (some of whom occupy positions of great power and influence in the architectural community) are promoting good cities with faulty pieces. What they would have us build is similar to some northern European “new towns,” where all the right urban connections are present, yet the towns are still dead because the architecture is alienating on a human scale. What we have here are high-tech parasites of the living urban fabric.

To add insult to injury, some postmodernist urbanists have appropriated the terms “ecological” and “sustainable” to denote energy-saving buildings that are entirely alien to humanity. Up close, such buildings resemble a space station — as far removed from nature as can be imagined. Nevertheless, municipalities and national governments have been duped into spending money to build high-tech monstrosities out of extremely expensive materials simply because their architects add some solar panels to them or use elementary concepts of recycling and insulation. It is a mark of public gullibility that buildings have ignored such fundamental ecological concerns for so long that they can now be promoted as “innovative.” Just like their modernist predecessors, these architects deceive us with flashy and seductive images of industrial materials.

Some of these prominent architects are now destroying China’s centuries-old sustainable urban fabric, replacing it with an unsustainable nightmare of concrete, glass, and steel. This will guarantee gasoline dependence and urban congestion for generations. One would think that these planners are employed by transnational oil companies to stake out profits for at least a century, but no. They have been invited, and are paid, by the Chinese government to “renew” its cities. The damage they are doing, however, far surpasses that of combined Mongolian invasions. I mention this only as a warning to the Greek government, which has been jealously looking to bring these same fashionable people to wreak havoc in Athens. The new generation of urbanists encompasses those who wrote the New Charter of Athens 2003; the neo-traditionalists; those who cling stubbornly to the old modernist dogmas; and promoters of the network city (which include me and others who propose radical solutions based on technology). Some of these persons understand how a city works, while others think they do. Some have a good understanding of urban processes on a particular scale, but grasp neither other scales nor their need to integrate into one other. Others are impostors, plain and simple. Urbanism is an easy field in which to make wild new proposals without having to prove their effectiveness.

Conclusion: toward a new urban philosophy Modernist urbanism — based on the power to impose technology over nature — is essentially destructive of what already exists. It is also profoundly arrogant in its assertion of a brutal power over something it doesn’t understand and which it disdains. Greece’s urban, social, and environmental devastation during the last two generations is due to interlinked causes. Today, progress requires a major change in worldview. The pairing of technological progress with an urbanism of alien forms is a great lie, one fanatically believed in by many “modern” Greeks. Technology can help in the reconstruction, however, when applied intelligently. Science is essential to help urban residents live like human beings once again and regenerate their environment.

Misguided urbanists applying wrong ideas have done (and continue to do) so much damage that it is impossible to know where to begin a critique. Let me touch only on the topic of automobiles. Cars will not go away; every Greek wants to own at least one and many in Athens own two. Automobiles are a tremendously useful, if very expensive, mode of transport, but they must be accommodated without destroying the pedestrian urban fabric. Since this has already been destroyed in most places, it must be rewoven. A living city connects its cars to people in a non-threatening way: automobiles should not take over a city. Planners have to understand how to interweave the car web to the primarily pedestrian urban fabric. Then they can work out how to optimize that web without destroying the rest of the city. These principles are very simple to understand.

Greece used to have a well-balanced respect for the environment (at least in the mythical days of yesteryear, when Greeks lacked the technological power to destroy it). But this respect was replaced by a new philosophy of intolerance. Old Greece stood in the way of grand urban and architectural projects deemed necessary for “progress.” We sacrificed much to this progress, however, and it is now choking us. City-building consists of a series of compromises and accommodations. This, however, is not the same as sacrificing elements of our heritage and environment to antiquated visions of the future. I would like to see the majority of Greeks repair their urban environment so that they and their children can enjoy a better quality of life. I wish to save those pieces of uniquely Greek urban fabric from the senseless destruction to which it has been condemned.

Two outstanding names in twentieth-century Greek architecture, Dêmêtrês Pikiônês (1887-1968) and Arês Kônstantinidês (1913-1993), saw the enormous value of locally evolved urban solutions. The confluence of market forces, social and esthetic needs, and materials appropriate to Greece and its Mediterranean climate gave rise to a set of typologies that respected human sensibilities and the environment much more than what replaced them. During a time of modernist hegemony, these two modernist-trained architects bravely championed solutions that the architectural mainstream furiously rejected as “unmodern.” They eventually fought openly with their colleagues to safeguard what they considered as our precious urban heritage. The solution to Greece’s urban problems is not merely contained in the points outlined above. It also lies in the adoption of a new philosophy of humankind’s relationship to nature and the environment. It is contained in the serious, scientific study of what specific rules actually generate living cities. It lies in recognizing that the ideological urbanism of the postwar years has been discredited in practice. It lies in rejecting as toxic the high-tech “look” of contemporary architecture (tolerable only in minute quantities). Once those philosophically linked steps are taken — accepting the full humility of human beings vis-à-vis their environment, their fellow beings, their historical past, and their urban heritage — everything else will follow.

Nikos A. Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and currently directs research and student theses in architecture and urbanism at the University of Rome III and the Delft University of Technology. He is also associate editor of Katarxis III, an online journal of architecture, science, and urbanism; a member of the board of advisors of the Institute for Studies in Sacred Architecture in Berkeley, California; and consultant to the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC.
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