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Decorating the Athens Metro: a matter of culture or conventionality?

Scritto da Johannis Tsoumas il 10 Giugno 2014 in Metropolis

1. Introduction
The Athens Metro, whose main project construction started in November 1992 with about 20 scheduled kilometers of network and with 21 stations initially divided into two lines, is arguably the most important public project for the city of Athens in recent years, as it was mainly intended to contribute to a better quality of life for the locals. One of its unique peculiarities, between its architectural design and aesthetics, is that its construction was the reason for the parallel implementation of a major archaeological project. Specifically, its construction gave rise to the greatest archaeological excavations in the capital comprising an area of 79,000 sq. m, which brought to light more than 50,000 archaeological findings (Sykka 2000: 2). Besides, ever since the project was planned, the Ministry of Culture had informed scholars about the wealth of the Athenian subsoil antiquities and the restrictions imposed by the commitment for their protection. The great value of these excavations lies also in the fact that the new historical/cultural/aesthetic knowledge that they brought, was promptly offered to everybody through the creation of permanent museum exhibitions in the stations with the significant findings.

 

However, the 36 Metro stations currently operating in Athens highlight not only the hidden city and its ancient history but also the neoteric Greek cultural heritage. Therefore, alongside with creating special spaces for the emergence of the most important archaeological findings, the company ‘Attic Metro’ S.A. implemented a program (for the first time in a public project in Greece) whereby artworks by distinguished Greek artists adorn almost all the network stations. Internationally acclaimed Greek artists, taking into account the multiple possibilities offered by the Metro, have created specific works for each station so that today the cultural richness of the modern Greek history emerges in the new underground railway of the capital (Tzanavara 2009: 28). So, which were the parameters that ruled this particular aesthetics of the Athens Metro? Has it been a groundbreaking modern creation of the new Greek architecture and art that also embodied the ancient Greek culture? Alternatively, was it just another architectural shell of globalization which housed ancient ruins and artifacts promoting private interests? Through references and sources relating to the decorative configuration of its stations, the selection of exhibits, and the architectural components, we will attempt to answer the above questions with the main objective to understand its aesthetics and, therefore, its cultural physiognomy.

 

2. The structural beauty of the Athens Metro
According to the railway stations history of architecture in Europe and America in the second half of the 19th century, the decorative aesthetic was, in many cases, synonymous with their structural and functional value. To be more specific, if we look at the configuration of the first major railway stations, such as the neo-Gothic building of Saint Pancras in London (Bradley 2007: 38), but even at the labyrinthine aesthetic configuration of the Paris Metro stations in the Art Nouveau period, we will understand the essential role of decoration in such public use of architecture. Even during the 20th century, the value of the structure and in general the logic and functional construction of the Metro stations worldwide was usually affiliated with their aesthetic and decorative framing. Today in many countries, most Metro stations stand out for their particular architecture, which sometimes express a more modern view, and some other times something more traditional, which is reminiscent of previous centuries (Sarigiannis 2005: 62).

 

Many times, however, it was not but the main components of a similar rail network that were themselves a form of decoration and this was always identified in the initial design of each work (Alexandris & Houliaras, 2009: 17). So in the case of the Athens Metro as well, one of the foremost goals of its original and most basic architectural studies was to deliver to the passengers stations which are functional, friendly, and aesthetically pleasing to the users. For these reasons, and during the first phase of network design, the architectural team of the Athens Metro, having the approval of the responsible Ministry, travelled to many cities around the world that have underground rail transport systems, visited the stations and acquired the appropriate expertise and vision before starting the project in Athens (Reboutsika, 2013: 64).

 

The creation of such a large project in the Athenian underground poses enormous difficulties and that was why the architectural studies which are still being implemented for the construction of each station separately, are of a paramount importance. Beyond the limits of aesthetics, the architectural design is an integral part of broader studies, as well as the outcome of detailed and effective coordination with other technical works necessary for the completion of such projects. One of the most characteristic features of the design is the application of the principles of bioclimatic, the use of natural lighting wherever possible, the accessibility of persons with disabilities, and the careful selection of materials to be used in the construction of the stations (Batsos 2011: 48).

 

It is now clear that the main objective of designing an underground Metro station is mainly its functionality and security rather than its aesthetic effect. But we could also claim that the aesthetic side has a significant functional value. We will observe that in most stations, especially in the historic center of Athens, the passengers get off to a great depth below the surface of the earth, and this was an issue that should be addressed with the aesthetic improvement of these spaces. So one of the main concerns of the architecture team was that every passenger in the Metro stations should feel safe. This would be based not only on the “safe” building materials, but also on the visually pleasant feelings that they would get from, if anything else, the deep and fearful basement of stairways and docks(1).

 

With regard to the materials used to coat not only the floors but also the walls of the stations, although their choice mainly relied upon their durability over the time and the least possible need for ongoing maintenance, the combination of colors (shades of gray and white that blend evenly with reddish or brown geometric shapes and patterns) and their material qualities were important elements of decoration.

 

Thus, granite was chosen for the flooring and for the decorations for the orthomarmarosis technique (marble slabs wall coating), the Greek marble, a primordial material which has been a favorite stone of the ancient Greeks who often chose it, both for the construction of buildings and temples and for the creation of the famous statues, of burial stelas and other objects. All these elements tend to combine with the simple masonry which, at many stations, is well-known for its variety of colors, but also for the highly polished metal surfaces of the modern design escalators, of the ticket vending machines, the ventilation systems, but also with glass surfaces of the lift cabins(2).

 

3. The ancient findings and the modern art works as a means of decoration inside the stations
Among the numerous ancient ruins, discovered in such areas as, for example, the plains of the Eridanus and Ilisos rivers (today’s Syntagma Square and the area of   Evangelismos), the cemetery of Kerameikos, but also along the Iera Odos street (Parlama 2000: 17), one can distinguish the public road construction, water and sanitation works, many public and private buildings and several workshops. For the construction of the Monastiraki Station several archaeological excavations were carried out which unearthed relics from the 8th century B.C., i.e. from the Geometric period to the 19th century A.D. while they also demonstrated the continuous use of the site from the Mycenaean period to the modern times. Among the most important findings is the boxed bed of the Eridanus rive, a part of which is today exposed to public view to the numerous passengers of that central station. Excavations on the Acropolis Station in an area of 2,500 square meters, has demonstrated the use of space from the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. until the Byzantine times (Servi 2011: 39). There were also discovered a few tombs of the Middle and Late Helladic era, as well as a number of houses, workshops, roads and bathrooms. We see that in the abundance of all these architectural findings were also discovered, as a consequence, thousands of everyday life worship objects, as well as a great deal of purely aesthetic objects which constitute valuable evidence for the social, economic, political, historical and cultural habits and conditions of life in the city of Athens, in the ancient Greek, Roman, and their subsequent times.

 

A great many of these antiquities, be they mobile or stationary, would be not only unique objects of historical heritage of the country, but also a unique way of framing aesthetically several stations whose history was affiliated with them. Of course there were also cases, such as at the Acropolis Station, where some antiquities were not found during the archaeological excavations, but were considered important items to exhibit because they seemed to have an enormous symbolic and national value. So the Elgin Marbles, housed in the British Museum, are now exhibited in this station in the form of replicas. (Kokouvas 2011: 2). In any case, however, the decision for the organization and the way in which the exhibits are displayed on their stands, was much taken later, after the completion of the architectural design, with the exception of the Aigaleo Station where a totally inverse procedure was adopted.

 

The effort to upgrade the aesthetic value but also to promote the architectural style of the Athens Metro stations, was achieved also through the exhibition of works by contemporary Greek artists at the stations. For this reason, the “Athens Metro” S.A. established the Commission of Aesthetic Framing(3) which was responsible not only for the way in which works were selected (usually direct awards) but also for placing them in the Metro showrooms. Most of these works are of monumental dimensions and refer to matters relating to the history of the city or region of each station, and were painted, chiseled or cast under several constraints dictated by the safety regulations in the network areas, such as the static efficiency and the tightness of the buildings, and mainly the safe movement of passengers. Also, other restrictions which were placed on the artists involved the selection of materials that they would use for the creation of the works, such as cloth and wood which, in case of fire, burn easily(4).

 

The idea of art exhibition in underground metros is neither new nor original as it constitutes an ordinary image found at the Metro stations in many countries in the world, especially in Europe and North America. However, in Greece it was attempted for the time to closely associate the Greek contemporary art at such a large scale both with architecture & technology and with archeology. This was assisted by the notable absence from Athens of a Museum of Modern Art, which would concentrate in its premises all the works of the contemporary Greek artists, and the desire of the Commission of Aesthetic Farming of the “Athens Metro” S.A. to pay tribute to the artists of the generation of the 1930s(5) and the 1960s, as for example Ioannis Moralis, Dimitris Mytaras, Alekos Fassianos, Ioannis Gaitis and others. Apart from the above artists, the same Commission approved works of some other important older and younger Greek artists among whom are included the widely known Varotsos, Zouni, Karras, Katzourakis, Kessanlis, Lazongas, Chryssa, Takis and Tsoclis. Today 27 works by contemporary Greek artists are hosted in 20 stations of the Athens Metro.

 

The artworks are placed in large open spaces at different levels of the station, ranging from the entrances to the docks. Many of these large-scale works can be easily perceived by passengers, who usually cross the room in a hasty way, because they have been placed in such a way as to strongly suggest their presence, while they are specific to both the architecture and the “logic” of the stations without creating problems in the passengers psychology and movement (Koskina 2009: 15). When the exhibitions were planned, special attention was paid not only to the manner of exhibiting each work, but also to the harmonious coexistence of the ancient exhibits with the works of contemporary art, so that a fruitful conversation could develop between them, without one exhibition creating a barrier to the other.

 

Placing artworks in the stations of the Athens Metro, is essentially meant to follow suit of practice known from antiquity, that of placing artifacts in places of public use, which was aimed, through the display of the greatness of the city, at providing aesthetic satisfaction and national pride to the citizens. In this era, too, one of the main categories of works relates to the artistic creations which are either merely integrated spatially in public, or tackle the concept of publicity. The shift that took place in the art from the 1960s onwards in relation to terms like “political” and the “relationship between art and the public” led to the modern era of artistic activism, the public and community art, or even to the era of the so-called “social shift” of art. These works are either permanent or ephemeral in nature, while they are made in the framework of statutory exhibitions (tendering, great artistic events) or alternative/non-institutionalized projects of an interventionist character (Ammann 1984: 27).

 

We therefore observe that the contemporary theoretical positions confirm the ancient practice whereby the artwork placed in a public space(6) can play an enhanced role in their converse with the public. Artwork placed in plain view has evolved from a monument that recalls the importance of a historical event or person, to a body of concepts and reflection of various social conditions. Therefore, art in public places, particularly in the Athens Metro, has the ability to play the role of a social mediator, enhancing the way in which everyone communicates both with themselves as well as with the rest of society.

 

4. The dispute the “ideal” balance
On the other hand and according to Kouros (2008: 38) currently public art opposes private narratives of art (commercial, lifestyle, private exhibition spaces, etc.). It’s the idea that we have of the public which is contrary to the personal (so that we believe that the personal expression identifies with the existence of the dispute) and the specter of a “common ground” ghost continues to haunt us. Public art is not public just because it happens in a public place, but because it contributes to the activation or building the public sphere. The construction of the public sphere as an object of public art has a different meaning from that of intervention in the public space. The intervention may be understood as an act of design/placement of an object in public space, while the construction of a public sphere requires the installation of communication devices that create conditions of public discourse and action. In the public sphere, rather than the forms and spaces, we are interested in the variations of experience and knowledge about networks and flows that disrupt or allow access, potentiate or obscure the presence of spectators or persons in action.

 

So do these works have these qualities? Do they actually operate as modulators of a public sphere or are they simply the “outrage” of an opaque selection process aiming at personal or corporate interests and aspirations? So, let’s see how their choice is disputed both institutionally and aesthetically. According to the excellent article by Elias Mortoglou in the newspaper Rizospastis (2000:4) there has always been an ongoing effort by the “Athens Metro S.A.” to handle the issue of the artistic decoration of the Metro stations as a private enterprise, i.e. outside the law for the public artworks which was supported by the Planning and Environment Ministry. But the “Athens Metro S.A.” is a Company of Public Interest; it manages public money (shares belonging to the Ministry), its work relates to public space and is not exempt from the general law. The Fine Arts Chamber of Greece supported and continues to support the artistic process of Pan-Hellenic competitions. The money to put into projects like this, is public, so it has to be managed in the most merit-based and transparent manner.

 

Also, those processes that encourage artistic potential to deposit their proposal must be applied, without being disqualified a priori. Equal opportunities should be given for competition between the artists, so that artistic creation would be fully encouraged. Besides the great artists, with unquestionable work are not belittled by the process of comparison. Instead, the procurement process validates their value. This is stated in response to a culture that wants the “celebrities” not to participate in competitions, because, supposedly, they are “reduced”. The eventual “failure” in a competition may mean that there is a work better suited to the requirements of the specific site.

 

Based on all these factors, we might ask ourselves if eventually the “private” initiative, as well as the selective practice of the “Athens Metro S.A.” to manage public good of particular importance, such as art, deprives an important part of its ‘public’ character. So, the integration and visibility in a public space of art objects, seem to negate to a great extent, under these conditions, their public character which, otherwise, would allow them to develop a dialectical relationship with the public, but also to shape the concept of the public sphere.

 

Generally speaking, however, the “Major Projects” of Athens (Olympic Games Sites, Unification of the Archaeological Sites, the Metro, etc.), also required, in addition to the proper structural design, an aesthetic care and artistic decoration. This presupposed that artworks were also integrated in them (as per Law 2557/97), as well as collaboration of creative artists. However, the major disadvantage of each government’s perception was that it has never appeared to be ready to integrate a comprehensive aesthetic design to them, thus leaving the “private initiative” to prey on the arenas of public goods, one of which is the visual arts.

 

In contrast to this perfectly idealized aesthetic balance in the decorative and structural part of that of modern transportation miracle in the annals of the history of the Greek state, some other respects, less ambitious and more modest, have been quoted. Taking cue from a fairly old, but in many parts thereof, an entirely timely article published in the leftist journal Rizospastis in early 2000, the then President of the Chamber of Fine Arts of Greece Ms. Eva Mela, answered to the journalist’s question How do you see the “position” of the visual artist, in the part of the Metro which has been already commissioned, as follows:
There is clearly a lack of care of the visual artist: cold rooms, shiny, without warmth. Like a department store, like malls. With sumptuous materials which, although “shiny”, fail to beautify the area, as traditional materials, as Greek materials do. In very few years the stations will be miserable, visually damaged, even if we look at it in terms of colors: the stations do not have the clarity and simplicity of the Greek tradition. They are depressed, no matter whether they are shiny. Even in those in which artworks were placed, the way in which contemporary works of art were placed is questionable: each station was not treated in whole as a place where people will live, where they shall spend a part of their life, where feelings shall be created. Of course it goes without saying that the traditional or vernacular architecture of the Attica cityscape (neoclassical architecture) was not taken into account at all, as references to both building and the aesthetic/historical features are nonexistent (Kardamitsi – Adami, M.: 1999: 45). The exposed antiquities are the only “oases” of Hellenism in this globalized aesthetic architecture” (Mortoglou 2000: 5).

 

In this very interesting and subversive comment on the overall aesthetics of the Athenian Metro stations we will add that against the “lexilagneia”, the rhetoric and the self-referential analysis of some architects who serve the logic of a globalized aesthetic line, the overall design of the Athens Metro should have been included in the framework of a targeted design which should have given priority to concept such as the configuration, the materiality and the “physical space”, in return for monotonous loans and transfers of predictable outlandish architectural models. Moreover, it should be noted that for its design, at a time that obeys to the voices of globalized architects, its creators should have followed other paths, which would be related to the vernacular tradition of space and place that host them, while creating a core of resistance, defense or even polemics towards the unsuccessful systemic architectural practice.

 

Every point of complacency and acceptance of the globalized command should have been denied, so such a great attempt of architecture as the Athens Metro could have the opportunity to take on the structural-aesthetic personality that would suit it. And this could not be done unless the concepts of singularity and vernacular architectural style would rather follow than succumb to the spirit of eternal ex-modernism. However, it seems that any oppositions to all these were not strong enough (Biris 2008:399). The Greek vernacular architecture is absent in the whole of the general structural and aesthetic character of the Athens Metro, and the few references to materials, textures or colors that may remind it, are extremely inadequate. Besides, how could we imagine the national/historical character of the Metro stations if we saw them completely stripped of all the above mentioned artistic/archaeological elements? According to our view, it would be impossible for any respondent to imagine that such a piece of architectural work could be Greek, as nothing from a structural/aesthetic point of view, regarding its architectural design, would betray something like that.

 

5. Conclusion
The oppositional relationship among the discovered data relating to the Athens Metro stations decoration management, is particularly strong. But from the evidence emerged we can easily perceive that as seen from the perspective of aesthetics the Athens Metro is ultimately deprived of a substantial decorative approach. The point on which we will focus in order to support our view is its architectural design and thus its structural physiognomy. So, from all those cited in previous chapters we will adopt the aforementioned position whereby a more ‘meticulous’ architectural design of all metro stations should have been applied.

 

This means that it should have included construction and embellishment features as well as decorative compositions themselves which would result from the long ancient, and the complex modern Greek architecture, which not only would give a national character to the subway, but also would enhance the decorative order of its rather aesthetically neutral space. The rich architectural tradition of the Greeks could be an inexhaustible source of inspiration: representations, symbols, materials, surfaces, textures, patterns, colors and shapes or combinations of all these aspects would embellish uniquely the dull and indifferent areas of the Athens Metro.

 

In our opinion, there lies the answer to the great question of the Metro decoration. On the other hand the stands with the archaeological finds, the ancient sites and the works of contemporary Greek visual artists constitute a matter of secondary importance. All these items are only one part of the broader aesthetic approach of the Athens Metro, reminding us however of its Greekness. So, ignoring the way in which they have been chosen (modern art) or exposed (antiquities), we should admit that today they are, except from the undisputed agents of history and culture, a non- negligible source of beauty of this rather aesthetically conventional major public project.

 

Endnotes
(1) Attico Metro webpage (2013), in: http://www.ametro.gr/page/default.asp?la=1&id=4, (accessed on 23/10/2013).
(2) In 2008 the Architectural Department of the Athens Metro received a highly prestigious international award among dozens of nominations as it managed to emerge as the friendliest and most accessible public work of Europe, winning the first prize in the International Congress Architecture Contest, held in Italy.
(3) The Commission for the Embellishment of Public Sites has stopped its work since 2010, and there is, to date, no formal decision on its future programs, despite the fact that many artists are interested in exhibiting their works at the Athens Metro stations with no financial burden for the company.
(4) Exceptions are the sculptor’s Opi Zouni works in the Aigaleo Metro station as they are made of wood varnished with a special material so as not to be flammable.
(5) In the 1930’s the Greek painting becomes anthropocentric and artists start looking for traditional, national values which become symbols. They also unearth the symbolic world of the Byzantine painting and therefore the abstraction of images, the decorative, geometric order of the folk art, as well as, the harmony and the balance of the classical art. Under these circumstances, the artists also study the Greek landscape, discover the Aegean islands and search for the meaning of simplicity in the spirit of ancient Greek art. Thus, they try to maintain their authenticity, to form the “Greek identity” in art by separating, at the same time, the elements of modern European art from theirs.
(6) Today the cities in which we live are quite different from those of the past. Public space has long since ceased to be represented by the central squares, the main streets or in newer versions the boulevards and the galleries. It is presented as a powerful web of sites strongly differentiated both in terms of form and use. It certainly is a common ground where people make their utilitarian activities and experience daily, ordinary events.

 

References
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Ammann, J.-C. (1987), “Plädoyer für eine neue Kunst im öffentlichen Raum”, in Kunst im öffentlichen Raum. Skulpturenboulevard Kurfürstendamm Tauentzien. Berlin: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein & Dietrich Reimer
Batsos, D. (2011), “??????? ???? ?????? ??? ?????????? ?????? ??? ????????? ?? ?????? ??????? ?????” (“A Contribution to the Research of the Comfort and Safety Parameters in Metro Station Areas”), National Technical University of Athens, Department of Civil Engineering, Ph. D thesis
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