CULTURE

Residential complex back on the agenda

How many times have political decisions erased a small or big part of Athens?s history with one signature? The Municipal Theater, the Varvakeios School on Athinas Street, Aktaion Hotel on the southern Faliro coast and more recently the former FIX brewery in Patissia are landmarks that made their own contribution to the course of the capital?s history and they have all disappeared for different reasons.

Another Athenian landmark that nearly suffered the same fate is the residential complex on Alexandras Avenue in Ambelokipi, which was built in 1933-35 to house refugees from Asia Minor. The complex is one of the last surviving samples of early modernist architecture in Athens as well as one of the country?s oldest examples of a housing project.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the eight apartment blocks were being eyed by developers, but a campaign by locals and other activists stopped the wrecking ball from being rolled in. It did not, however, put an end to the danger because the longer the building complex is left to crumble, the more likely it is that it will eventually fall into the hands of private contractors.

Recently, however, there has been more buzz over what should be done about the complex, with contacts increasing between relevant authorities such as the City of Athens, the Public Real Estate Corporation, the Technical Chamber of Greece (TEE) and the Organization for Town Planning and Environmental Protection of Athens (or Athens Organization, for short). The search for a mutually acceptable solution, however, is no easy matter and has dogged authorities for at least a decade.

In the late 1990s, during the pre-Olympic Games rush, the intention to demolish the complex was voiced by officials for the for the first time. According to that plan, six of the eight buildings would be torn down and the last two preserved as examples of the era?s architecture. In fact, the now-defunct Town Planning Ministry and the Hellenic Public Real Estate Corporation (HPREC) even began to gradually appropriate the smaller units, gaining the majority of properties in the first four buildings scheduled for demolition, or 140 of the 228 apartments. The argument was that the buildings were in poor condition and that the plot could be better utilized to provide Ambelokipi, one of the city?s most populous and densely built neighborhoods, with a much-needed park.

The plan met with swift reaction from local residents? groups, activists from the National Technical University of Athens School of Architecture and the media, among them Kathimerini. The campaign worked and the decision was overridden by the Council of State. The entire complex was eventually listed for preservation by the Ministry of Culture in 2008, though no immediate progress was made in the renovation process.

In 2009, the City of Athens collaborated with the TEE on a proposal to save the buildings, by which the Chamber would get use of the first four buildings in order to house its services and would, in exchange, cede a large plot on the corner of Harilaou Trikoupi and Navarinou streets in Exarchia to the City of Athens. The HPREC nixed the plan, saying it would not cede the buildings without payment.

Fresh ripples of activity have become apparent over the past few months regarding the future of the so-called refugee houses, as the president of the Athens Organization, Yiannis Polyzos, has come in contact with all the relevant authorities in an effort to revive the debate. Polyzos also contacted the Athens School of Fine Arts with a suggestion that some of the flats be turned into student housing.

The HPREC, meanwhile, remains skeptical. Speaking to Kathimerini, one high-ranking official who wished to remain anonymous, said that the company?s stance is what it has always been: that it will only accept cash in exchange for the buildings.

Christos Spirtzis, president of the TEE, says that his organization prefers to stick to its original stance as well. ?The TEE would rather gain ownership of some of the buildings in exchange for its property in Exarchia, as the cost of renovating the buildings and adapting them into office spaces is significant. But, there is not other way,? he says.

Polyzos insists that concessions have to be made. ?Let?s look for a way,? he says. ?But let?s not leave the buildings to their own fate any longer because time is working against us.?