Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Resume and outcome

The conference ‘Myth of the City’ in Crete brought together 15 poets such as Brendan Kennelly, Paula Meehan, Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, Anne Born, Bruno Kartheuser, Pedro Mateo, Sophia Yannatou etc. and 15 planners, architects, philosophers such as Phil Cooke, Juergen Eckhardt, Bart Verschaffel, Anna Arvanitaki, Nikos Stavroulakis, Sue Tilden.

The need for a new urban agenda became clearer once the planners started to listen to the poetic approach to cities and realized a poetic imagination of the city has some validity, 1 and vice versa poets began to comprehend ideas about urban planning being discussed from a different perspective by urban and regional planners.

Thus the urban agenda becomes crucial for a practical discourse aiming to include the cultural factor in planning.

There were also made some interesting remarks by Socrates Kabouropoulos who pondered why a stranger may love a local place more than the local residents? He made that comment out of his own observations of how many local residents seem to neglect their own environment.

Pedro Mateo, a Spanish poet living in Athens, writing about the ‘reality of streets’:

The street is a place of passing by, of meeting, of acquaintance. We do not know how the people of Phaistos expressed themselves or if they wanted to be understood, when they walked, or walked past each other, when they gathered to hear the news or to negotiate, when they were just talking and a laughter could be heard…Maybe, apart from the language they didn’t differ so much from us. It is rare that when two or more people meet, they don’t strike a conversation or that they don’t go through the ritual of shaking hands and smiling. This happens even in Athens, a warm and human city which resists the invasion of uniformity.”


In Athens there are many types of streets: The wide, old style boulevards, lined with trees and stately buildings, narrow streets with steps, climbing, because of the morphology of the soil, wary with rocky hills…Athens does not have a monumental character because it was built piece by piece; at one place the commercial center, at another the new town, somewhere else a little insufficient park. Streets dipped in light, alleys lost in the shade, covered passages and markets. Busy streets, deserted streets, practically useless but with a unique charm. The street: a concrete space observed by the vigilant eyes of the windows of the houses.” 2

It goes without saying that cultural planning without such observing eyes of poets and artists is impossible. A main thesis of this study will be, therefore, how to bring into planning not only culture, but as well those who can express best observations as to ongoing life in cities. This is especially of importance when details matter simply narrated by showing how things are to be understood as a way of life.


Outcome of ‘Myth of City’

As everyone participating in the conference ‘Myth of the City’ and in this special session realized, whether now poets or planners, it is clear that planning is not at all easy. Neither is it self understood that poetry, in particular poetic observations about life in cities, has any bearing upon decisions taken by city councils or managements of dominant organizations e.g. of a housing estate. Moreover, there are many others involved which give shape to a city and its life, among them engineers, traffic controllers, entrepreneurs, police chiefs etc. while entities like hospitals, airports, sport arenas, port authority etc. exert influence as well. And then there are the multiple private households existing in forms of settlements of various characteristics.

That variety needs to be comprehended as it sets a certain tone and shapes the plans of cities by having all of a sudden pedestrian only shopping malls.

It became also obvious that while total planning can be rejected on various grounds, there is still the question of participation in need to be resolved. For instance, the Berlin architect Juergen Eckhardt suggested a planning procedure which would include children in the process of design and implementation. Still, the key word here is ‘citizens’ participation’, but this does not include as of yet the involvement of poets. That calls for a special consideration with the aim to enhance as Voula Mega stressed as being of importance, the ‘enlightened capacity’ of planners (and architects). Since the question of planning for a city of the future has not as of yet been understood as a profound cultural one, there is needed to go through still a phase of reflection which takes into account the ‘failure of the Enlightenment’ (Adorno / Horkheimer). This is where the conference seems to have contributed the most, insofar as it helped to clarify the role of ‘myths’ and what would not be desirable, namely to have these myths be transformed into ideologies.

Why it does not come to participation, this needs also further explanations. Just as much many people exclude themselves from poetry in the belief they would not understand expressions of the lyrical ‘I’, participation in culture and therefore in the life of a city is not at all self understood. The psychoanalyst Mitscherlich would maintain in post war Germany it did not come to participation despite culture being there, available to all, since something deeper prevented them. He maintained that without going through a phase of mourning the trust in other people lost due to the traumatic experiences made during Second World War, there would not come about a renewed engagement of people in public life. Often these self-exclusions, as if they do not count, are of no value to society, result out of wrong perceptions but also show to what elite cultures and a certain education system selecting the successful to make the way free for them compared to those written literally off can reproduce within urban society. Thus it was most important to follow the trend of the discussions between poets and planners and realize that participation depends upon comprehending both the analytical and the poetic (metaphorical) way of describing life.

Unfortunately since Homer these two spheres of the world, the mythical and the rational, have been separated. It set the stage for the organizational strategies which were to prevail not merely as ‘division of labor’ (Adam Schmidt) but also as separation between work without meaning and pleasure. Adorno and Horkheimer describe in ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ that this started already when Odyssey passed the Sirens by ordering his crew to bind him to the mast while they put wax into their ears in order not to hear these beautiful and enchanting, but dangerous songs. Thus the crew worked to get through the passage while Odyssey could experience the pleasure of hearing the songs without endangering the working crew. That division prevails till to date. It explains why people exclude themselves from culture while those experience cultural pleasures often do so in the illusion they can do so only outside work and this without any further consequences for whatever they do in practical life. It renders culture to be irrelevant while such a dualistic approach reinforces the problems of cities and makes any strategy aiming to find solutions on the basis of full participation not merely fruitless, but highly ambivalent as well.

In a second step this meant considering how ‘myths’ leave people in search of certain confrontations as described, for example, by Paula Meehan with regards to Medusa. How it is possible to question myths as source of certain images, and still give some answers to these questions, that would be in the eyes of philosopher Bart Verschaffel a matter to trace the glance and to comprehend cultural development as progress made in being able to question the underlying assumptions behind a certain image or myth of a city. It would come close to what Herodot did according to Polish journalist Kapuscinski, namely to question the belief of Greeks that they created their Gods rather than adopting them from the Egyptian culture. Also these presumptions prevail and for many it proved fatal if they dared to question them, but in the end any culture and thus life in a city can only exist if open, ready to be questioned, in order to be truthful.

A survey of various attempts to bring about ‘citizens’ participation’ will reveal that all of them do not come even close to the experiences made during the Renaissance. They everyone became involved in the decision making process, especially when it meant to include the arts and artists in shaping the city of the future. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance and poetry worked all together in creating the preconditions for an accessible language. Giotto’s portrait of the church as a three folded power holder who uses deception of icons and symbols to keep the masses of the people outside while claiming historical truths as if Jesus was born inside its institution, can be taken as an example of early Enlightenment. Everything done for the city was based then on the idea that the city as a free republic should exist. Besides having monetary decisions made out in the open, in public (even though Habermas would question this assertion), it was clear that libraries were needed among many other factors to attract the best minds and most skilled artists. (Alone this consideration as to what enhances the attraction of a city was very substantial compared to the public relation, only image related exercises cities deploy nowadays to gain in reputation. But then not artists and scientists are wanted, but tourists as consumers of mere cultural and other functions of the city.)

Michel Angelo shared among others that view despite the fateful interrelationship between aristocracy, the Pope (along with the clergy inside a rigid hierarchy) and enlightened dictators who could only be benevolent to the arts as long as they had the privilege to rule. Alone the fact that these enlightened periods lasted as long as these benevolent dictators were in power, that says something about the special conditions of the Renaissance. This period did not take place simultaneously in all Italian cities of that time, but according to very different time patterns. Still the event was started when writers and artists turned to the people, expressing themselves in their rather than in the Latin language of the church, in order to make possible participation. Participation begins, so their conclusion, by not projecting too much power upon those who claim to hold the power. Already Giotto showed this enlightening inclinations by giving people a chance to see power (at that time the church) from both sides, the believers in that power, the masses of people, and the sober perception of what was after all a theatrical trap, nothing else, insofar as the cross hanging over the entrance was shown from behind as just something dangling for a thin wire.

How true participation by citizens is brought about, that remains a mystery. During the Renaissance there existed similar conditions, but since then studies have revealed various models exist, but only those succeed if they are capable of giving a ‘voice’ to people. It means not only to let them speak up, but their vote counts. All too often feelings, thoughts and opinions of the ordinary people, including those just passing by, are ignored. As a matter of fact prior to someone being considered to be a citizen with a voice in the affairs of the city, he had to be hugely wealthy and therefore influential.

Poets can contribute to making these ignored voices be heard, as does Brendan Kennelly. He listens, for instance, to those children living in the streets and who have a real story to tell.

Thus while there are failures or serious short-comings in planning procedures with many decisions made affecting negatively the life in cities, there is, however, no immediate conclusion to be drawn on how to arrive at decisions which still respect and heed ‘measures of life’.

As stated already in the first session of the conference when debating at the high tech park of FORTH outside Iraklion, Crete, with the subject being ‘Technology and Culture: the Future of Cities’, the concept of life in cities is itself in question. After all it is not at all easy to give a differentiated orientation to anyone, never mind to oneself. This is especially the case when attempting to articulate in private and in public (if the possibility exists) any qualitative opinion one may have about life in cities. Nevertheless such failed articulation attempts can point quite easily to the fact that life in cities has become impossible.

The problem remains what to do next?



1 For instance, the poetess Paula Meehan spoke about the need for ‘wild’ or ‘untamed’ spaces in a city made up only of tamed or planned places, if man is to retain linkage to nature as space free from man’s interventions. The poet Brendan Kennelly spoke about new spaces being like ‘rururb’: neither rural nor urban land but somewhere in-between and therefore without identity. At the same time, Yannis Phyllis from the Technical University of Crete drew attention to the adverse development factor: the more is consumed, the more waste is produced that cities cannot cope with even if developing new methods of waste management. Nikos Stavrolakis, author of the book about Thessaloniki, responded to the destruction of Sarajevo as international city and linked this to the danger of Chania which is neglecting the historical centre by basing economic development only on tourism, thereby neglecting the needs of local residents and in keeping a cultural diverse environment alive.


2 Pedro Mateo, The reality of the street, (1995) Athens: unpublished materials of the ‘Myth of the City’ conference in the archive of POIEIN KAI PRATTEIN

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