History threatened by Church’s plan for hotel

A tug of war has been going on for some time over one of the less visible but among the most central and indisputably valuable properties in Athens. Although on the surface the argument appears to be over whether to save age-old pine trees and abandoned 19th century stone buildings in a romantic setting, the conflict is essentially between two different world views. The objective value of a piece of land, often at the expense of Athens’s architectural heritage and ecological balance, has always been a source of conflict. Opposition usually comes from concerned residents, groups of academics or individual scholars. This time the dispute is between the Church of Greece and the country’s architects, with the Environment and Public Works Ministry caught in the middle. The Church of Greece wants to build a 750-bed hotel on its property situated between the NIMTS and Navy hospitals in the shadow of Lycabettus Hill, a 1.1-hectare site bounded by Deinocratous, Iatridou and Soudias streets, an area remembered by older Athenians as the parapigmata (barracks). Scattered with 19th century buildings, the site is thickly planted with typical Attic vegetation and has, so far, retained the character of a unified architectural, historic, aesthetic and ecological whole. Until recently, it housed the Unified Church High School and before that the 401 Military Hospital. Avenues of old trees, of the few still to be found in Athens, tiled roofs, examples of 19th century military architecture alternating with Neoclassical buildings of the Athenan school, preserve the atmosphere of the Athens of a century ago. Within the next few days, a decision is expected regarding the fate of the site and the future of the trees and buildings. It is almost 20 years since the fight began to save the buildings as part of the national heritage and just a few weeks since the Culture Ministry’s relevant council voted against retaining the site in its entirety. The vote was seven for and seven against, but was decided by the weighted vote cast by the ministry’s general secretary, Lena Mendoni, who voted against. All that remains is for Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos to put his signature to the decision and most of the buildings will be demolished to make way for the hotel, even though zoning regulations forbid it. The National Technical University’s school of architecture is in favor of saving the site as a whole, as is the Culture Ministry’s ephorate of more contemporary monuments and its Department of Popular Culture, the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, the Greek branch of ICOMOS, the Lycabettus Cultural Association, a large sector of the media (including Kathimerini), and many individuals. No one doubts the Church of Greece’s right to make the best use of its property. However, as is the case with individuals, it will be judged by its choices. The Church’s highly materialistic insistence on destroying a piece of open land on the lower slope of Lycabettus in order to erect a massive building poses certain questions. According to the general town plan of the municipality of Athens, the site in question comes under «Open Spaces – Urban Green Space,» which rules out construction. Sites in this category are only permitted to be used for cultural and educational activities; in this case, moreover, the land is right next to two hospitals. If the culture minister does sign the decision to demolish 10 of the 14 buildings (one of which will be cut in half), the way will be clear for the site to be used for other purposes. The issue is an extremely complex one. The demolition of most of the buildings will remove traces of the city’s history. Doing away with a large part of the site not only destroys its unity but individual buildings of architectural interest. Maintaining a few of these buildings for show, alongside the Church’s hotel, is no solution, as the site is one of the few remaining in its original state in the city, which, according to architect Elisavet Iliopoulou, is one of the most important aspects of the issue. Moreover, construction would mean the felling of huge trees that are a habitat for bird life – in all there are 21 large pines, eight eucalyptus, five cypress trees, mulberry, orange, fig and olive trees as well as a number of shrubs, all of which are a source of oxygen as well as being of aesthetic value. The plan to destroy this historic site also raises a moral issue, that of the «new type of development» for Athens that promotes the idea that material gain equals progress. The fact that seven members of the Culture Ministry’s council, including Mendoni, herself an archaeologist and university faculty member, have virtually made it clear that the prospect of a hotel on the site would benefit the city, would allow part of the site to be demolished making way for the Church’s purely materialistic goals. There has been no counterproposal made to the Church. Nor has any explanation been given as to how the buildings left standing would survive in the hotel’s shadow. It is certain that if the ministry decides that history is not as important as a hotel next to two hospitals, the few remaining buildings will stand as a reminder of yet another major disgrace in the history of this city.