Posts Tagged 'architecture'

Urban explorer weaves a fresh narrative for Athens


By Harry van Versendaal

Defined by Athens, Nikos Vatopoulos has certainly worked hard to give something back to the city where he was born and raised. His prolific work as a journalist, writer, amateur photographer and urban activist has influenced contemporary perceptions of the Greek capital.

Vatopoulos would be the first to agree that Athens is not by any measure endowed with the picture-postcard beauty of its European counterparts. Fraught with contrasts and contradictions, this sprawling metropolis resists any straightforward classification.

“I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings,” Vatopoulos says. “But I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me,” he says.

The shift seems to convey a quasi-existential understanding that the aesthetic and cultural mess that is Athens needs to be embraced if one is to ever feel comfortable here. It’s an admittedly more mature and pragmatic outlook, more in line with the ideal of a city as a living system, a constantly changing whole that resembles an incubator of narratives and emotions such as those captured in his latest book, “Walking in Athens.”

The 181-page volume, recently published in English by Metaichmio, is a collection of articles written for Kathimerini newspaper where Vatopoulos is chief cultural editor. Vatopoulos, a keen-eyed street wanderer-turned-archaeologist of the present strolls the capital’s emblematic boulevards and meandering backstreets documenting robust and humble buildings, neat houses and crumbling ruins. In the process, he chronicles the succession of human lives, cultural changes and civilizational shifts. It is a gentle albeit thoughtful exercise.

Born in downtown Athens in 1960, Vatopoulos moved toward adulthood as the city’s urban and social transformation was in full swing. It was a highly optimistic period which however bequeathed the capital with a controversial architectural legacy (though one that the writer does not shy away from). Now standing at what appears to be the close of Greece’s brutal 10-year crisis, Vatopoulos refuses to give up his optimism about Athens. The financial meltdown has naturally left deep scars on the urban fabric, yet it has, at the same time, impacted the urban mind-set in a positive manner.

“The new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution,” he says. “It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment.”


What compelled you to write these pieces? Was it a quest for a beauty or the desire to make a record of things that are being lost?

It was mostly an effort to understand this city, I would say. Even though I was born in Athens, grew up in Athens and my entire life is intrinsically linked with this city, I always felt there was room for me to go even deeper in understanding how it has been shaped and what makes it tick. I suppose that curiosity was my trigger, an enormous amount of curiosity about Athens, which obviously comes with an enormous amount of love. I want to understand it because I love it, so I think that this article series was the next stop in my relationship with Athens. I wrote about more obvious subjects in the first few years, but the series later led me to discover the unseen city – that is what interested me most; locating those reserves of a bourgeois culture (note: Vatopoulos uses the world “astiko,” which he defines as a kind of bourgeois, metropolitan culture, but without the baggage of class) that are usually not so apparent. If you don’t go looking for it, this treasure won’t just appear of its own accord. And I believe that Athens has a stock of buildings that basically illustrates its cultural evolution and is right there; we just have to see it to incorporate it into the city’s greater narrative. Athens’ modern story is enough for me; I am very interested in it.

In your book you talk about a new watershed in the city’s history: before and after the economic crisis. Do you believe this outlook will prevail in the future?

I do. I believe it has been a major watershed. I am part of a generation – like many other generations, of course – that has been defined by 20th century milestones. I believe that as the events of the 20th century move into the past, the new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution. It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment. This is the important part, the psychological shift. And this, of course, has left a mark in the form of neglect. But apart from this, I believe the crisis gave the city space for a new beginning and in this regard I am somewhat optimistic about its prospects.

Where does that optimism come from?

Well, it’s partly who I am as a person, always positive and open to things, but I do believe that there is a critical mass of young residents that care about this city. Even those who cannot invest in the city in any way – be it economic, educational or in some other way – are ready to be useful as citizens. This may not be visible yet, but there is a greater proportion of mostly young people who want to be part of the city’s evolution than there was in the past. They also have a much sophisticated point of view.

What would be the glue to keep this city together – if it even needs such a thing?

Abolishing stereotypes, re-establishing the notion of Athens in a way that entails civic pride and inclusiveness. I believe that there needs to be plenty of social space in the new narrative for Athens; space for identity-shaping and for the city’s residents to redefine themselves. It is futile to approach Athens in terms that belong to the 1990s; it is unrealistic. Athens needs to develop a metropolitan identity, but with social cohesion – that is the most important thing.

Speaking of cohesion, is the absence of aesthetic cohesion a boon or a bane for the city?

I have vacillated in this regard. I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings, but I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me. On a recent tour of Neapoli and Exarchia I made an unplanned stop in front of two buildings from the 1980s that are, objectively, extremely ugly. I told my group: “Observe these buildings, because they too are a part of Athens’ reality. In order to understand Athens we need to also make room for them in our minds.” This is regardless of whether we like them or not, but this is an entirely different conversation.

Do you think that Athens struggles under the weight of its history? Does it need a new identity in which its Classical heritage is simply a part rather than a symbol of unattainable heights?

I believe in Athens’ continuum and I think it has been very bad for the city that new Athens has been cast as the result of the “darkness of the Turkish occupation,” a chasm that is nothing more than a notion, a construct of the modern age that rejected centuries of the Ottoman era (calling it post-Byzantine no less – another outrage) and which completely overlooks the period of Frankish rule (I bet only a handful of Greeks know that Athens once had a Catalan administration), etc. There is, however, a very interesting trend toward seeing Athens as a historical continuum, from the pre-Classical age to the present day, with fascinating peaks and troughs, of course, and all of which contributes to what we see and mainly to what we feel about Athens.

What gives you greater pleasure: a new, beautiful structure or the restoration of an old one?

I have never thought about it. I will say the former; the construction of a beautiful new thing. This is the greatest vote of confidence you can give to a city’s future. New beautiful buildings mean that people are envisioning their lives in this city in a much more succinct way. By no means do I dismiss the latter, though.

Which is your favorite Athenian street?

Patission. It may be because I grew up there, but I think that it exemplifies Athens’ urbanization in a very distinct way, while it also gives me this combination of joy and sadness.

Do you feel uncomfortable when you see a tourist walking around the “wrong” parts of Athens? What is this city’s biggest problem?

I used to, yes, quite profoundly. I am more relaxed about it now. But I also think that a lot of foreign tourists have changed too. I see many – and I don’t mean the mass tourism lot that’s obviously here just for a good time, which is also fine – who are interested in what is going on around them, who are not looking to stay in their comfort zone or for the obviously beautiful. I recently saw two tourists who weren’t lost walking along Liosion Street – they were having a wander and the look on their faces was very interesting.

Has any particular urban regeneration project from among the many that are put forward every so often caught your attention?

I believe the Rethink Athens project really should have been carried out. I think it would have helped Athens, added a lot of trees and fixed Omonia Square, which is a major issue. We Greeks are very swift to say no and very reluctant to sit down and talk.

Nevertheless, I read that the new mayor invited you for a discussion about the city. Did you make any suggestions?

Yes, we had dinner, but it was part of a busy schedule of many meetings with Athenians. What I told him – and he appeared interested in the idea – was about rooftops, which also have to do with the climate and with the city’s appearance. I think it’s a major issue. If you look out at Athens from Lycabettus or the Acropolis, you see that there has been no thought given to how rooftops could contribute aesthetically and ecologically. The many options provided by technology (you can have swimming pools, gardens, new-tech tiling, etc) in combination with incentives and tax breaks could transform Athens completely within five years.

You have already published dozens of articles, books and albums, organized exhibitions and founded the now-defunct Saturdays in Athens urban activist group, all about the capital. What else can we expect?

I want to keep writing books. I’m working on one now that will be published this fall, again by Metaichmio, which is my take on 23 Greek cities, an essay on the country’s undervalued urban space. I am an amateur photographer and would like to have a show, while I would also like to write a big book about Athens that would be about the city and people from my generation, about buildings and books, people and movies.

A design for life

Athens Walkthrough-01

By Harry van Versendaal

She grew up in the foothills of Mt Parnitha and went on to study in the well-ordered, if somewhat predictable Netherlands. Now back in Greece, in her late 20s, graphic designer Natassa Pappa has found a way to import some of that order into the grit and chaos of downtown Athens.

Her project “Into Stoas” maps the largely neglected and overlooked commercial arcades in the center of the capital. For about two years, Pappa researched and photographed dozens of these covered walkways (usually referred to in Greek as “stoas” or “stoae”) – an undertaking that ultimately resulted in an interactive, and purposefully minimalist, guide with a fold-out map and a rather ambitious goal: “I wanted to come up with a fresh narrative for the city,” she says.

“Into Stoas” is an interdisciplinary project that borrows from graphic design, architecture, town planning and the urban experience. “Moving between those boundaries means that I may sometimes make, let’s say, arbitrary decisions: The map, for example, may not sit well with an architect,” she says. “As a designer, however, my goal is to create a product for the average person and offer a fresh experience.”

Pappa, whose postgraduate work at St. Joost school of fine art and design in Breda drew from the Situationist International concept of psychogeography in exploring more playful ways of drifting around urban environments, would love to see people use her guide as a tool to navigate Athens’s interior passages on their own.

“The city is a terrain to be explored. I only give away where stoas lie. This is about losing yourself in the city, moving about in a spontaneous fashion,” says Pappa, who is disdainful of the more mainstream understanding of tourism.

“Tourism is usually understood as a routine that you wish to follow. You travel to Paris and you visit the Eiffel Tower. Your photograph of the monument is your trophy from a faraway destination,” she says.

For those who prefer someone else to lead the way, Pappa also organizes walks, for English speakers as well as Greeks. If you decide to join one of her “Athens Walkthrough” sessions you will be taken around 11 stoas, from the refurbished Western-style atrium-covered Stoa Arsakeiou, which serves as a thoroughfare for foot traffic between Panepistimiou and Stadiou streets, to the surreal (make sure you climb the staircase to the rooftop to catch a rather dystopian spectacle) Stoa Anatolis (meaning Stoa of the East, which was allegedly inspired by a design seen by the architect in Alexandria, Egypt), off Aristeidou Street, once a hub for printing presses.

During the walk you will get a chance to chat with neighborhood businesspeople and taste some local delicacies. Don’t expect to get too much in terms of urban history or architectural analysis. The experience is rather driven by interesting anecdotes and the beauty of unexpected encounters.

Back to the future

The bulk of Athens’s arcades were built in the interwar and postwar periods – a utilitarian concept aimed at maximizing buildings’ commercial use as they grew in size to occupy entire blocks. Built along the lines of the Western European archetype, they were a prologue to the commercial centers that mushroomed in Athenian suburbia in the 1980s and 90s, and to their latest – and more commercially successful – reincarnation: shopping malls.

Unable to catch up with the economic change, these early arcades began to decline after 1970. More than 40 arcades of about 65,000 square meter surface can be found within the contours of Athens’s commercial center delineated by Panepistimiou Avenue, Ermou St and Athinas St.

According to recent data, the average occupancy rate of non-renovated arcades is about 54 percent but it rises to 83 percent for their renovated counterparts such as Stoa Spyromiliou – City Link or Stoa Korai. In some arcades the occupancy rate has dropped as low as 10 percent.

The aesthetic implications of Greece’s brutal financial crisis have somewhat paradoxically been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city. Pappa does not treat the arcades as an architectural legacy to be mourned or admired in doses of Instagram-filtered nostalgia. Rather, what she sees in that particular building type is a model to build on.

“We should make use of the arcades’ unique character: shopowners are here in close proximity; it is inevitable that they will exchange ideas and get feedback,” says Pappa, who has seen a similar pro-synergy micro-environment at play at her downtown Athens workspace at Romantso, a former printing house-turned-incubator designed to help get arty individuals and start-ups off the ground.

In an initiative last year, two local architects teamed up with the City of Athens in a bid to bring business back to the Stoa ton Emboron, or Merchants’ Arcade, which links Voulis and Lekka streets just off Syntagma Square. Creative people of every stripe were invited to put the unleased properties to use as production facilities and laboratories to explore new ideas and promote their work.

Pappa, who ran a workshop at the venue, says initiatives like this make her optimistic about the city’s future. Plagued for decades by the indifference and contempt of a population that arrived en masse from the rest of the country, Athens, she believes, stands a much better chance in the hands of the newer generation of creative individuals that were born and raised here.

“Athens is worn down and dysfunctional. But we can definitely solve many of its problems,” she says.

Pappa, for one, is doing her share.

For bookings and more information visit, call 6972.937.037 or send an e-mail to

A monument of beauty and beatitude

By Harry van Versendaal

It will be dwarfed by the Manhattan skyline, but it will hardly go unnoticed – particularly at night.

Construction of the National Shrine, a Greek Orthodox church and nondenominational bereavement center at Ground Zero, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, began in December last year. When the long-stalled project is completed two years from now, it will feature a dome-shaped structure clad in a hi-tech translucent skin of white Vermont marble that will glow softly in the dark.

Calatrava has said that the 35-million-dollar design, which was picked from over a dozen proposals, was inspired by Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior – both in Istanbul. Evidence of those influences can be traced at a new exhibition at the Benaki Museum, in central Athens, showcasing sketches, drawings, plans, photographs and audiovisual material from the ongoing project.


Looking at the 3-D renderings, architect Magda Sgouridi sees the Spanish architect diverging from his trademark compositions.

“His architectural vocabulary is significantly different here. The slim and refined mechanical structures that look upward toward the sky have here given way to a substantial bulk pushing down in the direction of the surface,” she said.

It is a gleaming, modern design that will, of course, be better evaluated once the monument – and, very crucially, the interior – is completed. But in the case of Saint Nicholas, concept comes before form.

“It will be a beacon of faith, of all faiths. A beacon that will serve as a New York landmark and, at the same time, as a New York boundary with the open sea,” Sgouridi said.

Dark chapter

Heavy in symbolism, the only non-secular structure at the site will replace the nondescript 19th-century church – a former tavern – that was destroyed as World Trade Center’s South Tower came down in the 9/11 terrorist blitz. No one was inside the building at the time.

The new monument will overlook the 9/11 Memorial, sitting at the intersection of Liberty and Greenwich streets, on land once occupied by the Deutsche Bank Building.

Construction was stalled by marathon negotiations between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, until in 2011 an agreement between the two sides broke the deadlock.

For Eric Sessions, a Greek-American doctor who was one of the first responders on 9/11, the rebuilding of St Nicholas Church brings to a close a dark chapter in New York history while offering a great deal of hope.

“For Saint Nicholas, the protector of sailors and those who work with the sea which made New York what it is today, this has particular symbolism. For the Greek community of New York, and for all the Greeks who toiled on the waterfront through the years and whose faith sustained the church, this is a great tribute,” Sessions said.

“As a member of the parish which has hosted the Saint Nicholas church since it’s building’s destruction in 2001, this is a great victory and a hope for a future of understanding among all nations,” he said.


Calatrava, now 64, is also the architect behind Manhattan’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub, an awe-inspiring bird-like structure that has been hit by budget overruns and time delays. Calatrava, who is no stranger to controversy, became a household name in Greece ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympics for the design of the much-hyped roof structure over the Olympic Stadium.

In an interview about the project with The New York Times earlier this month, Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, said that although Calatrava had “done a lot to assist in keeping the budget down,” some overshooting was to be expected.

“We have to have a masterpiece of architecture. It has to be the best,” he said.

The exhibition “Santiago Calatrava: The Renaissance of the Church of St Nicholas at Ground Zero” will be on display at the Benaki Museum’s ( main building in central Athens from September 24 to October 25.

Re-evaluating the urban legacy of the 1960s

By Harry van Versendaal

Much of the controversy that has arisen over contemporary Athens’s urban landscape stems from the changes wrought on it during the 1960s. Any reference to the architectural legacy of that period usually provokes a knee-jerk condemnation as the time is associated with the brutal transformation of the capital’s appearance.

It’s an unfair judgment, in the eyes of Kathimerini journalist and urban culture aficionado Nikos Vatopoulos. As the curator of “Athens: The Spirit of the 60s – A Changing Capital,” an ongoing exhibition at the Hellenic American Union’s Kennedy Gallery in the downtown Kolonaki district, he tries to challenge mainstream perceptions about the formative period.

“It was a controversial period because it was full of powerful contradictions. It was a time of transition and transformation for Greek society – a process that had many positive aspects, such as a faith in progress, the rise of cosmopolitanism, and economic growth,” Vatopoulos says.

Indeed, the rate of economic growth was heady: On average, gross domestic product was growing at an annual 7.6 percent while industrial output was increasing 10 percent each year. Growth was driven by a surge in foreign direct investment, mainly from the United States and Germany, coupled with a wave of internal migration to urban centers, which spurred construction. The cement and home appliances industries were flourishing. The apartment building, or “polykatoikia,” embodied the values and ambitions of the postwar urbanite generation, who turned their backs on the memories of deprivation in the countryside and the nasty hangover from the civil war.

Original photographs and postcards from the period, many from Vatopoulos’s own archive, document the burgeoning metropolis and the arrival of modern architectural landmarks such as the Athens Hilton. Built between 1958 and 1963 according to plans by architects Emmanouil Vourekas, Prokopios Vassiliadis, Spyros Staikos and Antonis Georgiades, the emblematic structure reflected the economic and social zeitgeist as Greece became a global player in the tourism and luxury market.

The evolution of lifestyles, fashion and social habits during the 1960s is also documented at the HAU exhibition. Magazine covers, ads, stamps and playbills capture the advent of cosmopolitanism and female consumerism (with classic 60s sexist cliches). Most of that came to an abrupt halt with the onset of the military dictatorship in 1967.

To be sure, Vatopoulos, who was born in Athens in 1960, acknowledges the decade’s negative consequences on the city’s physical and social environment.

“There was no foresight regarding the city’s expansion while dogmatic belief in ‘the new civilization’ left no room for historical sensibilities,” he says.

Many historical structures were knocked down at the time to make way for new buildings in the name of a tradition- and culture-insensitive modernism – also assisted by a wave of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors (whereby the latter would replace low-story homes with apartment blocks whose units would then be divided between the two), a now deeply controversial measure introduced by Costantine Karamanlis as minister of public works.

The HAU exhibition takes place against the backdrop of a brutal financial crisis that has naturally left scars on the Greek capital. Interestingly, the social and aesthetic implications of poverty, homelessness and Greece’s six-year recession have been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city.

Vatopoulos, who currently lives in the southern seaside suburb of Glyfada, has been surprised at the response to the Facebook group “Saturdays in Athens” he formed three years ago as a platform for organizing weekly cultural activities such as guided tours, lectures and seminars. It currently numbers more than 19,000 members.

“The public has a desire to turn to something steady, familiar and safe. This is compounded by a feeling of nostalgia for a city with a recognizable etiquette,” he says.

But this is not the only reason behind the renewed interest, he says. “All this is also a reaction to the city’s degradation, a more energetic reaction that seeks to comprehend the various stages of Athens’s development,” he says.

Vatopoulos, for one, appears to be motivated by both. On top of his online community and extensive writings on the city, he has released a number of publications over the years and staged a well-received photo exhibition with cozy, nighttime shots of some of his favorite Athens buildings. As Instagram user @16thcentury, he uploads the pictures he takes all over the city.

He loves Athens, with all its contradictions.

“I was born and raised in Athens at a time when the city was changing at a rapid rate. Certainly, I was influenced by my family environment, but the emotional, awe-filled response I had witnessing a building’s demolition is a very strong childhood memory,” he says.

“I consider that I grew up observing the transformation of the city on the inside, I changed as the city changed. It’s something very personal to me.”

“Athens: The Spirit of the 60s,” at the HAU (22 Massalias) to Dec 13. Vatopoulos will speak on Athens during the 1960s at 7 p.m. on Nov 21 at the HAU Theater. There will be a guided tour of the exhibition on Dec 5, starting at 7.30 p.m.

Modernist giant wakes up from deep slumber

By Harry van Versendaal & Elis Kiss

Like a decadent, ailing giant that failed to awe, the Doxiadis Office Building for years sat neglected on the foot of Lycabettus Hill, discreetly overlooking the capital’s upmarket, albeit idiosyncratic, Kolonaki neighborhood.

Originally erected between 1958 and 1972 by pioneer architect and town-planner Constantinos A. Doxiadis to house the headquarters of his consulting engineers’ firm and namesake school, the building fell into neglect and disuse after Doxiadis’s death in 1975.

Now, after several setbacks and delays, the emblematic, postwar, modernist structure seems to have finally acquired a new skin without losing too much of its soul. Along the way it also picked up a new name and is now known as One Athens.

Acquired by Cyclamino SA, a partnership between entrepreneurs Christos Joannou and Miltos Kambourides, in 2007, the 12,500 square meter property has been reincarnated into a sleek, cement-and-glass residential complex that is currently re-defining the capital’s niche market for ultra-luxurious real estate in the city center. The redesign of the open-plan workspaces into 26 residences was masterminded by award-winning Athens and London-based Divercity architects, while construction work was undertaken by Greek builder J&P-Avax.

The transformation was not without obstacles. In 2010, renovation work was interrupted after protests by urban activist group Monumenta, which claimed that architects had tampered with Doxiadis’s trademark design. Opposition was soon joined by the Architecture School of the National Technical University of Athens, the Greek Architects’ Association (SADAS) and the Technical Chamber of Greece (TEE).

In a compromise decision, the Culture Ministry’s Central Council of Modern Monuments only granted listed status to certain elements of the building: the load-bearing structure, the facade along Stratiotikou Syndesmou Street, the spiral staircases and the central atrium – a low-energy, bioclimatic concept designed to provide ventilation and natural light at a time when building design in Athens almost exclusively catered to maximizing use of available space. Keeping with the Doxiadis legacy are the cellular concrete ceilings and the herringbone timber flooring.

Additions by the Divercity team are not out of proportion or character. The original modular grid has been transformed into a matrix made up of crystal, Aliveri marble, and translucent concrete panels – a functional, as well as playful, building material that allows light to penetrate its dense surface.

Living space at One Athens ranges from a 77 sq. m. studio to a 721 sq. m. penthouse and considerable choice in between. This includes four townhouses (ranging from 245 to 517 sq.m.), all enjoying direct access onto the Lycabettus Hill ring road as well as Stratiotikou Syndesmou Street. The building’s five penthouses (ranging from 260 sq.m. to 721 sq.m.) boast rooftop terraces, swimming pools or spas and views over the Acropolis and the Lycabettus Hill. Out of the 26 flats, so far seven have been picked up by a savvy, globe-trotting Greek clientele.

The building’s new residents, who are expected to start moving in early next year, will benefit from security and porter services as well as full concierge services for their entertainment and travel. The new neighbors will also be able to meet on the shared rooftop terrace (with views over the Acropolis and the Lycabettus), the ground floor’s indoor swimming pool as well as the adjacent jacuzzi, steam bath and sauna facilities. Also available for residents is a playroom and a conference area – close to the room that once hosted Greece’s first mainframe computer, a Univac 1107, acquired by Doxiadis Associates in 1969.

All residences are equipped with a state-of-the-art smart home management system through a wall-mounded iPad control center. Flats also feature natural gas heating, a fully equipped kitchen and designer fixtures for bathrooms.

By all means an exclusive project, One Athens survived the country’s financial meltdown and the paralysis of the local real estate sector. Price tags at the former Doxiadis headquarters currently reflect the project’s 70-million-euro private investment.

In a city that has often been disrespectful to its architectural legacy, One Athens introduces a new urban vernacular.

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.


“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

A bridge from the future that never was


By Harry van Versendaal

“We would romance the night away, watching the cars rush under the bridge. ‘Mesogeion River,’ we would call it. Later, when I moved into the neighborhood, I would cross it on my walks with the dog. If I was in a hurry though, I’d go to the street crossings.”

Gina became a mother and moved back to the northern suburbs of Athens, but the pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Spanish “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava spanning Mesogeion Avenue at Katehaki, like other monumental legacies of the 2004 pre-Olympic period, remains a symbol of dashed hopes for a new Greece, for a tidier, more modern and more European Greece.

The structure stands out for its metal pylon, arcing upward to a height of 50 meters. A row of 14 metal cables hold up the suspended – and now somewhat beleaguered – 94-meter footbridge over Mesogeion Avenue.

The architect’s design for the Mesogeion footbridge is said to have been inspired by the form of the chair depicted on the ancient funerary stele of Hegeso, found at the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos in central Athens.

It also recalls the bow of a futuristic trireme standing anchored in the past century. The beautiful contours of the structure continue to fascinate amateur photographers.

But instead of upgrading the ungainly architectural legacy of the 1970s, the Calatrava bridge is merely a reminder of that era. The western end of the bridge, for example, abuts the wall of an adjacent apartment block. Herein lies the first problem: The bridge has no breathing space, giving the sense that it was designed on a flat screen in a modern Zurich office, before a location was selected for it.

The bridge has never really been loved. In part this is because it is of limited use. It is longer than the distance of the pedestrian crossings it was meant to replace and, in combination with the time it takes to climb the staircases or ride the elevators to the top, crossing it is something of a lengthy process. Coming out of the nearby metro station, most pedestrians would rather take their chances with the street traffic.

The bridge has also seen little love because Calatrava, who reportedly conducted the study for its design free of charge, has been inevitably linked to the budget overruns of the 2004 Olympic Games and the nation’s post-Olympic decline.

Calatrava himself is not faring much better than his bridge. Recently, Italian judicial authorities notified the architect of citation for damages in the exchequer for 3.8 million euros for alleged errors on his glass bridge spanning Venice’s Grand Canal that have resulted in the need for constant repairs and interventions. News of the ruling met with snide comments by the Greek media.

Today, the white footbridge over Mesogeion Avenue has become a symbol of what could have been. In a twist of irony, the jet-black symbol of the new era has emerged just a few meters down the road, where the imposing office building of Golden Dawn confirms the penetration by the neo-Nazi party of the Greek middle class.

The Calatrava bridge is separated from the Golden Dawn offices by a few meters of asphalt – all downhill.

Skyscrapers in suburbia


By Harry van Versendaal

Mr Leonidas didn’t go looking for his apartment. It was more like the other way around.

It was the early 1970s and Mr Leonidas was teaching high school math in an impoverished suburb of Athens. During his lunch break one day, he came across a leaflet printed by the teachers’ association, advertising a new kind of neighborhood for educators. A few years later, with the help of a low-interest bank loan, he, his wife and their three children headed uptown, to the far wealthier suburb of Neo Psychico.

Today, the Teachers’ House, as it is known, provides an intriguing contrast to the modest, low-rise architecture of Athenians’ prized suburbia. Hardly beautiful as a structure, the unimpeded sea view from the tallest tower’s 15th floor, standing 56 meters above street level, is enough to send Greece’s skyscraper lovers, who have few such buildings to admire, into paroxysms of joy – or, at least, touch those who are moved by the qualities imbued in a massive concrete edifice.

If every home has a story to tell, then these modernist high rises use a language rarely observed in Greek abodes.

A decorative motif of rose, peach and tan tiles – possibly a failed effort at whimsy – and a series of gray ellipses girdle the apartment block from its flat roof to its base, emphasizing its horizontal axis almost as if embarrassed by its towering size. At least it can take pride in its generously wide balconies, a rare sight in the high rises of the West.

Sitting in his beige easy chair, Mr Leonidas, a pensioner and for years Block C’s superintendent, yarns about his home’s beginnings, back when they were just a spark in one dreamy literature teacher’s eyes. In the late 60s, Nikolaos Stamatopoulos, who taught at the private Leontios School, traveled to Italy. “He was so impressed by the rows of apartment blocks designed for workers that he decided to get together with some of his colleagues to build a similar apartment building, just for teachers,” says Mr Leonidas. It remains a mystery whether his desire was also fueled by the ideals of a modern academic utopia.

The Teachers’ House was designed by architects Stavros and Angelos Vaseiliou under the junta-era development statute “Law ΑΝ 395/68 on the Heights of Buildings and Free Construction,” which allowed for the construction of tall buildings with up to 28 inhabitable levels. After myriad technical challenges and one bankruptcy, the block was completed in 1973, albeit without the roof garden and ground-level shops foreseen in the original plans.

Along with the “Twin Towers” at its northern end, the Teachers’ House is still considered a landmark, a recognizable anomaly, by commuters who drive along the otherwise monotonous Mesogeion Avenue.

As the years passed, however, the block’s academic character was diluted. “There were fewer teachers per se and more of their spouses, and cousins and children,” says Mr Leonidas. However, the buildings retain the triumvirate of superintendents, a residents’ council and the porter.

The cracks that appeared after the 1981 earthquake were covered over by an outer shell of concrete and the whole exterior was spruced up with a generous Olympic Games-era grant, but inside the shabby hallways, the passage of time cannot be disguised.

Forty years after he first moved in, photographs of Mr Leonidas’s six grandchildren adorn his walls. His three children have all become doctors and two them live here, on the 8th and 10th floors. His own apartment is much closer to the ground.

“Not everybody likes living up high,” he says, smiling. “A lot of people complain they get dizzy.”


Building inside out

By Harry van Versendaal

They were both born in Portugal but first met in the Netherlands as postgraduate students five years ago. Joao Prates Ruivo, 29, and Raquel Maria Oliveira, 28, had hardly settled in Athens when they won their first prize as an architectural team for an ambitious project in the scruffy but promising Kerameikos/Metaxourgeio (KM) district.

A competition launched last summer by the urban development company Oliaros invited architects under 35 to submit proposals on a model student housing complex. A total of 242 architects from 41 countries took up the challenge, which involved building 18 student residences on a 200 m2 plot on Marathonos Street. “18 Steps” was eventually picked by an international jury in combination with SMS voting by the public.

In an unconventional design twist, the architects have arranged living space around an inner courtyard, pushing private amenities such as WCs and showers out toward the exterior of the building. The 18 residences are organized along 18 common use landings that ascend from the ground floor to the roof terrace, merging communal and semi-communal areas. Revolving partitions separate public from private areas, allowing students to interact or withdraw from the rest of the community.

The design is “an open conflict between privacy and extroversion, movement and pause, interior and exterior – a bit like the life of the students themselves,” Oliveira said in an email interview with Athens Plus earlier this week.

An exhibition of the projects submitted by the five finalists is on display at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum (Pireos 138 & Andronikou) through April 4.

You are an architectural duo from Portugal based in Athens. Why did you decide to move here?

Joao moved to Athens in order to work with some friends that were based here. Later on he decided to work on his own. We took part in the competition together and after we won I decided to move here so we could work closer.

What are the opportunities for you here? What are the main difficulties you have had to face as individuals and as architects in a foreign country?

We are presented now with the opportunity to build our project. We have been living abroad for some years now and enjoying the benefits of a borderless Europe.

Do architects in Portugal face similar challenges as their Greek counterparts?

Architecture has had more visibility in Portugal for a longer time. In Greece there is more space for architecture and new things as there is less prejudice regarding what architecture should be or look like.

Like much of Athens, the area that will host your project is a dense urban jungle. Do you think Athens and that particular neighborhood has room for improvement?

This particular neighborhood actually has more space for improvement then the rest of the city. The example is the empty plot that will host our project. There are many new things happening in this neighborhood.

Critics say that the area of Kerameikos/Metaxourgeio is in danger of gentrification – with the displacement of low-income residents together with an unchecked invasion of overpriced lofts and recreation centers. What is your opinion?

The future residents of KM that you suggest (students, artists, etc.) will hold no prejudice against the local inhabitants, unlike those who fear the area and move to the periphery abandoning the center of the city. It is much easier to start from scratch away from the problematic areas than to try to live with and next to them.

Could you tell us some details about your project? The competition asked for “new typologies.” How did you respond to that?

The most interesting aspect of the competition was the request to find a balance between the private and the communal. We took it literally, and developed a scheme that materializes it as an open conflict between privacy and extroversion, movement and pause, interior and exterior – a bit like the life of the students themselves.

What are the main obstacles you have had to overcome with this project?

One of the main obstacles was to comply with the strict Athenian building regulations and, at the same time, come up with something new.

Rent prices for the student housing you have designed are estimated at 590 euros. Don’t you think that is too high for the average student?

We were asked to design affordable student housing. We are not involved in deciding the price of the rooms.

This was an innovative competition; the public also took part in picking the winner through SMS voting. What was your impression?

This was a very exciting competition because it was targeted at young architects, it was an international competition, the jury were very well known architects and for us the most motivating thing is that the prize is to actually build the design.

What is your next project?

At the moment we are involved together with Metamorfossis Architectural Design in the design of a new space for The Breeders Gallery in Athens. We hope to continue working with Oliaros in the implementation of the 18+Student Living project.

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