Simplicity and elegance

The Xenia story wasn’t always this bad. The hotels were once hailed as «unique international hotels whose approach, scale and particular use of materials» made them an architect’s dream and a tourist’s haven. This was tourism policy at its finest. In 1950, Greece was struggling to achieve financial and political solvency after World War II and the disastrous Civil War, and its leaders decided to develop its hospitality industry in order to attract more tourists. The best architects, engineers, artists and technicians of the time worked together – under the umbrella of the Greek public sector – to build hotels of the highest quality. During this time, Mont Parnes was built by architect Pavlos Mylonas. The hotel-casino on Mount Parnitha, which became both lucrative and high-profile, was built between 1957 and 1961 with funds from the Greek National Tourism Organization. Greece also invited the reknowned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the TWA terminal and modernist Dulles airport terminal in Washington DC, to build an international airport at Hellenikon. Top Italian engineers and builders were also brought in to build a portion of the national highway at Kakia Skala near Corinth. «The Greek public sector, with the limited means it had at its disposal, took a pioneering step for Greece,» said architect Pantelis Nikolakopoulos, who leads the Division of Architectural and Environmental Protection of the Greek Architectural Union. «It built public buildings with the best materials and methods it could find. Something similar had happened in 1930, when a series of schools were built in the countryside using a top architect of the time, Dimitris Pikionis. In 1933, [the French architect] Le Courbousier visited Greece to study these buildings. The same thing happened with the Xenia hotels. But the mass production of buildings by great architects stopped there.» Advanced aesthetics The Xenia hotels project began in 1950 under Haralambos Sfaellos, head of the technical services until 1958. He was replaced in the period 1957-67 by architect Aris Constantinidis, who transformed the department into a fertile workshop of teamwork and original architectural thought. This was a time when original thought, successful results and advanced aesthetics in architecture breathed new life into Greek society. Many of Constantinidis’s buildings of the time remain symbols of an optimistic, bold and goal-centered Greece at the outset of the 1960s. Areas noted for their natural beauty and architectural or historical interest were selected for the hotels. «The Greek National Tourism Organization selected the regions, but the architects chose the plots,» says Nikolakopoulos. «They were always the biggest and best plots, with the best views. All the fuss today is about the plots.» Functional space The hotels – at least those that remain – have typically been low buildings with large open spaces and beautiful gardens. Separated into nine-room wings to avoid wasting too much space on corridors, the bedrooms mostly face south, and in some cases – such as at the Kalambaka Xenia – there is space to park a car in front of each room. The rooms all lead out from the same side of the corridor, allowing light into the entire building. These hotels are a far cry from modern complexes that have hundreds of rooms and endless blind corridors with rooms leading off both sides. The Xenia hotels reflect a respect for the patron, and evoke a certain dignity and quality. They don’t scream profit. Simplicity is the dominant architectural feature of the Xenia hotels – to the point, says Nikolakopoulos, «that when they are abandoned and deserted, people will wonder why they were ever important. But back then, and with limited means – there lies the genius of the program – they were able to create a clean, beautifully proportioned architecture that is serene, not ostentatious in any way, that blends into the natural environment, be it green or urban, and sends the message that it is there to give visitors a chance to relax and enjoy some peace and quiet on their free time.» Simplicity was key as Greek architects tried to meet the quality demands of a growing contingent of foreign tourists.

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