Context has always been our watchword at uncube, so in this introduction to our Athenian issue we haven’t picked out shiny architectural highlights so much as highlighted some sites that set the scene for our particular focus on a contemporary Athens beyond “tragedy” and “crisis”. A place where Athenians are doing it for themselves.
Still going strong at 3,400 years of age, Athens’ story is a marathon tale of struggle and solution. Its recent history alone includes revolution, occupation, economic miracle, military juntas, tourist influx, the Olympics, #occupations and more. The outward-facing side of the city has always co-existed with political upheaval – referendums, dictatorship, internal and external migration, all of which has shaped and reshaped its map. Over the years, large infrastructural projects have attempted to join up the points and reconcile these two sides of the city, providing services to the general population that are enjoyed by visiting tourists. When these fail, it is Athenians themselves who step in to bridge the gaps.
Our little tour shows a city where the built environment manifests its multiple layers of history more clearly than most. So welcome to Athens, let’s go sightseeing…
Although the postcard picture of Athens may be the ancient Acropolis, there is perhaps no architecture more symbolic of the modern Greek capital’s development as a city than the polykatoikia. Based on Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino self-build housing concept (which in turn comes from the classical), these mid-rise residential buildings swept – unregulated – across the Attic landscape from the 1930s onwards thanks to high housing demand and their fast, simple construction process. The spread of this polykatoikia typology is largely responsible for the city’s dense, unplanned character. Similarly, the culture of home-ownership in Greece was facilitated by the proliferation of these structures – just before the economic crisis, Greece had home ownership figures over 84 per cent, the second highest rate in Europe at the time. Reluctant to spend on social welfare, the conservative post-war Greek government supported the self-build, home ownership model through relaxed property laws and planning restrictions. I
Designed by architect Kiriakoulis Panagiotakos, this local landmark may have lost the vibrancy of its original blue hue but it will be a while before its legend fades. When first built it was an interruption to the city’s fabric both in terms of its colour as well as its form; in 1933 Athens was not yet dense with the multi-storey apartment blocks. This gesamtkunstwerk is now regarded as a flagship example of apartment design of the period (a visiting Le Corbusier described it as “tres beau”), not just for its striking exterior and finely detailed interior, but also for the attention paid to the design of its common spaces, which were intended to facilitate meetings between residents. Echoing this focus on the social, the building’s links with the Greek Left date back to the interwar period: Leonidas Kyrkos (the “father” of today’s SYRIZA party) and the prominent Greek Communist Elias Iliou both lived in the building at one time, and their families continued to do so when both spent time in exile. I
The end of the Greek Civil War (1946-49) saw the rise of a conservative, nationalistic government keen to emphasise traditional aspects of Greek identity. Luckily for them, they had ancient temples on hilltops to play with and so were able to commission architect Dimitris Pikonis to landscape a walkway leading up the Acropolis to the Parthenon. What resulted is a masterpiece of bricolage design, where Pikonis – in collaboration with local craftsmen and his students – organised found fragments of marble and clay into complex geometric patterns and moulded pathways into a precise choreography of screens, building up to a grand reveal upon arrival at the Parthenon. A projection of Greek identity indeed, and one that would pave the way for a new image of the city to be sold to visiting tourists. I
Athens’ economy was a snarling tiger in the 1960s when the Greek Economic Miracle generated growth second only to Japan. New buildings were popping up everywhere to house the burgeoning population, industry and commerce.
Whilst Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ 1961 design for the US embassy made some reference to the Doric columns of the Parthenon, the Hilton Athens’ culturally vague use of the international style better epitomises the era. The new hotel had a lavish opening in 1963 attended by Conrad Hilton himself and it rapidly became a landmark for luxury tourism in Athens. Yet despite its popularity with tourists and Athens’ high-society, the hotel was scorned by architectural purists as cultural “vandalism” for its view-blocking proximity to the Parthenon. I
On November 14, 1973, a student protest against the ruling military junta of 1967–74 began at the Athens Polytechnic. By November 17, some 24 protestors were dead (source: National Hellenic Research Foundation) after the right-wing military dictatorship sent tanks in to disperse them.
More than forty years on, these events continue to cast a shadow. Every November the streets of Exarchia become a backdrop for the ritual of commemoration, and in recent years, the spectre of the 1973 riots has had ominous parallels with protests in response to draconian austerity measures. I
Just over 10 kilometres south of the Acropolis is the suburb of Elliniko. It is home to a number Athenian developments, including Hellinikon International Airport (notable for its Eero Saarinen-designed East Terminal building), completed in 1938 and which closed in 2001; Hellinikon Olympic Complex (from the 2004 Olympics), and the still-unrealised Hellenikon Metropolitan Park, proposed to be the world’s “biggest city park” (property developer-speak for: a thousand hotel rooms, luxury apartments, offices, a shopping centre, a marina, and an aquarium). Developments on the “park” went mysteriously quiet in 2014, but more recently the Elliniko district has found a new purpose: providing emergency shelter for refugees who have arrived in Greece as part of the European migration crisis, which reached a new level of urgency in summer 2015. According to Greek government figures, as of March 2016, around 4,120 refugees are living in former airport buildings and Olympic sites at Elliniko. I
Athens is notable for having a metro system with a public art programme that predates its public by a few thousand years: carefully excavated Athenian archaeological finds can be found on display at the Monastiraki (Lines 1 & 3) and Syntagma (Lines 2 & 3) stops. The system itself has its roots in more recent times, electrified since 1904 in the form of Line 1, which remained the city’s singular metro route until Lines 2 and 3 joined the grid in 2000. Construction on a brand new Line 4 is to due begin in 2016, with a proposed 30 stations (and a price tag of 3.3 billion EUR).With a tentative completion date of in 2023, one wonders not only what further historical finds might be discovered, but also what time has in store for the Greek capital in the meantime… I