Battling commercial rot
Eleftheroton Square in Halandri used to be home to a traditional cafe (famed for its rice pudding) which had a handsome old iron roof over the pavement. A few years ago, a branch of Wendy’s fast-food chain opened on the site where the Afentoulis Cafe had been for 50 years. When the traditional use of the site changed, fast food and plastic prevailed. The management hung up signs everywhere, altering the look of the building. The local municipality and residents took offense, and filed suit against the new owners. Six years later, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Its decision was based on two articles in the Constitution, which stipulate «the protection of the natural and cultural environment is a State obligation» and «monuments, traditional areas and traditional elements are under State protection.» The court also cited the Granada Convention on Protection of the Architectural Heritage in Europe, ratified by Greece in 1992, ruling that not only is the building protected (there is a proposal to have it listed as a protected building) but its function affects the character of the square. Commenting on the ruling, attorney Vassilis Kounelis says: «The Constitution safeguards the cultural heritage as a complex of precious monuments and constructions. Since 1992, UNESCO has included in the notion of cultural heritage those buildings with special historical and artistic value which contribute to the identity of a specific national and social whole. And the Granada Convention introduces the element of the social particularity of a building as well as the factor of its social use. All of this is a strong legal basis for broader protection of the cultural environment.» These legal terms may not reflect the joy we feel when we discover certain oases amid the concrete desert of the city, nor show what destruction the pursuit of profit has brought. The Halandri success is not enough to save the entire square which is intersected by roads and dominated by awnings, signs and money-making tables and chairs. The Wendy’s branch had already closed down, having failed to attract sufficient custom. But the court decision can help us see the city around us in a different way, save what can be saved, and set limits on the unfettered change in the use of buildings.