In Karamanlaki Square, an urban miracle endures

At the Kallifrona bus stop, Patission Street looks familiar: traffic, shops, groups of migrants, trolley buses lumbering by. So much has happened and so much has changed, yet you can still feel the pulse of postwar Athens beating here. I’ve never lived in Patissia nor seen Fokionos Negri Street in its heyday, but if you like Athens at all, you feel at home in these streets. It’s a strange feeling. One Saturday in the fall, I alit at the Kallifrona stop. I imagined myself going back in time to 1950. What would Patission Street have looked like then? What kind of people would I have met and where would I have stopped to look around? I would certainly have seen at close quarters the minor town-planning miracle of Karamanlaki Square. It’s an old story that few now recall. Architect and engineer Dimitris Kontargyris is one who does. Without having any particular attachment to the area, Kontargyris used to go there in his youth to visit a relative. Since then, he has often returned. He is overwhelmed by the sense of order, tranquillity and propriety that he attributes to the homogeneity and austerity of its buildings. Karamanlaki is in Kato Patissia, between Amerikis and Koliatsou squares. Apart from sharing the same style, each of the 30 buildings that border on the square has a small garden in front. The greenery was mandated by a 1939 decree, which unfortunately was only enforced in Karamanlaki Square. The archaeological features are a legacy of the anonymous apartment blocks that went up in the last three years of the interwar period, explained Kontargyris. The balconies are all separate features, and the facades are uniform. «Covering every part of the facades with the same material and color conveys the image of a serene, monolithic, cubist-style mass with interesting variations of light and shape,» he noted. He insists that this type of postwar Athenian apartment building could have spread to other parts of Athens in 1955-65, the decade of mass construction, but he has an idea as to why it did not. «The decline and disappearance of this particular type of apartment building coincides with the period when the first dynamic generation of postwar architects became active,» he said. «During that phase, Nikos Valsamakis played a leading role in the quest for a new vocabulary in architecture, as did his charismatic, revolutionary innovations. It was striking how quickly those innovations became accepted.» However, Kontargyris believes that while those aesthetic and other innovations had a positive effect on buildings created by known architects, the same cannot be said for anonymous mass architecture. The latter, he said, «attempted to imitate the new vocabulary poorly and the fatal solution of connected balconies was employed everywhere, with overloaded parapets that clumsily girded facades. At the same time, the Karamanlaki Square type of apartment block was seen a symbol of social and stylistic conservatism.» That was in the 1960s. Now we must see that they survive by doing something fairly simple: The state should list the Karamanlaki buildings for preservation.

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