From Los Angeles, Charles Anderson, FASLA, tackles the site of a lifetime at the old Athens airport.
By Alex Ulam
The Hellinikon, an enormous area on the outskirts of Athens, Greece, is testament to how rapidly man-made forms literally can go to seed. From a hillside overgrown with unruly purple bougainvillea, you can see hundreds of structures in various states of decay across a vast expanse that terminates at a highway along the Aegean Sea. Just below, clumps of scrub grass have thrust their way up between stadium seating overlooking a complex of structures that includes a series of moldering concrete ramps built for a 2004 Summer Olympics kayaking event.
Near the decaying Olympic venues are the sprawling remains of the former Hellinikon International Airport. These include the ghostly, white-columned terminal for international flights designed by Eero Saarinen. Today, this modernist interpretation of Greek temple architecture is fenced off, and through the broken windows under its porticos, you can see rubble. The concrete runways are cracked, and they have large puddles, oases for seagulls and packs of wild dogs. Security guards cruise around in unmarked cars; they are the only other people anyone is likely to find on the grounds. Next to the terminal is a row of jets, several with retractable stairs attached. At first they look as though they are ready for takeoff. But planes haven’t flown from this airport since 2001, when it was replaced by a new airport on the other side of Athens.
My guide is Thomas Doxiadis, ASLA, a soft-spoken Greek landscape architect with sparkling blue eyes and a thick beard who looks as though he walked off a set for the film version of The Odyssey. Doxiadis, who has degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in both architecture and landscape architecture, is working with the U.S.-based landscape architect Charles Anderson, FASLA, on a design for a 500-acre urban park here, which will be one of the biggest parks of its type in Europe. Doxiadis has been studying the Hellinikon since his days as a student at Harvard, when he participated in a 1997 design studio that considered how the Hellinikon International Airport, then still functioning, could be put to new uses.
We walk along the hill overlooking the site, and Doxiadis describes to me how the new park will be a celebration of the Greek landscape, in between breaks to lean down and pat the small, three-legged, dust-brown mongrel following us. “If you were here 200 years ago, you would have seen olive groves, farms, and seasonal streams with the biodiversity that comes with them,” he says. “Rather than copying things that exist elsewhere, the idea is that this park is going to be composed of the beautiful landscape topologies that exist in Greece and that people don’t appreciate enough.”
Close to 7,000 miles away in Venice, California, Anderson is working out of a small office in a renovated industrial loft building full of tech firms. The park at the Hellinikon promises to be a career-defining commission for Anderson, a stocky man who wears colorful patterned shirts and likes to race his motorcycle at top speeds through the outskirts of Los Angeles. In order to focus on the Hellinikon project, last year he quit his position as a principal and the director of design for the landscape architecture and urban design firm Meléndrez to form his own company, Werk. Anderson says that the various cultural and sports facilities he is incorporating into his design for the park will provide a whole new type of outdoor experience in Athens, one of the most densely built cities in Europe. “There is a garden in downtown Athens that is a water-suck landscape,” he says, referring to the city’s National Garden, which is full of plants that are not native to Greece. “But they [Athenians] don’t have a tradition of urban parks.”
There are several reasons why Anderson and what he terms his “start-up” studio have been put in charge of designing what could become one of the most important urban parks built in this century. One is his experience using indigenous plants, which was recognized with a 2004 ASLA Professional Design Award of Merit for the Trillium Projects, a network of landscapes in Seattle. Anderson also developed innovative strategies for recycling water and reusing industrial sites. His most famous commission has been Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, completed in 2007, where, together with the architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi, he transformed a nine-acre brownfield with salvaged topsoil and indigenous plants. At the Hellinikon, Anderson’s concept plan calls for reusing sections of the runways as pathways and recycling the leftover concrete for walls and contours in the pancake-flat topography. “From what I understand, what helped us kill off the competition was how we are dealing with three million cubic meters of concrete,” he told me.
Anderson’s experience working in dry regions in Southern California also was a critical factor in landing the job. Antoinette Nassopoulos-Erickson, a partner in Foster + Partners, the firm developing the master plan for the entire Hellinikon site, says, “There are a lot of similarities between the Californian and the Mediterranean landscape.” She recalls that Anderson showed up for an initial meeting with the clients dressed in a shirt decorated with leaf patterns. “We felt he understood it; the client certainly did,” she says. “And also the enthusiasm and the passion he displayed really clicked with them.” Then there are the mysterious forces that have been guiding Anderson’s career. Anderson says that since he was 18 years old, he has been aware of a power he associates with the Greek mythological figure Phaedra. “It matched a feeling that I had that was sort of between a dream and a trance,” he told me one night at a restaurant near Venice Beach as he stared off into space, adding that a recurring vision he has had over the years is seeing an “ankle just going through a door saying, ‘Come on, come on.’”
To many Americans it may seem strange that a major metropolitan park is slated to be built at a time when Greece is still mired in a financial crisis. And there is a history of unrealized master plans calling for the redevelopment of the area around the Hellinikon that go back several decades. In 2005, the City of Athens held an international competition to convert the entire site into an enormous metropolitan park that would be publicly owned and maintained. The design by the winning team, which included the French landscape architect Philippe Coignet, was scrapped after the 2008 financial meltdown. More recent attempts to develop the Hellinikon include a plan for a water theme park. Gargantuan curved tubes from that failed endeavor still litter part of the site today.
Now, however, Greece’s ongoing financial troubles are forcing this notoriously intractable country to take definitive action on the Hellinikon, which, in spite of its appearance, is often called the “crown jewel of state assets.” The current process started in 2011, when the former Greek government committed to privatizing the site as part of an agreement with the country’s so-called troika of creditors (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). Initially, the center-left Syriza government, which rode to victory last year on an antitroika, antiausterity platform, vociferously opposed the Hellinikon deal. But this past summer, with the Greek economy on the verge of collapse and the country facing the possibility of expulsion from the eurozone, Syriza capitulated and signed an agreement that would transfer the entire site to a private company, Lamda Development. According to a website about the Hellinikon, maintained by the developers, the project will add 2 percent to the country’s gross domestic product and create tens of thousands of jobs. Lamda Development Director Dimitrios Zontanos told me, “The Hellinikon will increase tourism and bring needed foreign direct investment.” He added that his company has committed to investing 1.2 billion euros into the park and the infrastructure serving it. “To reverse the recession and to have a healthy economy,” he said, “you need big-scale projects like this.”
But because this is a country with a strong socialist streak, as well as a history of anticapitalist unrest, many Greeks remain opposed to the deal. And no wonder—much about the plan for the Hellinikon development smacks of the contemporary phenomenon known as the “ephemeral city,” a place designed for the global elite where they can consume various cultural and recreational offerings and stash money they have made elsewhere. Backing Lamda Development, which is controlled by one of Greece’s wealthiest families, is an investment consortium that includes Eagle Hills, an investment company specializing in international development based in Abu Dhabi, and China’s Fosun Group, whose chairman and cofounder reportedly was briefly detained this past December by the Chinese government as part of a corruption probe. The master plan by Foster + Partners, the go-to firm for megadevelopments, includes a new marina, luxury hotels, theme parks, sports venues, and as many as 10,000 new housing units.
At the center of what is being touted as a “Greek Riviera” will be the Metropolitan Green and Recreation Park, designed by Anderson and Doxiadis. The park ostensibly will be open to the public. However, it is widely acknowledged that the condominiums and hotels slated to be built around it will primarily be for wealthy foreigners, rather than for Greeks, many of whom are losing jobs or seeing their salaries cut. Indeed, the Hellinikon project has been derided in the Architectural Review as an example of disaster capitalism—the term coined by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine referring to the neoliberal policies often implemented in the wake of economic and environmental disasters.
Some in the Greek design community are still fighting to get the entire Hellinikon site developed as a public park. According to Polina Prentou, an architect who is also a coordinator of the Hellinikon research project at the National Technical University of Athens, the current Hellinikon deal has been shrouded in secrecy. She says her group has not even been able to see the contract between the government and Lamda Development. She cites a government report that she says asserts that the 915 million euros that Lamda Development and its investment partners are paying for this massive, approximately 1,500-acre site is less than a third of the property’s market value. Prentou also says that there are no guarantees about what is actually going to get built there. “We have some renderings, but there is not a master plan of what is going to be made inside the area,” she says. “One of the problems with the privatization is that we don’t have access to the data.”
It also is unclear what role Greeks will play in designing and building the development. If the Hellinikon’s developers truly engage local talent, the project could establish a strong contemporary Greek architectural identity and propel a whole generation of Greek architects to international prominence, says Yannis Aesopos, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Patras. Aesopos noted the example of the Spanish architects who participated in the repurposing of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic venues and designing of new public spaces in the city. However, he says that a potential danger is that the Hellinikon could turn out to be a generic, flashy international real estate development. “It should not repeat the Dubai model,” he says, “because then it is going to be really bad. Maybe some wealthy Arabs would buy into it, but this should not be the goal.”
Although there is not yet a master plan for the Hellinikon, working designs for the park display strong connections with the surrounding municipalities of Glyfada, Alimos, Argyroupolis, and Hellinikon. Renderings on a website for the Hellinikon maintained by Lamda Development show new developments around a park with curved borders that bulge into it, maximizing views from the planned park-side buildings. Between the development sites, there also are view corridors, roads, and fingers of parkland that connect through the site to the communities that are already surrounding the Hellinikon.
“It is all about having a connection to the park,” says Nassopoulos-Erickson from Foster + Partners, adding that, in addition to providing sports facilities, the programming is going to specifically address Greek traditions. “Most Athenians originally come from the countryside,” she says, “so creating an opportunity for people to have a connection with the landscape and have food markets where they can sell food is really key.” In addition, she says there is going to be a strong emphasis on placemaking that reflects Greece’s café culture. “Greeks cannot walk more than 200 meters without having a coffee,” she says, “so we are making sure we have amenities scattered through the park, because they are very, very social people.”
Considering Greece’s history, it is understandable that many people in this country are concerned about being dictated to by foreign designers and developers. The most significant landscaped public green space in Greece, the National Garden, formerly called the Royal Gardens, is an import. It was developed in 1839, seven years after Greece won independence from Turkey, by the country’s first modern queen, Amalia of Oldenberg, who worked closely on its design with the French landscape architect Francois Louis Bareaud. Today, the National Garden, with its shade trees, elegant winding pathways, and statues of prominent figures from modern Greek history, is an island of repose in the middle of the otherwise bustling city center. However, it also is a blatant example of the cultural imperialism that some Greek architects worry will become manifest in the current Hellinikon project.
Aid from an earlier “troika” consisting of Russia, France, and Great Britain was critical to Greece’s winning independence from Turkey. In 1832, when they drew up the Protocol of London, the Great Powers decided that what the newly independent country needed was German discipline, so they created a monarchy and imported Amalia’s husband, Otto, from Bavaria to be Greece’s first king. To clear space for the Royal Gardens, along with the palace he was building for his new dynasty, Otto expropriated land from his Greek subjects. With an irregular scheme and fanciful use of grottos and farm motifs, the Royal Gardens drew on traditions of English landscape architecture. It also features statues and columned walls in the neoclassical style, which was especially popular in Bavaria at the time. In addition to importing foreign motifs, Bareaud colonized the site with a great variety of alien plants from northern Europe and from hotter and more humid climes. In fact, Doxiadis, who worked on a study for a restoration of the National Garden, says that most of the species that were originally planted died off. Greece’s foreign-born royal family itself was unable to put down permanent roots. After an assassination attempt on Queen Amalia and other mishaps, the Bavarian royals left the country on a British battleship.
It appears unlikely that Anderson and Doxiadis will repeat Bareaud’s mistakes, for they both have a highly developed sensitivity to local cultural and environmental conditions. “When I go to work in another culture, I immerse myself in it,” Anderson says. He has worked extensively in China and Vietnam over the years. He also has experience navigating culturally sensitive projects. One example is his recent work with a Tongva sweat lodge in Long Beach, California, that was being moved to make way for a new development that he was working on. To better understand the group and to help design a new lodge, Anderson started doing sweats with the members that involved chanting and ceremonial hugs.
To prepare for the Hellinikon project, Anderson has been studying Greek vernacular design and cultural traditions. For example, he is modeling some of the pathways for the park at the Hellinikon site on the segmented walkways with perpendicular layouts that he has noticed during his visits to Athens. He says his design is in marked opposition to faddish curved walkways. “If you do a long curve with modular materials, you have to thin them out,” Anderson explains, adding that designing curved walkways requires more work and requires different-sized building blocks. Aside from simplifying the building process, Anderson says he is respecting local traditions. “I call it the Greek walk,” he says, adding, “I learn from real people, not the designers.”
To incorporate the tradition of graffiti in Athens, which on some streets decorates almost all of the buildings, Anderson says he plans to place several of the abandoned airplanes within groves of trees and make them available as surfaces for park visitors to spray paint. He says that at meetings in London, some of the members on the design team couldn’t understand why he wanted to keep the old planes in the park. However, he said he persuaded them that it is important to retain the planes to call attention to the history of the site and to address contemporary cultural practices. “People want to spray paint things for all sorts of reasons in Greece,” he says. “It is their form of democratic expression. Let them paint the hell out of it.”
Anderson’s most innovative moves involve the sustainable features he is incorporating into his design. The designers say they won’t even have to import planting soil for a park that Doxiadis says would require as much as 100,000 truckloads. Instead, they are planning to use fill from the adjacent development blended with topsoil that they plan to manufacture from local materials, including sewage from a massive waste treatment plant slated to be built at the site. Some of Anderson’s ideas about sustainability are the result of research that he did on the environmental footprints of different park designs at the University of Southern California, where he has taught for the past several years. He says that in both Southern California and in Athens there still is too much emphasis on trying to mimic green landscapes from wetter climes. “There is this sense that landscapes that are green are super valuable. What does that mean?” he asks rhetorically, then answers his own question. “Water, for the most part. If you want color in a landscape, buy a red car or a motorcycle—you don’t have to make plants do the same bullshit.”
The project also includes various water recycling strategies. Water from the sewage treatment plant will be the primary source of supplemental irrigation, and it will be distributed through special strategically placed hoses that Anderson says will use about a quarter of the water that a conventional irrigation system would use. The water lines will create irrigation corridors, akin to streams, for trees and plantings to grow beside—an example of what Anderson refers to as “modified nature.” Ultimately, however, outside the athletic fields and sections planted with turf, which will altogether comprise about half the park’s 500 acres, the trees and plantings will have to survive on their own once they reach maturity. “In the end, this is really a showcase in how to make a big park sustainable,” Anderson says, “and the only way that we can do that is to put in plants that are adaptable to climate change.”
Although Athens occupies a harsh, dry environment, there actually are many different types of plants that once flourished here including maquis, Ceratonia siliqua, Cercis siliquastrum, and Eucalyptus. Doxiadis says that Greece has more than 6,500 native species, whereas England has only about 1,400 to 1,600 native species. “The forces that created the Mediterranean tectonically—mainly the collision of the Eurasian and African plates—resulted in a crumple zone with very varied topography and high biodiversity,” he explains. “So you have many disparate islands that are separated by the sea, and ones created by valleys and mountains.”
The Hellinikon, because of its size, could be a catalyst for developing commercial greenhouse operations specializing in Greek indigenous species, some of which are on the verge of extinction because of the pressure from growing urbanization. “One of the reasons I am here is that I have a very big love for these Mediterranean landscapes,” Doxiadis says. “You have a huge palette. The problem is that most of these plants are not available for purchase, so what we have had to do in the past is find plants that are close to them aesthetically.”
It remains to be seen whether the plans that Doxiadis and Anderson have developed for the park at the Hellinikon will ultimately be realized. According to its initial agreement with Lamda, the Greek government is supposed to turn over the Hellinikon to the developers at the end of 2016, and a recent memorandum reaffirmed that the privatization of the site is part of the deal. But more than a year into the process, the center-left Greek government has yet to issue various necessary approvals and to establish a special building department that is supposed to take care of the development’s complex permitting issues.
With so much political and economic uncertainty, it also is unclear at this point how much that is contained in the current renderings for the park will survive the master planning phase. There always is the danger that the developers can delay building some of the promised public amenities or make sacrifices in the name of cost cutting. Certainly, the fact that the Hellinikon development is representative of the ephemeral city phenomenon sweeping the globe is cause for concern. In a sense the park is the public sweetener for a high-end private development that will cater to wealthy foreigners and to wealthy Greeks. However, if the working vision for the park prevails, it might be well worth some of the various further compromises that may be necessary for it to get built.
Alex Ulam is a New York City-based journalist and critic who frequently writes about landscape architecture and urban planning.
Project Credits: Lead Architect/Master Planner Foster + Partners, London. Lead Landscape Architect Werk | Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, Los Angeles. Civil Engineering/International Technical Adviser/Cost Consultant ARUP, London. Collaborating Landscape Architects Doxiadis+, Athens. Local Architects Alexandros N. Tombazis & Associates Architects, Athens. Local Environmental Consultants Enveco, Athens. Global Hospitality Services HVS, Athens. Audit And Assurance, Consulting, And Tax Services Pricewaterhousecoopers, Athens. Real Estate Advisers Savills Greece, Athens. Audit, Consulting, Financial Advisory Deloitte, Athens. Consulting Engineers Tekem SA, Athens. Engineering Consultants LDK Consultants, Athens. Marine Engineers Denco Transport Engineers Limited, Maroussi, Greece; Denco Marine S.A., Maroussi, Greece.