New life for architecture of the past

Today, the Grande Bretagne stands out as one of the most elegant buildings in Athens, a subtle reminder of the city’s neoclassical architecture, much of which was sadly destroyed in the first part of the 20th century. Yet, when the hotel was constructed, it aroused much controversy. The original building, which the hotel used as a basis, was the stately mansion of Antonios Dimitriou and was designed by Theophilus Hansen in 1842. From 1856-1873, it served as the premises of the French Archaeological School and a year later was turned into a hotel. Gradually successive transformations altered the original construction and led to its demolition in 1960. The uproar that the incident caused is now forgotten, yet similar examples are also to be found across time and in the present. (The closure of Zonar’s restaurant is a recent example.) These all touch on the important issue of the protection, restoration and transformation of a city’s architecture. As buildings grow old and cities transform to fit the faster pace of contemporary life, the challenge is to find ways to integrate a city’s architectural past into its present. «Architectural Transformations,» a two-volume, lavish publication written by architect Dimitris Philippidis and recently released by Melissa, looks into the subject in a well-rounded and insightful way. The first tome focuses on examples from Athens and Thessaloniki and the second covers the Greek periphery. Fully illustrated, the books cover a broad range of constructions, not just historical buildings but also industrial, 20th century edifices that have been transformed to fit contemporary usage, as for example is the case of the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex, which was initially a factory for the Lada car industry and was transformed by architects Andreas Kourkoulas and Maria Kokkinou into a museum. The chapters are divided among public spaces, cultural venues and private residences. Philippidis weaves his examples around theoretical points on the role of architecture, the retention of a city’s past as well as more practical matters, such as the involvement of the Greek state in the development of architecture, architectural competitions and the use of land. The book only includes projects that Philippidis considers as successful. The building that houses the Council of State and the National Book Center is one of the most notable cases of an old building that has been well restored and adapted to different usages through time. The original building was designed by Lysandros Kaftatzoglou in the second part of the 19th century and housed the Arsakeion Girls’ School. More buildings were erected on the same block, part of which soon became a commercial arcade. The present-day Stoa tou Vivliou evokes this aspect of the building’s past. In the prewar period, the building was in a dilapidated condition with stores occupying much of its ground level. Architect Alexandros Kalligas undertook the renovation of the building in the mid-1980s. Reading through the book, one gets the sense of the complexity surrounding the preservation and restoration of a city’s old edifices. Respecting the past but making it a vital part of the present is one of the biggest challenges of architecture. In a newly developing country such as Greece, where the past is sometimes not properly appreciated, this challenge also becomes a crucial cultural issue.

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