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Can Architecture Be Democratic: A Discussion at Athens Democracy Forum

January 12, 2017

ArtsGroup Exhibition | by Harry Seymour


If there are two great things that the Ancient Greeks gave us, it could be argued they are democracy, and architecture. They would certainly be the two things that are most instantly recognisable in the Western world during the 21st century as remaining remarkably similar to the Greek traditions laid down some 2,500 years ago. Recently, the resort of Costa Navarino on the south west coast of Peloponnese Greece held a weekend conference entitled ‘ Architecture and Democracy’ as part of the International New York Times Athens Democracy Forum. The idea behind the weekend was to being together architects, artists, critics, curators, writers and philosophers to see if, architecture (as an art form) could ever, or should ever, be democratic.

The weekend followed on from 2015’s theme of ‘Art and Democracy’ that saw none other then Wall Street banker turned self styled art world impresario Jeff Koons host the discussions alongside the Nobel Prize winner economist Paul Krugman. That weekend helped to elucidate dialogues between art and finance, and if art can, or should, always be accessible to all. Such a successful weekend it was, that another was scheduled for the following year, shifting the focus to architecture.

Ancient Messini Stadium.

Elaborating on keys themes including ‘What, and who, determines democratic architecture?’, ‘In which ways can urban planning represent and facilitate democracy?’ and ‘When can architecture legitimately be undemocratic?’, the forum aimed to deconstruct perceptions about how designed space can be defined and used by the people, and for the people. Speakers at the event included Patrik Schumacher – chief architect of Zaha Hadid Architects, Charles Landry the eminent urbanist and author, and Petros Themelis, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Crete.

The debates raged between intellects – sparking audience participation in an exercise that was symbolic of the same debates happening in Ancient Greece. It’s the sort of activity necessary to keep ideas invigorated, challenging, and by the people, for the people. One hot topic came in the form of city planning – should it be the job of artists, designers and architects to work with everyone in mind, or the paying client when constructing civil ideas? Examples discussed included London’s iconic Shard building, the new Tate Modern extension, the New York subway and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. It’s an age old question within the arts that has no finite answer, but should play in the mind of every creative, and such gatherings help to promote a conscious effort by the creators of society to elucidate their thoughts and processes to the masses.

Costa Navarino Agora.

The idyllic corner of the Peloponnese was the perfect place to discuss these notions, as the region is home to an enormously rich architectural history, from Neolithic settlements to the Mycenaean Palace of Nestor as mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, Byzantine churches and Medieval castles. The unspoilt countryside of breath taking Mediterranean landscapes was the perfect back drop for such an event.

The weekend was hosted by Costa Navarino a five star luxury resort complex, which coincidentally has its own Ancient Greek themed Agora – a public meeting place to host debate. The site was dreamt up some 50 years ago by a local shipping magnate as a project to not only boost local tourism but empower the local citizens with their own prosperity. Its also Greece’s premier resort for sustainability, dedicated to preserving the environment and heritage – It certainly seems a fitting place to discuss these worldwide themes of democratic architecture. It also contains a world famous spa with historically inspired treatments, luxury rooms with their own private infinity pools, over 20 dining options and one of the world’s best golf courses. There are also an array of pools, beaches, sports, archaeology tours and workshops to try. It’s about as democratic as a resort could be when it comes to providing something for everyone.

Costa Navarino.

The weekend raised some fascinating discussions, with fiery debates about public access, government funds, social housing, political buildings, banking institutions, regeneration projects and gentrification, spanning 4,500 years of history. These are the sort of issues that can never be truly answered, yet alone agreed upon, but must always remain in discussion to ensure the production of architecture that does work. The hosting of such event’s is testament to Costa Navarino’s dedication to the cause, but also the country of Greece’s steadfast attitude to the problems that face it which seem just as relevant today, as they were in the ancient Athenian Agora. We wait with baited breath for next years talks.

By Toby Mellors

A video of the event can be seen here.

Costa Navarino: Rates at the two hotels at Navarino Dunes, start from: The Westin Resort Costa Navarino: from €220, and The Romanos, a Luxury Collection Resort from €390. Prices are for a deluxe garden view room on a bed and breakfast basis, based on availability. Aegean Airlines: Aegean Airlines offers daily flights from London Heathrow to Athens.