Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, we visit Athens, Greece.
There is a distinct before and after when it comes to public space in Athens. "Before the crisis, public space was private space: cafes, bars," says architect Marianna Rentzou. That public space was lacking was a given. Locals had always headed indoors. "There are not many squares, and especially not many squares with any identity."
Greece's crippling debt crisis, resulting in a shrunken economy and unemployment that's risen over the last eight years, diminished citizens' ability to pay for social space. As a result, they have increasingly wound up out-of-doors. "Un-designed, impractical, not attractive," is how partner Konstantinos Pantazis characterizes the city's existing public squares. "But in the last seven to eight years public space became critical because that's where people gather to deal with what's going on. It's very evident that people gather in public spaces to share opinions and gather and discuss and argue. Political space is very much alive."
When the two partners behind Athens-based firm Point Supreme returned to Greece in 2008 after years living in Rotterdam and London—with stints, for Pantazis, in Amsterdam and Tokyo—they were struck by the need for beautification of their city's public squares. In a city as hot as Athens, where summer temperatures can stretch into the nineties, many squares offer little shade or trees. Most are hard-paved, sun-drenched spots. Downtown squares sometimes become de facto parking lots, collecting the cars of nearby residents or office workers.
With Point Supreme's proposal, parking in much-needed public space would become impossible. Their renderings augment Athens' existing public squares with architectural interventions ranging from the practical to the whimsical.
"Our proposal deals with the lack of identity and lack of beauty," says Pantazis. "We started this project before the crisis—we'd gotten used to beautiful public space abroad and noticed the lack of character in public space in Athens. [After the crisis] this sort of project became even more relevant."
In the hottest periods of the summer, Athenians who can afford to do so leave the city for the islands. "Athens means work, winter," says Rentzou. "Greek people are a little spoiled because of all of the islands around." Yet with the country's recent economic woes, the ranks of residents who can pay for such trips have diminished. With tweaks to existing public space, Rentzou and Pantazis say, that condition may not be quite as acutely felt. They point to Rome's squares, in which water fountains are common features.
At Antonis Tritsis Square, in Point Supreme's renderings, the current lowered center is extended and filled with thigh-high water, becoming an urban wading pool. What is now an expanse of stone paving becomes an active, urban gathering place, offering respite from heat. Greenery along one end of the square extends along multiple sides, and lounging chairs and umbrellas are added, creating an appealing urban pool.
They also point to the greenery to which they became accustomed in northern European capitals. In their renderings, Kotzia Square—where, most recently, photos have shown seniors waiting in the scant shade to collect pensions and which has hosted past protests over austerity measures—becomes a giant public lawn, interspersed with sprinklers and lined with shade-providing trees. Their vision for Theater Square, a small car park wedged between office buildings, is similarly verdant. The paved courtyard is planted with a grid of tall palm trees that stretch to office windows above, while on street level, planters house local flora and readers or debaters idle on long benches.
"We wanted to emphasize the silly condition that a lot of squares are hard paved. There's no nature. We think nature isn't respected enough within public space. Because [Kotzia Square] is in front of city hall and there's a lot of tension, we wanted to add an element of play," says Pantazis.
While pools and parks may not seem like the most immediate of concerns in present-day Greece, Point Supreme's projects have garnered practical support from locals who believe in the long-term impact of designed public space. An Athens urbanism think tank, Omada Blanco, founded by 27 downtown residents, found a sponsor for the "Square Pool" concept in 2010—a German manufacturer of pools offering pro bono construction—but the project remained mired in red tape. Their projects could be very affordable, Pantazis and Rentzou say, with the right collaborations between publicly-owned space, private investors, and grassroots urban citizen's initiatives, which, Pantazis says, have been organized in droves since Greece's initial crises of 2008.
"These projects are a little extreme, but the goal is to point out how much more ambitious public spaces could be," Pantazis. "They should be designed for people, not cars. We want to remind people that functional is not enough. So much more could be done."