NEWS

It isn’t too late yet to do something for Athens

The buildings date from 1882, constructed by order of King George I and Prime Minister Harilaos Trikoupis, on what was then state land, behind what is now Freedom Park (Parko Eleftherias) at the intersection of Deinocratous, Iatridou and Souidias streets, east of the Petrakis Monastery in the district of Kolonaki. Originally used to house the Non-Commissioned Officers’ Academy, producing such luminaries as (former Prime Minister) Nikolaos Plastiras and other distinguished generals, it was later used as the Athens First Military Hospital, re-named the 401 Military Hospital, treating the wounded from wars between 1897 and 1950. The area was later known simply as «the shacks,» echoing the sighs of suffering soldiers, and became more widely known in popular songs. In 1971, during the dictatorship, when the hospital was transferred to a new building on Katehaki Avenue, the land was granted to the Church of Greece in exchange for a property in Vari to which the Officers’ Academy was moved. Now the Church is planning to erect a 750-bed luxury hotel, but not before cutting down dozens of trees and demolishing the buildings which, according to architect Elissavet Iliopoulou (who kindly provided us with the photographs and information), are «of great aesthetic and historic interest.» But let’s leave aside this «interest» (after all, the whole country is of aesthetic and historic interest and yet we are trampling all over it). Nor do I wish to be seen as against the Church or religion. If only the Church would make use of its huge holdings by building churches, cathedrals, hotels, casinos and factories so that it can become self-supporting and stop leaning on the State. But even a cursory look around this particular area will show that Freedom Park is being eaten up by the Athens Concert Hall, and we still don’t know how much will be left of it. All I remember is a promise from the authorities that not one piece of land would be removed and that after the Concert Hall’s extensions, which were to be underground, the land would be made available to the public, along with any trees that had been cut down or uprooted. You’ll say that the same promises were made about the Athens Metro and never kept. Just be patient for a few years; you never know. The entire area in question is densely populated, with 15 hospitals within 2 kilometers, a football field, two or three major avenues and a lot of smog. Right next to the Hippocrateio Hospital a gigantic entertainment complex is being built, I imagine out of steel and glass. But this is not the most important thing. Forget about the Athens Concert Hall; we’ve gotten used to it and it’s a part of our lives now. Let’s also forget about the US Embassy, apart from one or two outbursts of anti-American fever every year, which after all are now part of our «national habits.» But town planners, architects, traffic experts and smog experts claim that the last remaining open spaces between the NIMTS military hospital and Alexandras Avenue are the last chance to revive the area and provide an alternative concept for the city to the one which has prevailed for so many decades. As well as Freedom Park, there is Lycabettus Hill just above it, the lovely old hospital buildings along Vassilisis Sofias Avenue, the open spaces around the Athens Concert Hall and the American Embassy, just beyond the Koundouriotika behind the Panathinaikos Stadium, which will soon cease to be a football field. Opposite is the still virgin territory of the old refugee settlement (an architectural and historic monument). Nearby, what was once the site of the Villa Thon and behind it, the beautiful buildings of the Amalia Fleming Hospital, next to the court buildings. Still further afield is the large open expanse of land at Goudi. We often say that it’s all over for Athens, that it’s too late. But it appears that Athens has not been destroyed completely. In every neighborhood there are opportunities to improve the situation, but Athens is being destroyed little by little every single day with the excuse that «it’s already ruined anyway.» Ambelokipi, Lycabettus, and the Freedom Park are our last chance. Soon the local elections will be upon us and we will all want to know candidate mayors’ views on these issues. No one wants to harm the interests of the Church, and there is a way to resolve this. Hellenic Tourism Properties (ETA) owns many attractive plots it makes available to everyone from publishers to «environmentalists» for tourism development. Let the Church be compensated many times over, let it build not just one but two hotels, since it wants to go into the tourist trade. Amen. New universities