Saturday, 22 September 2012

‘Practicing’ Nature as a form of creative Εco-tourism

‘Passive’ and ‘active’ tourism: The bond with place.

In a recent article the American economist Paul Krugman notes:
One of their [Greece’s] major exports is tourism. Greece exit [from Eurozone] could create a very ugly scene for six months or a year, but after that there’s tons of package tours of British lager louts [sic] going to the Greek isles. It sounds awful, but compared with 50 per cent youth unemployment, maybe not so bad.’[1]

The term ‘lager louts’ describes the swarms of intoxicated tourists that every summer reach Greece, as well as Cyprus and other countries of the European South and the Mediterranean. Krugman uses this term, not with a purpose to underestimate this kind of tourists, but to describe lively what he believes to be the fate of these countries, especially in a climate of economic recession: The ‘lager louts’ that bring easy and fast money are preferable to a local youth unemployment that reaches 50 per cent. Which, however, is the condition that this kind of tourism brings along with it to the place that accommodates it?

This kind of tourism is offered as a commodity product that promises to its consumer -mainly young low or middle class people from some centre-European country- one or two weeks of unrestricted hedonism and escapism. Whilst on the other hand, it promises to the local community an inflow of currency, creation of new working places and fast economic growth. What does though a growth based on ‘escapism’ mean? For the place that hosts it, this kind of tourism means the creation of enclaves, cut off from the reality of the place, a kind of ‘thematic park’ or a ‘coastal Mall’ in which the tourist experiences a simulated reality. The same, happens with similar enclaves destined to higher incomes, where again a kind of ‘park’ is offered, only a much more luxurious one. The result is, what Jean Baudrillard calls simulation[2] of reality, that is, a copy of the real, a simulation of it that becomes more real than the prototype itself. The tourist experiences a ‘Cyprusness’, namely a copy of Cyprus, that becomes as a condition more real than Cyprus itself. In this condition, the interpretation of the place, the practical bond with it, is either impossible or mediated by a simulation. [Fig.1]


Fig.1: Amusement Park (Luna Park) ‘Catapult’, Agia-Napa, Cyprus.
Author : OldMuzzle.Source : Wikimedia Commons

With this article we don’t want to deny the importance of tourism as a national product of Cyprus, or of other countries of the European South and the Mediterranean. On the contrary, we admit the importance of the tourist industry, even the present financial necessity of this kind of ‘fast’ tourism. Precisely for this reason, however, we consider it important to place questions about the present and the future of this industry, about its possible development, and, why not, in terms of the market, for a qualitative improvement of its product. We then draw attention to the need for a balance between the visitor and the place under the umbrella of architectural design.

The American sociologist Erving Goffman, in his ‘Frame Analysis’ theory refers to the concept of ‘bracketing’[3], namely the cognitive brackets that we put subconsciously during initiating or terminating our conceptions of reality. In the world of Theatre for example, ‘bracketing’ refers to all the gestures that symbolically state that ‘now the act begins’ or ‘now the act finishes’, like the change in lights or the draw of the stage curtain. ‘Bracketing’ means the installation of a frame through which we can perceive and interpret reality. This perception and interpretation of reality however can be either imposed and passive or creative and active. In cases of creative theatre for example, the viewer does not remain passive, but participates in the construction of the ‘fictional world of the play’, by consciously entering the temporal frame of the ‘bracketing’ and by ‘co-interpreting’ the fictional world together with the actors. On the occasion of a tourist visit again a similar frame is constructed. Within the frames of a limited time period, the visitor is converted into the viewer of a play. He opens and closes the brackets within which he will be able to perceive and interpret the reality of the place that he visits. In the case of the tourist formation of ‘enclaves’ that we referred to above, this frame is artificial, pre-determined for the visitor and limits his capacity to interpret the place in his own terms, and by his own means. The visitor then is converted into a passive viewer of the place, consuming thus an interpretation that he has not co-created.

We stress here the need at the same time for a kind of ‘creative’ tourism. ‘Creative tourism’ is about creating the conditions for an unmediated bond to be developed with the place, as a relief from simulation. There are many new categories of tourists that pursue experiences out of the box of massive tourism and the consumption of a place as a product. There are new alternative kinds of tourism, where, for example, one can experience nature and open a dialogue with the place at the same time.  The ‘creative tourism’ consists of ‘practicing’ nature, namely actively ‘inhabiting’ nature, by paying the price of time, effort and personal involvement of the visitor. Turning back into past forms of tourism, when the category was not yet massive, it is interesting to look into how -when the term ‘tourist’ did not have the content we nowadays give to it- the one who travelled to visit a place was called ‘traveller’ or  ‘excursionist’. The traveller, many times ‘practiced’ nature, by applying time and effort into understanding and interpreting it through the use of art or narrative. Pausanias for example, the ancient Greek geographer and traveller, through his narrations of his travels, brings to us lively images of Antiquity, which at a degree, have constructed our own conception of it. Whilst the sketches and images of the Mediaeval travellers many times even today are considered important documents of the history of a place.

Designing infrastructure for the ‘creative tourism’: Two cases

We refer then to an incorporation of the tourist activity in each place, by developing an infrastructure of practicing nature. By this we mean an involvement with nature, which won’t be occasional but on the contrary will favour the dedication of time and effort from the visitor. The question then is the following: How is this involvement possible through architectural design and which are the tools? The last few years in Cyprus there appears an initial interest from state and local authorities for this kind of tourism. The most important expressions of this interest are the architectural competitions, which call both for programmatic ideas and for design expressions of these ideas in space. At this field of architectural competitions there are many ideas that emerge and which can be converted into interesting conditions of alternative tourism, if taken seriously by the authorities. For this article we will use as case studies two examples from our architectural practice[4], as we believe that our experience of participating in such competitions, is the most direct way to support our argument. For this reason, we will refer to two proposals, which discuss how design can get the visitor involved with nature and develope a ‘common ground’ between him, the visited place and the locals. These proposals are of two different scales, the first project for the ‘Centre of EnvironmentalInformation’ at the salt lake of Larnaca[5] being about an architectural scale and the second project for the ‘FishingHarbour and Park’ at Liopetri [6] being about a wider planning scale.

In the first case of the ‘Centre of Environmental Information’ at Alikes salt lake of Larnaca, architectural design aims at the construction of a small-scale infrastructure for initiating the visitor into the experience of the landscape. The landscape of Alikes is unique, both for its natural significance, and for its historical and cultural value. As a ‘Natura 2000’ protected area of 5, a hospitable eco-system for many local and migrating birds, but also a place of significant historical and cultural memory[7] it could be the flagship of a ‘creative tourism’ movement for the wider area. The Centre, with uses of recreation, information and education aims at this kind of tourism. At the site we recognised a network of paths, while, as the site is hidden into a small wood of conifers and bushes, the landscape is not easily revealed. Om the contrary it must be discovered through gaps in the clusters of trees and their foliages. [Fig.2] In our proposal we took advantage of these two qualities as well as the use of movement, the crossing passages and the selected views as main elements of our design. As a result the visitor is not meant to perceive a ‘ready-made’ image of the landscape, but is offered the opportunity to construct it by himself. This is made possible by his moving in space and the urge to make choices, to discover corners and hidden views in order to find his way. [Fig.3] Through the Centre’s programme, the visitor is able to perceive at the same time information for the natural and socio-historical context of Alikes.


Author: draftworks*


Author: draftworks*

Architectural design, in this case, aims at the construction of a ‘frame’ of perceiving and interpreting the place, though the composition of partial views. This composition is based on movement, which constructs an active relationship with the place. At the same time the close association of the recreation space and the space of cultural interest constructs a common ground between the visitors and the locals. At this place tourism can get rid of stereotypes and take the form of a love for nature, of a pilgrimage, of recreation, or just of curiosity. This renders the relationship between place and tourism a multivalent experience.

The second case of the ‘Fishing Harbour and Park’ of Liopetri[8] is one of a combination between a natural environment and coastal eco-system with some rare examples of recent vernacular architecture. [Fig.4] The natural environment of the Liopetri River and the structures of the amateur fishermen make the place an informal tourist destination. The interest of this area though lies in that beyond a tourist destination is also a space of light activities, which, at first look do not appear to be too much ‘tourist’ ones, like amateur boat-fishing and micro-cultivations. In our proposal we pursued the active involvement of the visitor with the landscape, through proposing the temporal occupation of the visitor with activities of fishing, nature preserving and micro-cultivating organic species. We tested this possibility through the idea of the ‘island’ as a unit of nature and at the same time an attractor of tourist activity and a possible micro-production of goods. As a result, a set of islands create an ‘archipelago’ of mixed nature and human activity. [Fig.5] The archipelago creates a common ground for the encounters of visitors with nature and with each other. The Archipelago, as a design strategy, offers the frame for a temporal visit, as an outcome of conventional tourism, but also offers the infrastructure for the development of ‘creative tourism’, through the involvement of the visitor with nature and the investment of effort and time in his encounter with nature. In this way the ‘islands’, either as ‘fishing islands’ or ‘cultivation islands’ are offered to the visitors over a short or a long period to inhabit and exploit them. The ‘nature reserve islands’ on the other hand, are islands of local protected natural fauna and flora and they are also offered to individuals or groups of visitors for purposes of education and familiarization with techniques of nature preservation and protection. [Fig.6]


Fig.4: ‘Liopetri FishingHarbour’: Fishermen’s huts
Authors: draftworks*, AA+U

Fig.5: ‘Liopetri FishingHarbour’: ‘Archipelago’ Map
Authors: draftworks*, AA+U

This second example expresses a problematisation about a category of active tourism, for which there is not yet a much grown interest in Cyprus. We must, however, underline the interest of local authorities and the organizers of the competition in ideas that had been submitted in the first -programmatic- stage of the competition by the participating teams. The interest for these ideas encouraged interventions like the correlation of nature protecting with tourism, cultivation with tourism as well as fishing with tourism, which are ideas not yet much discussed in a Cypriot context.


Fig.6: ‘Liopetri FishingHarbour’: the ‘Islands’
Authors: draftworks*, AA+U

‘But isn’t that beautiful?’

Martin Friedman narrates the following story about the American sculptor IsamuNoguchi:
‘In 1973, Noguchi was invited by the Indian government to built a park on a silt river mound across the water from Bombay. There was only one problem with the site, he learned –it vanished when the tide came in’

Friedman transfers the words of Noguchi:
‘I said, ‘well, how am I going to make a park when it disappears once a day?
They said ‘But isn’t that beautiful? All the birds come to it’
‘It just vanishes and a lot of fish come up there and a lot of birds come down to get the fish. I thought ‘Oh well, the only thing to do, of course, is like in the Indian Ramayana, to get the assistance of the animal kingdom. ‘So, I said, let’s make three large circular pools in there. In digging out these pools, you’d build up the land, and in the pools you’d have catfish and eel farms, a good source of protein. That would be the economy of the place, you see. Gradually the people who tended the eels and the catfish would bring their huts out there’[9]

The above reference shows the way in which architectural design can build the economy of a place, by putting forward its identity, contrary to a design that converts the place into a commodity. This is possible even for cases of countries of tourist-oriented economy, like Cyprus, on the condition that the design of tourist infrastructure focuses on constructing the experience of place or an eco-system that includes more than one actor.

In this effort the basic participating actors are two: On the one hand there is the role of the governmental and local authorities, who, like the Indians of the story, owe to embrace the peculiarity of a place and risk by providing opportunities to innovative ideas. Unfortunately, the initial interest of the authorities in many cases remains in suspension, on the occasion of the recent economic recession or the difficulty of decision-making. Even though the embracement of the ‘creative tourism’ actually triggered the development of local areas, as international examples have shown, many relevant ideas and feasible plans remain in suspension. On the other hand there is the role of the professionals that form space and especially the architects, who are trained to recognise the peculiarities of a place and to produce innovative ideas. Like in the case of Noguchi[10], architects many times are called to convert an -at first sight-  ‘disadvantage’ into an ‘advantage’ by unlocking the creative forces of a place.

As a conclusion, there can be a hopeful message: there is a growing number of people internationally who choose kinds of ‘creative tourism’ that develop bonds with the place as alternative forms of tourism. This is about a category that we could also call ‘eco-tourism’, as it puts forward the need for creating eco-systems where all different actors seek their distinct role. It mainly falls on the authorities to take initiatives, embrace this friendly form of tourism and convert it into an opportunity for economic growth, and at the same time a qualitative re-branding of a place.

Christos Papastergiou, Christiana Ioannou
[draftworks*2012. All rights reserved] 

[1]  Interview with economist Paul Krugman: ‘Greece will leave Euro zone within 12 months’ The Independent, 30 May 2012
[2]  Jean Baudrillard. ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Selected Writings, ed Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 1998, pp.166-184.
[3] Erving Goffman, ‘Frame Analysis, An Essay on the Organisation of Experience’. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1986
The word bracketing can be interpreted as ‘putting into brackets’
[4] draftworks*architects, Christiana Ioannou, Christos Papastergiou,
[5]  ‘Centre for Environmental Informationat salt-lake of Larnaca, Cyprus.1st prize at the architectural competition, draftworks* architects, project team: Christiana Ioannou, Christos Papastergiou. Project assignment by the Environmental Agency. At present the project remains in suspension at the stage of tenders. 2009-2011
[6] ‘Fishing Harbour at Liopetri’, 3d prize at a two-stage architectural competition. draftworks*architects and AA+U. Project team: Christiana Ioannou, Christos Papastergiou, Dr. Socratis Stratis, 2011-12
[7] Close to the Salt lake of Larnaca there is the ‘Soultan Tekke’ mosque, an important monument of Islamic culture. Till the 1980s the salt lake was a place for salt extraction, an economic activity that was a source of income for the local community for many centuries.
[8] In cooperation with Dr. Socratis Stratis architect (AA+U)
[9] Martin Friedman, Noguchi's Imaginary Landscapes, Design Quarterly, No. 106/107, (1978), pp. 1+3-99 (p.51)
[10] Noguchi was not an architect but a sculptor. He however had a very strong ‘architectural’ take on space.

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