A task of Olympic proportions played out on a cultural plane
The RIBA's exhibition, 'Athens-scape: the 2004 Olympics and the Metabolism of the City', reveals the architectural activity taking place in the Greek capital in the run-up to the Olympics next year. And while visitors are faced with a vast and fragmented assortment of images, the scale of the challenge facing Greece is far more daunting, writes Clare Melhuish The political issues raised by the construction of Bernard Tschumi's New Acropolis Museum in Athens, designed to house the returned Elgin marbles, have inevitably focused attention on this project to the detriment of a panoply of other architectural initiatives currently in progress in Athens.
Even Santiago Calatrava's characteristic designs for the Olympic Stadium Centre have been overshadowed by the marbles issue, although the essentially functional nature of this project - however aestheticised by the Calatrava touch - is also a contributory factor. But the current exhibition at the RIBA, 'Athens-scape', reveals, or partially reveals, the full extent of architectural and infrastructural activity taking place in and around the city in the run-up to the Olympic Games next year.
As the Olympic bid debate rumbles on in this country, it is fascinating to speculate whether Britain, still incapable of modernising the London Underground system, could ever cope with a design, construction and management programme on this scale - let alone deal with the intellectual agenda in the way the Greeks have done.
Furthermore, Greece has had to confront a huge conservation issue, which would certainly have the authorities and the conservation bodies at loggerheads in this country.
Greece is not exactly renowned for its efficiency or modernising impulse among the rather superior pundits of western Europe; in fact, as this exhibition makes clear, we are ultimately quite ignorant about what goes on at all in this intriguing society, where intellectual life really seems to have some legitimacy at the highest levels of political and economic decision-making.
Not surprisingly, there have been various reports of serious delays and problems with the Olympic construction programme, despite various highly articulate pronouncements from Evangelos Venizelos, Greek minister of culture, making the national commitment to the programme - as an 'opportunity to transform a great past into a promising future' - crystal clear.
However, this exhibition will not help anybody gauge the true state of affairs: disaster or dramatic transformation. It is dense, complex and fragmented, demanding considerable efforts of attention to decipher and identify projects among the wealth of images and captions presented on table-tops in the main display, 'On the Brink of Change' (Florence Hall). The two secondary displays - 'Athletics and the Present In-Tense' (Gallery 1), and Ephemeral Disruptions (Gallery 2) - are more straightforward, but still packed with material. Perhaps this is as it should be.
It presents the Olympic opportunity as the catalyst for an explosion of architectural activity and thought across a broad 'landscape', which cannot easily or effectively be summarised or even analysed.
Nevertheless, there is an attempt to categorise projects within several key areas:
'Athens Now', 'Unification of Archaeological Sites', 'Infrastructure', 'Turn to the Sea', 'Places of Nomadic Dwelling' and 'Architecture Network'. These categories, as the titles suggest, embrace, and mix-up, a great range of projects, from the most functional and tangible, such as the new Attiki Odos motorway system, to the completely conceptual, such as 'Mediated Ermou Street'. Thus projects which, in this country, might appear in a Rethinking Construction exhibition or at an end-of-year show at an architecture school such as the AA or the Bartlett, sit here sideby-side and, apparently, hand-in-hand in the Greek mentality, where architectural production is concerned.
Without considerable background knowledge, both of modern Greek architectural culture and history, and of the nitty-gritty of the Olympic construction programme, it is extremely difficult to make much sense of this rich display, since quantity of material has been privileged over detail, information and insight. It seems unlikely that many visitors will be able to tap into such a level of knowledge but, on the other hand, the sheer diversity and vitality of the admittedly rather superficial array of images is as engaging and enjoyable as the scale of the task facing Greece is daunting.
Who knows whether the schemes for relandscaping Omonia Square (A Vozani et al), the Olympic Village project (P Nikiforidis et al), Car Stop on the new National Freeway (Aspropyrgos), Future Vision Housing (Dmitris Rotsis and George Bakoulis), or the Onassis House of Letters and Fine Arts (Architecture Studio) are real or theoretical.
In a sense, it doesn't seem to matter whether they represent an imaginary future, or a tightly budgeted and programmed fouryear plan - little short of an economic miracle. Either way, they offer an unprecedented insight into contemporary Greek architectural culture, which otherwise goes largely unrepresented on this side of Europe, despite the number of Greek students at architecture schools in this country.
In June 2001, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture established something called the Architecture Network, with a remit to 'create an architecture culture', including raising public awareness and assisting 'the understanding of the everyday life-scape'. This body helped to organise the Terraventure International Seminar on the City of Athens, in collaboration with the Delft University of Technology and the National University of Athens. At the same time, the Cultural Olympiad developed an architecture programme that 'focuses on the city as a site for experimentation and considers it as both the site of practice and the site of thought'. The New Nomads events and Ephemeral Structures international competition were part of this programme, which explicitly invited architects 'to think and experiment' around the theme of the 'metabolism' of Athens.
Viewed from a London perspective, it seems remarkable such freedom of architectural thought has been, at least in theory, offered by the Greek cultural authorities within the context of an architectural heritage of overwhelming importance. Yet the whole conservation issue is hardly apparent;
on the contrary, the long-standing ambition for a unification of archaeological sites across the city seems to be treated rather as an opportunity for creative intervention.
One has only to remember the footpath leading up to the Acropolis created by Modernist architect Dimitris Pikionis, to realise there is a strong precedent for this attitude in Greek culture, and it is most refreshing - although, of course, Greece has been criticised for not looking after its heritage.
When it comes to contemporary architectural expression, the question is - how interesting is it? The jury for the Ephemeral Structures competition included Zaha Hadid and Hani Rashid among others, and was chaired by Elias Zenghelis, giving an indication of the dominant tendency towards a form of deconstructionist aesthetic and a keen intellectual interest in formal experimentation and manipulation.
Anamorphosis' Museum of the Hellenic World, projected to start in 2004, is a case in point, and far more radical in formal terms than Tschumi's building, though it probably owes something to Tschumi's theoretical work. The Omonia Square project also gives expression to this tendency. But this kind of formal experimentation stands side-by-side with a body of work, particularly in the field of housing, representing a solid mediterranean Modernist tradition of calm orthogonal volumes and open spaces.
To an extent, there is nothing here that is particularly radical; indeed, much of it looks somewhat passé to a jaded London eye. But, on the other hand, it is exciting to see such a body of work running in parallel with the key Olympic projects in the public realm, apparently enjoying official support, and accompanied by a highly articulate and thoughtful rhetoric. As Dr Maria Theodorou, head of Architecture Network, puts it:
'Athletics are not to be restricted to sports only fiathleticismfl prescribed a way of life in Classical antiquity through which art was produced and philosophy was fiperformedfl.
An Athenian return to the athletic origin is thus a complicated issue and involves the rethinking of practices; the practising of architecture included.'
The exhibition runs until 24 May at the RIBA, Portland Place, London