I first met Thomas Doxiadis while taking part in an urban activism project in Kerameikos almost ten years ago. An empty lot full of garbage and rubble was being transformed into a temporary green space, a “pocket park” as we would call it today.
Thomas Doxiadis, who holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard, was digging a hole in the ground with a pick to plant trees and shrubs. A few hours later, in a local taverna, he attempted to explain to the assembled crowd, patiently and passionately, what a landscape architect does.
In the years that followed, through the Greek crisis, Doxiadis and his architecture firm Doxiadis+ had the opportunity to educate a much wider audience on their holistic environmental vision – a vision which does not see the natural element as supplementary or, worse, “decorative” in an architectural plan.
“Everything is connected,” he explains, as he lays out his personal philosophy, namely that everyone and everything is in a permanent relationship of interdependence. The term “symbiosis” is key.
“We are part of a network of life which connects people, animals, plants, fungi, single-cell organisms, living and inorganic. We are part of a network of symbiosis on a planet that has reached its limits. This network has been broken and must be restored. So let’s reconnect with nature, with others, and with ourselves.”
Greek added value
If all of this sounds overly romantic, a glance at the Greek and international client list of Doxiadis’ firm is proof enough of the growing appeal of the Athens-based architect’s way of thinking.
A series of large-scale projects in Greece, Europe, the Middle East and the United States, as well as international collaborations on emblematic global projects, places Doxiadis+ among the most outward-oriented architecture firms in Greece. Does an architect’s country of origin matter once they have been elevated to the global stage?
“It is important when we are selected – as Greeks – for major international projects. It is a recognition of what our national insecurity often prevents us from recognizing: that Greece is a bearer of global values, both in its past and in its present.
“We are selected because we combine world-class technical expertise – some of which we have developed ourselves – with the principles of Greek civilization: simplicity, an emphasis on substance, harmony and balance, passion, a desire for discovery, love of humanity and the natural world, and the principle of symbiosis as the foundation for everything.”
The Elliniko challenge
My main reason for wanting to meet Doxiadis was his involvement in the major urban regeneration project on the site of the old Athens airport at Elliniko (Hellinikon) to create a 200-hectare Metropolitan Park.
For many environmentally sensitive Greeks, the involvement of Doxiadis’ firm in this project is reassuring. “We have been part of the Lamda team from the start, as a longstanding partner on the Metropolitan Park. Our approach combines satisfying the needs of the human and the natural world, so that both ‘worlds’ can be healthy and help one another in a symbiotic framework. This has been the goal of Lamda from the start.
“This is an enormous endeavor, and we are part of a team made up of many experts, the best in the business, from Greece and abroad. We believe that the spirit of symbiosis which the project reflects goes beyond the function of a simple green park, promoting a new way of life where we appreciate our interdependence with nature.”
The “Great Walk of Athens” – or, learning from our mistakes
Another Athenian project, the “Great Walk,” also started with good intentions in the summer of 2020, which were unfortunately not borne out by the end result. Is he disappointed?
“The philosophy was correct. I believe there is no alternative but to free the space up from cars, particularly parked cars, and to restore it as a public space, serving all the needs of city residents: access, walking, exercise, socialization, play. We have been advocating this in all our research and publications since 2007. Its application in the form of the ‘Great Walk’ has been judged by the outcome, but this should in no way tie us to the past.
“I believe smart societies learn from their mistakes and progress towards the right goals by improving their steps. In this case I believe that the right steps would be to take into account the possibilities of the existing space for pedestrians to move and rest, with an emphasis on the connections that do not work well today, and to plan for various usages in those networks, applying approaches such as those advocated by Jan Gehl in Cities for People, taking seriously into account the impact on vehicle movements. Proper design would highlight the uniqueness of Athens as a city blessed by nature and light. It has all it takes to become a truly green city.”
He means this very seriously. He tells me there has been progress in terms of research, including through the Athens Resilience Strategy for 2030, pursued jointly by the Municipality of Athens and the Rockefeller Foundation, and in terms of implementation, through improvements in public transport and the revived focus on care for green spaces.
“Most of what needs to happen lies ahead of us,” he says. “We need to improve public transport, reduce cars – especially parked cars – and free up the space they take up in the city, which is estimated at 30 percent. We need to increase public space, and create the right infrastructure to green the city, then plant and care for the plants, and make space for networks to serve all modes of transport.
“Not only that: we need to put in place local systems for sorting and managing waste, for compositing organic waste and using it to enrich the poor city soil, for generating energy locally to meet as much of our energy demands as possible, installing rooftop photovoltaics and green roofs.
“We need to rebuild our decimated water networks, and open up the streams as natural corridors for water, air, plants and animals, replant the mountains and hills, revive wetlands and much more. It sounds like a tall order, but our lives, and our children’s lives, will be unimaginably better when we succeed.”
Major investments and environmentalism
As we walk through the National Gardens on an almost spring-like day, I take the opportunity to touch on an issue which concerns many Athenians: a large section of the natural coastline of Attica, from the southern suburbs of Athens to Cape Sounion, is taken up by private developments (hotels, restaurants, tavernas, clubs), cutting off access to a public good – the sea.
Sadly, recent legislation has failed to reverse bad practices of the past. Doxiadis has in his portfolio many hospitality projects such as the 6-star Amanzoe resort in Porto Heli and the Four Seasons at Astir Vouliagmeni. In Portugal his firm is acting as site planners and landscape architects for a large new eco-friendly resort, which is spread across 300 hectares of a Natura reserve and adheres to the strictest environmental principles, and is due to open its doors in 2025.
How does he reconcile the roles of landscape architect and trusted partner to large business interests? “We are inspired by landscape ecology, which explains how organisms function in space,” he replies. “It also applies to humans, as we are also organisms, with well-known needs and behaviors.
“Two things are necessary: first, there needs to be enough good quality access points to the sea to serve the population of Attica. Secondly, there needs to be excellent access to those access points, and they need to be well-connected between each other in order to form a network, a system. Many things need to – and can – change in our symbiosis with the natural ecosystem of Attica so as to leave a better legacy for future generations.”
“My favorite project”
“My most important work, the one that makes me most proud, is the development of a team of passionate and expert collaborators based in Greece. As a team, we create world firsts in environmental architecture and landscape projects.
“Representative projects include Landscapes of Cohabitation, which comprises 35 hectares of beautiful Cycladic landscape with villas on the island of Antiparos. We initiated the project in 2000 and are continuing to work on it. Back then, we were considered strange for using indigenous plant species in harmony with the existing landscape.
“Today, more and more people are trying to perfect integration with the landscape. The project has given us the opportunity to think more deeply about the relationship between man and nature in space and time, and also to experiment and develop know-how.
“As a result, the project has received international recognition, including making it as a finalist in the top international landscape architecture award [Rosa Barba], while it has also been profiled in the Financial Times. Another group of projects concerns Athens, where we are aiming to generate results through targeted actions, both for the environment and for quality of life.
“Sadly, it is still common in Greece to consider green space as something supplementary. As true architects and landscape architects, whose work ranges from buildings to urban spaces, parks and gardens, we treat space, concrete, stone, water, plants and humans as a whole which deserves to be bursting with life. The parks at Plato’s Academy, Strefi Hill and, of course Elliniko, will, we believe, prove innovative and will be loved.”
This article was first published in Greek in Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine K.