General State Archives in own home at last

It hardly seems possible, but the building site at Psychico has become a brand-new building. The General State Archives of Greece (GAK) have finally found lodging in the building that has been destined to house them since the late 1970s. An exterior of gleaming white Dionysos marble overlies an interior that combines a rational approach and advanced technology. Though Greece had had a law since 1917 on accommodation for the state archives, it was only in 2003 that it finally met this elementary requirement of any state which claims to be governed by Enlightenment values. The GAK building symbolizes the Greek State’s practical acceptance of the principles that define the obligations of the state toward memory, research and the future. An air of modernity pervades the GAK building. Its gleaming, pure-white marble, robust modernity of form, the contrast between the white of its facades and the green of the grass, the monumentality of the architecture enhanced by the slope of the ground, all constitute the proper approach to an important public building. Many will recall that the building, which was to start a new chapter in historical research in Greece, was a concrete skeleton for many years. It was fated to symbolize the indecisiveness and incapacity of the Greek State to undertake the rationalization of memory, and to be a constant reminder of national underdevelopment when it comes to anything to do with organizing archives and the research they give rise to. So the GAK building, which is preparing to turn decades of delay into an advantage, is starting its new life with a strong symbolic dimension. The state archives will go directly into a modern, purpose-built edifice, in contrast with those in other European countries, where historic buildings constantly need to adapt to their function. The new Psychico building (just past the Israeli Embassy and Leto Hospital) is the result of a nationwide architectural competition announced in 1977 after the 0.7-hectare, state-owned block of land was made available so that a gift of 40 million drachmas (around 117,000 euros) by Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanassiadis could be used. The first prize was won by four young architects – D. Dakanalis, S. Boubiotis, A. Tsigounis and C. Floros – who subsequently drew up the full architectural design. But although the building permit was issued in 1982, and the first contracts assigned in 1984, the building remained unfinished for 12 years. The incomplete building site in Psychico was a constant reminder of how the Greek State managed public money and viewed its priorities. All that seems to belong firmly in the past. With a new gift from the Bodosakis Foundation, GAK has found a home at last. In 1995, the Organization of School Buildings (OSK) auctioned the project, which was completed in late 2003. This year, the archives will become fully operational for the first time in their new home, and it will also be the first time that researchers will be able to consult the archives in ideal conditions. Everyone wants to forget the recent past, when the archives were piled up in storerooms – most of all GAK’s director, Giorgos Yiannakopoulos, who hopes that society will recognize their importance. Probably few people know that the archives include all those documents relating to the country from the beginning of the struggle for independence in 1821, and all the archives of the Justice Ministry, with criminal court decisions dating from 1826. The state archives dating from the time of the first Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Capodistrias, comprising handwritten files, architectural plans, engravings and photographs showing the progress of Greece as a modern European state from the 19th century until the present day, are stored in special rooms. Christos Floros, one of the original team of four architects that won the competition for the design of the building 27 years ago, is our guide. All four architects graduated from the National Technical University’s School of Architecture in 1973, and implemented the principles of modernism of the 1970s, which seem to be more welcome than ever nowadays, untouched as they are by the cacophony of postmodernism. Two-thirds of the 6,500-square-meter building is underground, with just one-third visible from the outside. The upper stories, which are accessible to the public, seem to float on a compact base. All the archives are downstairs in a 3,500-square-meter area divided into 12 compartments. High technology protects the documents not only from damp and insects but also from terrorist attacks. Descending into GAK’s inner sanctuary, where the State’s memories are stored in surgically sterile conditions, is an impressive experience. These areas will never be open to the public. Anyone who wants to study documents or microfilms must go to the reading room or the library, a pleasant, well-lit area reminiscent of a university library. Visitors also have access to the plan, map, seminar and lecture rooms, an exhibition space and a canteen. Of architectural interest is the way that the open- and closed-access areas are separated from each other without disturbing the functioning of the whole area. The GAK building is a new architectural acquisition for Athens. In a clear, dynamic fashion, and comprehensible, rational language, it symbolizes a new era for archive research in Greece. As robust and unadorned as it is externally, with its large white surfaces, the building is complex and labyrinthine internally, with underground corridors and passageways of different heights. It is the first building in Greece and one of the first in the world that was specifically designed to house state archives.

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