Reviving historic center

A recent issue of Wallpaper magazine shows Athens swathed in scaffolding and burlap, with new roads under construction, the Metro being extended and buildings renovated in preparation for the Olympic Games in 2004. The Games do offer Athens a great opportunity to freshen up its aging, grimy buildings. The priority goes to old houses, the prewar buildings that we often label neoclassical, regardless of their style. In true Greek fashion, this huge project is being overseen not by one but three public organizations: the Culture Ministry, the Public Works Ministry and EAXA – the company that is managing the unification of archaeological sites on behalf of both ministries. The renovation of neoclassical houses in Athens is not new. It began in Plaka in the 1970s and spread. Naturally enough, the work began on properties owned by the Culture Ministry. A large number of houses, chiefly in Plaka, and a few in Kerameikos and Monastiraki were attractively renovated, nearly always to house various ministry services. This practice had its downside, however. The areas are deserted in the afternoon when employees go home. This is particularly noticeable in winter near the Tower of the Winds. By dark this idyllic neighborhood is deserted and the houses look like a pretty stage set without a trace of life. The same problem has arisen again. The Culture Ministry’s directorate of cultural buildings has renovated a considerable number of buildings in Aghion Assomaton and Pireos streets. The recently refurbished neoclassical mansion on the corner of Aghion Assomaton and Psaromilingou will house the Monument Conservation Center. Nearby, EAXA is refurbishing a smaller building to house the Andreas Lentakis Culture and Education Foundation. Another such program is under way on Stadiou Street. A Culture Ministry directorate is restoring two facades of the National Printing Press. Two ministries are quarreling over its eventual use: the Justice Ministry (which is the owner) wants it for the judges’ club and reading room, while the Culture Ministry wants it for a press and printing museum. In both cases the ministries are bowing to sectional interests which are guided purely by their own minority concerns. And even if the two ministries were in favor of these solutions, they could not have found more lifeless functions for a building of this size in the heart of Athens. It is a wonder that such matters are still being dealt with almost as a matter of course. There is no guiding policy; there are no aims. For instance, a number of buildings owned by the Culture Ministry could be rented out to third parties and the income used to restore other buildings. EAXA’s president, Yiannis Kallantidis, believes that we have to change the way way we look at this issue, and that the restored houses should be inhabited once more: «The objective should be the retrieval of the historic center. And we can only achieve that if we offer incentives for people to return to the center.» Seich-Sou in Thessaloniki this year has been attributed to the weather and other species of Bursaphelenchus which are carried by wood and bark-eating insects, and are related to but not as harmful as B. xylophilus, which has not yet been found in Greece.