Time embodied in the physical city

Another Athens in my perception is a city of architecture. It wears its progressive story on its sleeve and physically evidences its passing history more than others. At its heart is one of the most important monuments of the ancient western world, an architectural remnant at an age of two and a half millennia. Every age since manifests itself in the built environment. Layers of time buckle together and strange coexistences occur across the metropolis. What is deemed important enough to preserve and what is abandoned as irrelevant seem absurdly skewed by the impressive length of the city’s timeline.

The bulk of the city’s physicality is visually dominated by the building boom of the sixties and seventies period of unregulated growth, which dogs the present day across Europe but particularly here half a century on. It is a didactic spectre; its relative proximity and symbolic norm for the departing generation give it the potent whiff of the worst form of the past, the recent one. No nostalgia, only evasion, and a need for progress to differentiate our time period from the last, except there is no money now to develop with. Another Athens should be haunted by its past like any other city, especially given its lengthy history, and yet it is all surpassed by the torment of its current upheaval. It is furiously alive in the present moment (compared to its younger sibling in the family of antiquity, Rome), its story hastily written across every centimetre of poured concrete.

Walking along the central valleys of high rising blocks allows for meditation on the composition of the city. A pause at the perimeter of a crumbling neoclassical house: boarded and scaffolded at street level, a few steps back onto the other side of the road offers a less obscured view, once proud and attractive, biscuity stucco and warped shutters shrouded by a veil of green construction netting. They don’t build like this anymore. A moment’s passing is only the time taken to walk its length before the balconied concrete rectangles resume.

As frequently as encounters with empty neoclassical buildings occur, so too do chances to muse upon the entirely absent, the urban voids where buildings had once been. Carved out by forces unknown, they leave their traces on adjoining surfaces. Rubbly lines of walls, built-in shelving and kitchen tiles, still clinging, suspended three floors up. Carefully demolished for a supposedly logical reason, the empty lots now linger, waiting like everything else for the coming of a new era, resumed decision making, post-crisis.

Signaled again by a stretch of boarding or mesh along the only open side of the square, approaching closer reveals a shift in perspective, a depth to the otherwise linear horizontals of the street. A gaping cuboid of space rises up between the immediately vertical surfaces of the surrounding apartment blocks. At its boundary, a fringe of weeds and fragments of debris spill onto the pavement. Peering through a gap in the corrugated metal hoarding an ungoverned microcosm of urban forest lies, ruled by stray cats and inaccessible to the humans who staked it out in the first place. In other instances, the voids have been appropriated as a meeting point for civic activity, a makeshift plateia to gather in, for organised discussion or spontaneous recreation.

The numerous urban voids, overrun by verdant plant and animal life, haunt the powers that would keep things rigorously planned, structured, logical. Brought about by a situation of capital free-fall, development on pause, the empty lot is the defining architecture of the age of now in Another Athens, seized upon by organic, uncontrollable systems (animal, vegetal) when there is little else left to seize upon. They symbolise the current reality of the city, just as the building boom apartment blocks and neoclassical structures reflect their times.

But unlike their older predecessors, these non-buildings will not remain the embodiment of these years into the future. They will be filled when the market resumes its motions, obliterated by more concrete or whatever material is used next. Space will once again be too valuable to be left unoccupied. This period of empty voids will exist un-evidenced in the composition of the city of the future, yet they represent the time of greatest change in Another Athens.