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

OOn New Year’s Day 2006, Irini Gratsia was walking through Athens wondering why nothing could be done to save the city’s historic pre-War buildings. Although Greece has strict archeological laws to protect antiquities, the city’s modern architectural legacy – dating back to 1834 with the establishment of Athens as the capital of a newly independent Greece – has been largely ignored.

Popular images of Athens tend to portray it as a city of ancient ruins and modern apartment blocks with very little interlacing, but stroll any neighborhood and you’ll find it. see something architecturally interesting. Just walk along central Panepistimiou Street, an urban museum and perhaps the most remarkable ensemble of modern architecture anywhere in Greece.

There are, of course, the Neoclassical buildings that define the fledgling years of the Greek state, the earliest of which were designed by passionate architects from Germany and Denmark to represent a modern Greece. The Ottoman greek is based on the romanticized impression of ancient Athens. The movement reached death with Theophil and Christian Hansen’s ‘Three Athenians’ in the heart of Panepistimiou Street, a dreary expression of Romantic philology in architectural form. As Greek architects began to learn to trade, they developed a softer Greek Neoclassicism, as seen by Anastasios Theophilas’ adjoining Serpieri Mansion (1881) and Stamatis Kleanthis’s yellow Rallis (1835) house opposite, surreal reflected in the glass tower block behind. There is also the Attica Department Store, the Neoclassical-Art Deco combination and the largest building in Athens at the time of its completion in 1938, the Neobyzantine Eye Hospital Athens (1855), the Neorenaissance Numismatic Museum (1880), Catholic Church of St Dionysius the Areopagite (1865) with the saying ‘why not?’ a mix of Neo Byzantine, Neoclassical and Neo-Renaissance, the New York-style towers of the Art Deco Rex Cinema (1937) and the stripped Classicism of the Bank of Greece (1938).


Badseed / Wikimedia Commons

By World War II, Athens was one of Europe’s most beautiful and eclectic cities. But one construction law after the war, which is now seen as reckless and short-sighted, encourages homeowners to demolish their homes and replace them with concrete apartment blocks. The state has also stepped in, tearing down historic buildings to build towers of gray, murky glass that continues to detract from the city’s landscape. Other buildings collapsed of their own accord; their owners had abandoned them for the New World years before.

The collapse of the building after the War is often attributed to the claustrophobic concrete appearance of Athens. And yet, walking through Athens today, you can still spot these pre-War survivors. There are a surprising number of them, mostly hidden, lying underground and sometimes buried by their particular surroundings. But they were 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 there was nothing the state would do, Irini assembled a small team of volunteers to travel the streets of Athens, photographing and detailing every building built before 1940, regardless of their condition. how. “We don’t even have a registry of historic buildings in Athens,” she said. “We had to make the registry ourselves.”

Today the organization she co-founded, Monumentadocumented more than 11,000 historic buildings in Athens, and helped save and revive about 50 of them — all without state assistance.

Documenting buildings is one thing, saving them is another. Stelios Lekakis, an archaeologist and co-founder of Monumenta, said: “The demolition of listed buildings is unfortunately a very frequent occurrence in Greece. “So we needed to set up a system where people could call us if they suspect a building is having problems.”

This kind of bureaucratic activity makes up a large part of Monumenta’s work. “People come to us with tips anytime, anywhere,” says Stelios. “There are many cases where we can go to court, get an order and then run — run ethically — to stop the bulldozer in time.”

This group has a complicated relationship with the Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Council, whose methods are complicated and whose members are still called epics, an Ancient Greek term meaning ‘supervisor’. ‘, which doesn’t help their reputation at all. “There are a lot of good people working in ministries, but the organization as a whole can be remote and confusing,” says Stelios. “I have a feeling they don’t like us very much because we’re doing what they should have done decades ago.”


Catholic Church of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite

Charalambos Andronos

Then there’s the tricky issue of ownership. Greece still doesn’t have an official register of real estate, and it’s often unclear who owns a building. The essence of inheritance in Greece is that a house can have many owners, spanning many continents, many of whom may not even know they are the owners.

One of the ways the group tried to solve this problem was simply to put flyers through the mailboxes, asking if anyone knew anything about their home or the houses around them. It was only when they began to document the tenants’ stories that they discovered another Athens – one whose memories, emotions and history had been obscured by the city’s post-War development. From here, the project transforms from a simple architectural study into something much more profound.

The Monumenta office in Athens’ trendy Psyrri neighborhood is a hub of activity. Young researchers meticulously clean up the pages of centuries-old manuscripts, while others are busy creating Monumenta’s digital archives, which include online maps of every historic building history in Athens. You feel a real passion for their work. Definitely a must in Greece, where NGOs are a relatively new concept and public institutions still use fax machines for communication.

“Previously there was no awareness towards these constructions. While antiquities are seen as symbols of our national identity, modern buildings are not considered part of our heritage,” said Stelios. “They are seen as obstacles to modernity, which are apartment buildings, highways and cars.”

The group realized that they needed to create a strong social platform to raise people’s awareness of the importance and value of preserving historic buildings, while empowering everyone to play a role. active in the aesthetic of their city. After all, how can a program like this succeed, unless the people themselves want it?

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

“The closer you get to the buildings, the better you get to them, they become friends,” she added. “You get a sense of belonging and camaraderie that counteracts the alienation that modern concrete towers can cause. They give you an aesthetic quality that makes our lives beautiful. ”

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


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

DeAgostini / Getty Images

On a recent walk, Monumenta led a group of curious citizens around the Ampelokipoi neighborhood. Slipping through the concrete, one area stands out: a series of three-story, ocher apartment buildings known locally as Prosfygika. While postcards aren’t pretty, they have a melancholy beauty that lurks within you as you wander around and learn about their history.

Built between 1933 and 1935 by architects Kimon Laskaris and Dimitris Kyriakos in a German Bauhaus-inspired utilitarian style, they represent one of the most distinctive chapters of modern Greece – the absorption and integration of more than 1 million refugees who came to the country during the Hellenistic period of 1923. -Turkey population exchange. Refugees in Ampelokipoi spent their first years living in tents in a football stadium, before moving to Prosfygika in the early 1930s. In December 1944, they were the scene of a clash fierce fighting between communist and nationalist forces during an early battle of the Greek Civil War — bullet holes are still visible in the walls.

Now mostly squatting, they are under constant threat of destruction due to their enviable location near the city center (Monumenta is keeping a close eye on them). And they are still here: a living testament to a century of history. Hopefully, 100 years from now, these same constructions will still be here, to tell their stories to a new generation. Athens’ architectural heritage is slowly slipping away but these heroes are saving it


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