Architecture in reverse: Agglomeration of Empty Shops

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The on-going process of urban environment adapting its structures to the economic conditions of the past ten or fifteen years has resulted in an oversized infrastructure of empty spaces, that can be transformed into temporary citizen activity nodes, as we proposed a couple of years ago for the empty locals that are a consequence of bank merger processes. Now, this economic scenario has affected not only banking infrastructures, but traditional shops and neighbourhood local commerce. The conventional option would be to expect that these spaces will be absorbed by the real state market, through purchase or rent transactions; instead of that, we’re talking here about the notion of Urban Protocol coined by Aristide Antonas, which refers to a strategy concerning the condition of many European cities today, especially focused on the case of Athens. The Urban Protocols are meant to introduce legal temporary occupancies of the abandoned city center that will be accepted and controlled by a municipal authority; and its main purpose would be to establish cluster-like micro-legislative constructions with communal functions. The system of rules they represent could be transformed and re-established easily.

Is for this context that the project Agglomeration of Empty Shops was designed. Keller Easterling wrote about this issue on her text Subtraction for the Think Space cycle on Money:

“[e]very act of building is already an act of subtraction. Most buildings today are designed as repeatable spatial products with rapid cycles of obsolescence. Financial industries surround the seemingly static and durable building with a volatile balloon of inflating and deflating value, be it a small house, a massive sports stadium or a 4000-room casino. Populations migrate into and away from cities causing both rapid growth and rapid decline. Buildings subtract other building because they replace a previous structure but they can also, just by their often toxic presence, cause surrounding buildings and landscapes to tumble to the ground.”

As a response to these situation, we have the feeling that this project is putting architecture in reverse, paraphrasing Easterling.

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What follows is Antonas description of the project:

Nowadays Athens is full of empty, unused shops. The announced agglomeration would select some of them among a multitude of these different single-space urban cells that are juxtaposed in a row or with some disruptions and discontinuities since we cannot presuppose the possibility of a continuous series of them in such a fragmented ownership disorder and in such a condition as the one of today. The one empty shop does not necessarily follow the other: one may still be used and another is not given to us if the proprietor is not willing to offer it for the project. Nevertheless the agglomeration has to be recorded at first as a unified action.

We use a big, emblematic curtain to emphasise this unity of the change of scale when some between empty shops are not given to the agglomeration. 19 shops together not in a row had to be read as a unified experience. In the same time a certain theatricality was in stake. The curtain brought back the theatre tradition in the city together with a question: what does it hide? What the visitors that pass by can expect as the play script that would be performed behind the curtain? The agglomeration in the same time unifies the multitude of the empty shops but in the same time it keeps their fragmentary character through a different stratagem related to the necessarily multiple program of the ensemble. The same act of congregating and considering at once the empty shops altogether is also keeping their separation alive in another level.

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Arcade Elevations

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The arcade during the night, collage from the phase of preparation.

The empty shops did not belong at a singular project in the past, but they were situated in a complex system of athenian arcades. The proprietors or their renters decided by themselves the nature of the business that was proposed to be placed at every spot. The agglomeration of the empty shops would programmatically include the [abandoned now] spaces into a single project. Even if the agglomeration does not offer a continuous experience, the project was undertaken with the ambition that the first impression of a random passage through the arcades would give the immediate impression of a single decision. The occupation of the empty shops would have to perform at a first level with a singular logic.

The abandonment of the small shops is due in a high degree to the impossibility of the traditional mediterranean micro-commerce to compete against the big international firms of nowadays. Our first task was then to transform the dispersed fragments of space that these small financial ruins were occupying to a different invisible scheme. Without demolishing not even a single wall, our challenge was to create a common ground for the empty shops. The idiosyncratic abstract unification of the distinct fragments was not proposed  as a dramatic change in the everyday experience of the the precedent city order. The athenian urban syntactic was an element to be saved. The empty shops can be adapted to a new urban condition where the empty shops will still play the part of different type of cells. Their abstract unification under a single curatorial project and the reorganization of an alternative fragmented duration was the task of this agglomeration of empty shops.

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Indication of interior arcade promenade.

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Invasion of empty shops by system of furniture.

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The long table in the arcade serves as a meeting point.

The decisive architectonic part of the project is immaterial. A curatorial strategy concerning the  multi functionality of the agglomeration is to be decided with one major rule: not to give up the agglomeration to a single activity but to divide its new structure to a multitude of separate protocols. The balance that is to be operated is conceived as a calculation that takes into account the unifying rationale of the congregated spaces while the separation of the spaces is maintained. A passage to the larger scale is only decided with respect to the fragmentary character of the former small shops.

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After reading Antonas description of the project [recovering our own words at this moment], we understand that there are a set of important facts that make the project feasible, as the spontaneous appropriation of these empty spaces by the citizens. The scale of the network of the agglomeration of shops has been designed in order to adapt to the scarce urban tissue of the Athenian center. Scarcity is understood as an opportunity for new protocols that can host differently the stay or a distinct passage through these semi abandoned areas of Athens. As well as the idea of colonizing the spaces by an invasion of tables, stands and sitting surfaces, which are the most common furniture to propose alternative relationship between space and time.

Beyond the fascination [and commodification] of trends such as ‘tactical urbanism’ which are usually based on small and isolated interventions; perhaps it’s possible to think that a new model can emerge from working on a neighbourhood scale based on this kind of transition spaces, and understanding them as the necessary nodes to strength local economy networks, to give a response to the current economic situation. And that this new model can be a good catalyst to start provoking real structural changes aside the traditional capitalist system by generating resilient and relational connections between the citizens.

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Project by Aristide Antonas, Elina Axioti, Katerina Koutsogianni, Katerina Grigoropoulou.

Part of the “Agglomeration of Empty Shops” was realized in the center of Athens by the Onassis Foundation for the needs of its Open Lab installation in January 2014. In the empty rooms of 19 abandoned shops of an Arcade were constructed free Internet spaces where visitors could rest or work; many discussions and meetings took place while in other rooms of the installation were exhibited technical drawings of proposed projects, undertaken in the center of Athens.

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