Re-eval­u­at­ing the ur­ban legacy of the 1960s

Ex­hi­bi­tion at HAU doc­u­ments Athens’s con­tro­ver­sial trans­for­ma­tion

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY HARRY VAN VERSENDAAL

Much of the con­tro­versy that has arisen over con­tem­po­rary Athens’s ur­ban land­scape stems from the changes wrought on it dur­ing the 1960s. Any ref­er­ence to the ar­chi­tec­tural legacy of that pe­riod usu­ally pro­vokes a knee-jerk con­dem­na­tion as the time is as­so­ci­ated with the bru­tal trans­for­ma­tion of the cap­i­tal’s ap­pear­ance.

It’s an un­fair judg­ment, in the eyes of Kathimerini jour­nal­ist and ur­ban cul­ture afi­cionado Nikos Vatopou­los. As the cu­ra­tor of “Athens: The Spirit of the 60s – A Chang­ing Cap­i­tal,” an on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Hel­lenic Amer­i­can Union’s Kennedy Gallery in the down­town Kolon­aki dis­trict, he tries to chal­lenge main­stream per­cep­tions about the for­ma­tive pe­riod.

“It was a con­tro­ver­sial pe­riod be­cause it was full of pow­er­ful con­tra­dic­tions. It was a time of tran­si­tion and trans­for­ma­tion for Greek so­ci­ety – a process that had many pos­i­tive as­pects, such as a faith in progress, the rise of cos­mopoli­tanism, and eco­nomic growth,” Vatopou­los says.

In­deed, the rate of eco­nomic growth was heady: On av­er­age, gross do­mes­tic prod­uct was grow­ing at an an­nual 7.6 per­cent while in­dus­trial out­put was in­creas­ing 10 per­cent each year. Growth was driven by a surge in for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment, mainly from the United States and Ger­many, cou­pled with a wave of in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion to ur­ban cen­ters, which spurred con­struc­tion. The ce­ment and home ap­pli­ances in­dus­tries were flour­ish­ing. The apart­ment build­ing, or “polyka­toikia,” em­bod­ied the val­ues and am­bi­tions of the post­war ur­ban­ite gen­er­a­tion, who turned their backs on the mem­o­ries of de­pri­va­tion in the coun­try­side and the nasty hang­over from the civil war.

Orig­i­nal photographs and post­cards from the pe­riod, many from Vatopou­los’s own ar­chive, doc­u­ment the bur­geon­ing me­trop­o­lis and the ar­rival of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­tural land­marks such as the Athens Hil­ton. Built be­tween 1958 and 1963 ac­cord­ing to plans by ar­chi­tects Em­manouil Vourekas, Proko­pios Vas­sil­iadis, Spyros Staikos and An­to­nis Ge­or­giades, the em­blem­atic struc­ture re­flected the eco­nomic and so­cial zeit­geist as Greece be­came a global player in the tourism and lux­ury mar­ket. The evo­lu­tion of life­styles, fash­ion and so­cial habits dur­ing the 1960s is also doc­u­mented at the HAU ex­hi­bi­tion. Mag­a­zine cov­ers, ads, stamps and play­bills cap­ture the ad­vent of cos­mopoli­tanism and fe­male con­sumerism (with clas­sic 60s sex­ist cliches). Most of that came to an abrupt halt with the on­set of the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship in 1967.

To be sure, Vatopou­los, who was born in Athens in 1960, ac­knowl­edges the decade’s neg­a­tive con­se­quences on the city’s phys­i­cal and so­cial en­vi­ron­ment.

“There was no fore­sight re­gard­ing the city’s ex­pan­sion while dog­matic belief in ‘the new civ­i­liza­tion’ left no room for his­tor­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties,” he says.

Many his­tor­i­cal struc­tures were knocked down at the time to make way for new build­ings in the name of a mod­ern, tra­di­tion- and cul­ture-in­sen­si­tive mod­ernism – also as­sisted by a wave of “an­tiparochi” deals be­tween landown­ers and con­trac­tors (whereby the lat­ter would re­place low-story homes with apart­ment blocks whose units would then be di­vided be­tween the two), a now deeply con­tro- ver­sial mea­sure in­tro­duced by Costan­tine Kara­man­lis as min­is­ter of pub­lic works.

The HAU ex­hi­bi­tion takes place against the back­drop of a bru­tal fi­nan­cial cri­sis that has nat­u­rally left scars on the Greek cap­i­tal. In­ter­est­ingly, the so­cial and aes­thetic im­pli­ca­tions of poverty, home­less­ness and Greece’s six-year re­ces­sion have been cou­pled with a rise in ur­ban ac­tivism and rekin­dled in­ter­est in the city.

Vatopou­los, who cur­rently lives in the south­ern sea­side sub­urb of Gly­fada, has been sur­prised at the re­sponse to the Face­book group “Satur­days in Athens” he formed three years ago as a plat­form for or­ga­niz­ing weekly cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties such as guided tours, lec­tures and sem­i­nars. It cur­rently num­bers more than 19,000 mem­bers.

“The pub­lic has a de­sire to turn to some­thing steady, fa­mil­iar and safe. This is com­pounded by a feel­ing of nostal­gia for a city with a rec­og­niz­able eti­quette,” he says. But this is not the only rea­son be­hind the re­newed in­ter­est, he says. “All this is also a re­ac­tion to the city’s degra­da­tion, a more en­er­getic re­ac­tion that seeks to com­pre­hend the var­i­ous stages of Athens’s de­vel­op­ment,” he says.

Vatopou­los, for one, ap­pears to be mo­ti­vated by both. On top of his on­line com­mu­nity and ex­ten­sive writ­ings on the city, he has re­leased a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions over the years and staged a well­re­ceived photo ex­hi­bi­tion with cozy, night­time shots of some of his fa­vorite Athens build­ings. As In­sta­gram user @16th­cen­tury, he up­loads the pic­tures he takes all over the city.

He loves Athens, with all its con­tra­dic­tions.

“I was born and raised in Athens at a time when the city was chang­ing at a rapid rate. Cer­tainly, I was in­flu­enced by my fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment, but the emo­tional, awe-filled re­sponse I had wit­ness­ing a build­ing’s de­mo­li­tion is a very strong child­hood mem­ory,” he says. “I con­sider that I grew up ob­serv­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of the city on the inside, I changed as the city changed. It’s some­thing very per­sonal to me.”

Orig­i­nal photographs and post­cards from the 1960s on dis­play at the Hel­lenic Amer­i­can Union doc­u­ment the bur­geon­ing me­trop­o­lis and the ar­rival of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­tural land­marks.

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