Until very recently, Athens used to be the gateway to Europe for people fleeing war in Afghanistan and Syria. But now, in a rapidly changing political situation, families are trapped by asylum regulations in camps or housed in worn, often empty, Domino style reinforced concrete 'polykatoikia’ landscapes by NGOs or through anarchist initiatives. Out of this political stasis has emerged an outpouring of voluntary effort networked by social media and characterised by the eponymous NGO Help Refugees. A discourse around how to initiate Greece’s first programme of social housing for all residents has begun, a debate to which ARCSR field and studio work has contributed and continues to build on.
There is a clear relationship between recognisable form and familiarity. Linked together in place, they add to a feeling of confidence in being there, contributing to a sense of homeliness and belonging; of fitting in. Conversely, if form is not recognised or appears alien and unfathomable residents are left with a sense of alarm, of the uncanny where the unexpectedly awful might happen. It may seem either appropriate and/ or ironic, therefore, that Athens, where concepts of citizenship were first explored in Greek theatre, should be the setting where experiments with an architecture of temporary performance should strive to fit order and meaning into place at a time when familiar notions of EU citizenship are under existential threat.
Amongst settings of scarcity and fragility experienced by urban residents are embedded examples of innovative city-making, offering rich and fertile ground for the study of how local resources are being transformed, by residents, migrants and refugees. They harness their capabilities to engage with opportunities available to them on the edgelands of Europe, and within the dynamic city. It is incumbent on architects, in these circumstances, to support the growth of new nesting-places for sharing and to promote generosity through the act of making. It is important to involve crafts people and residents, (both well-established, and those passing through) with the use of materials, spatial resources and infrastructure. This encourages engagement and contribution to the culture and the freedoms available to them, in the surrounding physical and cultural landscapes.
* a district in central Athens (Exarcheia), where migrant from wars in Syria and Afghanistan are temporarily resident in a crumbling and decaying conservation zone, from which the police are largely excluded by anarchic activists.
2017-18: Exarcheia, Victoria, Metaxourgeio, Commercial Triangle
We uncovered places in Athens where refugees have had to stop or pause their journey and recalibrate their response to the context in which they find themselves (Way Stations), as the myth of their steady progress towards a new life in Northern Europe has been interrupted by border controls. In Athens, they have found places where different peoples have met and exchanged ideas and experiences (from theatres to phone shops); struggled with bureaucracy (Post Office and Law Centres) and are plagued by memories of violence and loss (public squares, squatted hotels and safe houses). Despite communication difficulties across cultures and languages, they have seen how camps might be transformed into campuses for language exchange and skills training. The shrinking landscape of Athens has revealed a plethora of gaps and opportunities. The city has offered up ruined neo classical facades, sheds and domino frames, which in many cases prop each other up. We have wandered the arcades of central Athens and speculated on the possibility of extending these pedestrian capillaries into a network of winding footpaths connecting landlocked courtyards to provide safe territories for people of all ages to mix.
We have been studying four sites within the industrial edgelands of Eleonas, all of which refer to the sunken and partially covered over Kifissos river or one of its tributaries (the Profitis Daniil stream). Various themes are emerging from these sites including integrating the refugee camp with the rest of Athens; replanting the covered river; urban farming; children’s play and education and a better immigration service including provision for mental health care.