The distinction between formal planning and spontaneous occupation of space may seem clear cut. But in his recent dissertation “Beyond the Informal City – Athens and the Possibility of an Urban Common” as well as his contribution to the book The City as Project, architect Platon Issaias proposes a new reading of the urbanisation of Athens that calls for the re-thinking of such distinctions. Cristina Ampatzidou asked him why the old philosophy no longer holds true.
CA: We tend to associate informal urbanisation with accumulative growth of small-scale interventions that respond directly to the needs of inhabitants, the environment and resources at hand. In Greek cities, the polykatoikia, the single multi-storey apartment building, is the ultimate spatial expression of this type of urbanisation. Does that mean that there have been no formal urban plans drawn up in Greece?
PI: No, on the contrary; several plans have been drawn up for Greece’s major cities since the modern Greek state was founded. What is clear though is that these masterplans were somehow gradually rendered ineffective. Regulations and planning codes that dealt directly with the architectural scale became far more instrumental, developing more progressively as tools to administer space. During the economic collapse and geopolitical and demographic transformation of Greece in the 1920s, and then after the Second World War, this is how the polykatoikia was born: a “project of crisis” coming out of conflict, developing as an effective tool to house the general population en masse in small scale housing blocks but enabled through the private property market.
However, we should clarify the term “formal” plans, as the way planning in a broader sense was exercised in Greece actually attests to a continuous and critical bond between the public sector and the private housing market. I’m critical of the thesis that planning is absent in Greece or that as a case study it exists as an “idiosyncratic” local paradox. Instead of evaluating its history as a process of unresolved design gestures or unfinished and failed projects, or as so-called informal development, I would argue that its main ingredients consist of a project with profound political operativity. Its history shows the essence of planning as management, i.e. as a device that produces a framework allowing for other conditions to emerge. All the “unexpected”, “accidental” and “informal” aspects make neoliberal governance even more effective. This is a fundamental condition of the modern capitalist city, in which a “flexible layout” promotes capital accumulation and inequality.
So the distinction between formal and informal is actually irrelevant, since the practices we consider informal are also conditioned by existing policies and regulations?
Absolutely. These two dialectically opposite categories are intended to distinguish two types of planning, which supposedly represent equal and opposing managerial processes that form contemporary urban environments. If the first echoes the tradition of central state-led decision-making in planning, the second assumes a process where lack of governmental control has been replaced by a type of city development based on seemingly autonomous and impromptu popular practices.
I believe we have to confront this distinction, addressing both as projects that attest to specific power relations and forms of governance in the spatial and physical design of a territory and its population. The “presence” or “absence” of formal properties in the design of cities is evidence of conflictual forces in the division of labour, forms and accumulation of property and wealth, methods of production and the very function of the state and its administrative infrastructure.
And this is precisely the value of Athens and Greek city development. In the Greek case, what appears to be a spontaneous and unplanned urban and architectural typology is actually the result of a meticulously detailed, regulatory structure that evolved strategically through time. This legislative framework constructed a body of tools and design procedures that administered social relations, forms and organisation of labour, rendering the economy of construction as the main productive capital. Apart from introducing small-scale property investment as an ultimate social imaginary, it primarily formulated a specific domestic ethos, arising from the habits and practices of the average family and household in Greece.
You claim that the urbanisation of Athens is the result of early neoliberal governance, which allowed the private sector to take over economic and spatial planning. Is this what we can expect from the retreat of governments in most European cities?
I think the case of Athens exemplifies the history of European urbanism since the mid-nineteenth century. It is precisely this relationship between planning, governance, the urban and the domestic that in all cases defined methods of spatial development and management. The welfare state was an attempt by capitalism to respond to the working class demands and acute problems of post-Second World War reconstruction.
What you describe as “retreat” actually introduces another phase of this never-ending conflict, more sinister and violent.
But our vocabulary tends to increasingly include terms such as self-organised, spontaneous and DIY when we refer to the city. These terms imply an increased citizen involvement in the formation of the city. Isn’t that contradictory?
I find most of these terms problematic. Despite arguing for the opposite, these terms are often used for the de-politicisation of discourse on the urban, the domestic and their properties, treating them just as mere managerial “problems”. It is interesting that this vocabulary follows the rhetoric of hardcore neoliberalism that has, unfortunately, entered all disciplines. Architecture is not an exemption. If you understand the city as a project, then for example the very idea of self-organisation is rather questionable. Cities, any form of co-habitation, architecture itself, are never spontaneous developments, but rather processes shaped collectively by political, economic, social factors, customs, habits and ideology. I don’t argue with there being a cause and effect relationship between space, architecture, the economy or the political itself. Rather, the strategy should be to problematise the link between production in general – and production of space in particular – with the city and its administrative machines. It should be a quest for tactics to undermine existing power relations.
If there is a contradiction, it lies in the way projects that start with good intentions often aestheticise poverty and social inequality.
The polykatoikia, as an architectural form, successfully addressed the housing needs of a growing urban population, and as a form of ownership it combined undivided property with multiple shares. Many European cities are now experimenting with forms of collective ownership and self-build. What are the positive lessons to be learned from the Athenian case?
That is true, but we have to be very careful. Private property, or the various methods to introduce “collective” ownership in the form of shareholding, is completely different from actualised forms of collective ownership beyond profit. In any case, it depends on the methods of production and realising of such experiments. We have to unpack specific case studies in order to understand if (and how) these might or might not work: if they constitute politically positive developments or not.
If there’s anything that could be considered a “positive” effect of the specific Greek situation in the current economic catastrophe, it is that due to the very high level of home-ownership, most people have, at least for now, a place to live. However, this comes with a price: entrapment within the realm of private property, with its dream of bourgeois prosperity and wealth, we now know can go seriously wrong.
– Platon Issaias (Athens, 1984) is an architect. He holds an MSc in Advance Architectural Design from GSAPP, Columbia University and a PhD from TU Delft. His doctoral dissertation “Beyond the Informal City” focuses on the history of planning in Athens and the relation between conflict, urban management and architectural form. Since 2012, he has been teaching at the March in Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture/UCL.
– interview by Cristina Ampatzidou is an independent researcher, architect and urbanist based in Rotterdam.