Athenian people’s markets doing architecture without architects

Vasiliki Poula

This essay first appeared in the Harvard Urban Review.

The most authentic block party I know of is Athens’ laiki agora. When words of the mother tongue are called to arms, you know that things are serious. I have always struggled with explaining their meaning, when invoked. Doing so in pure linguistic terms strips the word of its texture, its layers, its distinctive scent. Of the ways it interacts with collective memory and imagination. A simple translation, no matter how wordy, from Greek to English won’t do the trick. The literal translation of the laiki agora is the people’s market. Something like a farmer’s market. But it’s like no farmer’s market you’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not like the ones in West London that I’ve lately come across, where there is a certain aura that it’s not really normal food shopping that takes place amidst the stalls, but rather service to the planet, the economy, the decent, albeit unfortunate, people working the land – you name it. These are places to see and to be seen. 

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Rather the laiki agora is a place of the outmost simplicity. They don’t have a clientele, a philosophy or an ‘ethos’ – they cater to everybody. The centre of Athens is a case study of vertical stratification – the ‘polykatoikia’, the paradigmatic Athenian apartment block, hosts people with very different backgrounds in their different floors, resulting in a socio-economic mix. Apartments of the buildings’ lowest floors play the role of a non-existent social housing by accommodating displaced people that arrive in the city’s central neighbourhoods through various migration and refugee waves from the 1990s until today. The – mostly rented – basement flats have very limited sunlight and ventilation, are in close proximity to the noisy street and lack privacy, as their open windows render the flats directly accessible to the passenger’s eyes. Higher-level apartments are mostly owned (or, inherited) by natives and enjoy beautiful views of the city – along with the occasional Acropolis view – and plenty of light. Middle-class households are sandwiched in between (as always). The ‘verticality’ of the building becomes an allegory of power relations – and indeed, it would be naïve to argue that staying in the same building results in an equality of power, opportunities, influence. Of course not. But all these people that share their polykatoikia – they also, inevitably, share their local laiki agora. People of the higher floors will visit the laiki agora earlier on, for the best produce and people of the lower floors will go at closing hours, to get the left-overs at bargain prices – but the element of shared access pertains. 

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The laiki agora is an infallible time-teller. No matter what, the laiki agora will take place once per week, on its designated day, in its designated street. On that day, I remember coming back from school, finding the fridge full. And the afternoon fruit salad that my mom would prepare would be richer by one or two fruits – when the first cherries would come in my fruit bowl, I knew that the holidays would soon begin, while when ‘boring’ apples and pears would replace the fun fruits such as melon, watermelon, grapes and the rest, I knew that there were no more swims and sandcastles. 

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It is also a place of politics. Television crews reporting on inflation often focus on the prices of the laiki agora. And when they want to capture the people’s sentiment, they also pay a visit to the laiki agora – during the austerity crisis, many buyers got their five seconds of fame through statements of disappointment, rage, despair. In advertising their produce, sellers make up their own inventive slogans, often criticizing the ever-increasing prices and highlighting how their products remain an oasis of affordable quality. A politician visiting a laiki agora makes a good photo-op – they seem approachable, close to the people. Go to a laiki agora before election time and you’ll understand that the true electoral battlefield is over there – ‘What are you voting on Sunday?’ sparks the discussion between buyers and sellers in high spirits. I’m also surprised that the laiki agora has not gotten popular as a case study for the exploration of various newly coined phenomena – it reduces ‘food miles’, it addresses the alienation between the consumer and the producer, it could be viewed as a proto-permaculture structure, it applies a farm-to-form model and disintermediation. 

It is a cabinet de curiosités – mint, dill, coriander, parsley that I would add proudly to my own casseroles when started to cook only make a small part of the bewildering number of kinds of greens on offer. I always admire the women that approach the stalls with an effortless knowledge of their unique flavours and properties – which one is more citrusy, which one is more peppery, which one is best for a salad or a pie. This same knowledge that not so long ago stood between people and starvation. During the famine of 1941-1942 under the German occupation, when some three hundred thousand people died of starvation in the greater Athens area alone, what kept many people alive was a knowledge of wild bulbs and greens, of knowing that even the ubiquitous and humble nettle is nutritious, and tasty, when properly prepared. Nowadays, upscale neo-traditional (you know, the plate-sharing, creative) restaurants often boast of unusual wild greens alongside their cultivated cousins. 

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It is also a vehicle for intergenerational connectivity. A tradition, a ritual. A space full of connotations that stays in place, even when the people that passed it down are long gone. I always kind of knew about this but I realised it when, a few years ago, my grandfather had a stroke. As they had to skip their laiki rendez-vous that week, my grandmother drew me a map of the stalls, marking her favourite (according to her objective judgement, the best) sellers, so that I could do their groceries. I came back and she cooked my favourite recipe, pastitsio – she told me that she wanted to thank me, but I knew that she wanted to get her mind off. I was observing her as she was chopping the onions, the garlic and the tomatoes with fine, quick moves, almost choreographed. Whenever I return to Athens, I grab my shopping tote and visit Pagrati’s laiki agora to buy the very same onions, garlic and tomatoes. But my moves are not as agile as my grandomther’s. I’m always observing, always pondering. I take photos and videos, I take my earphones off to enjoy the sounds. I talk to people, I sometimes barter. It feels like a return to innocence. I might forget what I wanted to buy – I never forget why I came. I try to become part of this cosmos, this small world, this great world. I’m always self-conscious. Do I fit in? Do I belong here? Do I romanticize things too much? 

It acts as a womb of creative expression. Think of the experience of a man alone in the sea – and how it has inspired artistic expression since Homer and through the Old English poem ‘The Seafarer’ up until today, via Ezra Pound and more modern takes from Caroline Bergvall and Sally Beamish. The Greek National Gallery welcomes the visitor with a frieze that exceeds fifty meters in length – it is Panagiotis Tetsis’ monumental ensemble ‘Laiki Agora’, capturing a snapshot of life, repeated, staged even, every Friday on Xenokratous Street. The painting is mesmerising. You want to grab your shopping bag and join the crowd. And behind the colours piled up on empty boxes, the voices, laughter and bartering, the sound of wheels touching the asphalt, the wheels of prams and shopping carts, you find beauty. Joyce's character Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man states that three criteria have to be present in order to establish beauty, namely ‘wholeness, harmony and radiance’. All of which are present, in a manner of speaking, in the setting of the laiki agora.

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I’m telling you all this to entertain the following thought: sometimes inspiration for making the urban landscape and experience better and happier lies under the radar, in the most underwhelming and simple (but not simplistic) of stimuli, rather in buzzwordish trends. The people’s market, the laiki agora is a weekly celebration, hosted in any (almost) straight street that will have it. There is no guest list. But beyond the superficial panem et circenses quality that one might read into the laiki agora, there is deeper social and cultural capital embedded. This eccentric party shapes the city and in turn, the city shapes it. It is an example of architecture without architects. The urban becomes a bit less ‘urban’ in the orthodox way – and not primarily because of the arrival of people from rural places or because of the agricultural nature of the trade taking place in the people’s market. But because the urban street undergoes a transformation – from a transitionary space of no particular interest, it becomes a destination, a venue. A less-than-public space becomes carved within the public space, hosting social interaction, intimacy, legacies, memories, struggles. But in an ephemeral way – the street becomes repurposed after the produce sells out. The laiki challenges the order that is conventionally expected from the city – not by ‘disrupting’ it, but by embedding the personal, the interpersonal, the spontaneous and the existential on it. 

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Vasiliki Poula

Vasiliki Poula is interested in human relations, memory and the significance of place. She enjoys reading and writing on these themes, as well as embarking on improvised photography projects.

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