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FRONTAGE SHOWCASES AND THE POST-URBAN UNCANNY-A RECTROACTIVE MANIFESTO FOR HELLENIC PROFESSIONAL SPACES

01 January, 2010

FRONTAGE SHOWCASES AND THE POST-URBAN UNCANNY-A RECTROACTIVE MANIFESTO FOR HELLENIC PROFESSIONAL SPACES

ANTI-IDEOLOGY: A condition desirable or not, commercialism shapes the outskirts of most hellenic urban centers, in an un-assumed, untold, unconscious but uniform manner. This text is the means of exploring a condition that -regardless of the importance of its impact- remains neglected, even excluded from architectural discourse.

By Aristotelis Dimitrakopoulos

Greek version

PARAPET-OLOGY: At the Hellenic strip, architecture reaches its limits and transforms into a conjuring of matter destined to achieve a kind of visual establishment with no other rational than the obvious effect of matter: being seen. The upper two meters –the crown zone of a roadside showcase building- are to be materialized with ‘architectural’ features of no inherent reason, no function to fulfill. Their existence and the legal proclamation of their creation is distinctly vague, has to be described as purely decorative even officially, establishing an architectural morphology that grows exclusively out of the contested fact of the ‘legally allowed’. Its driving force is not style, nor dogma or tectonics, it is solely the law -regardless of content or purpose- prescribing an architecture of vague coincidence: if ‘it’ is legal, why not build ‘it’, in direct expectation of a hidden benefit; an unclaimed secret that is potentially implied by an [at first glance] meaningless regulation.

FORCEFUL CROWN: The typology of the hollow apex is one of the most intrinsic morphological features of the hellenic strip, materialized as a remnant or a memory of ‘normal’ form that is portrayed in a status of relative aposynthesis. Its expression shares a reference to traditional archetypes: often appears as a perimetrical wall with perhaps larger openings, which –falsely- do not connect to any interior; extensions of columns connected through horizontal beams implying a continuation of the structure reminiscent of trellises or peristylion; or as embedded permanent tablets [advertisement screens] forming a continuous enclosure.

COMPETENCE: An untold but clearly implied directive set forth by clients is the ‘presence’ of the building, its accelerated [actual or effectual] protrusion into the public [or better, not-privately-owned] realm. This obvious principle of spatial organization reveals an incredible symptom of the Hellenic strip that puts it in direct opposition to its american counterpart: if the western generic sales-space typology is the opaque box that appears recessed from the street and centrally sited within an ample pelagon of surface parking, the greek generic denies all issues and concerns of accessibility and parking. As an oversized version of the pedestrian agora, the hellenic strip still pretends to push-forward into the pavement, enabling a scalar explosion of city-center style window-shopping where the product itself is pushed into the customer’s face.
PARA-MORPHOSIS: This is a reality of accelerated car-window-shopping, a distortion of previous urbanization modes; a street frontage reality that manifests its insisting denial towards the presence of the automobile, [its very product, reason and commercial program].
Contained in a pervasive process of dimensional pumping and real estate extol, the local building industry fails to recognize the scalar leap, the slipping into the realms of exaggerated bigness [at least compared to the small-scaled surroundings] and the obvious corresponding increase in service requirements.

IMMEDIACY + ACCESS: No clear answer persists to the issue of “auto-pedestrian” accessibility [auto-pedestrians: automobile passengers who just parked their cars and are now out to walk], to the issue of customers’ parking or to any formal accessibility arrangements. The location of the main [monumental] entry door itself -mostly centrally and symmetrically onto the public frontage- portrays the exact anamnesis of the “Monument” with no rational access proposal. A para-taxis of definitely detached [actually and notionally] Monuments is the strip itself.
In most cases, public space is somehow overrun: entrepreneurs level the curb enabling direct [illegal] access to the frontage road, so that passengers are able to climb and park right onto the sidewalks directly from the right traffic lane of the speed-road [!]. All adjacent semi-public space becomes an extension of outdoor product display or parking.
The Hellenic strip is clearly, exclusively and officially [un]designed for automobiles. Pedestrians cannot even hypothetically move through, as all not-owned [it is unfair to call this remnant domain public] space, is appropriated indirectly as surface parking with the excuse of temporariness.

LARCENY: With arbitrariness as its subtext, the “roadside showcase” typology proceeds as an indirect prescript of illegal extensions, a formulae of extra spaces, extensions of the basic programmatic organization without which the whole operational structure would fail: outdoor territories are appropriated as mentioned, intermediate levels, [mezzanines] are inserted within the two-story tall exhibition space, while attic additions and lateral extensions become a norm.

POST-RATIONALIZATION: The formal effect of the built forms grows as the additive and generally un-interrelated outcome of supposedly rational decisions. The leap forward from older typological conventions absorbs currently all informal criticism towards the evolving roadside business space typologies.
In the post-war years, the modernization process evolved through the constant duplication of the multi-story apartment slab, the typology of the poly-kat-ecea [from ecos, or oikos in greek, meaning house]. Developed as generic real estate investment, the ultimate and definite goal of a polykatoikia was to shelter the descendants of the family. The building typology served as a certification of optimum living conditions for generations to come, in an incredibly mediterranean, ultra-protective mentality towards family members.

GENEALOGY: Until the day the apartments of a polykatoikia assume their ultimate and prescribed role, they house anything and accommodate any use, from private tutoring services, to offices or gyms, publishing companies, medical practices, etc. Depending on location, the ground floors, instead of low-rented flats, are widely refurbished and converted into professional space proper for small private entrepreneurships. Often, due to their siting, such polykatoikias completely shed the residential use: the upper floors become an extension of the ground level business. The change of use requires a change of look and, intuitively, entrepreneurs enforce a more uniform, non-residential, assumed professional [!] outlook. Often expressed through an additional full-body exterior cladding, all balconies, openings, doors, projections, all the residential-style features are hidden behind opaque, artificial material that turn the building into a black box while all outdoor projections [balconies, verandas] are transformed into in-between storage space. The ground floor in such cases is left transparent, while opaque structural members are minimized through reflective cladding materials, signing the products and the services offered.
Such enclaves are the ancestors of the ‘roadside showcase’ building, fully designed to offer a new material expression, right from the outset, accommodating the same exact program –this time with its features optimized: A house turned into a business enclave.

FRONTALITIES: The glazed ground floor display is now a lot more distinct, a spectacle operating from greater distances, offering a wider arc of view from the asphalt pavement. Uses and spaces above become readily part of the crown setup, opaque elongated bands over the transparent display. The automotive showcases, clearly oriented towards the pavement, disregard all other spatial relations.

AD-HOC DEALERSHIPS: Reflecting the local economy, the businesses housed are typically single-person entrepreneurships or family-run companies re-selling ready-made commodities. Their products, imported household goods, bathroom equipment, furniture, carpets, light-fixtures, electronics, cars and relevant accessories become the dreamery of a great life to be purchased. Mostly built by their very occupants, these buildings materialize popular and commonly accepted notions towards professional space.

PARA-SITES: The local, small, even fragmented, personally-run stores compete against their counterpart: the large multinational franchises and corporate mega-companies. The ideologically opposed structures are clearly manifest even through the contrasting organization modes of their respective operational environments: if the opaque neutral box in a sea of parking represents the corporate global business, the glazed-frontage box manifests the personally-owned shop.

PARA-CITIES: The mega-chain-store generates an environment of its own, parasitically, beyond the traffic artery. On the other hand, the roadside showcase tries desperately and again parasitically to fit within the urban landscape and masks its status of alienation through its core characteristics –hollowness and transparency – which pretend to refer to the urban condition, evoking the market conditions of the city center. Between the two typologies, the scale of intervention is different, but the effect similar. Either the cyst is independent or it mingles or flows into the circulation system, ‘eating’ up actual public space.

ESTABLISHED THROMBOSIS: This is the native and unforced business environment typology, an answer to the uniformly developed hellenic city that sofar has fully excluded the development of professional space, because its developers, the migrant inhabitants themselves, had been at first exclusively interested or actually obsessed with housing, the elementary means for survival and profit. Nowadays detached dealership buildings are built as well, the local equivalent of the corporate headquarters…

PHOTAGOGY AS ARCHITECTONISM:
“Lighting as an extension of our powers affords the clearest-cut example of how such extensions alter our perceptions… It is equally conceivable that the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, in making consciousness-without-walls… [functions] as a straightforward simulation of consciousness…”  (1) Marshall Mc Luhan

TURMOIL; ENCHANTING GLOW: At night, the dematerialization of the built form is the apotheosis of its very creation. The tangible massing quails and the true architectural intent arises. The ephemeral promises of the consumerist prosperity flaunt as a lightshow, as a web of narcosis, materialization of an optical unconscious .(2)
The semi-urban-scape evolves as a linear parataxis [parathesis] of unsealed packages revealing their contents. Publicized interior spaces, apocalyptic accumulations of thematic prototypes and lifestyles feature pretentious confessions or archetypes of soft putridity, as another interpretation of a communal peep-show, idealized theatricalism enabling the [machinic] passenger to master the purportedly secretive hedonistic formulas of consumerism; functioning as assurances of its vague promises.

PANOPTIC FLARE:
“It came to represent an absolutely transparent form, a hollow body devoid of an inner self or mind of its own, absolutely manipulable and controllable”. (3)   Christine Boyer
The nocturnal freshly-urbanized roadscape [beyond the historic urban matrix] arises as a bipolar dialectic between absolutely private, personal spaces that momentarily converge: the climatically controlled and functionally autonomous cabin of the private vehicle and the diligently illuminated displays contained within the giga-showcases. Between those, the function of the truly public space –boulevard or freeway, frontage street, sidewalks- is immediately reduced down to a dark inhospitable utility zone unrelated to the temporal sensualism of warmth, domesticity, safety and individuality of the private. The collective perceptions towards the public realm have been progressively perverted, auto-mobility is auto-matically re-introduced as the true city-dweller. The loss of communality and humane scale –dynamically and physically- becomes obvious.

NEUROSIS, HEDONISTIC SYNESTHESIA:
The feeling of the uncanny implies the return to that particular organization of space where everything is reduced to inside and outside and where the inside is also the outside. (4)  Sigmund Freud
Detached pseudo-luxurious post- or neo-modernist boxes relying on ephemeral thematic decoration for immediate impact, the gleaming boxes shed their front face [towards the intermodal street/connector]. As gates, laterally set portals, series of proscenia linearly arranged, they turn their interior setting into exterior frontage, into an actual building elevation, through the self-denial [transparency] of the material shell [procuring maximal visibility and proximity], launching the automotive window-shopping.

KINETISM: PANDORA’S INDULGING:
The “field of anxiety” is framed by the uncanny, so to speak, even as the uncanny itself is framed as an apparition seen, as it were, through a window. (5)
There is… [a] dislocation between Pandora’s appearance and her meaning. She is a Trojan Horse, a lure and a trap, a trompe l’ oeil. Her appearance dissembles her essence. The very attraction of the visible surface suggests an antinomy, ‘a dialectics of outside and inside’, a topography that reflects the attraction/anxiety ambivalence exerted by the iconography of feminity as a mask. This split is crucial. (6)  Laura Mulvey
Through the roadside showcases, household goods develop as the central ingredients and physical theorems of a successful living. The functional and emotional value transgresses the original utilitarian aspect, serving idyllic [regional] models of living. Alien products, currently absorbed in the fragmented local market, compose the internal aggregates of the ‘Hellenic dream’: a glittering, affluent, private household, an assembly of estranged -actually foreign- equipment. Common emotional commotions of happiness, chirurgically separated from everyday life and commodified, are re-introduced as the purchasable immediate effect of commercial goods.
The roadside landscape proceeds as an enigmatic field, accumulation of exposed female spaces of spectacle and desire; as receptacles nourishing masculine activities: acquiring, obtaining, enjoying, relishing, consuming.

Article [greek and English version] by Aristotelis Dimitrakopoulos
aris@aristotheke.com

The greek version of the text was published at the architectural magazine ‘Αρχιτέκτονες’ [Architects], Architectural Journal of the Hellenic Association of Architects (AIA equivalent), Athens, Greece, Issue No 43, JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2004. The English version of the text is unpublished.

Note from the author: the english text is not an exact translation of the original greek version, it is rather an extension to it.

1.Marshall Mc Luhan, Understanding Media, The MIT Press, 1964, p. 128, 130.
2.Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, Routledge, 1992, p. 23-24. Reference to the ‘optical unconscious’. 
3.Christine Boyer, Cybercities, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, comment on the glass citizen of the 3rd Reich, p. 102.
4.Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Essays in the Modern Unhomely [Unheimlich], MIT Press, 1992, p. 222.
5.Ibid, p. 224.
6.Beatriz Colomina, Sexuality and Space, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1992, Laura Mulvey, Pandora: Topographies of the Mask and Curiosity, p. 60.

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