12 September, 2010

After the bubble gums

Architecture before and after the crisis.

By Thanos Stasinopoulos

Greek version

The effects of the sudden Greek financial crisis resemble a tsunami after an earthquake that spreads in all directions, flooding the building sector along with many other fields: Housing loans dry off, building permits fall, commercial uses are shrinking, demand for apartments evaporates, sales of holiday home go down. Many architects feel unprecedented uncertainty, just like thousands of others.

The fact is that the calamity caught many in their sleep, interrupting ambitious dreams, trends, aspirations, illusions. The new situation puts an end to a period of virtual growth and deceiving prosperity that has largely been based on the fake wealth of loans and credit cards. A collateral damage is the architectural backdrop of the society of credit-based consumption.

Many considered as status symbols the villa north or east of Athens, the weekends at the cottage with their thirsty 4X4, the day or night raids in flashy consumerist hubs. That triptych was reflected in the construction sector, which participated in the lifestyle festival by promoting glamorous settings and spoiling the natural environment or the older urban fabric.

It is interesting to refresh our memory on how the architectural journalism saw the carefree mood of the era. 3½ years ago, the Athens daily 'Kathimerini' published an article by Nikos Vatopoulos titled "Small towns in the big one" with the subtitle "The spread of commercial parks in Greece brings back issues on redefining our relationship with the urban landscape and leisure".

It is a general overview of the current atmosphere, when the consumerist frenzy was multiplying the most typical buildings of the dominant collective values, the "temples of commerce and recreation", in Attica and the rest of the country. Reading the same text today in the light of recent economic changes, one would think that it refers to another country. I quote here some excerpts highlighting certain points:

"Every Saturday, outside the large urban or suburban department stores, malls, and other centres of consumption and leisure, peaceful demonstrators celebrate a lifestyle which, in Greece at least, had been unknown until a few years ago. Ordinary Greeks live their own "Greek dream", which in many aspects reminds the American dream 50 years ago. The family outings on Saturdays (the same would also happen on Sundays if legislation was more permissive) resemble raids on shops with household goods and clothing, involving a time-consuming process that eats much of the otherwise precious free time of the middle-class. There is no mood for critique, because, one way or another, we are all part of that trend which is not only consumerist but also cultural. The Greeks prefer to go to the new business park at the airport or to the, also new, shopping centre at Faliro, rather than go to nature or a museum or a picnic. The average priorities are now clear and unambiguous."

The article asserts that such attitude promotes consumerism into a cultural expression, linked with a like-minded architecture which affirms its presence in the urban landscape and implants new social attractions, more alluring than the existing ones:

"And all that modern culture of the new mobility from the apartment blocks to the temples of commerce and recreation, from the small private universe into the chaotic public, from the suburbs to the land beyond the suburbs, from suburbia to exurbia, follows cycles that are infused in the style and atmosphere of the city. The new urban landmarks are not -in Athens at least- institutionally established functions of a cohesive society, that is they are not a Tate Modern à la Grecque, but a "park" that sells cheap sofas, electrical goods, computers and sports clothes. Besides that, one can eat junk food and see a movie in an environment of identical, recognizable, and perfectly functional architecture. "

A disadvantage seems to be that "in most of those fabrications, the logic of the big box prevails" (like, say, in the Benaki Museum in Athens or the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing), which however is negligible compared to their contribution to the vitality of the city:

"Yet, the noisy crowds and the exuberance of a public space that had been purged from the cities for several decades soften the aesthetic drawbacks, offsetting them with values of civil coexistence."

The new 'cultural' trend is spreading to the Greek provinces too, reducing the gap from other countries in order not to feel that ours is underdeveloped and "comparable only with countries of the former communist world." Although we do not have "the political adoption of high architecture to create phantasmagorias of consumer experience in environments signed by major architects" like in Potsdamer Plaz of Berlin, there are good reasons to hope that we will soon be included in "the new consumerism maps", making Greek consumers proud of their new shiny diamonds:

"Greece is emerging as an attractive market and the consumerist frenzy of Greeks will certainly contribute to the expansion of the phenomenon. Unlike to what happens in societies of Eastern Europe or in Turkey, Greece is differentiated by a broad social base which supports the culture of middle-class consumerism.
... It is very likely that these new social conditions will seek to be represented by architecture too.
... The consumer culture becomes a barometer of global cities. That's why in the Eastern European societies that emerge to the West, every new business park fills people with a pride difficult to hide."






Today, such a hymn to"Consumo, ergo sum" and its architectural incarnations seems totally out of tune. Now, the illusion that the party has no end is dissolved by the tsunami of economic measures that splashes on almost everybody. And while virtual wealth is buried under recession, the 'bipolar disorder' of our society passes from the phase of hypomania to the phase of depression. Detoxification from the consumerist addiction is not an easy or painless matter.

What we will be the impact on Greek architecture in the coming years? What will be the fate of the big private and public projects that are already on the table? With public and bank valves closed, what is the future of architects' professional field? To what extent architecture in our country will be sustained by the strong wealthy few, and what character they will assign to it? What impact will have on architectural education and practice the two-speed society that emerges on the horizon?

As long as the aftershocks continue, it is premature to answer such questions. What is certain is that consumerist naiveté and its architectural derivatives have suffered a strong blow. But "every cloud has a silver lining": Maybe now is a good opportunity to rethink our priorities, social and architectural. To become more tentative to architecture in gift wrapping. To address architectural narcissism with a more critical eye. To remove wastefulness and ostentation from architectural virtues. To comprehend that every architectural form has an economic and environmental impact. And using economic terms, to stop considering nature as a bank that will lends us forever.

The imperative is to realize that today is always succeeded by tomorrow. Let's hope that whatever comes next will have a more sensible and sustainable basis, displacing the sweetened but pointless bubble gums.

"When wealth and the wealthy are honoured in a city, virtue and the virtuous are prized less." (Plato's Republic, 551A)

Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
Dr. Architect Engineer, AAGradDipl.



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