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In the cradle of democracy and urban planning

Paul Finch
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Equality, responsibility and the role of architecture were the themes of a symposium on democracy. Paul Finch reports from Athens

Prizes for excellence are inevitably elitist, and the awarding of the RIBA Stirling Prize each year is one of those moments when cultural relativism gets thrown out of the window. The jury has to say what it thinks is the best building on offer. While members of the institute may be equals, it does not mean they have identical qualities or characteristics.

The relationship between equality, privilege and responsibility was debated in Greece a couple of weeks ago by the Athens Democracy Forum, which then moved on to Costa Navarino on the Peloponnese coast for a further debate, on architecture and democracy. A small press group attended. Having been wafted to Greece courtesy of Aegean Airlines, we enjoyed the many comforts of a resort founded by a Messinian citizen who wished to promote the food, wine and landscape of the region – and has succeeded (check out www.costanavarino.com).

Piraeus map 1908

Piraeus map 1908

Source: Wikipedia

Map of Piraeus, laid out by Hippodamus of Miletus

An open-air discussion took place at which five sages discussed questions posed by a moderator from the event’s co-partner, The New York Times. We began with the fifth century BC world of Hippodamus, creator of the first rectangular city grid, who had an egalitarian attitude to the disposition of housing plots: all citizens were given the same amount of space; and the exterior and size of homes was similar. Expressions of wealth were therefore reserved for interior decoration and furnishings – on the face of it, all were equal.

We were reminded by a Chinese professor of urban planning that, although certain basic ideas about equality and democracy were introduced by the Ancient Greeks, it was only male, land-owning citizens who had a vote. And, moreover, that much of the architecture so admired today was created by slaves and a system of forced labour which could scarcely be described as democratic.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the nature of cities has more to do with creativity and urban design than the architecture of individual buildings, suggested Charles Landry, originator of the Creative Cities Index. You had to assume that the way any contemporary city looks and feels changes all the time – something to be welcomed, not feared. Those changes might be part of architecture programmes, but design aspirations would be ‘subject to a host of other factors’, not just architectural intention.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman suggested just such a factor: that in the battle between centrifugal and centripetal forces in the evolution of cities, the internet and digital technologies had reinforced city centres, because corporate executives now felt they could manage staff in suburban locations satisfactorily from their newly fashionable town-centre headquarters buildings.

Much of the architecture so admired today was created by a system of forced labour

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, apart from taking a few sideswipes at Donald Trump, suggested that because architecture can be anti-democratic, it could therefore be democratic, comparing Mussolini’s EUR district in Rome with Piazza Navona, though you wouldn’t say the creators of the latter space were very democratic, either. His praise for the New York subway system was understandable, even if everyone else thought the experience of it was ghastly.

The best contribution came from Patrik Schumacher, who earlier this year called for the current Venice Architecture Biennale to be closed down, on the grounds that it had displaced serious architectural discourse with ‘gestures, symbols, installations and slogans’. In qualifying those remarks, he talked about the serious work by architects grappling with the implications of new interactive conditions, and the politics of regulation at a time of increasing desire to live in city centres.

Space standards need to acknowledge the need for density, but we also needed to combat miserable public spaces by making them ‘porous and interactive’. And so, probably, say all of us. More about architecture and democracy next week.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Who is architecture for? If it is to be inclusive of diversity, and supportive of common people, then what does that mean for the architecture of cities. These are the operative questions. But we must learn from great cities of the past, and not treat them as opportunities for unrestrained real estate development, geared to suit the interest of short-term profiteers and egotisitical megalomaniacs.

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