Posts Tagged 'exarchia'

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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Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

The asylum

By Harry van Versendaal

In “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s much-applauded last film, three walled-off kids are subjected to the perverted language games of their uber-controlling parents: hence a large armchair is “the sea,” a lamp is a “white bird,” a cat is “a life-threatening animal.”

Greeks, of course, are no strangers to linguistic abuse. “University asylum,” a law that bans police from campuses so as to safeguard “the free dissemination of ideas,” has started to feel much like the opposite.

Professors and students are regularly bullied and physically abused by groups of non-students, ranging from self-styled anarchists to ultra-leftists. Threats and destruction of public property are often accompanied by beatings. University-owned buildings are occupied by outsiders who use them for private purposes such as hosting publishing centers, radio stations and websites like the “bourgeois”-bashing Indymedia network. During clashes with the police, protesters use the premises to regroup and to renew their supplies of petrol bombs before getting back to the streets. Although some education is involved in all of that, it surely is not of the sort the lawmakers had in mind.

The asylum law was established in the early 1980s by the late Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK in a bid to forestall a repeat of the army raid that crushed the Athens Polytechnic uprising against the military junta in November 1973. The uprising is a watershed moment in Greece’s modern political history and many politicians have, often unscrupulously, capitalized on their part in it. Politics here is still much about managing symbols.

Hence it’s easy to see how the ongoing debate about whether to scrap asylum legislation has become a symbolic battlefield in a war that exceeds the old-style left-right divisions. The rampage following the police shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the pock-marked Exarchia district last December caused cracks on the left between the motley crew of banner-waving radicals and the more sober elements who were put off by the orgy of vandalism and violence. Hundreds of cars were torched and shops destroyed or looted in the riots that cost some 100 million euros in damages as the conservative government ordered riot policemen to keep their batons sheathed for fear of justifying its right-wing bogeyman profile.

The riots exposed the cynicism but also the divisions and ideological confusion of the Greek left, as reactions ranged from delight and schadenfreude to sadness and despair. Voters eventually punished those who sought to exploit the backlash, none more so than SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras, whose reluctance to clearly condemn the violence quickly transformed him from socialist wunderkind to villain. His party, a coalition of radical left-wing factions, was seriously damaged in the elections that followed. Mainstream voters, once charmed by his ostensibly maverick style, did not like what they saw on their television screens.

The uncomfortable truth is that leftist activists are increasingly flirting with violence, prompting further soul-searching among their nonmilitant fellows. A number of professors, writers and journalists have over the past year been attacked on campuses and in bookshops, also in the ostensibly pluralist Exarchia. Even Soti Triantafillou, a self-described leftist author who lives in the area, was recently harassed during a book presentation by a group of men who threw eggs at her for being “a capitalist lackey.” The assailants warned Triantafillou, who has in the past received threats against her life, that she is a persona non grata in that part of town.

Decades of anti-rightist reflexes ensure that any move on university asylum will not go down easily. Even mild measures that go without saying in foreign institutions, like the introduction of university security guards and identity cards for students proposed by the Athens Law School last week, have met here with opposition from students – even those belonging to the New Democracy-affiliated group. Such ideological paradoxes expose vested interests that escape left-right dichotomies.

Critics of the asylum law claim it is a meaningless safeguard – and they are right. Any dictatorship’s first move would be to do away with the Constitution and, in that sense, it’s true that the asylum law does not carry much weight on a practical level. But symbols can have real power over people’s behavior. Green-lighting police patrols inside campuses risks causing more problems than it would solve. After all, scrapping university asylum altogether because you can’t stop a bunch of so called anti-establishment youths from using it as a base is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The law allows prosecutors to intervene when a felony is committed – but the police has only rarely, and only too late, taken action inside the premises despite the extensive wrongdoing. Anyone who lives in this country knows that keeping the law in place while preventing its abuse is a matter of political will. Ironically, this time the hot potato is in socialist hands. Perhaps it’s better that way. It took a socialist public order minister, the deft-handed Michalis Chrysochoidis, to launch a tough crackdown on troublemakers in order to prevent a repeat of the havoc on the anniversary of Grigoropoulos’s death.

Chrysochoidis, the man behind the dismantling of local terrorist group November 17, knows that, once again, much will depend on public consent. And as the 2002 terrorist crackdown showed, there is no better way of gaining this than by stripping wrongdoers of their heroic aura. The government will only manage to clean up the mess when the public comes to see university asylum for what it has been reduced to: an excuse for real, not theoretical, anarchy.


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