Nostalgia for the old apartment blocks

Apartment blocks reflect one of the many contradictions that exist in Greece. Though everyone blames apartment buildings for the misfortunes of the cityscape since the 1960s, these very same people are doing everything they can to reproduce them. However, there is every indication that the time when apartment blocks symbolized nothing but Greek opportunism and profiteering now belongs to the past. Though we may not have reached the point where we can forgive those multistory blocks that overshadow narrow city streets, we have reached the stage where we can distinguish between different types. What was inconceivable in 1970 or 1980 and still rather eccentric in 1990, now appears normal. There are some people who feel nostalgic for apartment blocks. How and why is a long story, but we are beginning to recognize the phenomenon that, like everything else in Greece, has its origins in sentiment. In order to achieve a practical goal, one must first make sure it will be welcome. This is what happened with neoclassical buildings (after they were demolished); that’s what is happening with the modernist buildings of the 1930s (while they are being neglected), and that is probably what will happen to the good apartment buildings built before the occupation and after reconstruction, which were the harbingers of the new era. Now that the children who grew up in those apartments are adults aged 40- 50, the time has come for a change of attitude. What was just one more nondescript building, is now a tender, sentimental symbol with personal connotations and even an aesthetic dimension. Three recent examples of this in Athens show the beginnings of a new direction. One apartment block has been demolished and two more are under threat. What is significant is that these three buildings – one in Ambelokipi, one in the center and one in Makryianni – have become symbols of what was initially a psychological change. The building that was demolished at 15 Dionysiou Aeropagitou, designed by architect Dimitris Axelou and built in 1935, is not the only worthwhile apartment block that has been knocked down. It belonged to the celebrated 1930s generation and was in the advance guard of the buildings brought to Athens in the interwar period by modernization and European modernism. It was an imposing building, designed to mark the beginning of the road and the row of fine buildings that crowned Dionysiou Aeropagitou. Next to the site of that building, which had to be demolished for the New Acropolis Museum, one of the most important buildings in the street is still standing at No. 17. An apartment building designed in the finest of taste by architect Vassileios Kouremenos with an art deco entrance, it stands alone, the first of the buildings that line the street leading to the Herod Atticus Theater and the Acropolis. The apartment block at 7 Zalakosta in downtown Athens is also a prewar structure. Built in 1938, designed by Adrianos Lazarimos and owned by the sailors’ pension fund (NAT), it is one of the best of its era. The news that it was to be rebuilt (though this has not been confirmed nor is it due to happen at once), sparked an emotional response and led some people to collect historical evidence and raise the issue of the city’s identity. This was yet one more occasion that demonstrated how aesthetic, sentimental and historical interest in the city has shifted dramatically by the standards of Athens. This shift has nowhere been more apparent than in the case of the apartment block at 5 Kifissias in Ambelokipi. The block was built around 1960 along the lines of postwar classicism or conservative modernism that was born in the 1950s. The facade is interesting, with uniform parapets and the design balancing the base and the main body. A disadvantage of this attractive building is the blind wall that faces Alexandras Avenue (and which calls out for intervention), but its charm is obvious. As nostalgia for Athenian buildings of the 1950s and ’60s grows, buildings like this one symbolize the architectural spring of postwar Greece. This is the other side of the coin of antiparochi (a system of exchanging land and dwelling for an apartment in a block to be built on the same site) with its negative connotations. Nostalgia for the 1950s, ’60s and even the ’70s has naturally already emerged in the highly developed societies of the West; for the past 15 years, British buildings from the 1960s have been listed for preservation. In Greece, discussion of certain representative 20th century buildings has just begun. The Athenian apartment block of 1955-65 – and sometimes slightly earlier or later – is much misunderstood. It survives in many variations and states of repair. Some of the ones in Kolonaki, on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue and Fokionos Negri Street form part of the Greek urban tradition of the 20th century. The cool entrances of these buildings and the inexplicable silence that suddenly envelops the visitor conjure up a wonderful sense of the pre-dictatorship period in Greece. Strangely, for a city like Athens which seems not to rate its urban tradition very highly, there are many people today who are passionate advocates of the apartment blocks where they spent their childhood. This is just the beginning and the difficult part is still to come. Which of these buildings will the 21st century save and how will it do so? And of those it deemed worthy of passing on to succeeding generations, how many have the static requirements for prolonged life up to 2070 or 2100? Perhaps by then the present appearance of Vassilissis Sofias, Amalias or Patission avenues will look as romantic as a photograph from 1900 does today. There are many questions about the future of aging Athenian apartment blocks, especially as the growing need for refurbishment and modernization obliges us to reconsider our priorities. What is certain is that in the early 21st century, Olympic Athens can touch hearts with an apartment building 40, 50 or 70 years old. Our urban culture is becoming more profound.