Conflicts in the City: Between Hypsipolis and Apolis

by Kostis Velonis

Under what conditions can the hypsipolis – he who was once lauded in his city – be transformed into apolis: he who wanders beyond the city’s boundaries and lapses from virtue?

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Simos the Existentialist
Simos bids farewell to Greece, September 1956

By understanding that, in the artistic avant-garde movements of the 20th century, those influences that were opposed to the traditions of metropolitan modernism were few, any idea of seeking an environment in which the language of architecture is invalid seems ineffective. Throughout the period of ‘-isms’, the tactics of trailblazers advocated the idea of the hypsipolis (one who is high or honoured in one’s city), not so much in the sense of acceptance, of principles, and active participation in preserving them, but mainly in the sense of defending new ideas and attitudes which, although in some cases can be different to the status quo, are proposed within the context of upgrading the state. The Aristotelian definition of man reveals the necessity of identifying every human activity with the principles of an organised community. [1] During the previous century, radical proposals remained consciously dedicated to the koina, or common concerns, in order to renew and modernise society more rapidly. Even the issue of ‘revolution’ became directly related to the social groupings that were created in urban centres, and it was because of these that conflicts arose.

In the 19th century, the classic dual label of ‘Beast’ or ‘God’ for those unable to live in a society was supplemented, and partially negated, by a third convention: that of the solitary walker who seeks the truth and the meaning of life in communion with the natural environment.[2] The modern age, having chosen an exploitative relationship with unsullied nature, created resistance to the ‘exiled poet’ who, as a former inhabitant of the city, was henceforth called upon to recompose his primeval nostalgia by comparing it to the sinful image of his metropolitan starting point.

Under what conditions can the hypsipolis – he who was once lauded in his city – be transformed into apolis, city-less, who wanders beyond its boundaries and lapses from virtue?

Certainly, the person who is city-less or stateless these days is not only he who by nature rejects society; even more so he is one who, due to circumstances, is forced to abandon his own community. This choice can be explained exclusively in terms that have to do with immigration and expatriation.[3] After a century of commitment to the tenets of modernism, what kind of strange ‘escapist’ neo-modernism would reject the city? And if in the past the city provided energy and inspiration for the avant-garde, who, today, would want to praise it?

Athens, as an architectural dystopia that has suffered unbridled development, offers much material for questioning. It is perceived as an anti-model city, where all architectural testimony is unpleasant and oppressive. The belying of the expectations of the international style of architecture, and especially the Greek model of multi-storied buildings, prompts us to question the need for the city, as well as the ways in which it preserves its supremacy.[4] However, what we would like to address, and what this exhibition emphasises, is the ‘place’ of that person who disowns the city, or at least ceases to seek it. But how necessary is it for us to speak exclusively in the terms of geography? Within the flow of events in a city, the citizen’s experience of being city-less is a phenomenon that remains unnoticed. It is perhaps more a psychic process that expresses the general tendency towards the poetics of transfer. It is an internal journey that remains uncovered and replaces the ‘object’ of architecture with the ‘airy materialism’ of the ephemeral, which leaves no history, no trace, no evidence.[5] If, despite all this, there were some reason to justify wandering under any conditions, perhaps it would be the quest for a destiny that was open to visibility by seeking infinite freedom. Far from the city and its troubles, which means distance from people. How much solitude fits in this confrontation?

Maybe Timon of Athens, a contemporary of Pericles, is one of the most useful historical examples of someone without a city, who consciously chooses to live beyond the city borders. Timon, a wealthy and popular citizen, due to the moral decadence of his social environment, promotes misanthropy as the only wise philosophical attitude. From this view, society consists of individual units of people who, in the best-case scenario, neglect (if not quarrel with) each other. Timon is proven to be a self contained subject who, having lost his faith in humans, condemns the total of activities in the most historical metropolis, Athens. The Shakespearean Timon, within the obviously unstoppable and picturesque offensive language outside the walls of Athens, not only curses the people but the entity of the city itself. It may be considered rational that one of the symptoms of hatred towards the glorious city of Athens could be the high density of the population; nonetheless, misanthropy is no longer the most appropriate definition to describe the disapproval of having contact with the urban civilisation and whatever this comes with, for the social groups and the societies shaped in the metropolitan environment. The attitude of ‘someone without a city’ towards what he is trying to avoid, helps us comprehend the transition from hatred towards people to an extended artificial entity that regards the city as a problem that we should consider under philosophical terms what the sociologists are in vain trying to ignore.


Apolis (without a city)

Understanding that in the artistic innovations of the 20th century the influences, which are opposed to the tradition of a metropolitan modernism, are minimal, any thought which seeks an environment in which the reason of architecture is cancelled, appears ineffective. Throughout all the ‘-isms’, the tactics of the innovators go together with the logic of the hypsipolis (citizen of a proud city), not so much with the meaning of the acceptance of the principles and of their active participation to conserve them but mainly with the defence of new ideas and concepts, which although in some cases can be differentiated from the status quo, are always suggested within the concept of upgrading the state. The Aristotelian definition for man shows the necessity of identifying any human activity with the principles of an organised community.[6] During the last century, radical proposals were deliberately focused on the commons aiming to renew and speed up the modernisation of society. Even the issue of ‘revolution’ was linked directly with the social groups, which were cultivated inside urban centres and because of them contradictions arose.

Since the 19th century, the classic dual characterisation of the ‘Beast’ or ‘God’ for someone who cannot live in a society has been supplemented and partly withdrawn from a third treaty, that the image of the lone walker looking for the truth and the meaning of life in his contact with the natural environment.[7] The modern era, by selecting a utilitarian relationship with pure nature, has created resistance to the ‘exile poet’ who, as a former resident of the city, from now on reconstructs his archaic nostalgias by comparing them to the sinful portrait of his metropolitan point of departure.

Under what circumstances does the hypsipolis, the person who once glorified his city, turn into apolis, and moves beyond its limits and errs from the straight path?

Of course, the person without a city nowadays it is not only the person who is physically driven to turn away from society, but rather the person who, due to these conditions, is forced to abandon his own community. This choice can be explained only with terms related to the issue of immigration and expatriation.[8]

After a century of enrolling to the principles of modern, who would be that peculiar ‘escaping’ new-modernism that would turn away from the city? And if the metropolis ever offered energy and inspiration to innovations, who would now have the intention to praise it?

Athens as an architectural dystopia with its uncontrolled growth offers ample material to question. It is perceived as a city anti-example, where each architectural testimony is unpleasant and oppressive. The denial of the expectations of the international style in architecture and in particular of the Greek model of multi-floored buildings urges us to question the need for the city, as well as the ways that guards its dominance.[9] But what is important for us to raise, and which this report emphasises, is that the ‘place’ of the person who denounces the town or at least ceases to seek it.

But how necessary is it to speak exclusively in terms of geography? Through the flow of events in the city, the experience of the citizen as apolis passes unnoticed. Perhaps it is more a mental process, which reflects the general trend of extraordinary poetic transfer. It is an ‘internal’ route, which remains open, and which replaces the ‘object’ architecture with the ‘airy materialism’ of the ephemeral, that leaves no history, no trace, no testimony.[10]

If however there was a reason, which would justify the roam in any circumstances, it might be the search of the subject towards a destiny open in visibility claiming abundant freedom. Away from the city and the problems it bears which means at a distance from people. One could wonder how much loneliness can fit into this race? And what could be the representation of it?


This text is based on an older version written for the curated exhibition Apolis at the Hellenic American Union, Athens, 2006. 


[1]           “From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiy-less is either low in the scale of humanity or above it…” Aristotle, Politics, I, i.7-9, Harvard University Press, 2005, p.9.

[2]           ‘While a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.’ Aristotle Politics, I, i.7-9, Harvard University Press, 2005, p.13.

[3]           In the same text, Aristotle uses three adjectives used by Homer to describe Nestor, the man who was in favour of civil war (Iliad, I., 63): “clanless, lawless, hearthless”, that is, the person who is without family, laws and a home, truly a supporter of domestic turbulence today?

[4]           It would be interesting to look at a story of passing into the city, and out of it, literally, at the gates. The comment of the Roman orator Pomponius (D 1, 8, 11) is useful to distinguish the legal framework of the Roman empire with regard to violating city walls:

“Si quis violaverit muros, capite punitur: sicuti si quis transcedet scalis admotis, vel alia qualibet ratione : nam cives romanos alia, quam per portas, egredi non licet: cum illud hostile et abominandum sit : nam et romuli frater remus occisus traditur ob id, quod murum transcendere voluerit.”

[Whoever desecrates the city walls is punished by death: for example, anyone who climbs over the walls, using ladders or by any other means; indeed, Roman citizens must leave the city only through its gates. To do otherwise is to commit a hostile and abominable action, for Remus, brother of Romulus, was killed, history tells us, only for wanting to climb over the city walls.]

[5]           However, a survey of the collective fantasies of the youth culture of the 50s would help us comprehend the spirit of escape in trips to the country, where the shell of a house was replaced by the shell of the car, offering millions of teenagers a pleasant way to escape from the restrictive environment of the city.

[6]            See endnote 1.

[7]           See endnote 2.

[8]           See endnote 3.

[9]           See endnote 4.

[10]          See endnote 5.

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