The boundary between the city and the sea, between culture and nature.
The paradigm of the waterfront in the city of Chania.
The development of cities in Greece and the emerging tensions in the relationship between the city centre and its periphery have, in the recent past, attracted the attention of architects, planners and academics; urban sprawl and the challenges of suburbia are widely discussed, cautiously analyzed, and publicly criticized. What is often overlooked is the development of the waterfront of the Mediterranean city by the water, the edge of the city towards the sea, that until now is considered an undeniable boundary towards its expansion but simultaneously it’s most celebrated point of reference. The Mediterranean city refers to the sea as its unconstructed half, and the transitory space between sea and city is the inexhaustible full of potential synthesis between nature (sea) and culture (city), as one spreads towards and within the other, grafting their characteristics into one another's fabric, merging to create this in-between space.
The city of Chania lies on the northern part of the island of Crete. Originally a small town with a vibrant commercial harbor on the Mediterranean sea in the heart of its centre and its economy, it is now a vibrant touristic city expanding across the coastline and the hinterland. The in between area along the coastline and the city is in a continuous construction process of a space (touristic) that is either domesticated, like the pier of the old harbor, or natural like the beach of Koum Kapi in the center of the city. The variations and the differentiations on the character of this continuous landscape are a result of the manipulation of the boundary and the proximity of the sea and the city.This paper investigates the development of the potential void of this public space, in-between the waterfront and the cityscape, in-between culture and nature. It looks into the changing identity of this public space by the concurrent transformation of the proximity and the elaboration of the boundary between the city and the sea to understand the potential of the informal and the unplanned as spaces of informal encounter and creative conflict.
Where exactly lies the boundary of the city? Where does it begin and end?
Most twentieth – century urban theorists have conceived the urban (or: the city) as a distinctive type of settlement space that could be delineated in contradistinction to suburban or rural spaces. The diffusion of the urban space in the periphery where the city and rural space unfold into each other is an issue of great debate in the contemporary processes of urbanization and is critically analyzed and discussed as the challenge of suburbia. The relation of these two worlds (urban and rural) is changing in time from a very defined separation to a dissolution of one into the other with a distinct urban center and to a further merge towards an uneven mesh of varying density, thickness and activity. But what is different in Mediterranean cities founded on the edge of the water? What are the characteristics and the properties of the threshold between sea and land and finally what is the manifestation of the in- between space?
The Mediterranean city and the sea
Historically, the boundary of the Mediterranean sea in relation to the city was disrupting abruptly the urban density in the same way that the walls of fortification appropriately demarcated the boundary of the city towards its periphery. The Mediterranean cities were founded and flourished in relation to the tectonic formation of a port, the gate to all commercial and cultural transportation network in the Mediterranean sea - space.
The cities were the infrastructure transcendent stations in between hinterlands and the Mediterranean sea was the binding medium. But today the capitalist global economy has broadened and exceeded the borders of the Mediterranean sea. Fortunately the Mediterranean city has survived, expanding itself geographically across the coastline and into the hinterland and economically towards new industries like tourism. Consequently, the waterfront of the city is extending too, but not in the same mode of a lineal pattern of a commercial port arrangement but in continuous topological variations along the narrative of the city, its uses and the topography.
The manifestation of the waterfront in the expanded Mediterranean city: the paradigm of Chania
In order to examine thoroughly, the issues and the character of the extended waterfront of a contemporary Mediterranean city the paper examines the architectural proposal of the present writer Agapi Proimou in collaboration with Stella Pantelia, Evanthia Dova and Evgenios Balasis, entitled “Koum Kapi, the beach of the city”, submitted to the Architectural Competition for the redevelopment of the coastal zone in the area of Koum Kapi that was held in the city of Chania in 2013 by the Port Authority of the city.
Chania is the second largest city of the island of Crete at the southeastern part of the Mediterranean sea. It lies along the north coast of the island, it extends over thirteen square km and has 108,642 (2011) inhabitants.
The area of Koum Kapi is situated east of the old historic city and the port, immediately outside the medieval Wall, and in proximity to the commercial area, the administration center and important public spaces (public gardens and central squares) of the contemporary city.
Geographically the area of Koum Kapi is located on a lower level than the rest of the city, along a sandy sea bay, enclosed by the expansion of the city outside the walls and further out on the mountains. It is affected by extreme weather conditions (temperature during the summer reaching 40 degrees Celsius and damp and cold in the winter, plummeting to as low as 5 degrees Celsius) that characterize it as a difficult place and not healthy enough to live in.
In the past, all the dirty heavy uses of the city, like the slaughterhouses and leather manufacture/processing units, were situated by the water in proximity to the city, the former at the east edge of Koum Kapi bay and the latter further away along the coastline. These were the reasons that initially the area of Koum Kapi was the campsite of the poor working class people of color and later the locus of the poor working class and the economic refugees.
The sea as the view of the city
The modernization of the city offered a completely new perspective to the area of Koum Kapi. Its privileged position in front of the sea, in proximity to the central Agora with the view of the historic city as the main asset of authenticity, favored the construction of bigger scale new apartment blocks, with all the necessary ventilation and heating systems for sanitary living.
In these apartments the natural, constantly changing, element of the sea is an image that pleases the eye of the resident of the apartment while he/she remains in the comfort of its interior. The buildings on the edge of the urban fabric, closer to the shore are the most popular, but because of the smaller scale of the old settlement and the topography, even further inside the urban tissue the sea is still the view of the city.
The space in between the sea and the city. The site of the architectural competition
During the recent years the implementation of a biological waste water treatment plant has rendered the sea water clean, desirable and safe to dive into. Economic refugees, as well as a few locals (aged people that don’t have the means to move out of the city) and tourists exploit the opportunity of sea bathing at the narrow remaining niche of sandy beach, during the summer, thus transforming this sought after place to a setting for recreation and gaming.
Simultaneously the augmentation of the tourist industry expands the touristic space outside the walls of the old venetian harbor, the most celebrated attraction of authenticity in Chania, and establishments of leisure and entertainment arise in the neighboring pier of Koum Kapi in an informal manner relied on consumption patterns, private initiative and ad-hoc development.
Even though the space defined by the competition brief is a road, a narrow slot of a concrete pier, a niche of sandy beach and a small public park with trees on east side at the end of the bay, we observe that in Koum Kapi, more than ever, the space in between the sea and the city becomes habitable in the most inexhaustible synthesis between nature (sea) and culture (city).The strip between buildings and the sea, unorganized, disconnected from the city level with few dispersed plateaus of empty space is discovered as the most informal and evoking urban space in the city.
The pier as the continuation of the port in relation to the niche of sandy beach of Koum Kapi is an arrangement of objects in a non-lineal system along the coastline and appears to be a space full of potential in order to become one of the most appreciated and popular places of the city.
The proposal: plane, promenade, void and boundary
The goal for the design proposal is to articulate the inspiring confrontation between culture (city) and nature (sea), to connect the artificial urban structure to the physical coast and to intensify the vitality and diversity of the intermediate space. We keep the uses, the users, the differentiation and heterogeneity of the building mass (old and new, small and larger scale, varied typologies), the inhabitants, the beach and the pier, and try to add on a plane of possibilities and unexpected situations without intervening on the urban fabric or the natural seascape. The plane of the project lies in between the sea and the city, after emptying the space from the random infrastructure and the car movement.
Linear promenade and knots of tension
Along the waterfront of Koum Kapi, the plane is striated into a promenade wide enough for people to move at different speeds, to ride bicycles or skate. The promenade is developing in a linear fashion and adjusts its direction where necessary, in order to follow the coastline. It is connected to a central circulation axis of the city and to one of the Landmark Gates of the Venetian harbor, to associate the new city, the historic one and the waterfront to a ring of uninterrupted circulation. The width, the materiality and the clarity of the promenade are stable and distinct along its length to ensure accessibility and perpetual smooth movement. In the instances where the movement is redirected the geometry of the spine forms pocket spaces in between the promenade and the line of the sea. These three moldings on the landscape are passages to different scenarios and operations of the section towards the surface of the water and knots of located tension. On the other side, towards the city, a sequence of various materials with different physical properties is provoking different situations and activities parallel to the movement.
The promenade is the catalyst for a challenging urban development between the sea and the city, the establishment of a new urban physiognomy and the perception of the particular relation of culture and nature. The public space is organized on both sides of its path. There are areas along the coastline where the line of the urban density is too close to the surface of the water and there is space only for the width of the promenade. In those cases the relation between city and sea is a sharp experience, an almost absent transition. The homogeneous character of the promenade accentuates the smooth transition to plateaus of spaces along the way where the city, the sea or both withdraw and reveal void spaces to host urban activities. Along the sections of the project the experience varies to acknowledge a complex and intriguing relation between the city and the sea. The manipulation of the thresholds and the boundaries of this relation provide the necessary smooth common place of a public space, one that is found not only in the reunion but in contemplation too.
The boundary of the promenade towards the sea, folds to form different relations, proximities and linkages to the water. On the previously mentioned knots of tension the promenade extends to become an amphitheater, a chaise longue, a space for reading and working outdoors, a protection barrier, a frame, a seating bench, a level difference or whatever the imagination of the users dictates. The surface is unfolding gradually down to reach the water level and folds back to create an enclosure towards the viewer of the city and the sea. The edge of the promenade towards the sea offers numerous possibilities/potentials to the users in relation to sea water thus is simultaneously an interior and an exterior, horizon and topography, separation and unity.
Void as a threshold to extended degrees of freedom
As we have already mentioned, Koum Kapi is located next to the historic city, the Venetian harbor and the city center so the introduction of new programs of leisure, culture and commerce is insignificant for the area. On the contrary, a fluid state of open empty space in the center of the city, without specific uses, full of possibilities is a valuable acquisition for the dense evolving contemporary city. An open space with smooth edges and transitions in immediate relation to nature (sea) is a generator for a variety of activities for the city dwellers.
Along the promenade towards the city, a sequence of materials with different physical properties, groves of trees and a penetrating undulating canopy constitute places of expectation, apertures to events and opportunities for play and joy. Void is defined by areas of sand, soil, wood, casted concrete or plantations, where you can find physical shades under the trees, covered shelter under the long continuous canopy and surfaces to lie, run play or gather. Void is considered as a scene of potential action, an intermediate space open to other spaces, a territory where the users enjoy the freedom to develop their own scenarios of appropriation or participate in spotaneous events.
The sand area can become a court for a beach volley game or a petanque tournament, a beach extension for the bathers to enjoy the sun after their swim and a playground for the children. The wooden deck is a setting for a concert or an informal gathering. The squares with harder materials on the surface in contact with the urban tissue can host political demonstrations, meetings, public events or open markets. In between the areas, enclosed spaces introduce the minimum auxiliary uses such as a refreshment kiosk, changing rooms, lockers and WC.
The chosen material of the surfaces –natural like sand, soil and wood and artificial as cast concrete - relate to the beach and the city to accentuate the dialogue and the transition between the natural and the artificial, the blending of the city fabric and the water.
“there is no line separating earth and sky; there is no intermediate distance, no perspective or contour; visibility is limited; and yet there is an extraordinarily fine topology that relies not on points or objects, but rather on haecceities, on sets of relations (winds, undulations of snow or sand, the song of the sand, the creaking of the ice, the tactile qualities of both).”
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia
According to Denis Cosgrove urban space and cartographic space are intimately related. The way we perceive and analyze the existing situation on the narrow threshold between sea and city in Koum Kapi informs us of the potential and the dynamic there is in the contradicting relation between nature and culture, between sea and city. Although space is restrained in the in between strip, the activation of the public space on the waterfront lies not in the design of a complex and extended theme park but in the articulation of a smooth space, a perpetual movement and an organized void as a place of change, variability and enrichment in the edge of the urban tissue. The sea is the unconstructed half of the city and as we zoom in to the ‘line’ between structure and its absence we find that in its thickness lies the potential of the most engaging, stimulating, animated and heterogeneous urban landscape.
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