Athens’ architectural heritage is slowly fading but these heroes are saving it

On day in 2006, Irini Gratsia was walking through Athens and wondering why nothing was being done to save the city’s historic pre-war buildings. Although Greece has strict archaeological laws to protect antiquities, the city’s modern architectural heritage – which began in 1834 with the establishment of Athens as the capital of a newly independent Greece – has been largely overlooked.

Popular images of Athens tend to portray it as a city of ancient ruins and modern apartment buildings with few of them, but walk around any neighborhood and you’ll find something interesting architecturally – try the central Panepistimiou Street, an urban museum and perhaps the most remarkable ensemble of modern architecture in all of Greece.

There are of course the neoclassical buildings that defined the early years of the Greek state, the first of which were designed by architects who came from Germany and Denmark in order to reinvent a post-Ottoman Greece based on a romanticized impression of ancient Athens. The movement reached its apotheosis with Theophil and Christian Hansen’s “Athenian Trilogy” in the center of Panepistimiou Street, a grim expression of fictionalized philhellenism in architectural form. As Greek architects began to learn the craft, they developed a more subdued Greek neoclassicism, as evidenced by the adjacent Serpieri Mansion (1881) by Anastasios Theophilas and the Yellow Rallis House (1835) by Stamatis Kleanthis opposite, reflected from surreal way in the glass tower behind. There is also the Attica department store, a neoclassical-art deco fusion and the largest building in Athens at the time of its completion in 1938, the Neo-Byzantine Eye Hospital of Athens (1855), the Neo-Renaissance Numismatic Museum (1880) , the catholic basilica of St Dionysius the Areopagite (1865) with its ‘why not?’ a fusion of neo-Byzantine, neo-classical and neo-renaissance, the New York towers of the Art Deco Rex cinema (1937) and the stripped-down classicism of the Bank of Greece (1938).

Bad seeds/Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, Athens was one of the most beautiful and eclectic cities in Europe. But a post-war building law, now seen as reckless and short-sighted, prompted homeowners to demolish their homes and replace them with identical concrete apartment buildings. The state also got involved, knocking down historic buildings to build dark gray glass towers that continue to mar the city’s landscape. Other buildings collapsed on their own, the owners having abandoned them for the New World many years before.

The post-war building frenzy is often cited as the reason for Athens’ oppressive concrete appearance. And yet, walking through Athens today, you can still spot these pre-war survivors. There are a surprising number of them, largely hidden, subsumed and sometimes buried by their concrete surroundings. But they are still there, surviving.

“These buildings are part of the biography of our city,” says Irini, “Without them, you cannot tell the story of modern Athens.”

Realizing the state would do nothing, Irini assembled a small team of volunteers to comb through every street in Athens, photographing and detailing every building built before 1940, regardless of its condition. “We didn’t even have a register of historic buildings in Athens,” she says. “We had to do the registry ourselves.”

Today, the organization she co-founded, Monumenta, has documented more than 11,000 historic buildings in Athens and helped save and revitalize around 50 of them, all without state aid. .

Saving buildings is one thing, saving them is another. “The demolition of listed buildings is something that unfortunately happens very often in Greece,” explains Stelios Lekakis, archaeologist and co-founder of Monumenta. “So we needed to put in place a system for people to call us if they suspect a building is in trouble.”

This type of bureaucratic activism forms a large part of Monumenta’s work. “People come to us with tips all the time,” says Stelios. “There are many cases where we were able to go to court, get an injunction, and then run – literally run – to stop the bulldozers in time.”

The group has complicated relations with the Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Council, whose methods are obscure and whose members are still called ephors, an ancient Greek term meaning “overseer”, which does not exactly help to dispel their gnomic reputation. . “There are a lot of good people working in ministries, but the organization as a whole can be aloof and obtuse,” Stelios continues. “I feel like they don’t like us very much because we’re doing things they should have done decades ago.”

Catholic Basilica of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite

Charalambos Andronos

Then there is the tricky question of ownership. Greece still does not have an official property register and it is often difficult to know who owns a building. The nature of inheritance in Greece is such that the same house can have several owners, spread over several continents, many of whom are probably unaware that they are the same owner.

One of the ways the group tried to solve this problem was to simply put fliers in mailboxes asking if anyone knew anything about their house or the houses around them. It wasn’t until they began recording the tenants’ stories that they discovered a different Athens, one of memories, feelings and stories that had been clouded by the city’s post-war development frenzy. From there, the project went from a simple architectural study to something much deeper.

The Monumenta office in the trendy Athens neighborhood of Psyrri is a hive of activity. Young scholars are meticulously cleaning the pages of centuries-old manuscripts, while others are busy creating Monumenta’s digital archive, which will include an online map of every historic building in Athens. You can feel a real passion for their work. There must be some in Greece, where NGOs are a relatively new concept and state institutions still use fax machines to communicate.

“In the past, there was no awareness towards these buildings. While antiquities were seen as a symbol of our national identity, modern buildings were not considered part of our heritage,” Stelios explains. They were seen as an obstacle to modernity, that is, apartment buildings, highways and cars.”

The group realized they needed to create a powerful social platform to raise awareness about the importance and value of preserving historic buildings, and to empower people to take an active role in the aesthetics of their city. After all, how can a program like this succeed unless the people themselves want it to?

“We want to be close to people,” says Irini. “So we started doing educational programs in schools, or coffee-meetings with residents of historic buildings who can tell their stories. Recently, we started organizing neighborhood tours, so locals can really see and appreciate what’s around them.

“The closer you get to the buildings, the more you get to know them, they become like friends,” she adds. “You get this sense of familiarity and friendship that neutralizes the alienation that modern concrete tower blocks can induce. They offer you an aesthetic quality that makes our lives beautiful.

The program has expanded to other cities in Greece and Cyprus and has an active Facebook community, where people come to share photos and stories about historic buildings in their neighborhood. They are also developing a step-by-step guide for exporting to other countries in similar situations to Greece. “Try to pool all the creative resources you have,” says Stelios. “Start with a neighborhood or city center and then replicate it in larger regions.”

Facade of the house of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), now numismatic museum, designed by architect Ernst Ziller

DeAgostini/Getty Images

On a recent walk, Monumenta led a group of curious citizens through the neighborhood of Ampelokipoi. Sifting through the concrete, one area stood out: a series of three-story, earth-colored apartment buildings known locally as Prosfygika. Although they are not pretty as postcards, they have a melancholic beauty that grows as you walk around and learn about their history.

Built between 1933 and 1935 by architects Kimon Laskaris and Dimitris Kyriakos in a functional style inspired by the German Bauhaus, they symbolize one of the most extraordinary chapters of modern Greece: the absorption and integration of more than a million of refugees who arrived in the country during the Greek war of 1923. -Turkish population exchange. The refugees from Ampelokipoi spent the first years of their arrival living in tents in a football stadium, before moving to Prosfygika in the early 1930s. In December 1944, Prosfygika was the scene of heavy fighting between communist forces and nationalists in an early battle of the Greek Civil War – bullet holes are still visible on the walls.

Today mostly squatted, they are constantly threatened with destruction due to their enviable location near the city center (Monumenta keeps a close eye on them). And yet, they are there: living testimony to a century of history. Hopefully, in 100 years, these same buildings will still be there, to tell their story to a new generation.

Comments are closed.