In praise of Athens and its fine houses

The architecture of ancient Athens inspired universal admiration, but the modern city’s buildings boast fewer fans. One devotee is Kathimerini journalist Nikos Vatopoulos, whose affection for his hometown radiates from his book: «Facing Athens: the Facades of a Capital City,» just released by Potamos Publishers. Vatopoulos set out with photographer Vassilis Makris to document 20th-century urban residential architecture in Athens. They spent a year walking the city in pursuit of various styles of architecture, and the result reflects the author’s optimism about his native city. His upbeat approach is intentional. «I’m fed up with people disparaging Athens,» said Vatopoulos at the book launch on Tuesday at the Stoa tou Vivliou book arcade. He deliberately selected buildings that were in good repair: «Photographing picturesque ruins was not the point of this book. I wanted to show Athens looking bright and confident.» While acknowledging the problems facing Athens, he has faith in the city’s future and wants to inject what he sees as some well-deserved self-esteem. Outlining the development of Athens in the 20th century, Vatopoulos traces the city’s shift away from a Balkan to a European identity, and its changing fortunes as war, occupation and three great population influxes led to urbanization without bourgeoisification. Massive immigration from within and outside Greece led to the decline of urban life, says Vatopoulos, but also paved the way for Athens to become a metropolis. The periods of the greatest pressure were also those of the greatest innovation, he explains, noting how Athens was always open to the latest trends and ideas, what he calls «an attractive polyphony.» The book, with its abundant illustrations of styles imported wholesale, adapted or blended with the Greek vernacular, will win converts to his view. Vatopoulos confesses to a soft spot for the Athenian architecture of the 1920s-1930s, which absorbed the full force of modernity, and the handsome 1980s apartment blocks in Kolonaki and along Patission. Critics often single out the 1960s – when much of the city’s current housing stock was built – as having had a fatal effect on the urban fabric. Houses grand and modest were demolished to make way for the soon-to-become ubiquitous apartment block. Environmental concerns came a poor second to the need to house an explosively growing population. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity, but unplanned expansion had made the city much less pleasant to live in by the 1970s. Vatopoulos charts a growing concern for the environment and the first attempts to reclaim the city and make it livable once again, a process which received a huge impetus from Greece’s joining what was then the EEC, and 25 years later, from the preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. His is not a naive approach, he insists, pointing to future problems the city must face: Buildings that will soon be past their expiry date. His prediction? The city will probably be rebuilt by 2020-50, in ways we can hardly imagine. Best of all, Vatopoulos and the superb photos by Makris show us what Athenian domestic architecture is like now, prising our eyes open to the beauty of this often-maligned but still vibrant city. «Pedestrians never look up,» says Vatopoulos. This book may persuade us to do so. It is currently available only in Greek, but Potamos is bringing out an English edition, translated by Mary Kitroeff, in January.

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