Building an architectural trove

The Benaki Museum’s Archive of Modern Greek Architecture is being housed – temporarily – in an old middle-class apartment on Valaoritou Street in the heart of Athens. An annex of the Benaki Museum devoted solely to research, it is constantly being enriched with new material and has become a treasury of modern Greek architecture. The archives of older architects, such as Kaftantzoglou, Nikoloudis and Pikionis, and more modern ones, include photographs, designs, heirlooms and all kinds of information – written, visual or oral, composing a panorama of architectural creativity in Greece from the 19th century until today. Being under the aegis of an organization such as the Benaki Museum creates the perfect climate for building the trust necessary for many private individuals to donate (or lend for use) the archives of their forebears or contemporary items. These are being added to a material of rapidly growing substance and weight. Only recently, Dimitris Pikionis’s daughter Agne publicly announced that she is donating her father’s archive to the Benaki Museum unit, on the occasion of the museum’s exhibition on the architecture of Chios designed by Pikionis. The Archive of Modern Greek Architecture was founded in 1995 and was initially known as the Center for the Documentation of Modern Greek Architecture. It was based on the architectural archive of the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive, which was given to the Benaki Museum in the form of a loan, and formed the springboard for future growth. New home «We are open to collaboration with all architectural organizations,» said architect and professor of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, who is a member of the Archive’s scientific committee (other members are C. Bouras, M. Biris, T. Christensen and S. Finopoulos). Although the committee has organized exhibitions – such as the first exhibition three years ago on the interwar architect Nikolaos Mitsakis – and is planning others, the big opportunity for the Archive will come with the opening of the Benaki Museum’s new site at 138 Pireos Street. Formerly home to a car dealership, this building will be transformed into the Cultural Center of the Benaki Museum (the architectural study is by Maria Kokkinou and Andreas Kourkoulas), and its main purpose will be to house the architectural archive in an area of 1,000 square meters, with an exhibition hall, library, reading room and a general infrastructure for the ambitious development and promotion of architecture. Valaoritou Street Back in Valaoritou, the material is ordered in such a way as to make it easy to use, but space is limited. Three architects, Natalia Boura, Margarita Sakka and Leti Arvaniti-Krokou, make up the scientific team that effectively runs the archives. Individual items that are not part of a larger archive provide both a standard of comparison and are of great scientific interest. The Panathenaic Stadium can be seen in both the designs of Anastasios Metaxas and a watercolor by Ernst Ziller. There is a design by Stamatis Kleanthes and Eduard Schaubert for the modification of the Venetian fort of Aegina into a prison, and a design by Ziller for one of the final versions of the facade of the National Archaeological Museum (1887), as well as the designs for his own private residence which still stands at 6 Mavromichali Street. All these demonstrate the historical value of the collections. One box contains part of the original photographic archive of Aristotelis Zachos dating to the early 20th century, with a series of traditional houses from a journey he made to Aegina in 1928. Another section shows Thessaloniki before 1917, which is of such great interest that a special volume featuring these photographs is to be published, showing Zachos to be a photographer with an architectural eye. Among the abundant material is the layout by Pikionis for the books on Siatista and Kozani. Applications for the demolition of neoclassical buildings, accompanied by photographs, to town-planning committees, and designs and studies for the new buildings form another area providing much information. Interwar period There are archives and documents from all the phases of modern Greek architecture, but especial care has been paid to the Thirties Generation. It is true that Greek architectural modernism in the interwar period was one of the most brilliant creative moments. It terminated suddenly with the outbreak of war in 1940, but this brief, yet fertile, period is still being studied and continues to provide new information. The architectural archive of the Benaki Museum has concentrated its attention on the collection, examination and evaluation of a large number of documents from that period. Many of these belonged to well-known creators of the 1930s. Architects of the stature of Kyriakoulis Panayiotakou (who designed the «Blue Apartment Block» in Exarchia Square), Vassilis Douras, Emmanouil Lazaridis, Giorgos Kontoleon, Nikolaos Zouboulidis, Emmanouil Kriezis and many others (the majority of whom are unknown to the general public) are represented in the Archive. A photograph-based program for the recording of the Athenian interwar period (primarily the 1930s) will soon commence, in collaboration with the photographer Giorgos Gerolympou, for the first time in Greece. Isaac Saporta The «Isaac Saporta Case» is considered one of the Archive’s notable successes. It required a journey to Atlanta in order to gather and repatriate the full Saporta archive. Isaac Saporta was one of the leading representatives of Greek modernism, an individual with a broad education and cosmopolitan outlook (like most of the architects of that period). Saporta left many designs, sketches and watercolors of great aesthetic value. There are many cases which intrigue or shine light on works or personalities. Pavlos Mylonas and Marika Zagorisiou were two active designers of the interwar years who have also left a piece of their work. Yiannis Lygizos, one of the last of the old guard who died recently, left the whole of his archive and extremely rich library to the Archive of the Benaki Museum. (This material will remain in its natural home at 44 Kolokotroni Street, which has been rented and acts as an extension to the archives on Valaoritou Street.) The libraries and personal mementos of deceased architects very often reveal their interests and the depth of their education. On the other hand, thematic archives, such as the recent donation by the Greek Tourism Organization of Aris Constantinidis’s designs for the Xenia hotels on various islands and regions of Greece, provide especially valuable knowledge for the study of modern architecture and the second spring of Greek modern architecture in 1955-1965. Bearing fruit Through its activities, the Benaki Museum’s Archive of Modern Greek Architecture attempts to cultivate public support for the protection and conservation of all forms of documentation. A large part has undoubtedly been lost through indifference or ignorance. A photograph or an archive are pieces in the great mosaic of modern Greek architecture. Their preservation has been safeguarded and the enterprise is already bearing fruit.