The Critical Aesthetics of Modern Urbanism: Experiencing Athens

Masters Thesis

Nigianni, Betty 2010. The Critical Aesthetics of Modern Urbanism: Experiencing Athens. Masters Thesis University of East London
AuthorsNigianni, Betty
TypeMasters Thesis

This thesis discusses how the modern city can be understood as an experiential environment of
critical subjective practice. Fictive textual representations of subjective spatial cultures and
practices within the modern Athenian public realm are examined in reference to Walter
Benjamin’s critical theory and aesthetics.
Benjamin, inspired largely by early German Romantic art criticism that was based
upon ideas about the self-reflective and self-transformative experience of form, developed a
concept of ‘experience’: as critical process and practice. Exploring the relationship between
modern urban experience and critical subjectivity, this thesis examines Benjamin’s concept of
experience through his diverse writings on art, architecture and urbanism; the main references
being drawn upon: the theses The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928) and The Concept of
Criticism in German Romanticism (1920); the essays, ‘The Storyteller’ (1936), ‘Theses on the
Philosophy of History’ (1940), ‘Little History of Photography’ (1931) and ‘The Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935); as well as the urban writings Benjamin produced
between the late 1920s and early 1930s, such as One-Way Street (1928).
Benjamin’s philosophy of experience is subsequently employed to develop an
epistemological and methodological framework for the interpretation of the selected fictive
narratives. The short stories ‘In Pieces’ (Kommatakia) (1979), and ‘An avenue that is like me’
(Nomizo pos he leoforos Syngrou mou moiazei) (1999), written by the Greek authors Vangelis
Raptopoulos and Manos Kontoleon respectively, describe Athenian spatial practices and
cultures, as experienced, from the critical viewpoint of the experiencing subject/author.
Although modern Athens was initially developed and planned under Western European
influences, diversionary spatial and cultural practices characterised by improvisation and
subjective appropriation have emerged. Informed by Benjamin’s ‘literary montage’, a method
of textual juxtaposition; and to a lesser degree, by his idea of the ‘thought-image’, offering a
particular approach to ‘city portraiture’; the thesis adopts an experimental structure in order to
provide a platform for open-ended, critical interpretation of the fictive texts.
This thesis aims to offer original contributions to key discourses in contemporary arts
and design theory on spatial practices and representation, as well as to the broader scholarship
in arts and design criticism and historiography. For this purpose, a discussion on modern urban
aesthetics is constructed, articulating the idea that urban experience can inform critical spatial
practice. Furthermore, the thesis proposes a specific interdisciplinary approach to textual
representation and interpretation that fosters critical practice; thus, further demonstrating that
contemporary critical writing within the arts and design disciplines can oscillate between
different discourses and methods of writing (namely fictive narration, historiography and
critical theory).

Keywordsmodern city; textual representations; modern urban experience; architecture; urbanism; Athens; Greece; city portraiture
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Deposited11 Apr 2011
Accepted author manuscript
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