Posts Tagged 'athens'

Urban explorer weaves a fresh narrative for Athens

kauffmann

By Harry van Versendaal

Defined by Athens, Nikos Vatopoulos has certainly worked hard to give something back to the city where he was born and raised. His prolific work as a journalist, writer, amateur photographer and urban activist has influenced contemporary perceptions of the Greek capital.

Vatopoulos would be the first to agree that Athens is not by any measure endowed with the picture-postcard beauty of its European counterparts. Fraught with contrasts and contradictions, this sprawling metropolis resists any straightforward classification.

“I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings,” Vatopoulos says. “But I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me,” he says.

The shift seems to convey a quasi-existential understanding that the aesthetic and cultural mess that is Athens needs to be embraced if one is to ever feel comfortable here. It’s an admittedly more mature and pragmatic outlook, more in line with the ideal of a city as a living system, a constantly changing whole that resembles an incubator of narratives and emotions such as those captured in his latest book, “Walking in Athens.”

The 181-page volume, recently published in English by Metaichmio, is a collection of articles written for Kathimerini newspaper where Vatopoulos is chief cultural editor. Vatopoulos, a keen-eyed street wanderer-turned-archaeologist of the present strolls the capital’s emblematic boulevards and meandering backstreets documenting robust and humble buildings, neat houses and crumbling ruins. In the process, he chronicles the succession of human lives, cultural changes and civilizational shifts. It is a gentle albeit thoughtful exercise.

Born in downtown Athens in 1960, Vatopoulos moved toward adulthood as the city’s urban and social transformation was in full swing. It was a highly optimistic period which however bequeathed the capital with a controversial architectural legacy (though one that the writer does not shy away from). Now standing at what appears to be the close of Greece’s brutal 10-year crisis, Vatopoulos refuses to give up his optimism about Athens. The financial meltdown has naturally left deep scars on the urban fabric, yet it has, at the same time, impacted the urban mind-set in a positive manner.

“The new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution,” he says. “It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment.”

 

What compelled you to write these pieces? Was it a quest for a beauty or the desire to make a record of things that are being lost?

It was mostly an effort to understand this city, I would say. Even though I was born in Athens, grew up in Athens and my entire life is intrinsically linked with this city, I always felt there was room for me to go even deeper in understanding how it has been shaped and what makes it tick. I suppose that curiosity was my trigger, an enormous amount of curiosity about Athens, which obviously comes with an enormous amount of love. I want to understand it because I love it, so I think that this article series was the next stop in my relationship with Athens. I wrote about more obvious subjects in the first few years, but the series later led me to discover the unseen city – that is what interested me most; locating those reserves of a bourgeois culture (note: Vatopoulos uses the world “astiko,” which he defines as a kind of bourgeois, metropolitan culture, but without the baggage of class) that are usually not so apparent. If you don’t go looking for it, this treasure won’t just appear of its own accord. And I believe that Athens has a stock of buildings that basically illustrates its cultural evolution and is right there; we just have to see it to incorporate it into the city’s greater narrative. Athens’ modern story is enough for me; I am very interested in it.

In your book you talk about a new watershed in the city’s history: before and after the economic crisis. Do you believe this outlook will prevail in the future?

I do. I believe it has been a major watershed. I am part of a generation – like many other generations, of course – that has been defined by 20th century milestones. I believe that as the events of the 20th century move into the past, the new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution. It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment. This is the important part, the psychological shift. And this, of course, has left a mark in the form of neglect. But apart from this, I believe the crisis gave the city space for a new beginning and in this regard I am somewhat optimistic about its prospects.

Where does that optimism come from?

Well, it’s partly who I am as a person, always positive and open to things, but I do believe that there is a critical mass of young residents that care about this city. Even those who cannot invest in the city in any way – be it economic, educational or in some other way – are ready to be useful as citizens. This may not be visible yet, but there is a greater proportion of mostly young people who want to be part of the city’s evolution than there was in the past. They also have a much sophisticated point of view.

What would be the glue to keep this city together – if it even needs such a thing?

Abolishing stereotypes, re-establishing the notion of Athens in a way that entails civic pride and inclusiveness. I believe that there needs to be plenty of social space in the new narrative for Athens; space for identity-shaping and for the city’s residents to redefine themselves. It is futile to approach Athens in terms that belong to the 1990s; it is unrealistic. Athens needs to develop a metropolitan identity, but with social cohesion – that is the most important thing.

Speaking of cohesion, is the absence of aesthetic cohesion a boon or a bane for the city?

I have vacillated in this regard. I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings, but I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me. On a recent tour of Neapoli and Exarchia I made an unplanned stop in front of two buildings from the 1980s that are, objectively, extremely ugly. I told my group: “Observe these buildings, because they too are a part of Athens’ reality. In order to understand Athens we need to also make room for them in our minds.” This is regardless of whether we like them or not, but this is an entirely different conversation.

Do you think that Athens struggles under the weight of its history? Does it need a new identity in which its Classical heritage is simply a part rather than a symbol of unattainable heights?

I believe in Athens’ continuum and I think it has been very bad for the city that new Athens has been cast as the result of the “darkness of the Turkish occupation,” a chasm that is nothing more than a notion, a construct of the modern age that rejected centuries of the Ottoman era (calling it post-Byzantine no less – another outrage) and which completely overlooks the period of Frankish rule (I bet only a handful of Greeks know that Athens once had a Catalan administration), etc. There is, however, a very interesting trend toward seeing Athens as a historical continuum, from the pre-Classical age to the present day, with fascinating peaks and troughs, of course, and all of which contributes to what we see and mainly to what we feel about Athens.

What gives you greater pleasure: a new, beautiful structure or the restoration of an old one?

I have never thought about it. I will say the former; the construction of a beautiful new thing. This is the greatest vote of confidence you can give to a city’s future. New beautiful buildings mean that people are envisioning their lives in this city in a much more succinct way. By no means do I dismiss the latter, though.

Which is your favorite Athenian street?

Patission. It may be because I grew up there, but I think that it exemplifies Athens’ urbanization in a very distinct way, while it also gives me this combination of joy and sadness.

Do you feel uncomfortable when you see a tourist walking around the “wrong” parts of Athens? What is this city’s biggest problem?

I used to, yes, quite profoundly. I am more relaxed about it now. But I also think that a lot of foreign tourists have changed too. I see many – and I don’t mean the mass tourism lot that’s obviously here just for a good time, which is also fine – who are interested in what is going on around them, who are not looking to stay in their comfort zone or for the obviously beautiful. I recently saw two tourists who weren’t lost walking along Liosion Street – they were having a wander and the look on their faces was very interesting.

Has any particular urban regeneration project from among the many that are put forward every so often caught your attention?

I believe the Rethink Athens project really should have been carried out. I think it would have helped Athens, added a lot of trees and fixed Omonia Square, which is a major issue. We Greeks are very swift to say no and very reluctant to sit down and talk.

Nevertheless, I read that the new mayor invited you for a discussion about the city. Did you make any suggestions?

Yes, we had dinner, but it was part of a busy schedule of many meetings with Athenians. What I told him – and he appeared interested in the idea – was about rooftops, which also have to do with the climate and with the city’s appearance. I think it’s a major issue. If you look out at Athens from Lycabettus or the Acropolis, you see that there has been no thought given to how rooftops could contribute aesthetically and ecologically. The many options provided by technology (you can have swimming pools, gardens, new-tech tiling, etc) in combination with incentives and tax breaks could transform Athens completely within five years.

You have already published dozens of articles, books and albums, organized exhibitions and founded the now-defunct Saturdays in Athens urban activist group, all about the capital. What else can we expect?

I want to keep writing books. I’m working on one now that will be published this fall, again by Metaichmio, which is my take on 23 Greek cities, an essay on the country’s undervalued urban space. I am an amateur photographer and would like to have a show, while I would also like to write a big book about Athens that would be about the city and people from my generation, about buildings and books, people and movies.

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Years of storage lend nuance to collection of images

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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Paris, 1985.

By Harry van Versendaal

For Constantinos Pittas, a good photograph must elevate the prosaic to the preternatural, the banal to the magical.

Strolling one 1985 evening in Paris’s Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as the gates were about to close, Pittas saw the otherwise commonplace spectacle of a couple sitting on a bench. Basking in a ray of dying light peeking through the trees at dusk, the pair appeared to be floating in space. Without a second thought, Pittas pressed the shutter button.

“I felt as if it was the first time I was really seeing a couple sitting on a bench,” he says staring across the table at the photograph, now hanging on the wall of the French Institute in Athens (IFA). “It was like two units becoming one,” he says.

More than 30 years since that day, Pittas, now 59, comfortably recalls the story behind nearly every photograph in his current exhibition, “Athenians & Parisians.” The event comes in the wake of his breakout show at the Benaki Museum late last year, a warmly received collection of previously stowed-away black-and-whites shot in the still-divided Europe of the 1980s. The spin-off exhibition at IFA showcases a selection of images captured in the Greek and French capitals around the middle of the same decade.

Athens and Paris naturally lay on the same side of the Iron Curtain, the infamous divide between the free world and totalitarianism aptly captured in his “Images of Another Europe: 1985-1989.” But for Pittas, who now lives in a coastal suburb northeast of Greece’s sprawling, unruly capital, the connection between these two Western metropoles also has a personal dimension.

Pittas moved to Paris in the early 1980s to pursue postgraduate studies in civil engineering at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech. It was his first time away from home and although he soon realized that civil engineering was not his thing, his time there did not go to waste.

“I made my first meaningful observations about life and about people during the two-and-a-half years I spent there,” he says.

Dwindling resources made him return to Athens to look for work, but distraction was around the corner again.

“I soon found myself wandering around the city streets taking photos,” he says.

Then a skinny, curly-haired youth in his early 20s, Pittas would pound the city’s sidewalks 12-13 hours a day, taking breaks on the Athens-Piraeus urban electric railway (ISAP). A self-taught photographer, Pittas’s understanding of the medium came from his voracious appetite for cinema: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Wenders, Kurosawa and generous helpings of film noir. He relied on a German-made pocket-size Minox 35GT, reputedly the smallest full-frame 35mm camera ever built, and always shot from waist level for that stealth effect.

By 1984, he was done with the Athens photos. A year later, he jumped into a blue Pony-Citroen and started zigzagging across Europe to cities on both sides of the divide with a romantic (if ironically prophetic) ambition to bring the people of the continent together in a single photo book.

“I was familiar with Paris, so I decided to make it my first stop. In a way Athens and Paris are my life’s two biggest milestones,” he says.

The project went on until 1989, when Berliners took their sledgehammers to the Schandmauer – the wall of shame. Events, Pittas thought at the time, had killed it. Thousands of negatives were boxed away in a basement. They sat there for a quarter of a century, until he recently decided to share a selection with the world.

“It makes me happy that some of the things I saw in the two cities back then are now being showcased side by side,” Pittas says.

The work is street photography at its finest: spontaneous, beautiful and telling a story. It is rarely upbeat; the faces are mostly pensive or grim.

“You always see what is close to your state of being. It’s all a projection. You cannot escape your nature,” he says. “That’s why I do not really believe in photojournalism.”

Coming in the wake of a traumatic seven-year military dictatorship, the 1980s were a transformative, if in some ways contradictory period for Greece. Politics was dominated by populism, polarization, clientelism and corruption – all widely seen as the source of many of the country’s woes today. In the economy, living standards and consumption grew while actual productivity nosedived.

Meanwhile, turning a deaf ear to the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of socialist governments, an emerging middle class went on to embrace popular culture, consumerism and an individualistic lifestyle, pretty much in line with the rest of the increasingly globalized Western world.

Now, after seven years of austerity measures, which brought an abrupt end to a controversial period of economic well-being, the photos of Athens have gained an additional layer of interest.

“The identity of the faces has not changed. You can tell that family structure is still dominant here, that it pretty much shapes people. Middle-class families tend to keep their members in check,” Pittas says.

“You don’t see the hordes of lonely people like you do in other big European cities. Ties are stronger here,” he adds.

Change is more evident in the urban environment.

“Neighborhoods used to have a stronger identity back then. Working-class neighborhoods had more character. The uniformity we see today was not there,” he says.

Pittas is no longer keen to raise his camera in the city he first explored and experimented with.

“I find it impossible to shoot this complete lack of hope that I see in Athenians’ faces today, this air of resignation. It’s as if the sky has fallen on their heads,” he says.

“The faces I see in the streets of Athens remind me of those I came across in the countries of the communist bloc. It’s all a bit scary,” remarks the photographer.

It’s clear that his bygone journeys across the former Soviet satellites continue to inform his perspective on Greece’s current predicament.

“If we compare ourselves to what other people on the continent went through, our situation is not that terrible,” he says. “The difference here is that we were spoiled. A society that’s totally dependent on the state will inevitably suffer when the state runs into trouble.”

Although his photos are free from in-your-face political commentary, the man does not shy away from voicing his political opinions in public. He does so on a less sophisticated yet more direct medium: Facebook.

“I used to be allergic to politics and political debate. If I talk politics today, it is in reaction to the awful things we’ve had to put up with in the past couple of years,” he says in reference to Greece’s leftist-led government.

This lingering malaise has naturally generated a wave of nostalgia for the pre-crisis years – a reflex that often comes with a certain level of oblivion about the era’s part in creating the mess of today.

“Athenians & Parisians” is taking place on the sidelines of the much-publicized “GR80s” show at the Technopolis cultural complex in downtown Gazi, which is a political, social and cultural anatomy of Greece in the 1980s. The event has sparked a wave of nostalgia, as large crowds flock to see, among other items, a splendid reconstruction of an archetypal 1980s flat.

Pittas admits that part of the response to his long-buried body work is a result of this backward-looking mood.

It’s not all bad.

“Nostalgia is fed by a desire to return to an idealized time, which may coincide with our youth, or what we may regard as being innocent when it was probably anything but,” he says.

“But it could also spark a soul-searching process that helps us understand how we ended up where we are today,” he says.

None of that takes away from the value of the work, or from the existential fulfillment that this born-again photographer experiences today when seeing his work receive long-overdue recognition.

“I find it amazing that something I once did in the spirit of youthful frivolity seems to make sense to people today, to tell them something about their lives,” he says.

“Athenians & Parisians” (French Institute in Athens, 31 Sina, tel 210.339.8600, http://www.ifa.gr) runs through March 31. “GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis” (100 Pireos, Gazi) runs to March 12.

A design for life

Athens Walkthrough-01

By Harry van Versendaal

She grew up in the foothills of Mt Parnitha and went on to study in the well-ordered, if somewhat predictable Netherlands. Now back in Greece, in her late 20s, graphic designer Natassa Pappa has found a way to import some of that order into the grit and chaos of downtown Athens.

Her project “Into Stoas” maps the largely neglected and overlooked commercial arcades in the center of the capital. For about two years, Pappa researched and photographed dozens of these covered walkways (usually referred to in Greek as “stoas” or “stoae”) – an undertaking that ultimately resulted in an interactive, and purposefully minimalist, guide with a fold-out map and a rather ambitious goal: “I wanted to come up with a fresh narrative for the city,” she says.

“Into Stoas” is an interdisciplinary project that borrows from graphic design, architecture, town planning and the urban experience. “Moving between those boundaries means that I may sometimes make, let’s say, arbitrary decisions: The map, for example, may not sit well with an architect,” she says. “As a designer, however, my goal is to create a product for the average person and offer a fresh experience.”

Pappa, whose postgraduate work at St. Joost school of fine art and design in Breda drew from the Situationist International concept of psychogeography in exploring more playful ways of drifting around urban environments, would love to see people use her guide as a tool to navigate Athens’s interior passages on their own.

“The city is a terrain to be explored. I only give away where stoas lie. This is about losing yourself in the city, moving about in a spontaneous fashion,” says Pappa, who is disdainful of the more mainstream understanding of tourism.

“Tourism is usually understood as a routine that you wish to follow. You travel to Paris and you visit the Eiffel Tower. Your photograph of the monument is your trophy from a faraway destination,” she says.

For those who prefer someone else to lead the way, Pappa also organizes walks, for English speakers as well as Greeks. If you decide to join one of her “Athens Walkthrough” sessions you will be taken around 11 stoas, from the refurbished Western-style atrium-covered Stoa Arsakeiou, which serves as a thoroughfare for foot traffic between Panepistimiou and Stadiou streets, to the surreal (make sure you climb the staircase to the rooftop to catch a rather dystopian spectacle) Stoa Anatolis (meaning Stoa of the East, which was allegedly inspired by a design seen by the architect in Alexandria, Egypt), off Aristeidou Street, once a hub for printing presses.

During the walk you will get a chance to chat with neighborhood businesspeople and taste some local delicacies. Don’t expect to get too much in terms of urban history or architectural analysis. The experience is rather driven by interesting anecdotes and the beauty of unexpected encounters.

Back to the future

The bulk of Athens’s arcades were built in the interwar and postwar periods – a utilitarian concept aimed at maximizing buildings’ commercial use as they grew in size to occupy entire blocks. Built along the lines of the Western European archetype, they were a prologue to the commercial centers that mushroomed in Athenian suburbia in the 1980s and 90s, and to their latest – and more commercially successful – reincarnation: shopping malls.

Unable to catch up with the economic change, these early arcades began to decline after 1970. More than 40 arcades of about 65,000 square meter surface can be found within the contours of Athens’s commercial center delineated by Panepistimiou Avenue, Ermou St and Athinas St.

According to recent data, the average occupancy rate of non-renovated arcades is about 54 percent but it rises to 83 percent for their renovated counterparts such as Stoa Spyromiliou – City Link or Stoa Korai. In some arcades the occupancy rate has dropped as low as 10 percent.

The aesthetic implications of Greece’s brutal financial crisis have somewhat paradoxically been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city. Pappa does not treat the arcades as an architectural legacy to be mourned or admired in doses of Instagram-filtered nostalgia. Rather, what she sees in that particular building type is a model to build on.

“We should make use of the arcades’ unique character: shopowners are here in close proximity; it is inevitable that they will exchange ideas and get feedback,” says Pappa, who has seen a similar pro-synergy micro-environment at play at her downtown Athens workspace at Romantso, a former printing house-turned-incubator designed to help get arty individuals and start-ups off the ground.

In an initiative last year, two local architects teamed up with the City of Athens in a bid to bring business back to the Stoa ton Emboron, or Merchants’ Arcade, which links Voulis and Lekka streets just off Syntagma Square. Creative people of every stripe were invited to put the unleased properties to use as production facilities and laboratories to explore new ideas and promote their work.

Pappa, who ran a workshop at the venue, says initiatives like this make her optimistic about the city’s future. Plagued for decades by the indifference and contempt of a population that arrived en masse from the rest of the country, Athens, she believes, stands a much better chance in the hands of the newer generation of creative individuals that were born and raised here.

“Athens is worn down and dysfunctional. But we can definitely solve many of its problems,” she says.

Pappa, for one, is doing her share.


For bookings and more information visit facebook.com/intostoas, call 6972.937.037 or send an e-mail to intostoas@gmail.com.

Running the marathon like a pro

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By Harry van Versendaal

If you saw Rei Tamura running in a suit and brown dress shoes on the day of the Athens Marathon, it was not because he was late for work.

The 33-year-old estate agent from Tokyo, Japan was one of the 16,000 athletes who ran the 42-kilometer course, which legend has it was covered by Pheidippides, an Athenian foot soldier who raced back to Athens after the Battle of Marathon to announce that the Greeks had defeated the Persians. However, instead of running in high-tech fabrics and super-light running shoes, this man chose to show up in full business attire.

Tamura, who first ran the Athens Marathon – also in a suit – in 2013, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his quirky feat.

Why did you run in a suit?

I simply wanted people in Athens to enjoy seeing a guy running in a strange costume. The Japanese are extraordinary hardworking people and the “company worker” outfit is a simple, trademark symbol for them.

But there is another reason: After the destructive earthquake of 2011, people in several foreign countries – including Greece – offered aid and prayed for us.

After we recovered and our lives returned to normal, I decided to run in a suit and business shoes to express gratitude and, at the same time, to show that we have recovered enough to run a full marathon in a costume like this.

How did it feel running in a suit?

Like being in military training. I was getting heavier and heavier because I was sweating so much.

How did people react?

I am sure it must have looked stupid to some, but most people were shouting “Bravo” – at least after their initial surprise.

Are you happy with your time?

I was aiming at four hours and 30 minutes, but I unfortunately did it in four hours and 59 minutes. I still managed to beat my time at the 2013 marathon, which was a bit over five hours.

How did it feel crossing the finishing line inside the Panathenaic Stadium?

It’s hard to put it in words. At the finish I felt I could do anything. I am also very happy to have run the original course.

Do you have any more races coming up? And, if so, will you be running them in suits?

I will keep on running in suits and business shoes with the aim of showing gratitude and entertaining people around the world. I plan to run the Great Wall Marathon in China or the Prague Marathon in May next year.

New dividing line appears in the heart of Athens

By Harry van Versendaal

“The only good thing about graffiti is that it pisses off the liberals. Which is good enough, I suppose.”

Of the dozens of comments on social media about the controversial graffiti that appeared last week on the walls of the historical Athens campus of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), better known here as the Polytechnic, this one appeared the most sincere. Put in other words, the enigmatic mural is not necessarily appreciated because it is beautiful. It is appreciated because it provokes. The argument may sound politically adolescent, but it is at least sincere.

Because it’s hard to see how the artistic intervention on Stournari Street can possibly remind somebody of Picasso’s “Guernica,” or a painting by Jackson Pollock, as some on social media have suggested. Similarly, it’s hard to see how one can feel repressed by bourgeois order and cleanliness, as it were, when they live in the otherwise fine neighborhood of Exarchia, where there is not a clean wall to be seen.

Nor is it possible to interpret the work as a Foucauldian “heterotopia,” that is, as an unconventional space that exists in opposition to the dominant mode of social ordering. The truth is, a clean and tidy public building in the heart of Athens would make a more fitting heterotopia.

Polarization simplifies classification. Anyone annoyed by the scrawls on the marble of an – already neglected – historic monument such as the Polytechnic so often get labeled, in the best case as a prig or at worst as a misanthropic champion of (neo)liberalism. Expressing one’s concern or indignation about what happens to the city’s walls is interpreted as a dividing line between humanitarians and the rest.

Who are the rest? “Those who complain about the graffiti on the Polytechnic are the epitome of Greek fascism.” The same people who see fascism everywhere perceive the black-and-white mural on Stournari Street as freedom of expression.

Too bad for the tasteful among the ideologues who feel obliged to declare their appreciation for the work.

A phone that’s not satisfied just with being smart

By Harry van Versendaal

“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.

From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.

“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.

Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.

Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.

“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.

Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.

The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.

“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.

Storytelling device

From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.

“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.

“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”

Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.

“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.

Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?

“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.

“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.

The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.

“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.

“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.

“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”

Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.

“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.

If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.

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Re-evaluating the urban legacy of the 1960s

By Harry van Versendaal

Much of the controversy that has arisen over contemporary Athens’s urban landscape stems from the changes wrought on it during the 1960s. Any reference to the architectural legacy of that period usually provokes a knee-jerk condemnation as the time is associated with the brutal transformation of the capital’s appearance.

It’s an unfair judgment, in the eyes of Kathimerini journalist and urban culture aficionado Nikos Vatopoulos. As the curator of “Athens: The Spirit of the 60s – A Changing Capital,” an ongoing exhibition at the Hellenic American Union’s Kennedy Gallery in the downtown Kolonaki district, he tries to challenge mainstream perceptions about the formative period.

“It was a controversial period because it was full of powerful contradictions. It was a time of transition and transformation for Greek society – a process that had many positive aspects, such as a faith in progress, the rise of cosmopolitanism, and economic growth,” Vatopoulos says.

Indeed, the rate of economic growth was heady: On average, gross domestic product was growing at an annual 7.6 percent while industrial output was increasing 10 percent each year. Growth was driven by a surge in foreign direct investment, mainly from the United States and Germany, coupled with a wave of internal migration to urban centers, which spurred construction. The cement and home appliances industries were flourishing. The apartment building, or “polykatoikia,” embodied the values and ambitions of the postwar urbanite generation, who turned their backs on the memories of deprivation in the countryside and the nasty hangover from the civil war.

Original photographs and postcards from the period, many from Vatopoulos’s own archive, document the burgeoning metropolis and the arrival of modern architectural landmarks such as the Athens Hilton. Built between 1958 and 1963 according to plans by architects Emmanouil Vourekas, Prokopios Vassiliadis, Spyros Staikos and Antonis Georgiades, the emblematic structure reflected the economic and social zeitgeist as Greece became a global player in the tourism and luxury market.

The evolution of lifestyles, fashion and social habits during the 1960s is also documented at the HAU exhibition. Magazine covers, ads, stamps and playbills capture the advent of cosmopolitanism and female consumerism (with classic 60s sexist cliches). Most of that came to an abrupt halt with the onset of the military dictatorship in 1967.

To be sure, Vatopoulos, who was born in Athens in 1960, acknowledges the decade’s negative consequences on the city’s physical and social environment.

“There was no foresight regarding the city’s expansion while dogmatic belief in ‘the new civilization’ left no room for historical sensibilities,” he says.

Many historical structures were knocked down at the time to make way for new buildings in the name of a tradition- and culture-insensitive modernism – also assisted by a wave of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors (whereby the latter would replace low-story homes with apartment blocks whose units would then be divided between the two), a now deeply controversial measure introduced by Costantine Karamanlis as minister of public works.

The HAU exhibition takes place against the backdrop of a brutal financial crisis that has naturally left scars on the Greek capital. Interestingly, the social and aesthetic implications of poverty, homelessness and Greece’s six-year recession have been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city.

Vatopoulos, who currently lives in the southern seaside suburb of Glyfada, has been surprised at the response to the Facebook group “Saturdays in Athens” he formed three years ago as a platform for organizing weekly cultural activities such as guided tours, lectures and seminars. It currently numbers more than 19,000 members.

“The public has a desire to turn to something steady, familiar and safe. This is compounded by a feeling of nostalgia for a city with a recognizable etiquette,” he says.

But this is not the only reason behind the renewed interest, he says. “All this is also a reaction to the city’s degradation, a more energetic reaction that seeks to comprehend the various stages of Athens’s development,” he says.

Vatopoulos, for one, appears to be motivated by both. On top of his online community and extensive writings on the city, he has released a number of publications over the years and staged a well-received photo exhibition with cozy, nighttime shots of some of his favorite Athens buildings. As Instagram user @16thcentury, he uploads the pictures he takes all over the city.

He loves Athens, with all its contradictions.

“I was born and raised in Athens at a time when the city was changing at a rapid rate. Certainly, I was influenced by my family environment, but the emotional, awe-filled response I had witnessing a building’s demolition is a very strong childhood memory,” he says.

“I consider that I grew up observing the transformation of the city on the inside, I changed as the city changed. It’s something very personal to me.”

“Athens: The Spirit of the 60s,” at the HAU (22 Massalias) to Dec 13. Vatopoulos will speak on Athens during the 1960s at 7 p.m. on Nov 21 at the HAU Theater. There will be a guided tour of the exhibition on Dec 5, starting at 7.30 p.m.


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