Cities in crisis

Is there life after death for cities?
20 April 2010
Exterminating Angel
15 February 2014

Urban ruins, Detroit, USA

by George M. Chatzistergiou

A few years after the global banking crisis of 2008, a book called A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain was published in Britain. At a time when all we hear is that we should forget the post-war social model in Europe, the author Owen Hatherley tours Britain to examine the built environment of cities as it was shaped after WWII: first by the à l’anglaise socialism with the huge tower blocks and the construction of New Cities as public projects, and later by Thatcher and her successors with the regeneration of the declined former industrial areas on the basis of providing services and entertainment, funded by private enterprise. The book was broadly read, and its interest lies in part on the way it approaches the social developments of past decades through the sturdy traces these societies left in the landscape: buildings. The method is long known. Already in the 19th century, Honoré de Balzac was writing in his novel The Quest of the Absolute: “The events of human life, public as well as private, are so closely connected with architecture, that most observers are able to reconstruct nations or individuals with entire accuracy, in respect to their habits, from the remains of their public monuments”. In the 20th century, the famous French thinker Paul Virilio goes further still when he claims that cities are shaped in relation with the coming war or with the war in which they are involved already, saying that the way in which entire cities are built reflects not only the structure of the society that inhabits them but also the trends of future developments.

Could such an approach be of interest to us, the inhabitants of the numbed and harassed cities of a Greece under the troika memorandum? It certainly could. At a time when the atmosphere of public life, domestic and international, is charged with all kinds of threats about the future of us and our children and we cannot make head or tail of things, the use of structures and the built environment as a tool for a proper evaluation of the situation and its dynamic would be invaluable. Especially for our country, where construction has served as the backbone of economic and social life for many decades, this kind of approach has the advantage of moving on familiar ground in terms of past experience.


A time for stocktaking

So how can we make good use of this tool?

Our first task is to ‘balance the account’. How did Greek cities evolve after WWII and particularly after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974? If we work systematically on this and go to the core of the matter, away from facile and ultimately disorienting aphorisms such as “concrete has ruined our cities”, we will uncover some interesting facts. Alongside the narrow and often impassable pavements or the apartment blocks that hide the sun and shade one another, there are other aspects as well: for instance, in most parts of Greece the post-1980 regeneration of city centres with refurbishment projects and pedestrian zones lends itself to a ‘soft’, creative and functional social interaction of the community. This is a trait of Greek cities that the architect Richard Rogers praises in his book Cities for a Small Planet. And there are more key aspects to note and evaluate: from an economic and social point of view, the peculiarly Greek “grassroots capitalism” (almost the sole exception in Europe, with its large corporations in the construction industry) through the much-debated system of antiparochi[1] managed to distribute the gains from “building” among much of the population. In short, the situation is not all black; it has colours as well, and we need to take all aspects into account in order to sum things up properly.

No such evaluation would be complete without a comparison of our cities with their European counterparts. Well, could we place our cities next to, say, those of Italy? Of course not, especially if we are talking about the Italian north. They have neither their finesse nor their personality: Greek cities look alike because every trace of the past which might have been different has been torn down, but mostly because their activities are not differentiated; they are not specialised in something. On the other hand, we must remember that in many Italian cities the fine historical centre is surrounded by a grey ring of 1970s buildings, and further out by the kind of extensive development we would describe as ‘anarchic’ in Greece. If instead of Italy we turned to British cities or, more tellingly, London itself, then not far from its dazzling and financially and culturally bustling centre we would find some gloomy and extremely depressing areas which could make the ocean of unplanned Greek development seem like heaven—aided, of course, by the sun and the temperate climate.

A sober and holistic comparison of European cities is something which has not even begun, so we should not hasten to place our own cities at the bottom of the ranking.


After the stocktaking, what?

All these references are only indicative, of course. The systematic evaluation has a long way to go, and we must all contribute to it. We owe it to our parents and grandparents who built these cities, as well as to ourselves, to move away from self-pity and the summary rejection of everything that went on in Greece in the last fifty years. The muck and wretchedness that can be found in all societies are offset by feats, great or small; suffice it to remember the point from which Greece started after the devastation wrought by Nazi Occupation and the Civil War.

Yet all this is about morale — valuable, so that we take courage to take action, but not sufficient. Another positive effect would be to find among the cinders of the past those social traits which could promote our future plans: entrepreneurship, industriousness (yes, industriousness—are we forgetting the two or three jobs that we and our parents did when jobs were still available?), inventiveness, the distribution of profits to a broad spectrum of the population, the very high proportion of university graduates. These are only some of the elements with which we can start the next phase. It is not as if we come from nothing or as if we start from zero.

Of course, we are not interested in going back to what we just described as ‘cinders’; any useful thing we find in the old days must function in an entirely new context to be effective. The book Σου έχει καθόλου περιουσία? describes as historical fiction the adventure of a Greek society that, in order to return to growth, gets the air force to bomb Athens and then all other cities so that they can be rebuilt. Moreover, they turn away foreign investors who wish to build truly ‘beautiful’ cities but only for themselves, so the Greeks are left undisturbed to build their cities in the familiar old way, hoping to relive the post-war Eldorado. The outcome of this story is horrific. It is clear that the post-war model has peaked out, and in any case history does not repeat itself.


The glamour of horror

As we attempt to make the most of a tour among the ruins of contemporary Greece, we have to stop at a particular aspect which needs special handling. We are talking about managing disaster as a ‘happening’; we hope not, but we may not avoid approaches such as “let’s promote the oddity of living without power, or the resourceful ways of homeless life”. There is a strong precedent here, as for almost a decade shanty towns were ‘fashionable’, with artistic approaches like “look how beautifully they’ve painted the tin walls of their sheds!” — and all this while these people lived next to open sewers. Against this atmosphere, the famous American thinker and urban planner Mike Davis demonstrated the harsh reality of these settlements that inundate the globe in his now classic book Planet of Slums, based on UN data.

Of course, we must not underestimate the glamour that can emerge even from horror. In his book Dead Cities Mike Davis focuses on the ecosystem of the Nazi-bombed London and invokes contemporary botanical studies which discovered new kinds of “urban” plants adapted to fire, debris and the newly-cleared wastelands. He cites also more recent research which observes an impressive genetic leap, as the novel plants of the devastated London are akin to those of the late Ice Age! Read in isolation from the human factor, these data may resemble the exotic descriptions of the rivers of methane on the satellite of Saturn; if we want to curb the attraction of such an approach, we only need to think that in some respects the London Blitz turned the biological clock back by 10,000 years—or, more effectively, we can look at the ecosystems of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bomb.

The glamour of horror may act as a distraction on people of a sensitive nature, as a way of meeting the gaze of Medusa without turning to stone; ultimately, however, it is the concrete reality of destruction that casts its heavy shadow on developments.

There are ways to make something out of misery (Yannis Tsarouchis did this in his 1977 staging of Trojan Women —unforgettable to those who saw it— which he linked to the tragedy of the Turkish invasion in Cyprus, using as his stage set the backyards of Athenian apartment blocks), but what we are looking at here is how to go beyond personal consolation to help ourselves as a society to turn a new page.


The cities of our future

Taking up our original thread again, the point is to study matters in depth in order to decide where to head. If we do not do it, on the basis of our own interests, no one else will do it for us. Although serious foreign investment is both desirable and necessary, and although it is certain that whatever we do must be coordinated with the international system, it is equally certain that we must not rely on other people’s goodwill: what we do must be part of our own strategic planning. A case in point is that of Detroit, as demonstrated in the highly informative book The last days of Detroit, just published in Britain by Mark Spinelli. In the first decades of the 20th century Detroit rose meteorically to become the fourth largest city in the USA, thanks to the factories of pioneer motor manufacturer Henry Ford. In the 1950s it was seen as “the most modern city in the world, the city of tomorrow”; by the late 1960s it was already sliding towards what it is today: an urban jungle with unemployment at 50%, more firearms than people and the highest rate of homicide in the US. As Spinelli points out in his book, this was a direct consequence of major industry’s decision simply to divest and move elsewhere.

Nor is there any truth in the widespread view that one “must hit bottom to return to growth”; this sounds like an exorcism more than a logical approach, and our neighbouring Romania or Kosovo tell us otherwise, as do many countries in Latin America and Africa. In his book Wasted Lives. Modernity and its Outcasts, the internationally acclaimed thinker Zygmunt Bauman tells us that the bottom is just the bottom, not a springboard for something higher.

So we have to start making our own plans. Are we going to tear down our cities and rebuild them from scratch, so as to make them attractive for us and perhaps also as exportable products? Will we give an overall emphasis and priority to archaeology or tourism in certain regions? How will we link each city to a specialised production? What products are we going to produce per region so as to cover our backs in case of humanitarian crises and also to address the world markets more efficiently? What system of production will we adopt for all that? Can we find a way which will take advantage of the specific social traits we found in the embers, but at the same time steer clear of the muck of our old practices?

All this may sound like the delirious ramblings of those trapped in the debris, or at least like ‘midsummer night dreams’. What we propose here no doubt seems like a Herculean task. Yet is there any hope for us if we don’t take the initiative, if we don't work towards a cause? Shouldn’t these be the main issues in a robust public debate instead of this miserable regurgitation of doom and gloom?


CITIES IN CRISIS – Books

* Lara Feigel, The love-charm of Bombs; Restless lives in the Second World War, London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

* Mark Spinelli, The last days of Detroit, London: The Bodley Head, 2013.

* Owen Hatherley, A guide to the new ruins of Great Britain, New York: Verso, 2010.

* George Hatzistergiou, Η Γή τρέμει! Άνθρωποι και κατασκευές σε έναν κόσμο που αλλάζει, Athens: Alexandria, 2009.

* Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, The ruins of Detroit, Göttingen: Steidl

* George Hatzistergiou, Σου έχει μείνει καθόλου περιουσία; Athens: Alexandria, 2008.

* Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, New York: Verso, 2006.

* Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives. Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity, 2004.

* Mike Davis, Dead Cities, New York: The New Press, 2002.

* Joan Ockman (ed.), Out of Ground Zero, Case Studies in Urban Reinvention, (Lisbon, Chicago, Hirosima, Rotterdam, Plymouth, Berlin, Balkan Cities, Jerusalem, New York), Munich: Prestel, 2002.

* Richard Rogers, Cities for a small planet, London: Faber and Faber, 1998

* Paul Virilio, A landscape of events, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.

* Paul Virilio, Strategy of Deception, London: Verso, 2000.