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Legal protection sometimes comes too late, after the wreckers have already struck the initial blow

The issue has a philosophical underpinning for Professor Eleni Flessa-Emmanouil of Athens University, who is a scholar of Greek architecture. «The real question that arises is why we should protect a building from 1930 or 1965. Personally, I’m not so interested in the romantic side of it. By preserving a building of architectural value, we declare that, in this city, history didn’t start yesterday or the day before but much earlier. For a country like Greece that doesn’t have significant technological achievements to its credit, buildings are evidence of its progression toward modernity. They are also a means of comparison, both at a national and international level. And, of course, they offer us lessons: A building can do that better than thousands of lectures.» This is where the first problem arises. «Greek public opinion has not yet been convinced of the value of preserving an old building,» explains Flessa-Emmanouil. «That could be because there isn’t the necessary distance.» She argues that 20 years is the minimum time a society needs before it can look back and start evaluating its output. But apparently that is not the issue in Greece since the problems of protection and preservation concern buildings more than 20 years old. «And those are the ones that are being destroyed,» she adds. Given the lack of social pressure, she believes that the state should promptly draw up a list of buildings that have not yet been listed for preservation and prohibit their being demolished or having any work done on them without the consent of experts. Drawing up such a list would have a double effect, in her view: The issue would not be dealt with in such a piecemeal fashion and it would avoid the problem of listings that come too late, when the blow has already fallen. Manos Biris, writer and professor at the National Technical University of Athens, suggests something similar – a catalog of buildings, an open data bank at the service of the state, which would document the worth of a building, thus deterring anyone who wanted to alter it or even demolish it. Biris has been a member of the KSNM for several years. Though he is not in a position to judge the government’s new proposals, he shared his experience with us: «In contrast to pre-1830 monuments, where private interests are rarely involved, with modern monuments the pressures are clearly greater. Not only does protection not extend to buildings more than 100 years old, but also, in this category of buildings, which is theoretically the most favored, evidence is required to demonstrate their superiority over similar structures,» he explained. As for post-1905 buildings, Biris quips that they are «infants exposed to the elements.» As a KSNM member, Biris has encountered a building restoration trend that is relatively new to Greece. It entails preserving the facade while partially or wholly demolishing the interior, given that in most cases the buildings are being used for new purposes that create new needs. The trend first hit the news with two notable cases – the Athinogenous Mansion on Stadiou Street and a pair of neoclassical buildings on Kolokotronis Square. The former is still in a dilapidated state (the owners demanded that floors be added for shops), while the latter two have been made into the setting for a new facade with a glass backdrop. Biris rebuts accusations that the KSNM is «excessively rigid» and «a stickler for the rules.» «On the contrary,» he says. «We allow leeway for internal alterations so that stairs and an elevator can be installed.» He cites the building on the corner of Ermou and Voulis streets (which houses the Fokas department store) as an example where many substantial changes were permitted. A similar issue arose with the old Hotel d’Athenes, on the corner of Stadiou and Korai. When the interior was demolished, members of the public appealed to the Council of State. Architect Yiannis Kizis, who was responsible for the updated study of the Army Pension Fund block and its listed spaces (the Pallas and Aliki theaters and the Spyromiliou Arcade), attacks both what he calls «sweeping announcements and rulings» and the urge of the newly enlightened, «who have, in their old age, discovered modern monuments.» In his view «every building presents its own issues. One building might be important for the history of the country, another for its public use, and a third for its style.» He believes each should be treated differently. «But serious problems,» he said, «such as the protection of a building, are not solved by a single stroke of the pen. The British were not mistaken when they started protecting their architectural heritage back in the 1970s by examining each building separately.» Biris pointed out another danger that arises from the legislation: «According to Article 41 of the new law, a building may be demolished if it is judged to be on the point of collapse by a joint committee of experts from the Culture and Public Works ministries. So a lot of owners allow their buildings to rot, expecting such an outcome.»