Fall '13

Reactivate Athens

Urban Activation Strategies for Decaying Cities

Design Studio

  • Start 17.09.2013
  • ETH Zurich, ONA
  • Prof. Alfredo Brillembourg & Prof. Hubert Klumpner
    Lindsey Sherman, Michael Contento, Danny Wills
  • Collaborators: Maria Kaltsa, Thomas Maloutas
  • Partner: Onassis Foundation


During the last several decades, central Athens has been defined as an area of urban decline, understood as a long series of negative set-backs. Densely populated areas in or near the center of the city (products of uncontrolled densification) that once used to be middle and upper middle class areas increasingly downgraded. Many areas support high immigrant populations. Some of these areas harbor contradictory processes of solidarity and conflict, some developed particular forms of socio-spatial hierarchy, and others are still thriving in terms of daily activity and movement. The old housing stock, mostly built in the 60s and 70s, and the current lack of financing intensify complexities. The city has lost its center to decay, and in view of today’s socio-economic crisis, abandonment, visible everywhere, seems irreversible if confronted with traditional planning models.

The serious decay progressively attacked even the emblematic axis of Panepistimiou Street, where the Parliament and most of the nation’s administrative, financial, and commercial headquarters and institutions are located. Panepistimiou Street connects areas that have not been heavily affected by decline, traditionally occupied by the upper class, with a very different social reality at its opposite end. It is a challenge for the future of the city to successfully address the union of these two realities, a challenge that has been addressed through RE-THINK ATHENS* – a proposed intervention for Panepistimiou Street at the core of the city’s new regulatory plan. The results of this proposal have been set for implementation, and the studio will use these results as an existing condition – one of the many layers that constitute the urban context. However, the project does not adequately address the complex issues facing central Athens, and therefore the studio will engage, enrich, and activate this proposal with critical social design strategies.

While urban decline, or urban crisis, is often related to a state of decay, here it can also be understood as a set of new potentials – spatial, social, economic, ecological – for alternative urban futures. As such, it is the task of the research and design studio to discover and engage the latent problems and potentials of the city in order to create an alternative strategic vision consisting of new prototypes (processes, policies, and tools) for central Athens. The design studio is an effort to provide a strong, multifunctional centrality, regenerate central Athens by re-programming the existing, and manage traditional and new activities without giving in to leisure-led gentrification.

In order to address existing urban phenomena, studio participants will critically analyze the site(s) through socio-geographic mapping in order to develop a new framework within which to read and act in the city. This framework will re-engage the social dynamics and cultural diversity of central Athens and serve as the basis for the overall strategic plan. The new city will be built onto and with the old.

To develop an overall strategic vision, participants will generate new processes and identifiable tools that engage specific sites in central Athens as well as each other. Together these projects will form the strategic vision – a transferable urban toolbox with a strong transformative capacity. Each design will be the result of combining top-down and bottom-up processes – utilizing the territory between formal and informal as a new point of contact for architecture and social design in the city. Each tool is a catalyst to reprogram, reactivate, and integrate specific areas within central Athens and to create new urban qualities. In order to develop potent ideas, participants will work closely with local stakeholders, experts, NGOs, and institutions.