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Learning from Athens:
Austerity and Crisis Urbanism(s), 2008–16
Panos Leventis

Introduction and Context

How can an architecture and urbanism academic discourse approach the issues of austerity and crisis in the context of the contemporary city? To what degree has this been attempted and with what success? What would be paths of action in the face of the current crisis for architecture and urbanism academics and practitioners? This review attempts to engage these questions by following the narrative of post-2008 austerity and crisis, as it entered, impacted, and drastically altered the socio-urban space of Athens, Greece. The review engages three recently published volumes in order to trace the breadth and width of engagement with the effects of (the) crisis on (the) city. The volumes discussed are Remapping “Crisis”: A Guide to Athens, edited by Myrto Tsilimpounidi and Aylwyn Walsh (London: Zero, 2014); Crisis-Scapes: Athens and Beyond, edited by Jaya Klara Brekke, Dimitris Dalakoglou, Christos Filippidis, and Antonis Vradis (Athens: Crisis-Scapes, 2014); and Urban Austerity: Impacts of the Global Financial Crisis on the Cities of Europe, edited by Barbara Schönig and Sebastian Schipper (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2016).

It is already more than eight years since a “perfect storm” surrounding a small number of conspicuously overstretched colossal banking institutions mutated into a global financial crisis that seemed to sweep the majority of the economic establishment into uncharted waters. Soon, a largely neoliberal political and economic power structure transformed the narrative of this financial crisis into a sovereign debt crisis that engulfed a number of countries, both in Europe and beyond. In the name of this sovereign debt crisis, social contracts and urban structures that had gradually been established since the end of World War II are being systematically dismantled via austerity measures taken by local, regional, national, and international bodies, often made up of appointed rather than elected members. These measures have also had a negative impact on a number of human rights, as outlined in the Charter of the United Nations and adopted by almost all developed and developing countries. A new austerity dogma is penetrating deep into every possible aspect of policy making, design, and implementation, changing the very nature of human and urban everyday life and the very nature of the city. A walk through various urban fabrics immediately evidences a number of dramatic changes: empty and decaying buildings, rising homelessness and poverty, privatized or collapsing public space and infrastructure, greatly reduced urban and social services, declining health and education indicators, and so on. What does it mean for cities and urban societies to undergo such dramatic changes in such short periods of time? How have the phenomena of crisis and urban austerity been defined, discussed, and interpreted?

Identities, Structures, and Disciplines
During (and about) this crisis and austerity-defined epoch, it is essential that voices from throughout the political, ideological, economic, and socio-urban spectra are heard and studied. The visibly independent character of the projects and presses that organized, published, and disseminated the works in question ensures that an important part of the ongoing conversation regarding austerity, crisis, and the city, which might have otherwise been overlooked by a large section of academia, is present and available. Scales of engagement in all three volumes range from the regional and metropolitan (policy, infrastructure) to the urban (land use, housing) and the local (public space, cores, streets, and neighborhoods).

Zero Books’ insistence on a discourse that is “intellectual without being academic [and] popular without being populist,” and its proclaimed struggle against “anti-intellectualism” was paired with Remapping “Crisis,” a collection of straightforward approaches and analyses, largely “from the ground” in Athens, in an attempt to understand, structure, and chart the narrative and effects of socio-urban crisis in time, in space, and, most importantly, on-site. Diving further into Athenian urban fabric, the project and international conference The City at a Time of Crisis, which took place at the National Technical University in the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens in May 2014, aimed at “tracing and researching the effects of the financial, sovereign and social crisis on public spaces in Athens.” The project and the resulting volume Crisis-Scapes: Athens and Beyond were funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK and had Sussex University (where one of the editors taught) as a partner. In December 2014, at the continent’s opposite end of the crisis narrative, in the heart of Germany, the Institute for European Urban Studies of Bauhaus University in Weimar hosted the Urban Austerity conference, sponsored by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, with “80 urban scholars, politicians and social movement activists” coming together to present and discuss the ways that the crisis has impacted European cities. In the resulting volume by Theater der Zeit, almost a third of all contributions focus specifically on facets of Athenian experience(s) of crisis.

That Remapping “Crisis” declared itself to be “one of the first collections of chapters devoted to the specificities of Greece’s crisis … that does not focus solely on economics” evidences the degree of prominence and depth of penetration of economic-financial reporting, analysis, and discourse during the period immediately following the 2008–10 crisis outbreak. Myrto Tsilimpounidi (a social researcher and photographer, University of East London) and Aylwyn Walsh (a performance studies scholar, University of Lincoln), scholars engaging in research “exploring the intersections of interdisciplinary methodologies,” assembled a volume that, while firmly based in largely anticipated socioeconomic commentary and analysis of the crisis (e.g., Harvey 2012), builds on that base and further explores urban-spatial issues of the crisis (“Spatial Politics”), new urban margins and marginals (“Untold Stories”), as well as the emerging role that street and urban art plays in expanding, exploring, and explaining the narrative and spatial/urban order of crisis (“If These Walls Could Talk”). Thus, Remapping “Crisis” gives “intersections of interdisciplinary methodologies” the opportunity to converse and in turn offers the possibility of a number of spatial, artistic, urban, and architectural readings and understandings of the city in crisis that a straightforward disciplinary approach might not have been able to accomplish.

Meanwhile, two of the coeditors of Crisis-Scapes, Dimitris Dalakoglou (professor of social anthropology at Vrije University Amsterdam) and Antonis Vradis (professor of geography at Durham University), had been prolific in writing and editing on Athens and the crisis beyond its fiscal and economic dimensions.1 Additionally, to broaden the interdisciplinary scope of its focus, Crisis-Scapes involved architecture and urbanism scholars both as coeditors (Filippidis) and as speaker-contributors (Stavrides).2 Crisis-Scapes is structured in five parts, following the format of the conference. The urban/spatial politics discourse is further broken down in sections involving both the regional (“Flows, Infrastructures, Networks”) and the urban and housing scales (“Devaluing Labour, Depreciating Land”). Moreover, although studies on street and urban art during crisis are not part of Crisis-Scapes, other facets of urban marginal and marginalization processes of crisis are studied in depth (“Mapping Spaces of Racist Violence” and “Between Invisibility and Precarity”). Finally, part IV (“The Right to the City in Crisis”) revisits and re-spins the Lefebvre axiom, placing it among the contested urban landscapes of a city in a state of continuous crisis.

Barbara Schönig (professor of urban planning and director of the Institute for European Urban Studies at the Bauhaus-Universistät Weimar) and Sebastian Schipper (researcher in the Department of Human Geography, Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main) have wide-ranging, critical urban studies research interests, and their work focuses on planning, urban design, affordable housing, and urban social movements. Urban Austerity as both a conference and a volume evidences these interests by grouping together a diverse collection of research scales and engagements. Similar to Crisis-Scapes, Urban Austerity devotes sections to both the regional/infrastructural scale (“Urban Infrastructure and Public Services”) and to the urban/housing scale (“Housing Crisis”). Urban marginal, marginalization processes, social movements, urban design, and street art discourse is grouped under “Urban Conflicts and Contestations,” while a larger urban and regional policy and planning section appears in the beginning of the volume (“Urban Governance in Times of Austerity”).

Athens as Policy, Infrastructure, and Topos in Crisis
Maloutas, in Remapping “Crisis” (pp. 26–37), digs into the decades preceding, and the years following, the 2004 Olympic Games to discover both “the content and the causes” that led to the decline of the center of Athens, a multifaceted decline of built fabric quality, use and land value, social service, and employment possibilities. He asserts that the investment in infrastructure that preceded the Athens games, unlike that in other Olympic cities (Barcelona is always offered as the poster child), was not paired with a strategic plan for the reinvigoration of a core that had suffered as a result of suburbanization, resulting in the flourishing of secondary satellite cores surrounding a declining downtown Athens. His pessimism is echoed by Arapoglou (pp. 38–56), who “sketches out a conceptual framework to capture the evolving picture of the neoliberal crisis and the management of its social consequences in urban settings,” concluding that “neoliberal urban and social policies are incapable of promoting social integration,” leaving the built and social fabrics of urban cores in desolation.

Similarly, Economou, in Crisis-Scapes (pp. 13–17), traces the development of the Athens metropolitan area, its infrastructure, and suburbanization. He links these to a number of sociopolitical and ideological “events,” including the “creation of new forms of social and spatial control and exclusion,” implying a “planned” marginalization of central neighborhoods that house low-income and immigrant populations. Echoing his concerns at an even larger scale, Gefou-Madianou (pp. 18–22) argues that infrastructure works of the 1990s and 2000s marginalized not only central areas, but also outlying landscapes and topographies that found themselves in the midst of a transformation that completely overlooked critical local and regional concerns for the benefit of large capital. In a related context, the following chapter is also of interest, arguing that infrastructural flows other than mega construction projects, such as Athenian waste management, are also site-specific and often lead to extreme marginalization of large sections of urban populace, as the Fili case study evidences (pp. 23–31).

The Athenian metropolitan topos is further shown to have experienced immense changes, the majority of which are not positive, as a result not only of infrastructure building and flows mobility prior to 2008, but also of policy and regulatory reforms following the outbreak of crisis, as Poulios and Andritsos argue in Urban Austerity (pp. 70–86). The resulting neoliberal-driven changes toward policy exceptions that favor large-scale urban development, projects, and investment, via land dispossession and transformation of the landscape of land ownership. Siatitsa (pp. 145–60) focuses on particularities, policy, and changes that the Greek housing landscape and market have undergone as a result of austerity and fiscal adjustments, arriving at similar conclusions and asking whether a “right to housing,” along with a “right to the city,” is quickly becoming another casualty of neoliberal adjustments to the prevailing socio-urban model. Karagianni and Kapsali (pp. 161–75) echo this analysis and reiterate that urban neo-poverty, evictions, and the housing crisis are leading to, or rather forming part of, an emerging “socio-spatial” order that leaves large groups dispossessed and marginalized, completely left out of urban decisions and processes.

Lefebvre’s argument, as reiterated by Karagianni and Kapsali (p. 172), is that “the legitimate right of producing urban space belongs, above all, to the inhabitants that live their everyday lives in the city.” If this right is being violently taken away from the urban populace, where does this leave architecture and urbanism academics and practitioners, in terms of both theory and action? How is architectural and urban design theorized and implemented in a context of socio-urban urgency and crisis? Are there specific “sides” to be taken during this pivotal time of urban space production?

Urban Design in Down-and-Out Athens

Thus, as sociological discourse proclaims that, in a neoliberal context, the state is incapable, or rather specifically unwilling, to propose or enact top-down policy and design for the center of cities and the benefit of the majority of their residents, it appears that other agents are quite eager to step in: private organizations and cultural and other foundations “adopt” orphaned city centers and propose top-down plans for redesigning, repurposing, and “rebranding.” Are there multiple agendas behind such actions, not only ones of urban and social well-being, justice, and equality? Mullins (Urban Austerity, pp. 242–56) takes up the case of the Onassis Cultural Foundation and its “Re-Think Athens” initiative in the last part of his contribution. In a fair contextual analysis, Mullins asserts that urban design projects such as “Re-Think Athens” (which is considered ill-fated and still unrealized) should be seen as producing and/or reproducing the established order, so that control over urban space by “elites” can be maintained or reinforced. While “Re-Think Athens” indeed had significant gaps in its goals and intentions (particularly in its lack of use diversity proposals), and was conspicuously targeting the main corridor of protest and resistance to corruption, and later austerity and neoliberal reforms of the past decade, there would perhaps be little doubt that the (however few) residents, and numerous visitors, of the immediate area would benefit from such an overhauling, “greening,” and restructuring of a whole section of the city center. To the extent that “Re-Think Athens” could also be “re-thought” as protest-space gentrification, one can give a parallel reading of the Mullins piece to the excellent Slater interjection (Crisis-Scapes, pp. 128–38).

The titanic architecture and urban design project at the southern edge of the emerging “core to sea” Athenian cultural axis (which includes at its center the Onassis Cultural Center, inaugurated in 2010), the new National Library, National Opera, and Urban Park complex, financed in its entirety by the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Foundation (inaugurated in June 2016 on designs by Renzo Piano), could also be taken up by scholarly discourse as a case study of not only private foundations becoming the main agents of urban design and infrastructure in times of crisis, but also of public space and land becoming increasingly privatized, an issue taken up in Crisis-Scapes by, among others, Chatzidakis (pp. 33–41) and Hadjimichalis (pp. 171–78).

There Goes (or Here Comes?) the Neighborhood
Thus, because state, regional, or other policy-making and implementation authorities are increasingly unable or unwilling to act in times of fiscal austerity and crisis, let alone act in good faith for the benefit of the populace, as most of the authors argue in these volumes, one sees that, at the scale of the neighborhood, social movements, local associations, citizens groups, and others become ever more active in independently designing, making, and restructuring urban space. The diversified makeup, provenance, and goals of these space-producing agents mean that each set of decisions, designs, or actions result in a multitude of “urban places” and “urban meanings” that together can reassemble a number of new or possible social and urban commons and structures. Stavrides (Crisis-Scapes, pp. 209–14) picks up this issue and, using Navarinou Park (occupied, designed, and run by citizens) in the Athenian neighborhood of Exarcheia as an example, argues for an emerging web of “urban thresholds,” rather than enclaves of self-organized autonomy, as an antidote to the malaise of disappearing public space and urban commoning, and as a (perhaps last) “possibility of reclaiming the city as a collective work of art.” One can add that this Athenian web of “urban thresholds” expands not only through parks or open spaces, but through buildings and collaboratives such as the Empros Theater in the Psyrri neighborhood and the Green Park complex in Pedion tou Areos Park, as the “collective work of art” that is continuously produced and consumed there counters hegemonic structures and narratives.

Along the streetscapes of Athens, though, it is a different visual narrative that has completely transformed the city and diversified the discourse on crisis. Street art, in all its graffiti, textual, visual, and politicized iterations, has emerged as a significant space, place, and meaning-producing agent. Pangalos (Remapping “Crisis,” pp. 119–34) discusses the history and proliferation of graffiti both globally and in the streetscapes of Athens and ties it to the city and the city-in-crisis as a unifying process among writers and citizens, and as part of “the creation of networks of solidarity [and] cooperation.” Karathanasis (Remapping “Crisis,” pp. 135–39) sees the graffiti and painting-saturated landscapes of central Athens as a larger reimagining of the city by street artists that “contests the dominant media representations of the ‘crisis’ and actively produces counter-discourses through visual culture.” Avramidis (Remapping “Crisis,” pp. 140–54), an architect himself, furthers a similar claim with an excellent discourse on the crisis and the production of urban and social space by hegemonic processes, and the assertion that politicized urban art in fact creates new urban space(s) where citizens’ voices can be heard, new social space(s) where marginalized publics can be constructed anew, space that is itself “a heretic reading of the city, a remapping of the emerging urban condition through which a new culture of public use is cultivated.” Drakopoulou (Remapping “Crisis,” pp. 155–66) elaborates on the above definitions of politicized urban art through a study of the work of the artist Bleeps, who presents “the unwritten history of the city, the lost objects of a fabulated origin, his ‘Athens’ under erasure, driven out of the official picture, but ready to erupt at any time.” Finally, as Tulke (Urban Austerity, pp. 257–70) asserts, the “microperspective of street art” has indeed gained importance in the context of the crisis, holding crucial potential for transforming urban space. Through its creation, performance, media, and messages, the impact that street art has had on both the material urban fabric of streets and neighborhoods and the everyday life of Athenians under the constant drums of austerity and crisis allows us to trace its transformative qualities vis-à-vis the city itself.

The fourteenth iteration of the widely visited and discussed modern and contemporary art exhibition documenta, which has its roots and primary base in Kassel (Germany) and is held every five years, is “splitting in two”: it will be held in Kassel and Athens between April and September 2017. It is, in fact, titled “Learning from Athens,” a controversial act of titling that has already produced a wide range of reactions, responses, and assertions. It is perhaps precisely this issue that can also be pondered beyond the act of naming or the disciplinary confines of the art world and discussed in a much larger context: What is there to be “learned” from the Athenian socio-urban experience of crisis? It is, after all, because of the crisis that documenta is embracing (or, some say, “invading”) the Greek capital. Is Athens merely a failed experiment in past welfare, social, and urban structures, which keeps receiving an equally failing neoliberal austerity medicine that further destroys its ailing tissue? Or is Athens a temporal mirror through which the West can see the quickly approaching future that it is creating for its urban masses? The three volumes reviewed herein attempt to tackle these issues with illuminating research and perspectives and construct a number of alternative lenses through which “crisis” can be viewed and understood. For architecture and urbanism scholars who would like to engage with and teach the contemporary urban experience(s) of crisis, these volumes constitute valuable source material.

The 2011 volume Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come, edited by Dalakoglou and Vradis, gives an excellent overview of Athens as site and stage of crisis, within the context of the December 2008 events, the 2010 memorandum and austerity measures that the Greek government(s) signed, and the (still unfolding in a number of Western cities during 2011) “Occupy” Movement.
Christros Filippidis’s City, Crisis and Calcined Iron (2014) specifically discussed public spaces in Athens in the context of crisis and defined crisis as a violent redesigning of public space and of the city as a whole. Filippidis also contributed to Revolt and Crisis in Greece (note 1).

How to Cite this Article: Leventis, Panos. “Learning from Athens: Austerity and Crisis Urbanism(s), 2008-16,” review of three volumes: Remapping “Crisis”: A Guide to Athens, by Myrto Tsilimpounidi and Aylwyn Walsh, eds., Crisis-Scapes: Athens and Beyond, by Jaya Klara Brekke et al., eds., and Urban Austerity: Impacts of the Global Financial Crisis on the Cities of Europe, by Barbara Schönig and Sebastian Schipper, eds. JAE Online. August 18, 2016. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/learning-athens/.