Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Memory, culture and 'architectural cleansing'

ATHENS – You've heard of ethnic cleansing. Architect Christos Floros of Athens popped out with a new term on Monday: "architectural cleansing."

Sadly, I needn't have listened to the long history of demolitions in Athens to have been able to understand the term. Hey, I live in Charlotte, where what we really need to memorialize at The Square in the heart of the city is not another piece of odd, or clumsy, public "art" but a bronzed bulldozer.

(I'm at a conference, in Athens, of the Johns Hopkins University International Fellows in Urban Studies. [Hat tip needed, here, to other sponsors: Chicago Dwellings Association (akin to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership), the Museum of the City of Athens, Panteion University of Athens, SD Med Association, Pantheon-Sorbonne (Paris 1) University and UMP Geographie-cites (CNRS). And a disclosure: The International Fellows Program paid my travel expenses to the conference.)

The conference theme explores whether memory (that is, the past as reinterpreted by the present) is an asset or an obstacle in urban revitalization. In a city this ancient you'd think the Athenians would revere the past. And you'd be wrong.

The city has had numerous eras in which the buildings of previous eras were simply wiped away. The most recent came with rapid population growth of the 20th century. Most of the 19th Century neoclassical buildings (which had, themselves, wiped away Ottoman and Byzantine architecture) were demolished. Much of the city is now vaguely Modernist-style buildings of little delight or distinction.

Architectural cleansing, Floros said, can accompany war, religious conflict, rapid population growth, ignorance, greed or one-dimensional ideology. It can accompany wars, such as the Persian invasion of 479 BC, in which Athens was demolished, but Floros made an exception for some wartime destruction that takes place without intent to destroy a culture.

Ignorance about the value of the monuments on the Acropolis led to architectural destruction during the Ottoman Empire's 400 years of rule here. Fueled by greed, it took place during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the era when Lord Elgin carted away the Parthenon frieze to England.

It took place due to one-dimensional ideologies during the first Greek state, founded in 1830, when northern Europeans decided the only architecture of value was neoclassical. Byzantine and Ottoman buildings were razed or allowed to fall to ruin during that era.

And it took place during the 20th century, fueled by rapid immigration to Athens from all over Greece. The rebuilding here was influenced, as in most Western cities, by the Modernist architectural movement – founded, ironically, with the 1933 Charter of Athens – which rejected pretty much anything that had ever been done, on the theory that the city must be completely reinvented.

Floros quoted Lord Byron, the English poet who came to Greece to fight in its war for independence in 1821 and died of a fever: Athens is "the most injured and the most celebrated of cities."

Although if you want to narrow the competition to destruction of memories of the past, from what I can see Charlotte wins – in a New York minute. I'm pondering whether the destruction of downtown was fueled more by greed, or rapid population growth, or an unconscious effort to wipe away the black neighborhoods, or the wish to demolish a memory that people didn't want to have to remember.

Next up: Was the Charter of Athens just simply wrong? (Sure seems that way to me.) Asking that question appears to make many architects deeply uneasy.

Update, Thursday June 24: I got an e-mail from Floros, asking that I be sure to note that some of the buildings that have been victimized by "architectural cleansing" in Athens are some important mid-century Modernist buildings. And he's right to be concerned that yet another era of architecture is being wiped away – and not only in Athens. The Charlotte City Council set a precedent in October 2008 when it refused to designate as historic a mid-century Modern house – the first time it's refused a request from a property owner – apparently because council members just didn't think the building was all that significant.


Danimal said...

This is a point I've been trying to make for a long time now.

While a few people in Charlotte fret about Charlottes 'history' being erased when a building from the early part of the 20th century gets torn down, a town in Connecticut is tearing down a house fron the 1700's for a Taco Bell and no one bats an eye, a European city tears down a building from medevil times forma future project and no one bats an eye, a Chinese city tears down some dwellings from a dynasty of the 1200's to build a dam and no one bats an eye, the story goes on and on, as it has throughout all of history. Things get torn don and rebuilt for the needs of the time, and someone probably profits from it. I doubt the accient Athenians ever thought some of their buildings would be stainding 3000 years later, and some would probably wonder why we kept them with all the new technology and innovations that came since their lifetimes. I remember hearing during the 2004 Olympics that the original route of the Marathon was dotted with strip malls and fast food joints and looked like a giant South Blvd. of today. Can someone verify? The fact is, the people of Athens know their place in history, but even they move on with the times. Those of us in 'newer' cities should keep that in mind.

consultant said...

"I'm pondering whether the destruction of downtown was fueled more by.."

The destruction or improvement of almost any piece of land in America is almost always fueled by greed. In the case of our downtowns and freeways, the path is usually through black or poor neighborhoods first. That's why our freeways often twist and turn as they go through a metro area.

Mary, what do you think of the mass transit system in Athens?

Lana said...

How appropriate that Mary is in Greece, since her life's ambition is to bring that type of .gov-fueled bankruptcy to the U.S.