From neoclassical to air conditioning

Imagine yourselves in Omonia Square. If you’re on holiday, please forgive us for upsetting you, just pretend it’s a nightmare. From Omonia, start walking up Stadiou Street. Look up and you’ll see the triangular corner where the Katranzos store once stood. Since the early 1980s, when the building went up in flames, that unsightly corner has not changed. Governments have come and gone, mayors have been sworn in and then gone on to become Cabinet ministers, but that characteristic symbol of Athenian ugliness and filth has remained. As we all know, the city is full of such corners. Last Wednesday, Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias signed a decree improving the procedure and criteria for determining those districts deemed to be in need of a facelift, as well as a framework for projects aimed at upgrading the urban environment, including the refurbishment of facades. There are two important points here. First of all, the initiative covers private buildings that look out onto public spaces. Secondly, «facade» refers also to the side of a building that is visible from a public space (such as the Katranzos corner). At the end of the 1970s, when the idea was floated of restoring listed buildings, Athens was a city in crisis. Not that it still isn’t. However, the 25-30 years that have intervened have given us enough time to make an initial review of the situation. Steps have been taken, some of them major, to protect and highlight our architectural heritage. These have mainly been restricted to neoclassical buildings, but we had to start somewhere. However, there is an urgent need to extend the law to protect later buildings, the modernism of the 1930s, for example, a period in which Athens had a great deal to show for itself in terms of architecture. But that is not the point here. Conserving neoclassical buildings hasn’t saved Athens. They are but a minor part of the urban fabric. Athens in 2007 is not a city of neoclassical buildings. It is an endless mass of apartment buildings, the homes of 39 out of 40 Athenians. Very little has been done about these buildings, their dividing walls, their surrounding space, everything that comprises Athens’s actual «skin.» Souflias’s announcements certainly chart a course toward a mature approach. Back in 1985 or 1990, who would have thought of giving subsidies for concealing air-conditioning units, moving satellite dishes, taking down illegal billboards, or planting trees?