For a city as ancient as Athens, it is surprisingly modern and contemporary, possibly only because of its undying and endearing determination to reinvent itself with time. Today, the years of difficult economic circumstances are overcome by the sheer grit of its entrepreneurial youth. Thus, it is impressive to see the city (especially the old city) dotted around with many pop-up restaurants, art galleries, guest houses, and creative businesses that have boosted the city's cultural vibe and achieved recognition as a Cultural Capital of Southern Europe.
In every nook and corner you encounter, creativity bursts through in the form of street art, placemaking, and the tastefully transformed heritage and derelict buildings. Unlike many cities, Athens gracefully adorns and exhibits the relics of layers of history juxtaposed in perfect harmony, from its 5th century Acropolis to its Neo-classical streets and buildings, its Ottoman churches, and the Acropolis Museum, it captures the past through design.
On a bright sunny day, as Athens' monochromatic hues blend the old, new and heritage architecture, the archaeological sites seamlessly repose to the buzz of this vibrant city. The existence of the several archaeological sites within the old city do not detract but provide a serene and calm oasis amidst the bustling everyday life.
Where the markets, streets, and public spaces take centre stage during the day, at dusk, it is the Parthenon, Acropolis, and many of the temples come to life. Beautifully lit, these glowing relics showcase the rich history and heritage of the city, and the views across Monastiraki Square are breathtaking. The public space is coming to life with evening buzz and soft festive lighting, but your eyes are drawn to the resplendent Acropolis, reminding of its glorious past.
I visit Athens with K+K; little K (then 5 yrs old) was amazed, excited, and thrilled to know how old this city is. Staying in Psiri, in the heart of one of the oldest and quirkiest neighbourhoods of Athens, was a glimpse into tides of change retrofitted and adapted to the historic street patterns and character. Once an area with local artisans working with leather, printing, and furniture, today, Psiri is undergoing a dramatic change with new hotels, restaurants and shops inserted in the crumbling buildings. Despite the transformation of the area (perhaps soft gentrification), of course in an Athenian way, Psiri has retained its edgy character. The murals of Psiri and views of Platia Iroon with restaurants spilling out in the public space from the terrace of our hotel was the first impression that beautifully summed up Athens' heart and soul. Sitting at the terrace, it felt as if we had entered a picture frame with the collage of grinning faces speaking to us.
As an urbanist, as much I enjoyed the strolls around the historic districts of Plaka and Psiri; appreciating Byzantine architecture along Ermou Street; capturing breathtaking views while walking up the hill to the Acropolis, and enjoying relaxing moments at the cafes; I was very keen to know what lies beyond this perfect experience.
Athens' growth into its hinterland over many decades is much less seamless, rather ad-hoc compared to its historical part, perhaps demonstrates characteristic of its circumstance, the need for housing in 1950- 60s. The emerging museum quarter along the corridor between Syntagma and Omonoia is symptomatic of city planning's inadequacies. The area serves as a transition from the old city to the outer neighbourhoods. The insensitive contemporary architecture sitting uncomfortably next to the Neo-Classical landmarks is strikingly in contrast to the cohesiveness of the inner core. Omonoia Square, one of the important urban public spaces in Athens, is an example of the insensitive and utilitarian urban interventions that have only degraded the space's historical and social value.
The lack of state-led urban planning and the surge in bottom-up urban initiatives through collaboration between the architects, artists and the residents does not go unnoticed. Athens is a compelling case of bottom-up placemaking and urbanism through public art, pop-up art galleries, cultural events, and the contemporary food scene; all highlight the young Athenians' collective conscious and resilience. The efforts of many agencies and individuals working collaboratively and generating public discourse about new ways of thinking and doing have successfully led to urban interventions that uplift the spaces and the residents' spirit to shape everyday life in their streets and neighbourhoods.
As one of the oldest cities on this planet, Athens is still thriving and bustling because of the Athenians. Despite its ills and problems, it has tremendous potential, which is - its people, place, culture and history, that defines its future.