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Architect mulls skyscrapers for Athens

From the top of Lycabettus, Athens is a dense white mass of not-too-tall buildings. The few exceptions include the Athens Tower (the highest building at 103 meters), the Hilton and President hotels, the Apollo Tower and, further north, the 20-story Atrina, the first notable structure in what was to become the empire of developer Babis Vovos. The Acropolis has always inhibited the construction of very tall buildings. Most Athenian «skyscrapers» were built during the 1967-74 dictatorship. In less troubled times, the erection of tall buildings has always led to protests. When the Hilton was being built, it was criticized as an insult to the Acropolis, the symbol of the city. Architect Manolis Anastassakis is challenging the skyscraper taboo. He submitted a design for two towers (150 and 200 meters high) in Elaionas in western Athens to an international architectural competition. «If you look at what is happening in European cities, you’ll see that there is renewed interest in tall buildings, because today they can be an ecologically appropriate solution and at the same time can free up or conserve urban space,» he said. In Greece especially, skyscrapers have often been associated with an outdated style of architecture, but this is changing. «Newer skyscrapers are built with absolutely environmentally friendly specifications and consume less energy than conventional apartment buildings,» he said. The design for the two towers in Elaionas is aimed at revitalizing that part of the city. «It would revive the city skyline with a form that would highlight the importance of the site and would be a dynamic symbol for metropolitan Athens,» he said. For Anastassakis, the problem is neither economic nor institutional but ideological. Lack of daring «In Greece we tend to do everything in moderation,» he said. «That has helped us in some ways but, you know, there is often a fine line between moderation and mediocrity. We are generally hesitant and lacking in daring; as a society we are very suspicious of anything that stands out, that is outside the norm.» Anastassakis’s design focuses on the kind of urban environment that a skyscraper can bring out, as well as the structure’s relationship with the ground on which it stands. «This is an issue that extends to the natural and cultural history of the site,» he said. «That is, the way a large-scale project translates the particular characteristics of a place and proposes meaningful connections as well as new relationships between the place’s history and the needs and viewpoints of today.» His towers rise from the ground like olive leaves, a clear reference to the ancient site of Elaionas («olive grove» in Greek), west of Omonia Square. «We are heading toward the creation of an important open public space which is a functional part of the design,» he said. «We treat the tall elements of the structure as natural extensions of the familiar ground. So the design is required to create a dense urban space in direct contact with the city’s natural substrata, the soil.» As for the design concept itself, Anastassakis explained that the skyscraper was treated as «a combination of individual elements and not as a design for a large monolithic building unit.» «The multiplicity of elements liberates possibilities both regarding the creation of an open public space and their combination with the natural environment,» he added. «We call this concept of tall buildings ‘multiscrapers’ because of the variety of entities and functions and the multiplicity of possibilities it provides.» Two decades ago in an article in Kathimerini, architect Zissis Kotionis, an associate professor at Thessaly University’s Architecture Department, raised the idea of enlarging Athens by means of tall towers in the east and west of Attica. «We suggested a series of towers at Megara and along the seafront from Hellenikon to Lavrion within the framework of a more general rezoning in view of the construction of the Attiki Odos,» recalled Kotionis. He agrees that a refusal to enter into a debate on skyscrapers in Athens is indicative of prejudice and conservatism. «The idea of a tall structure in the city should be dealt with in a strategic way,» he said, fearing that otherwise there was the risk of provincialism. «People should consider that Athens can absorb the idea of tall buildings,» he added. «We should look for the why and how, and not just move ahead unconditionally. Personally, I am skeptical about the center, but we could see a new Athens as an urban entity reaching the boundaries of Attica.»