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We seem to think that Greece and Athens can hardly be saved unless we all cluster round the Acropolis. The most convenient way we seek to give expression to the continuity of Greek cultural heritage is by trying to put up our buildings around the Sacred Rock and to imitate what we think was ancient Greek architecture. In a most primitive fashion we rally around a symbol instead of endeavoring to study this symbol, to grasp its inner meaning and to use it as a source of inspiration.

– C.A. Doxiadis, Our Capital and its Future, 1961Early Athenian High-Rise Neighborhoods

Early Athenian High-Rise Neighborhoods, or “Geitonies”

Athens heavily emphasizes antiquity. Everywhere, relics of bygone days are highlighted. Some are completely accessible, others behind rails, and those that are spontaneously found are covered up with glass. Either way, we feel ourselves in the glorious past, imagining the marketplace where Socrates once roamed or a patio as it would be during the symposia. With these monument-spectacles, we fetishize the ancient, turning it into an ambiguous icon rather than a source of inspiration.

Hordes of tourists daily visiting the Propylaia - the access point to the top of the Sacred Rock

Hordes of tourists daily visiting the Propylaia – the only access point to the top of the Sacred Rock.

The transition of the city is discernable in scarce, less underscored medieval buildings. But the ignorance and frequent misuse of ancient heritage is evident in the overwhelming majority of construction. The greatest of ruins in Athens is the grey high-rise – the “polikatoikia.” Spread – or rather, carbon copied – over the city, this building type ages worse and has different priorities than the neatly idolized “ruins.”The

The “Polikatoikia”

This haphazard expansion is historically reasonable. While Athens – in fact the Acropolis – has been continually inhabited, it was nothing more than a village, especially after the decade-long revolution. From 1833 until today, the population grew from about 4,000 to almost 4 million, with most growth occurring during the 20th century. Today it is one of the densest cities in Europe.Athens in 1850

Athens in 1850

The prevailing architectural character of Athens is a result of this sudden population surge, lack of building regulation, and neglect for urban planning. In 1922-24, there was a wave of refugees from Asia Minor, following expulsion by Turkish forces and the subsequent population exchange. Athens’ population almost doubled between 1920 and 1928! In the 50s, Greeks began moving from the countryside to the city, and by the 80s and 90s it was foreign immigrants looking for a place in the Athenian metropolis.

An aerial view of Athens today

An aerial view of Athens today

Throughout all these stages, construction was laissez-faire. People built wherever they wanted and whatever they pleased, with attention to private benefit rather than consideration for urban development. Starting from the boom of refugee settlements in the 20s, the “polikatoikia” was born, later rapidly multiplying by the process of “antiparohi”; a process that consisted of a property exchange between landowner and developer – land to build for apartments to live in and off of.

Some early refugee housing on Alexandras Avenue

Some early refugee housing on Alexandras Avenue

Much of Athens was developed in this way, creating space without design. This need for space also created a building culture of repetition, particularly post-1949 after a World War and Civil War almost back to back. Balconies stacked on top of each other dominated the façade, pulling private life out over the street. This porosity is emphasized at ground level, which is typically used for shops and sometimes arcades, allowing the public to penetrate the city block. Thus, besides their monstrous plainness and replication, “polikatoikias” succeeded in providing rapid housing and creating intimate, permeable communities.

A street in Koukaki with the Acropolis hill visible in the distance

A streetview of Koukaki with the Acropolis hill visible in the distance

This place-less, closely-knit scene is reaffirmed walking through neighborhoods like Koukaki that, even though it is by the Acropolis, has an abundance of “polikatoikias” (albeit, some of the nicer ones) and a lack of parking space. But as we continue closer towards Acropolis, we find what might be the most unique area of Athens. Known as Anafiotika, this Cycladic community was built under the rule of Bavarian King Otto by immigrants from the island Anafi. In the mess of Athens – still visible in the skyline – this is exemplary of the coexistence of the picturesque and the grotesque in the city.

Anafiotika, right under the Acropolis

Anafiotika, right under the Acropolis

Continuing the walk around the Acropolis, we reach Plaka, another part of the ‘heart’ of Athens that escaped ruthless development. Moving downhill we spot crumbling and boarded up houses, a reminder of the practical mindset of Athens. These beautiful buildings are expensive and difficult to renovate, maintain, and inhabit so people move to high-rises and the suburbs.

Plaka hillside restaurants by night

Plaka hillside restaurants by night

A Plaka Street

A Plaka Street

The mention of the ‘imported’ King Otto brings us to the very important concept of imported romanticism for Ancient Athens. After the revolution, European nations began imagining reviving the capital to its former glory. Greeks, needing support, complied, even instating a new dialect – “katharevousa,” deriving from ‘clean’ and citing ancient Greek – as the official tongue. Athens began capitalizing on ancient heritage as a catalyst for investment and growth.

King Otto of Bavaria

King Otto of Bavaria

While “polikatoikias” and, even to some extent, the Anafiotika were based on practicality, the attempt to tailor modern Greece to its ancient character was impractical and implausible. As Athens expanded and mercilessly modernized, this double identity became ever contrasting and cumbersome. This illusion culminated with Greece’s entrance into the EU in 1981 with reference to it as the ‘cradle of Western civilization.’ While geographically true, culturally modern Athenians were categorically different.

The Contemporary Athenian Skyline

The contemporary Athenian skyline

It is only natural that Greek identity and architecture changes over time. The change becomes problematic when we obsess over the old and self-impose an illusion of the past. Today, Greece finds itself entrenched in a sociopolitical crisis, partly due to this dual identity. We observe that Athens, dotted with relics of antiquity, has very little to do with Ancient Athenian character. The aforementioned external romanticism and the internal unprincipled modernization are at odds with each other, and contemporary Greece collapses under the weight of its dichotomy. Instead it is productive to consider modern and contemporary Athenian architecture – its popular development, modularity, and challenge of public and private sphere – and draw inspiration and understanding from ancient paradigms, rather than trying to fetishize and relive the past. Athens needs a new urban philosophy for the 21st century.

-Guest Post by Aris Constantinos Minaretzis Tsionos

Long before the current media attention for the prolonged political thriller that nearly culminated in ‘Grexit’, Greece enjoyed a more prominent position in architectural history. Athens is built above and within its ancient counterpart, and it is difficult to think of Athens without a mental flash of ruins.

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Le Corbusier amidst the ruins in Athens

That flash is most likely of the Parthenon. But since Greek heritage is often viewed in an incomplete manner, let us turn to the second most famous, but probably most important, monument on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion. Eternalized by its six anthropomorphic columns – the Caryatids – the temple was dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, built on the spot of their mythological contest, and related to the holiest of Athenian relics: a wooden xonaon (heaven-sent effigy) of Athena.

A sneak-peak of our walk

A sneak-peak of our walk

At this point one may turn the page of “History-of-Architecture-in-100-Pages” or move on to the next exhibit. But this story of the Erechtheion scarcely rubs the surface of roughly 2,400 years of history. The building underwent damages and reconstruction during the Roman era, was transformed into a Byzantine church, a Frankish palace, and later a harem for the Ottoman commander. At the outset of the 19th century, the infamous Lord Elgin removed one of the Caryatids. And this is just our current understanding with our recent pursuit of preservation.

The Erechtheion with a view of the Porch of the Caryatids

The Erechtheion with a view of the Porch of the Caryatids

The aim of this introduction is not to be didactic, but to draw attention to the architectural character of Athens. It is considered one of the oldest cities in the world, and has weathered diverse eras. Its population increased almost 1,000 times from the 1830s to today. The result is a multi-influenced, incoherent metropolis. Athens’ architectural history is revealed gradually, through sporadic secrets in today’s chaotic cityscape.

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Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects.

A good place to start is Bernard Tschumi’s Acropolis Museum; a convergence of the ancient and contemporary at the foot of the Acropolis. Sidetracked for years, the museum’s construction was further complicated by the finding of a parallel city. The design had to be reformed to accommodate and protect the ancient streets and houses. Tschumi’s proposal stood on carefully placed pylons, and integrated a glass floor through which the old city is visible. The design prompts us to walk above the findings to really understand the cross-temporal relationship of the museum, its contents, and Athens.

The entrance to the Acropolis Museum, with a view of the ancient city. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects

The entrance to the Acropolis Museum, with a view of the ancient city. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects

Archaeological rescue is standard procedure. Constructing a metro in the center of Athens was an Olympian feat. In every station, there was discovery, sidetracking, and a need for preservation over construction. In Syntagma Station, we find a wall made out of glass, revealing the stratified earth. Here we can contemplate ancient graves, one of which still has the bones of its occupant. There we also find the free-of-charge Syntagma Archaeological Collection – an improvised gallery of artifacts found during construction.

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The Syntagma Metro Station Gallery

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An ancient grave found during excavations for the Syntagma Station

In both museums, things are displayed where they are found, whether a metro station or an ambitious building. The Acropolis Museum is in fact totally site specific. The appreciation of urban and historical context was key to the competition prompt, and deftly incorporated Tschumi’s design. The Main Gallery is reminiscent of a conventional space, but moving up to the Parthenon Gallery, we find ourselves in what might be the most context-specific gallery in the world. The entire level is rotated 23 degrees to parallel the Parthenon, which is always visible through glass walls. The artifacts are placed in a one-to-one position and scale as on the original building, with plaster copies in the place of the missing Elgin marbles. The relationship between artifact and site here is unprecedented and powerful.

The Parthenon Hall. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects.

The Parthenon Hall. Courtesy of Bernard Tschumi Architects

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Site Plan for the Acropolis Museum, showing the relationship between the Parthenon Hall and the Parthenon Ruins

Even early on this walk, we notice that the layered architectural character of Athens does not stop at archaeology. Most buildings are haphazardly built, driven by the practical need for space with little or no design involved. Athens exists in a duality between ancient and modern, in which we forget that the contemporary Hellenic Republic is in fact a very young country negotiating the weight of its ancient identity. The intermediate stages of Athens’ development are visible amidst the concrete of modern Greece.

The unfortunate rapid development of Athens

The unfortunate rapid development of Athens

Continuing the walk out of Syntagma, we come onto the crowded shopping street – Ermou Street. Dodging shoppers, walkers, and advertisers, we reach an open square with a small church called Kapnikarea. Built sometime in the 11th century, it dates back to Byzantium. As was customary with early Christian temples, it was built over an ancient pagan temple.

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Church of Kapnikarea

The interior of Kapnikarea

The interior of Kapnikarea

Continuing down Ermou, we end up at Monastiraki Square, where there is another contrast of Athens’ histories. Above the shops on Pandrossou Street, there is an Ottoman building, known as the Tzistarakis Mosque but functioning as a Folk Art and Pottery Museum today. Right next to it, there are ruins from Hadrian’s Library, harkening back to the Roman era of Athens. On them there are hints of Byzantine mosaics, reminders of the Library’s later uses.Tsiderakis Mosque, next to the shopping street Pandrossou and the ruins of Hadrian's Library

Tzistarakis Mosque, next to the shopping street Pandrossou and the ruins of Hadrian’s LibraryRuins of Hadrian's Library. Note the brown blemish to the right - a remain of a mosaic and reminder of the buildings Byzantine re-use

Ruins of Hadrian’s Library. Note the brown blemish to the right – a remain of a mosaic and reminder of the buildings Byzantine re-use

These observations fit the character of most of Athens, a gentle nod to the continuous and diverse inhabitation of the city, amidst the blaring reminder of modern building frenzy. The nature of this city is necessarily peripatetic. Treasures are hidden underground and amidst randomly constructed concrete box buildings. This is the key to the city’s identity. Unlike many other European cities, there is no consistent or harmonious style, but a gradation of images mirroring the city as a lively crossroads of histories and cultures.

-Guest Post by Aris Minaretzis