A City is its People

Alexandra Yerolympos

I would like to note that I am here in my capacity as an urbanist and as a historian of the city. My relationship to photography is limited to that of an amateur: I very much appreciate the means of expression marshaled by photography. At a professional level, I believe photography constitutes an essential tool in the areas of documentation and interpretation of urban phenomena.

Moreover, it is a well-known fact that photography was invented and mastered at the very time when the metropolises of Europe were emerging. It rendered their structural transformations, all the profound and rapid upheavals of the period. It was the privileged witness of the new faces of cities. It alone was capable of keeping up with the accelerated rhythm of the mutations that were occurring. Because the city was also a static object, it allowed for the lengthy posing time demanded by photography in its beginnings.

Mikael Levin's work and his search for the cultural identity of contemporary urban spaces correlate and coordinate with the questions developed today by architects, city planners, sociologists, etc. We are in an era when:
-- architectural models circulate beyond conventional borders and get reproduced, as one lauds their international character;
-- cities seem to tend more and more to consign the role of conveying a certain cultural specificity to historical buildings alone, while at the same time they adopt a stereotypical architecture for their new development;
-- the continual shifting, voluntary or forced, of populations that are moving for economical or political reasons, is dramatically transforming the human content of cities.

The word most often used to describe these processes is "globalization" - a word with a very general definition that carries no value judgment - a word considered neutral and technocratic - but which is, for me, rather irritating. I would like to propose instead, as the basis of my reading of Mikael Levin's work, the word "cosmopolitanism", to be taken in its very ancient, original meaning, not in its impoverished sense that articles and journals give it, which refers to its application to fashion and life-style (VIP's and jet setters). The word cosmopolitanism comes to my mind when I look at Mikael Levin's photographs, not at his resume. I consider the word's present meaning impoverished because it relates to a world where the notion of a specific place is absent.

In contrast to this, when the concept of cosmopolitanism was formulated by the heirs to the thought of Socrates, the Cynical School (the most famous one being Diogenes): cosmos was understood as: the universe, order, harmony, the universe conceived of as a harmonious whole polities - the citizen: a being with a social conscience who participates in the becoming of his city, or town. That is how he knows his cultural roots, and is able to recognize the universal character of human values in other cultures.

Thus the notion of cosmopolitanism associates cosmos, place, and political activity with a common conception - by accepting the presence of universal values in all cultures.

Progressively, from the smallest city (Katrineholm) to the middle-sized (Cambrai, then Erfurt), to, finally, the largest (Thessaloniki), Mikael Levin's photographs of the four cities introduce the complex interaction between individuals, the architectural patrimony, and social modes of appropriation of space as they operates in each city.

Despite their different origins and historical development, Katrineholm(the smallest) and Thessaloniki (the largest) are presented almost solely through contemporary neighborhoods, where, in its absence or its presence, the human throng is the principal actor, the central theme(one need merely compare the two photographs of bus stops: in Katrineholm an image of solitude, a totally isolated man; in Thessaloniki, in contrast, we have a crowd, a real jostling).....

In Cambrai and in Erfurt - medium sized and with different histories - identity emerges from a mixing of people and edifices, which balance each other out in the images.

I would like to elaborate a bit on the images of Thessaloniki, which are as simple as documents, but also very constructed. They show the city - a theater of permanent movement and of continual ferment- with people or empty, but full of signs of human life - of a life that is lived in immediate contact through touching or visual vis-a-vis. This face to face especially is very subtly presented through the small vertical images presented in panoramic format. These show the streets of Thessaloniki, narrow, rather airless, with recessed balconies and an ill-defined skyline, real urban canyons. Where I, an inhabitant of that city, see only ugliness, lighting and noise problems, etc., Mikael Levin accents the human scale of those tiered balconies, the value of the intermediary spaces, between the private and the public - what is constructed and the outdoors, the extroverted and the enclosed, the street and the perspective of the sky - framed nature - finally the intense conviviality: a landscape totally anthropogenic, so to speak. The contrast with the Erfurt suburbs could not be more eloquent: a vague landscape, blind gables, mute, impersonal, neutral spaces.

Through Mikael Levin's photographs, I see that for him, Thessaloniki's cultural identity lies above all in that urban dynamic of living together/ sociable life, much more than in multicultural historical references or in monuments from different eras of the city (where I had taken him during his first visit to the city; but he chose not to include those photographs in the present exhibit). Even the lone stroller on the embankment is looking at the city from a distance that idealizes the mass of concrete. That mass doesn't appear terrifying, but rather reassuring, since, as we know through the other photographs, it constitutes, like an ant-hill, a container of human life (it shelters human beings).

Allow me, however, one final, rather troubling, disconcerting remark inspired by present times.

I think that the vision and testimony Mikael Levin brings (when he evokes a human, convivial, "sensual" city, associating a universal value to it) are optimistic. I would readily subscribe to his vision. I would even feel happy to live in a city where, constantly rubbing shoulders with each other, people reinforce social cohesion; where human understanding and feelings of generosity towards the Other develop. However, recent events, and the brutality with which our co-citizens of Athens sent the Kurdish refugees from one neighborhood to the other, refusing access to their immediate neighborhood, make me doubt that this human value, that belongs to the great tradition of cosmopolitanism, is deeply rooted in contemporary European and Greek cities.

Alexandra Yerolympos


Alexandra Yerolympos is an architect-planner and teaches urban and planning history in the University of Thessaloniki. She is the author of books and articles on the Planning history of Greece, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean (Urban Transformations in the Balkans, Between East and West, Greek cities in the 19th century etc).

(Translation by Susan Cohen)