The Dispersed Urbanity of the Aegean Archipelago
The theme of the Greek presentation at the Biennale is based on the heretical conviction of historian Ruggiero Romano that the Aegean archipelago is a city, a view also held in differing version by other historians, and which, from a geophilosophical aspect, is advocated by the philosopher Massimo Cacciari.
TRANSFORMATION OF THE URBAN CONCEPT – THE METACITY
The discussion of the archipelago as city has formed a distinct part of the perspective of the meta-city, as formulated in the official proclamation of the Biennale, and has fed and enriched the already fascinating debate around the idea of the metacity.
This agglomeration of enormous masses of buildings and people on the periphery of our cities, and the emergence of the gigantic new, chiefly Asian, cities that have redefined human geography on the planet have motivated contemporary intellectuals to seek the components of the urban, beyond the static types and forms that have been used for more than two centuries now to codify urban space. Rem Koolhass’ text on the generic city, like the major exhibitions and publications with which it was associated (Cities on the move , Mutations ) explains that, under the new global conditions, European cities, or to be precise the historic centres of European cities, are not eternal or universal models of urban planning, but rather a global museum of the city.
- The discussion about the metacity is evolving within the gloomy prospect of globalization:
- The expanding scale, rapid changes in the composition of the urban population and exacerbation of social contrasts suggest authoritarian panepoptic control as the only way to manage the city.
- The decline of public urban space is an indication of the changing nature of the city from a landscape populated by free citizens to a territory dominated by alienation, exclusion and marginalization in ghettoes.
- The emergence of an absolute asymmetry between the metacity and its countryside precludes any possibility of sustainability.
- Alienated desires generate new landscapes of consumption that are dislocated in time and space, where the semiology of continuity of the city’s place and time is dismantled.
On the other hand, policies for managing urban space, in the service of which architecture is enlisted, as in Mitterand’s Grands Projets or the hosting of major international events like the Olympic Games, continue to be regarded as effective strategies enabling a city to secure a high ranking in the arena described in theory as the competition of the cities. Barcelona, Berlin, London, Bilbao, Athens and now Peking are cited as emblematic examples of this line of thought.
However, the recent riots in Paris have shown in the most dramatic way that in the metacity, the importance of architectural planning is merely relative and that architecture alone cannot restore the damaged significance that the city has had since the French Revolution as the form of existence par excellence of the (urban) population.
This is why discussion of the metacity is both timely and necessary.
THE AEGEAN IS A CITY
Within this inauspicious discussion of the metacity, the example of the Aegean, for reasons associated with historical and geographical circumstances, represents the promise of a different urbanism.
- The Aegean is not just a picturesque reminder of unfinished modernization or a region on earth that has escaped development.
- The Aegean is not an anachronism, it is a different metacity.
- The syntactic structure of the archipelago, the proximity and small scale of the islands have inhibited the cult of size, and necessitated the creation of devolved administrative power and structures and the development of strong and cohesive community links and model structures for a “decentralised” centrality.
- The fact that the islands are surrounded by sea has given them an a priori intimate relationship with nature, without involving the intervention of ecologically-minded rhetoric.
- The clear skies and outstandingly beautiful beacheshave it a popular tourist destination. Nevertheless, despite the predominance of aggressive models of tourism management and the consumption of local resources, the keynote of the Aegean is not the mass tourism of major hotel chains; instead the waves of tourists are absorbed into the interstices of in the complex communities, the population of visitors is assimilated into the residential shells of the Aegean to accept readily whatever represents otherness, and to develop a culture of cosmopolitan hospitality, without lapsing into superficial snobbery or regressing to closed manners and customs or to the nationality cult.
- The growth of the tourist economy and the arrival on the islands of growing numbers of economic migrants, chiefly from Asia, are exerting pressure on the ekistic fabric and on the human geography of this marine city with the scattered suburbs of its islands. The result of this pressure can be seen in the special mythologies and the distinct profile with which each individual island introduces itself to us and with which it inserts itself onto the great map of tourist destinations: Syros, Leros, Syme, Carpathos.
- It should not escape our attention that many of socio-spatial utopias of the 19th century were islands and that, in fact, all utopias have the structure of an island.
- Moreover, according to the critical note by Massimo Cacciari, it is the state of separation, its isolation (isola), that defines the existence of an island. As the result of severance, as a fraction or part, the island in itself implies the entirety of its origin and shapes the context for continual for continual comparison with and measurement against that entirety.
- Similarly, the sea that surrounds the island, the pontus, as implied by the common etymological origin with the word bridge (pont), is simultaneously the element that (re)unites it with the mainland.
- An interruption in the continuity of the continental shelf illustrates the common ground of the separated, severed over-sea communities, the prominent peaks, each of which is read as the horizon of the other, an element defining (and defined by) the other.
- The varied nature and history of the organic fabric, the narrow criss-crossing streets, the little squares in island towns or the vast sea and the shore opposite can be read as material traces of this vital communication; as the expertise that was transferred from one island to another. Although it is possible to describe in simpler terms the multiple versions of a genetic mechanism that reproduces itself continuously, through an inexhaustible number of variations generated by transformations of the underlying structure. A structure, according to F. Braudel, whose history narrates the complex transformations of its persistent materiality.
- The complexity of Aegean island life cannot be reduced to an attractive but one-dimensional holiday landscape, a privileged resort to be enjoyed by the affluent two-thirds of society. The Aegean is not a picturesque prop, a delightful cloud-cuckoo-land, or a theme park; it does not describe an abstract social reality. It is a real community, a composite vital social structure that owes its truth to the contradictions that run through it, to the networks that connect it, and to the mosaic of citizens who inhabit it: merchants, civil servants, seamen, fishermen, goat breeders, Albanian field workers, dairy farmers, vintners, Polish mechanics, hoteliers, shipowners, university faculty, and Asian economic migrants.
- There are many creative artists in a variety of fields, painters, musicians, poets, or actors, in whose sensibility and creative expression we can trace the summer moments they have experienced on the beaches of Homer. A sample census – not only of these celebrity visitors but also of the many ordinary people from all over Europe and elsewhere who have spent time in the Aegean and thus stabilised their relationship with the place, acquiring a small house, s pied-a-terre – would add quantitative support to the idea of the Aegean as metacity, a model of complex habitation.
- Regarding architectural representation of the Aegean, a particularly important role has been played by the notes, drawings and ideas of Le Corbusier and other architects of the Modern Movement who have travelled here; their experience of the region and their orientation and reading of the rudimentary structure of the island settlements, with their white, cube-shaped houses, have been a vital and valuable part of their architectural education, a source and mainstay of their development.
- In the Aegean, the renewal of the fabric has been dramatized by the intense relationship between the new and existing shells, always assuming extreme values. Irrespective of its scale, whether it involved a small residential unit or a vast building complex, architectural design has always taken on the form of a challenge. In the entire repertory of the impressive and learned contemporary architecture in the Aegean – isolated houses or small settlements, hotels large and small, museums, university buildings, open spaces, and seafronts – we recognize not only the anguished vector of architectural expression, from imitative adaptation to the local vernacular, to the disturbance of the genius loci through renovation, but also the whole panorama of Greek architects over the past century, from Valentis and Papadakis to Valsamakis, Fatouros, Kontaratos, Zengelis, Tsigarida and the Deca team.
- Whether we view the Aegean as a modern space, as Panayiotis Tournikiotis argues, or as a rare space which, as described by George Thomson, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since prehistoric times, its unique and non-reproducible features make it an alternative, although nor easily emulated, model.
It is precisely the unique quality of the Aegean’s characteristics that have led us to propose it as the Greek contribution to the Biennale. Through the difficult debate on the metacity, it offers the contradictory yet real example of an aquatic city that demands to be seen as a space of desire, because the charm it exerts is not drawn from the reserves of nostalgia, but from the durability of a dwelling structure which contains the promise of a different metacity, dedicated to the cause of freedom.
Elias Constantopoulos, Korina Filoxenidou, Katerina Kotzia, Lois Papadopoulos
Curators of the Greek participation
Translated by Judy Giannakopoulou