Avoid­ing a Greek tragedy for Athens' mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Al­though in the shadow of its an­cient hill­top Parthenon, Athens is also home to el­e­gant ar­chi­tec­tural gems from the 19th and 20th cen­turies which marked its emer­gence as modern Greece's cap­i­tal. But their numbers are dwin­dling fast af­ter Greece's long and dev­as­tat­ing eco­nomic cri­sis left many with lit­tle op­tion but to tear them down rather than pay for their restora­tion. "Due to the cri­sis, it's ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult to re­pair th­ese build­ings, there is no fi­nan­cial help from the Greek state," says Maria Daniil, an ar­chi­tect, who spe­cial­izes in build­ings of the late 19th-early 20th cen­tury.

"Peo­ple pre­fer to aban­don or to de­mol­ish them," she adds. In the 1980s, Daniil had ac­cess to state funding that helped her re­store her 1936 fam­ily home in Koukaki, a neigh­bor­hood in the foothills of the Acrop­o­lis. Oc­cu­py­ing 300 square me­ters, it is an eclec­tic take on the neo­clas­si­cal style with stone walls and con­crete floors. Like many houses of that pe­riod, it has high ceil­ings, en­closed bal­conies and mu­ral paint­ings above the stairs that dom­i­nate the en­trance.

Lit­tle more than a pro­vin­cial town when Greece achieved in­de­pen­dence from the Ot­toman Empire in 1830, Athens was essen­tially re­built by Bavar­ian plan­ners dur­ing the rule of Otto of Wit­tels­bach, the country's first modern king. But just a small frac­tion of the build­ings re­main from that pe­riod when Athens was a young emerg­ing cap­i­tal with a mere 150,000 in­hab­i­tants.

Aban­doned, ru­ined, de­mol­ished

They num­ber around 10,600, ac­cord­ing to Mon­u­menta, an as­so­ci­a­tion that has com­piled a data­base aimed at "rais­ing aware­ness for the sur­vival of the modern ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage among au­thor­i­ties as well as own­ers." "Most of th­ese are aban­doned, ru­ined, de­mol­ished. More than 80 per­cent of such build­ings no longer ex­ist," laments Irini Grat­sia, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and co-founder of Mon­u­menta. Many were torn down in the 1960s and 1970s, a pe­riod of chaotic ex­pan­sion in the Greek cap­i­tal, and re­placed by con­crete blocks of flats.

The new build­ings, five floors high or taller, were meant to ad­dress the needs of ur­ban­iza­tion that trans­formed the cap­i­tal as it grad­u­ally at­tracted nearly half the country's pop­u­la­tion from ru­ral, im­pov­er­ished ar­eas. It also helped re­launch the Greek econ­omy that was in tat­ters af­ter World War II. This ur­ban phe­nom­e­non erad­i­cated most of the el­e­gant neo­clas­si­cal fa­cades that had been a fea­ture of Athens' streets until then.

Pro­tec­tion law

In 1983, au­thor­i­ties de­cided to act. A law en­acted that year un­der the tute­lage of iconic Greek ac­tress and cul­ture min­is­ter at the time Melina Mer­couri stip­u­lated that the own­ers of neo­clas­si­cal build­ings were obliged to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their restora­tion. For a time, the new reg­u­la­tions man­aged to slow the on­slaught of bull­doz­ers. But in the wake of Greece's 2010 eco­nomic crunch-marked by state spend­ing cuts, tax hikes and a bank loan freeze-own­ers have once more been forced to aban­don the build­ings to their fate.

Two years ago, de­spite the ef­forts of Mon­u­menta, a neo­clas­si­cal house built in 1875 in a western dis­trict of Athens was de­mol­ished. It was one of the last re­main­ing build­ings to have sur­vived the cap­i­tal's first ur­ban boom, which eventually took it to half a mil­lion in­hab­i­tants dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tury. The next wave of ar­chi­tec­tural in­no­va­tion came in the 1930s when the Bauhaus move­ment charmed Athe­ni­ans with its more prac­ti­cal char­ac­ter.

The cube-like houses lacked neo­clas­si­cal or­na­men­ta­tion but in­cor­po­rated modern com­forts sought by the emerg­ing Greek mid­dle class, such as cen­tral heat­ing and lifts. One of Athens' most em­blem­atic modern build­ings, the US em­bassy, was like­wise con­ceived in the 1950s by Ger­man ar­chi­tect Wal­ter Gropius, one of the founders of the Bauhaus school.

His­tor­i­cal lay­ers

Athens' mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture has a key role to play along­side its more fa­mous an­cient ru­ins, notes Grat­sia. She sin­gles out Greek ar­chi­tec­ture em­u­lat­ing the work of Le Cor­bus­ier, the Swiss-French pi­o­neer of the modern move­ment, whose con­crete­dom­i­nated style can be seen today in many public build­ings such as schools. "Th­ese build­ings were mas­ter­pieces of that era and those that re­main should be pre­served," says Grat­sia.

And the city only stands to gain from their con­ser­va­tion, ar­gues Mon­u­menta. "Athens could show­case what re­mains of th­ese lit­tle ar­chi­tec­tural gems and be­come a touris­tic at­trac­tion of all th­ese dif­fer­ent styles", it said. Maria Daniil agrees. "The con­ser­va­tion of old build­ings makes it pos­si­ble to show the his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity of Athens, from an­tiq­uity to today," she said.

Daunt­ing main­te­nance

But the high main­te­nance costs re­main daunt­ing. Dim­itris Ioakim, a ten­ant in a 1935 Bauhaus style build­ing for the last 40 years, com­plains of "heavy re­pair bills" and the re­luc­tance of the owner to pay them. "Most of the own­ers of th­ese houses sold them in the 1990s in or­der to move to the sub­urbs, or rented them out to mi­grants", he adds.

Nev­er­the­less, the boom­ing in­dus­try of short-term Airbnb-style rentals has more re­cently en­cour­aged their sale to for­eign in­vestors, who re­fur­bish them to at­tract tourists. "Airbnb is a so­lu­tion but there is a need for long-term so­lu­tions, too," says Daniil. — AFP

Pre­served houses are pic­tures by the an­cient agora in Athens.

Peo­ple walk past a neo­clas­si­cal build­ing which was a former ho­tel in Athens’ cen­tral Omo­nia Square.

A man stands close to the aban­doned neo­clas­si­cal former Hatzikostas Or­phan­age.

A woman walks past an aban­doned neo­clas­si­cal build­ing along Athens’ main street. — AFP pho­tos

An aban­doned build­ing stands in the premises of Athens Art School.

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