Bluish, modernist charm celebrates 80th birthday

By Harry van Versendaal

Apart from its trademark color, the so-called “Blue apartment block” (Ble polykatoikia) in Exarchia has lost a great deal of its original glamour over the years. But if there was ever a need to testify to the importance of this modern architectural gem, it would most probably come in the form of Le Corbusier’s now-vanished inscription next to the entrance: “C’est tres beau”: this is very beautiful.

Designed by architect Kyriakoulis Panayiotakos, one of the first graduates of the Architecture School of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), the building was constructed on the intersection of Arachovis and Themistocleous streets in 1933 at the heart of the middle-class neighborhood of Exarchia, with its narrow unpaved roads, small shops and two-story neoclassical houses.

To be sure, a lot has changed in this downtown district since the interwar years, but Floral, the legendary cafe located on the ground floor of the building on the edge of the busy, ideologically charged square, is still in its place. A watering hole for the city’s intelligentsia since it first opened its doors in 1936, Floral is now organizing a tribute to celebrate the edifice’s 80th birthday.

The two-day event on December 20-21 will feature talks with architects, historians, authors and tenants moderated by Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, a professor of architecture who in 2006 penned the best-known guide to the history of the building designed by her uncle. Visitors will also have an opportunity to see footage and pictures and examine the original building designs. Smaller groups will be treated to a tour inside the apartment block which currently stands amid an ocean of nondescript flats built during the 1970s.

“I often wonder what happened to the ‘1930s generation’ [a group of Greek intellectuals, poets, writers, artists and architects]. We have to ask ourselves why its high-quality output did not continue after the war. It was like a geyser that was sucked back into the earth,” Kardamitsi-Adami told Kathimerini journalist Nikos Vatopoulos when her book was first published.

It was during that time that Panayiotakos, who was born in Athens, joined the Greek Ministry of Education’s extremely prolific school building construction program to produce some of his best works – including the elementary school on Liosion Street, a design that also won the praise of Le Corbusier, the Swiss prophet of modernism, when he visited Athens for the 4th International Congress for Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1933. But the Blue apartment block remains his most important work.

Made up of two separate units with interior courtyards which are connected to each other through the basement and the loft, the building consisted of 33 flats (another seven were later added to the top) of different sizes on six floors. The loft housed a laundry room and, more ambitiously, a 500-square meter common room overlooking Lycabettus and Strefi hills that was designed to bolster interaction among its residents. That pioneering idea was no less than a live experiment in social engineering and one seemingly animated by a belief in the power of architecture to protect and shape people’s identity: The way a building is designed says a lot about the way the architect fantasizes about life inside and around that building. (Plans for a rooftop swimming pool did not materialize.)

Testimony to the block’s social character is the number of artists and actors who chose to live in it. Among its most famous tenants were theater power couple Alexis Minotis and Katina Paxinou, journalist and author Freddy Germanos, and leftist politician Leonidas Kyrkos, who, according to some accounts, talked fighters of ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army, out of blowing up the building during the events of December 1944 (better known here as “Dekemvriana”).

Panayiotakos, who was just 28 when he signed up to the project commissioned by the Antonopoulos family, famously designed the high-quality interiors down to the smallest detail, including built-in closets, drawers and inside doors. The facade’s original ultramarine blue color was applied by artist Spyros Papaloukas, an expert in post-Byzantine icon painting, whom the architect met together with teacher and friend Dimitris Pikionis, a lover of folk architecture, during a study trip on the island of Aegina in 1921. The blue paint was over the years replaced with a light gray tone. Some people say its occupants complained the paint was a magnet for the hot Attic sun. Form was to follow function, but so, eventually, did color.

Bibliography

“Greece: Modern Architectures in History,” by Alexander Tzonis and Alcestis P. Rodi (Reaktion Books – Modern Architectures in History), 2013

“I Ble Polykatoikia,” by Maro Kardamitsi-Adami (Libro), 2006

Floral | 80 Themostokleous Street, Exarchia, Athens

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