#lesson1 #lesson3 #lesson5 #geography #photography #athens #vernacular
From Cartography to Photography
I’ve lived in Athens for twenty years, but I am not Athenian, nor was I born in Greece. I started a doctoral dissertation in geography on weak urbanism in Athens, and very quickly I realized there was little in the way of professional urban planning or architectural documentation; or even policy documentation. A lack of documentation also means a lack of maps and the absence of a cartographic vision of Athens. This is a country where the land registry has yet to be completed. So, the question naturally emerged on how I could go about documenting the urban phenomenon of Athens in such a visually unstructured landscape (or perhaps there was a complex order to be found).
That is how photography became a way for me to document and learn things about the city; and it was a way of getting away from cartography (even if I am a geographer by training). I started photographing the city from the hills. In fact, Athens is a city where buildings in the center have practically the same number of floors as buildings on the outskirts. It forms a vast wall of concrete against the hilly background. But getting a bird’s eye view of the city doesn’t necessarily provide more interesting insights, since it’s rather fractal—the segmentation is on a tiny scale, blocking a view of the inside. Photography gave me access to the city’s interior. It gave me a very close-up view of the phenomena I wanted to observe.
The Landscape as a Habitable Space
I was intrigued to see how getting outside of maps (since there weren’t any, or by choice) could allow me to observe the landscape as a habitable space. The land registry in Greece has yet to be completed; it’s been a twenty-year-long learning process. The question of identifying properties on maps is still relatively recent, and questions of borders between public and private spaces and between two different private properties tend to lead to debates and uncertainties. That was the context in which I began working on the question of this landscape as a habitable space. I was also interested in how it differed from the organized and regulated spaces of societies where land use reflects political ideals and where borders are based on property ownership standards.
Vernacular and Chorodiversity
When I started looking at this question of landscape, I began working on an American writer, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, who defined landscape not according to aesthetic criteria or questions of the gaze, but as a habitable space, a space where humans set down geographical roots and created their history. He also defined space according to Anglo-Saxon etymology as a collection of spaces outside of political decision-making. A collection of spaces that could either be very small or large. And this is where, for me, an important question in the Metropolitan Trails project emerges: how can we account for this heterogenous collection of spaces? How can we account for the plurality of spaces in a city? Some of the major issues concerning ecologists include energy and climate change (we touched on this a bit with circulation), as well as the question of biodiversity.
And, in cities, doesn’t biodiversity come precisely from a diversity of spaces? To take the Greek term χορός (place), isn’t this question one of “choro-diversity”? Isn’t it about trying to see the vast diversity of spaces within a city? And if that’s the case, then isn’t walking, which allows us to access all parts of a city and get beyond differences between public and private spaces, beyond roads zoned for one type of circulation, isn’t it the way to account for chorodiversity? Chorodiversity is often outside politics. I believe that Metropolitan Trails can examine these phenomena, this plurality of spaces, at all levels. And thanks to the slow pace of walking and the proximity one gets with features in the city, they can also give us access to the domestic (from the vernacular), everything that is close at hand, everything that cannot be found on maps, and even a ground level—and not surface level—dimension.
Another thing I wanted to touch on. We talk a lot about narratives, typically in a written or literary sense, but we don’t always want to build a narrative, sometimes we simply want to create a collection of urban facts; we don’t always want to create a story, we simply want to list things. And I think it’s possible not to want to create connections between sequences—not to want to build a narrative—but simply to collect pieces of the city, one by one.