Athens — March/April 2023
To be honest right from the start, we pick Athens Athens 37° 59.028′ N 23° 43.65′ E because of the food. And the weather of course — we go there to leapfrog April in Hamburg, that dreadful month where I always feel like it ought to be spring, but it’s really still winter.
behold theman §
On our first evening we take a walk through the neighborhood. Walking past Exarchia square Plateia Exarcheion 37° 59.196′ N 23° 44.088′ E we come by a coffee shop behold theman 37° 59.208′ N 23° 44.088′ E that is already closed for the day. But the interior behind its huge glass front piques our interest: An intriguing mix of DIY/punk aesthetics with references to the early expressionist and constructivist Bauhaus. Shapes painted on the walls quote constructivist paintings. Centered above the counter is an homage to Oscar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus logo.
It is refreshing to see their huge appreciation for the Bauhaus’ Weimar phase, which is often pushed aside in favor of the later, more industrialized approach with its well-known modernist aesthetics.
During our time in Athens we spend many afternoons here, enjoying great coffee, while we sit on the custom built furniture and soak in the relaxed vibe. Where else would you find a Wassily Kandinsky bootleg shirt?
Acropolis Museum §
The museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, sits on foundation columns on top of an excavation site. Through glass floors you can look at the ruins below. Its brilliant feature is the top floor: it is rotated by 23 degrees compared to the rest of the building, so that it is aligned perfectly parallel to the ancient temple on the Acropolis Parthenon 37° 58.29′ N 23° 43.548′ E , which is visible through its full glass façade.
In the middle of the floor, stainless steel columns are spaced at exactly the same distances as the stone columns of the temple, essentially creating a minimalist 1:1 model of the Parthenon. Here, on comfortable viewing height, the panels of the Parthenon Frieze are displayed. On the west and east fragments from the pediments are arranged at eye-level in a stunning display, with fragments almost floating in the air.
Given the difficult situation of more than half of the panels being in the British Museum since they were removed around 1800 and brought to London Where, one must add, they were treated so badly that today they are in worse condition than the ones that remained out in the weather on the Parthenon., the museum does an incredible job of displaying a picture as complete as possible: It combines the remaining panels with plaster casts of those in other locations. Sometimes fragments and casts of fragments are mixed in a single panel. Underneath the panels, Carrey’s drawings from 1674 are displayed, which give a record of some panels which are left in fragments or lost completely. Letting the marbles speak for themselves while also presenting them in a manner highlighting the complex dynamics of cultural heritage in a global context without taking the focus from their historic artistic value, this is a true masterpiece in exhibition design.
Local and Global Aesthetics §
A friend sends me an article that is shared in design circles a lot right now: “The age of average” by Alex Murrell. In it, like many before him for at least a decade, he laments the “AirBnB design aesthetic” which leads to interiors looking the same all over the globe: “Isn’t it obvious that a global group of hosts all trying to present their properties to a global group of travellers would converge on a single, optimal, appealing yet inoffensive style?”. He claims that “the interiors of our homes, coffee shops and restaurants have begun to converge upon a single style.” Part of what makes making this claim so easy is that this style is very vaguely defined. It’s apparently (fake) industrial, minimalist, boho, mid-century, shabby-chic, all at the same time — basically any type of modern interior. Of the eight example flats he shows, not one contains “Nespresso machines. Eames chairs. Bare brick. […] Edison bulbs.” — 4 of his 7 typical elements. I believe that this is not about a particular aesthetic but about what Toby Shorin outlined in “The Diminishing Marginal Value of Aesthetics”.
I wonder: Is it really different from how it was before? There have been continental and global aesthetic trends for centuries. Gothic architecture spread through most of Europe in the High Middle Ages. If I showed you pictures of 1920s Art déco cafés from Chicago, Madrid and Mexico City, I doubt you could safely pinpoint which is where.
Is it that prevalent? Having scrolled through tens of thousands of Airbnb listings in various countries for the past months, I can assure you that the vast, vast majority does not adhere to this aesthetic.
It is not that I don’t get the argument, or that I don’t understand the (aesthetic) danger of global assimilation. But I am seriously trying to figure out what would an alternative be that is not pure conservative localism? Most Airbnbs — and private homes, I might venture — that do not follow the alleged trend do not follow any other particular aesthetic either: they are dark, chaotic, made up from random bits of furniture (and also look roughly the same all over the planet).
What are well designed, truly local, specific aesthetics? I can think of maybe five buildings I have ever been in that match this description.
We take a walk along 28is Oktovriou street to get a bit of fresh air after a day spent at the desk. Spontaneously we decide to enter a little bar Au Revoir Bar 37° 59.94′ N 23° 43.998′ E that seems surprisingly crowded for a Tuesday night.
Inside, it is dimly lit. It clearly has many art déco elements, but without any of the insincere grandeur that they often evoke. It is elegant in a humble, down-to-earth way. The ceiling is covered in dark wood, some of the walls in rattan.
As soon as we enter, we can tell that this place is, in Christopher Alexander’s terminology, “alive”: comfortable, harmonious, designed with absolute consequence. Maybe it is so hard to put into words because it has the “Quality without a Name” — it has a profound emotional impact.
The vertical rhythm of central Athens is defined by its omnipresent building archetype, called “Polykatoikia”: multi story mixed-used buildings, similar throughout the city, often planned without the involvement of an architect. The ground floor, used commercially, usually has an elevated ceiling height of about 4.5 meters. This impressive height gives many of the stores, restaurants and cafés located in the ground floors of these buildings an amazing, airy feel. In the case of this bar however, a curious decision was made: In the back half, a mezzanine has been added. The ceiling might be high, but is it high enough for two stories? Only just — on the mezzanine I can barely stand upright. But this unusual element becomes the point of reference for the entire interior. All elements are sized in relation to it: The height of the banister, the curiously small upholstered benches and tables. The proportions are quaint, yet absolutely harmonious.
Only as I am writing this, a few months later, do I learn the interior of “Au Revoir” is still completely original and was designed by Greek modernist architect Aristomenis Provelengios — a close collaborator of Le Corbusier. It is the oldest bar in Athens and opened in 1958.
It sounds made up, but in this space you can feel that a master of his profession was at work. Effortlessly quoting stylistic elements of a foreign, typically French, style, but translating them into vernacular materials and into proportions that derive from the local architecture. Anything but average. Maybe spaces like this are the answer.
Antikythera Mechanism §
On a Saturday, I stroll through the Archaeological Museum National Archaeological Museum 37° 59.34′ N 23° 43.932′ E when on the plaque of a small statue I read “from the Antikythera wreck”. The name rings a bell. I walk up to a guard and ask her where the remainder of items from the wreck is kept. Following her instructions I walk through a succession of rooms until I stand in front of the “Antikythera mechanism” — the oldest known analogue computer.
When it was discovered in a wreck from around 70 BC, the Antikythera mechanism was thought to be a prochronism — something so sophisticated that it could not have been invented yet at that time. It stands alone: there are no known predecessors Though given the complexity of the mechanism they must have existed. and it would take until the 14th century for astronomical clocks of similar complexity to appear. What remains of it is humble, and it might never have even worked very well. But that does not diminish its significance: in human intellectual history it is a milestone of humbling prescience.
Repository [Athens] §
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