Breathing new life into old buildings

Cities change. Buildings fall down but are also rebuilt. Structures fall ill, like living organisms; they have parts removed, acquire new ones and different funtions. In recent years, all this change in urban shapes, which speaks directly of who we are and what we want, has become a science in its own right, expressed in different schools of thought and different starting points. The reshaping of settlements, the restoration of buildings and the invigoration of run-down urban areas are all bound up with new methodologies, ideologies and economic criteria. Entire communities may be mirrored in a building restoration project. These are just some of the ideas that architect Yiannis Kizis broaches in his complex take on the revival of old buildings. Polyphony His lavishly illustrated, two-volume work, «Restoration of Monuments – Revival of Historic Buildings in Attica» (Apokatastasi mnimeion – Anaviosi istorikon ktirion stin Attiki,» published in Greek by Ergon IV), documents significant restoration projects that have been carried out in Attica in recent years on structures dating from antiquity to the present day and ranging from monuments to simple town residences. Democratic in its approach, Kizis’s book highlights the work of many architects. And this polyphony encourages a redefinition of what is currently termed the restoration of monuments. It is a problematic term since, as Kizis claims in his illuminating preface, the «restoration of monuments takes us back to a strict ethic of restoration,» while «the revival of historic buildings hints at the greater architectural liberties that are allowed – or that should be allowed – in historic buildings that are being used for new purposes. Dialogue Projects related to ancient monuments and neoclassical buildings have an important place in Athens, on which the book focuses. There is no chapter on medieval or vernacular architecture, which have limited representation in Athens. Kizis, who has become a specialist in the «revival» of neoclassical buildings (one of his most important projects is the Catholic Church of Aghios Dionysius), not only works on a wide range of projects, but also sets out many sides of a complex issue in order to stimulate dialogue. «I hope that the architectural adventures of Attica’s monuments and historic buildings will spark discussion and stir things up a bit,» he writes. And this is because the various ways of reusing old buildings and giving them back to the city of today reveal diametrically opposed views and starting points. Often an uncultivated contractor may approve an extroverted look that disguises a building and cuts it off from its intellectual roots. Kizis deplores what he calls «a Third World type of nouveau riche culture» which ignores «whatever aesthetic values of urban culture were attained between the wars and in 1955-65.» Architects who undertake to breathe new life into a building from the past are anxious to resolve a series of apparent contradictions. As creative agents themselves, they legitimately desire to leave some trace of their own personal imprint, at the very least a discreet nod to a seasoned observer. On the other hand, they must take into account the technology of the era in which the building was constructed and choose what new technology they will introduce. The contractor, the new use, economic constraints, and the culture of the architect in charge will determine the result that adds new features to the city, enhancing it in both material and immaterial ways. Kizis writes in realistic but also poetic mode about what is «practicable» and what is «best.» Stripping down a building is of archaeological and psychoanalytical value, in his view, because it disposes of layers of life and ideological residue – prejudices, obsessions, choices that derive from different aesthetics and practical necessities. Through its panorama of recent restoration work in Attica, this book becomes a platform for an ideological and technical approach to very tricky issues that look insoluble at first glance. The amount and quality of work done to revive old buildings leads not only to an improvement of the urban environment but also to the acquisition of precious technical experience. And all this is guided by by the criterion that each building and each monument is an organism comprising particularities that make it unique. In this way, the continual game of urban renewal reveals stories about people and the conditions that shape them.