Athens from 1963 to 2003: Is history repeating itself with relentless construction and the concern it triggers?

For Athens of the Internet, mobile phones and sushi, the 1960s seem inconceivably remote, a time many Athenians only know through movies. Depending on how you look at the era, the 1960s have a bright side, as in the development boom bequeathed by Constantine Karamanlis’s eight years in power (reflected proudly in the Greek cinema of the time), and a darker side (the spread of the antiparochi system, whereby old houses were exchanged for the right to apartments in newly built blocks, political irregularities and the dictatorship). In search of a clearer picture, we consulted the press of the time. Using Michalis Lefantzis’s «Modern Greek Architecture in the Athenian Press in 1944-1974» as a guide, we picked up the scent of the Athenian 1960s, which was unexpectedly similar to the present day. Apart from the purist Greek and the political news, the correspondences are surprising. Likenesses The «new» Omonia of those days was paved with pebbles which aroused the opposition of the Athens press, led by Eleni Vlachou’s Kathimerini. Five days after Vlachou’s article (on January 18, 1963), architect Costas Biris took up the issue. His criticism focused on the unnatural, unaesthetic look of the water which «leaps up from the asphalt, from the glued-together pebbles and an extravagant complex of marble pieces.» He added, «There is a need for greenery, and a not inconsiderable expanse of it.» Sound familiar? Eventually, on the initiative of the public works minister of that time, S. Gikas, a lawn replaced the pebbles. The Santiago Calatrava of that era was Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect of international renown. Saarinen’s study for the new Hellenikon airport (which is to house the Athens Conference Center) also came under fire. Writing in Kathimerini, Biris asked, «Why should a visitor to Athens have to face this fascistic and inhospitable sight in the reception area?» The designs were returned to Saarinen, who made some minor changes, which seemed to sooth his critics. In 1963, the bed of the Ilissos River was covered over to make Ilissos Avenue, later renamed Kallirois. Forty years later, the city’s second river, the Kifissos, is being buried for the sake of vehicles. Kifissou Avenue, a freeway linking the highway with the northern suburbs and the seashore, will debouch onto the built-up seafront of Neo Faliron. In 1963, the Hilton Hotel opened, a symbol of the new, optimistic, self-satisfied Athens. In the year just passed, the latest renovations to the Hilton were completed, with an additional wing on Ventiris Street. It is one of a series of radically refurbished or new hotels opening in the city before the Olympic Games. This feverish activity in hotel tourism compares with the feverish construction of the 1960s, when Athens took its first timid steps toward becoming a significant Mediterranean tourist destination. But not everything was rosy. A financial crisis at another emblematic establishment of the Karamanlis years, Mont Parnes, sparked discussion of how Parnitha was being turned into building plots. (The hotel opened on June 15, 1961 but maintenance soon became too costly and eventually a casino was built there.) This resembles current anxieties about the fate of the Mesogeion area. Political scene Comparing the political scene of the two periods yields interesting similarities. The November 1963 elections put an end to Karamanlis’s term of office. As public works minister in National Radical Union governments and later as prime minister (1955-1963), the man who later become president of Greece became synonymous with Greece’s attempts to develop. His term began in 1952 with the first great development venture, a study for the beautification of beaches from Faliron to Glyfada. A large number of projects in the provinces and Athens were to follow, including shaping the open spaces on Philopappou Hill and the Acropolis to designs by Dimitris Pikionis, restoration of the Stoa of Attalos and construction of the airport at Hellenikon. Karamanlis lost the November 1963 elections under the pressure of rapid political developments (such as the murder of deputy Grigoris Lambrakis and what George Papandreou termed a relentless struggle against electoral fraud), but in the minds of many Greeks he was always to be associated with grand projects. Without making risky comparisons, one cannot help but observe that one of the main planks in the current premier’s election campaign is the «great projects that are changing the face of the country.» And just like Karamanlis in 1963, in spring 2004 Simitis will have been prime minister for eight years. The premier can point to significant projects during his term of office (the new airport, the Athens Metro and the Attiki Odos), just as Karamanlis did before the 1963 elections to land reclamation works, irrigation in rural areas, and the construction of dams and workers’ housing complexes. Even a cursory look at these coincidences reminds us how fluid and unclassifiable our postwar history still is. The fast town-planning change Athens underwent in the 1960s is an unexamined field, scattered with myths and politically colored interpretations. While few doubt that Karamanlis’s term of office was one of the greatest modernizing efforts of the past century, it is still held chiefly, though not wholly, responsible for the transformation of Athens. How true that is still needs examination, given how popular the antiparochi system was. In any case, complex phenomena are capable of many interpretations, which is a good reason to read about the past and the present.

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