Old downtown refugee flats go down in history

It’s final. Six of the eight early-20th-century apartment blocks on Alexandras Avenue, opposite the Panathinaikos soccer club’s Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, built originally to house Asia Minor refugees several years after the massive influx in 1922, will be demolished. The decision was recently announced by the Public Housing Company’s (KED) chief official, Giorgos Zygoyiannis. The vacant land will be utilized for a much-needed park in the heavily congested downtown Ambelokipi district which will stretch from Alexandras Avenue to the nearby Espis municipal hospital. For the project’s needs, over 150 apartments, of 228 in total, have already been purchased by KED. Expropriation procedures have begun for the remainder. The two surviving blocks, to be preserved as examples of the period’s architecture, are located behind the Aghios Savvas Anti-Cancer Oncological Hospital. Proceedings, then, have headed the way of a compromise deal intended to keep all sides happy. On the one hand, the decision to demolish six of the eight blocks meets strong public demand that endorses the move. The pro-demolition group views the refugee housing as yet another defect in this difficult city which needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. At the same time, KED’s initiative to leave two blocks standing was obviously made to appease both apartment owners and Athens National Technical University (NTUA) authorities who have applied heavy pressure in favor of preservation. This case’s final decision will serve as a reminder, to certain individuals, of the unfortunate outcome of the FIX building on Syngrou Avenue. Parts of the historic old brewery were brought down as part of construction requirements for the neighborhood’s Metro station. The Greek State had then attempted to strike a balance between being responsible, by offering protection to the architecturally prominent building, and satisfying popular demand, by succumbing to the pressure of public opinion which favored progress on the Metro project. At the time, the State was clumsy. Initially, it demolished part of the old brewery, then promised to reconstruct the exterior as a faithful reproduction of architect Takis Zenetos’s original plan. But the promise merely remained a promise. At present, an underground parking faciity is being constructed there, while a confined strip of greenery will be developed on the surface. There is no doubt that the State is handling the refugee asylum case with far greater maturity and sensitivity. Initially, the Public Works Ministry had announced that all eight apartment blocks would be demolished. Though the decision catered to the city’s desperate need for open space, history, it must be said, was shunned. Today’s rundown exterior may seem dreadful to many passers-by, but these negative feelings would soften were they – with the help of imagination – to cast their minds back to the project’s original state, when the eight apartment blocks were completed, in 1936. Designed by two prominent interwar-period architects, Kimonas Laskaris (1905-1978) and Dimitris Kyriakos (1881-1971), the project was developed initially to house refugees who, until then, had lived in substandard temporary housing units in the capital’s Polygono district. Even today, despite the scars of time and negligence, the project’s deteriorated facade does carry hints of the modernist architecture of the 1930s – a pure and alluring style. Should the two surviving blocks enjoy as much luck during refurbishment as they did in surviving the demolishment scheme, Athenians will have an opportunity to re-evaluate a part of their history, and feel proud of it.

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