Elias Messinas on Architecture and Events
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:: You are the founder and chairman of ECOWEEK. ECOWEEK is an independent non-governmental non profit-organization (NGO) with international activity. Its mission is to raise awareness and to promote the principles of intergrated development worth-living.
What exactly is the ‘ECOWEEK’ and what is the scope of its activities?
ECOWEEK is an NGO. It started in Greece in 2005. Our mission was to raise environmental awareness and to get people involved in and understand that an environmental solution, what’s good for the environment is also good for them. And it’s also usually more financially sensible. In the long term, it’s cheaper to make something ecological than not do it ecological.
We were trying to raise awareness because in Greece in 2005 ecology was not so exposed, not so common, like it is today. I think Greece has made big steps in the last five years. So, ECOWEEK evolved, from being a local event in Aegina, where we started, to becoming basically an event that is like a conference with workshops, that involves young people, it empowers young people, it teaches young people, it brings together young professionals with experts, with established professionals. And the idea is to promote co-operation, working together and also meet different cultures.
So, ECOWEEK basically has been evolving for the past 4-5 years and has become active also in Cyprus, in the Middle-East, we work in Israel and Palestine, and also this year we started in Italy, in Romania and we hope to go to other places as well. But the idea is not to come to a place and say “Look, we know how it should be done” or “We know to tell you what to do”. It’s basically learning from the place, learning from the people and involving and creating the sense of co-operation, this platform for co-operation. This is basically what ECOWEEK does.
ECOWEEK 2011 theme is ‘URBAN COMMUNITIES + GREEN ARCHITECTURE’. How did you come up with this theme and what do you intend to produce during this year’s workshops?
We know that the population is moving more towards the cities and we know what kind of problems are created in the cities where too many people try to find a job in the city, trying to find the easy way of life in the cities. So, this is why we called it URBAN COMMUNITIES. Because we feel that it is possible to run an ecological way of life in the suburbs, or in nature, but it’s harder to do it in the city.
And a lot of people say that cities are ecological because they are dense. But density is probably the only reason why cities are ecological. They pollute, create a lot of garbage, they take a lot of resources like water coming from other places where they need it… So cities in the way they are built today, they are not really sustainable. This is why in every city we go we try to work with the mayor, with the local government, to try and use the platform of the workshops as a resource for the city. It’s not that we’re doing projects that stay on a shelf, or that nobody makes any use of them. The idea is to run the workshops with projects that would be beneficial to the place.
This year, we’re in Thessaloniki, which is one of the most amazing cities in the world. It’s a city that was destroyed by a fire in 1917, it was redesigned by Ernest Hébrard in 1918 and it has an incredible plan, incredible public spaces. The architecture has suffered over the past 40 years; a lot of nice buildings have been destroyed. But, the city has a great basis to develop in a sustainable way. And of course, it’s got the waterfront, an incredible front to the Thermaic golf.
So, it’s a great opportunity for the young architects and the designers and the landscape architects to work within the context of Thessaloniki. It’s a great resource, to learn from it and to try to give new ideas. So, we have groups from the Technical University in Berlin, who are working on sites of the city, we have other groups from Greece, from other countries, from Sweden, from Italy, from lots of different places, who are all working on different parts in Thessaloniki. We expect the mayor to come on Saturday and we’ll present to them the ideas that the students came up with and there will be a nice discussion about what they could do with these ideas.
What is the importance of Architectural events, like ECOWEEK, worldwide? What are the profits for a city holding such kind of major events?
Young people are an incredible resource. Thessaloniki is a city of young people, it’s got about 220 000 to 250 000 students. So, trying to generate ideas, brainstorm and empower all this incredible resource of young people, I believe is an incredible benefit to the city. This is where we’re trying to head to. This is an idea that was actually born in Israel, in a workshop in the Middle-East, where for the first time we asked one city to give a project. That was last year. So, they told us “We have a street in the old city; maybe you can give us ideas on how to make it a green street”.
The students worked on this idea and we had important people like Michael Sorkin from New York, Omar Yousef who is a Palestinian architect from Jerusalem, Matti Kones from Israel and they all worked together with the students and they produced incredible ideas. So, other cities came to us and said “Well, we would like to be part of this, maybe next year we’ll give you a project”.
This is how we came to Thessaloniki this year. We told them we’re coming, we have all these young people from Thessaloniki and from abroad coming, we have these important people coming, give us a project and we’ll design for you, we’ll give you ideas. I think that any city, whether it’s going to be Milan in September, Romania in November, or back in the Middle-East in February, this is material that can really not help but benefit the city.
Does Architecture as a profession need empowerment? In which ways should this be done?
Architects are by education supposed to learn a lot of things and because of their artistic inclination I think they are also very creative. So, I think that we have an incredible base of people who could be very beneficial to a community, to a city, to a country. This is something Hassan Fathy from Egypt, who I met in Cairo in 1989, said. He said that young people have to stop looking at magazines. They have to go out to the city and look at their communities, and try to help the communities.
In a way, in order to do that you have to empower people, you have to give them opportunities, you have to set a basis, a platform for them to feel secure, to give out ideas. And in a way ECOWEEK is trying to do that. We really feel that young people have incredible potential and we saw what happened in Cairo, in Tahrir square, where young people could really bring change. Architects, with their education can really bring change.
So, part of what ECOWEEK is trying to do is not only educate on green buildings and sustainable design, but also to empower young people, to give them the strength to say that “Hey, I met Ivan Harbour or Ken Young or Shigeru Ban or Francis Kere at ECOWEEK. It’s so easy, I can go tomorrow to their offices and work with them, or I can ask them to collaborate for a project”. So, you give them this opportunity that the world is so close, that you can realize your dream very easily. That empowers them, it gives them strength to fight, to do something better.
Is the world financial crisis an opportunity for everyone to reconsider the ways that we design and construct the buildings and the urban environment?
Yes, crises are always a blessing in disguise, or an opportunity in disguise. This time again, from the crisis which is the end basically of the old, there will be the birth of the new. It’s very important for young people to get to the point where the old is ending and the new is starting, to be able to be there and influence and formulate the new, to make it as they want their future to be. That’s what’s happening right now, we are ending the past and we’re starting the future.
So, I believe that young architects have incredible potential to be part of the new, of this change. And we’re really trying hard to make this apparent, to make this clear. That ECOWEEK is not of course a sort of a movement or something that is trying to make change, although our motto is “Habits change, climate change”. So, we believe in change, but we’re not here to make that change.
We will help; we want to educate people and to empower people to make the change. And because basically a crisis means that what we have been doing so far is wrong. It’s like a couple; if they’re having a bad relationship they end up divorcing, which means that there’s a crisis in the family. Well, they can have a divorce but they can also work it out. They could go to psychologists; they can have somebody train them to treat each other better, to understand each other, to speak to each other. So what happened when there was a crisis they can decide to break and destroy whatever good there was and try to have something new hoping that it will be better. But, if they don’t change the new will be as bad as the old one.
So, at the point of the crisis we have to get better; we have to educate ourselves, we have to work harder, try harder. The same thing is happening in Greece. Greece will come out of the crisis but the thing is that if it wants to come out better, it has to become better. People have to get better. Education is one of the things that can get things better. People have to try harder, they have to work harder, and they have to educate themselves.
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Bidisha Sinha & Simon Yu
Sir Peter Cook
Nil Aynali of Emre Arolat Architects
Romera y Ruiz Arquitectos
Architect, Environmental Consultant
Founder & Chairman, ECOWEEK
Graduate of Yale School of Architecture and the National Technical University of Athens, Dr. Elias Messinas is a Greek-born architect and environmental consultant presently based in Aegina and Jerusalem, specializing in sustainable design, ‘green’ Architecture and environmental planning and consulting in Greece, Cyprus, and the Middle East. He is recipient of grants from – among others – Getty Grant Program and Graham Foundation. Dr. Messinas is the founder, Chairman and coordinator of the international environmental NGO ECOWEEK based and active in Europe and the Middle East.