CULTURE

Three volumes highlight transformation of Greek architecture through the ages

Athens’s so-called historic center may often seem overwhelmed by noise, crowds and the kitschiness that accompanies mass tourism but it is still one of the most historically dense and architecturally interesting areas of the city. The variety of architectural styles packed into only a few blocks affords a visual passage into the history of Greece and a sharp and searching eye will uncover a continuity that the contrasts and contradictions of the city tends to make us forget. Record of stunning variety It is this continuity of history and architecture, not only in Athens but in Greece as a whole, that Melissa publications have meticulously recorded in four volumes on Greek architecture. Melissa, who are known for specializing in Greek art and architecture, have brought out three out of the four books in the series and have published each one of them separately both in Greek and English. Richly illustrated and wonderfully informative, the books constitute an invaluable survey of Greek architecture and are deeply suggestive of how art and architecture are the visual constellations of a nation’s history and culture. The books adheres to the chronological divisions that are generally applied to Greek history. The first book deals with antiquity, the second begins with early fourth-century proto-Christian architecture, goes all the way through the Palaeologian period and ends with Greece’s liberation in the early 19th century. This was when the neoclassical style of architecture, which is the main subject of the series’ third book, spread throughout Greece. The survey closes with a study of the so-called 20th-century modern style which is covered in the series’ final book. Byzantine architecture The interest in the history of Byzantine culture, which has witnessed an upsurge in recent years, makes this book appealing to the contemporary reader. Written by Charalambos Bouras, professor of the history of architecture at the Athens National Technical University, the book focuses on the architecture that developed within the borders of present-day Greece, which in Byzantine times was principally a province of the Eastern Roman Empire. It also mostly deals with religious architecture, using mainly churches as a constant in order to examine architectural differences over time. One of the arguments that Bouras makes is that, in general, though with some exceptions, the architecture that developed in Greece at the time was modeled after the architecture of Constantinople, the empire’s center. Still, he talks of novelty and experimentation that produced buildings with a distinct personality. Starting from the early Christian catacombs, an example of which can be found on Milos, Bouras moves on to the fifth century when churches, among them Aghios Dimitrios in Thessaloniki, were systematically built. Aghia Sofia, also in Thessaloniki, is considered a remarkable monument of the next period, that of Justinian’s reign in the sixth century. The ninth and tenth centuries are seen as a period of rejuvenation and cultural growth. The community of Mount Athos flourished at the time, particularly as monasticism became established in Greece. The Kaisariani and Dafni monasteries were also built at that time, with the Patmos Theologos monastery coming a century later. Thessaloniki developed into an important center while in Athens, some of the period’s most important monuments include Kapnikareas, the church of Agioi Asomatoi in Thiseion and numerous churches in Plaka. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 was a milestone in history and architecture, with the despotate of Arta developing into a powerful new province and Mount Athos gaining in importance. But it was not until the Palaeologian period that the Byzantine province grew in strength, with both Thessaloniki and the Despotate of the Morea, with Mystras as its center, becoming particularly prominent. The neoclassical style In the second book written jointly by Manos Biris, professor at the Athens National Technical University and Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, who also teaches there, an effort has been made to show the variety, complexity and local variations on the so-called neoclassical style. One of the many points made is that the neoclassical style did not enter Greece for the first time in the reign of Otto. Its origins in Greece can be traced to many different sources – the British rule on Corfu (the Mon Repos mansion is an example) and the French influence being two of the main ones, not to mention that of Capodistrias, Greece’s first head of state. The authors also stress how the neoclassical style became loaded with ideological meaning and came to symbolize the identity of a newly liberated country reclaiming its own historical roots back into antiquity. The neoclassical style lasted well into the 20th century, which is the subject of the final book written by Dimitris Philipides, also professor at the Athens National Technical University. By the early 20th century, the neoclassical style had become so ingrained in the architecture of Greece that the shift to modernism was often seen with reservation. Starting with this opposition of the modern and the neoclassical, Philipides takes the reader through the 20th century until the present day. Structured along themes, the book addresses important subjects in 20th-century architecture, such as urbanization and mass development projects, the sudden growth in the cities and the rise of the suburbs. Like the rest of the books, it affords an illuminating account of Greece’s architecture, with ample examples and illustrations to support well-structured arguments.