The Preservable Neo-Classical Buildings of Athens



By Maria Koumantaropoulou and Marios Michalides
Architects
Department of Cultural Buildings and Restoration of Contemporary Monuments, Greek Ministry of Culture

Athens in the 19th Century

Athens as well all know it. But was the City always like this? If not, through what processes did it arrive at its present state? We will attempt through these images—which are often more eloquent than any description—to cover the entire period from the creation of the new Greek State until now in order to understand the processes that created the face of Athens today, as well as the need to sensitize and induct every citizen into preserving and maintaining initial intentions.

February 3, 1830…and in London, the protocol is being signed recognizing Greece as an independent and free state. Even so, the Turks have yet to depart from Athens, and the Turkish Guard continues to occupy the Acropolis, which it will hand over nearly three years later, in the March of 1833. Three months later, the decree was signed designating Athens as the capital of the newly-formed Greek state.

A view of the city of Athens (19th century)

The situation in Athens at that moment is tragic. The testimony of travelers visiting here in that period all concur in that conclusion. Thus began the enormous effort at city and structural planning, in order to enable the city to meet the needs of the administrative and commercial center that it was called upon to be in the coming years.

A view of the city of Athens, including Acropolis (19th century)

The first city planning map of Athens was elaborated by the architects Kleanthis and Schaubert: an ambitious plan, fully detailed, with a rigorous and ample layout that provided for numerous free areas and secured the extensive archeological zone surrounding the Acropolis.

That plan was never implemented because, after the first lines were laid down, Athenians became aware that their properties were impacted and their narrow interests harmed. Thus they reacted aggressively, and the campaign that they adopted, in combination with the economic weakness of the state to deal with the extensive expropriations, brought implementation to a halt.
On September 18, 1834 the new Klenze city plan was approved, based on the earlier one worked out by Kleanthis and Schaubert, with significant alternations, however, in regards to the width of the streets, the number and size of the free spaces, and the extent of the archeological zone. But this plan also was never implemented in its totality. (Indicatively we mention: the change in site of the Royal Palace and the transfer from Kerameikos to the Ermou axis, the creation of Syntagma Square, the demarcation of Amalias Avenue, and so on.).

It makes no sense to expand further on the first city plan design for the city of Athens. Suffice it to say that the continuous expropriations resulting from the need to house the population, which inevitably gathered in the city, as well as the need to find sites for the Administrative Services of the newly formed Greek state produced an intensive building activity.

The Weiler building (Military Hospital, Makriyanni)

In this period, then, the construction of the first public buildings began. Indicatively we mention:

  • In the period 1834-35: The Royal Stables, the Klafthmonos Mint, the Royal Printing House (Arsaki and Santaroza).
  • In 1836: The Royal Palace, the Military Hospital (Makriyanni and Dionysos Areopagitou) the Civic Hospital on Akadimias.
  • Following that: The University (1839), the Eye Clinic (1847), the Military Pharmaceutical Warehouse (1850), the Observatory (1843).

At the same time, we must mention the exceptional buildings constructed in this period by well-heeled compatriots from outside Greece, which are still today regarded as the first architectural monuments of the city. Indicatively we mention: Arsakeio (1846), the Varvakeio Lyceum (1857), the Metsoveio Polytechnic (1862), and the Zappeion Mansion (1874).

The Old Parliament

To fill out the image of the city before moving on to the topic of housing, we must mention three important churches that were built in this period. The Metropolitan Church of Athens in 1842-1862, the Catholic Church in 1853 and the Anglican Church in 1838.

Finally, along with the public buildings, private homes of rich Athenians dominated the city. Responsibility for their design and construction belongs to a myriad of distinguished Greek and foreign architects. They are the same architects who labored for the reorganization of the city and the construction of the public buildings of the period: Kleathis, Kaftatzoglou, Kalkos, Schaubert, the Hansen brothers, Ernst Ziller, and so on. Thus appeared the first villas, whose design was influenced by Western architecture, but with striking neo-classical elements, mainly in the center of the city, around the Royal Palace, but also further out, in what were considered aristocratic suburbs.

The National Archeological Museum

Athens in the 20th Century

Syntagma Square

The most important phenomenon, appearing in the first decades of the 20th century and progressively influencing the image of the city, was the birth and development of a new structural prototype: The multi-storey residence, the so-called city apartment building. To establish the general context that gave rise to the phenomenon of the Athenian apartment building, we mention summarily the following:

  1. The general state of war in the Balkans shrunk the number of Greek districts and created a forced wave of refugee compatriots who flooded Greece and, inevitably, the capital. This eventuality climaxed with the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922.
  2. Economic instability characteristic of the times created a more general insecurity, discouraging investment in productive sectors and turning investors in the direction of construction—a sector that, under these specific circumstances was considered safe for profitable capital investment.
  3. The introduction of reinforced concrete and its progressive generalized application in the wider sector of construction facilitated and steadily promoted the construction of multi-storey buildings.
  4. Finally, we must mention the climate of new rising ideological trends and movements that found expression in the arts as well. Thus, in architecture, a progressive distancing from Academicism is apparent, while the principles of the Modernist Movement begin to appear and progressively gain ground.

Ermou Street

Examining the process for producing and developing the Athenian apartment building, and the unavoidable impact on the image of the city that attended it, we can distinguish the following periods:

The Thirty-year period from 1900-1929

Multi-storey residential buildings appeared sporadically in the City. (Indicatively we note that, by the end of the 1900-29 period, only 69 buildings were constructed). The phenomenon of the return of compatriots from abroad was in process and construction technologies still employed traditional methods. Initiative for construction was a matter for an owner-producer and usufruct (the so-called Afentadika). From the standpoint of the typology of the floor plan, numerous similarities with the residences of the previous period are apparent.

The Period from 1929-40

The year 1929 is considered a chronological milestone in the development of the City Apartment Building.
Two important events justify this characterization:

  1. The enactment of Law 3741/29, which advanced the institution of horizontal ownership. Thus appeared the first owners of apartments—with rights of co-ownership of the entire lot (here we stress that the notable difference from the pervious period, when a single party owned the entire structure). This event significantly impacted the morphology of the structures (it introduced a strict standardization in the typology of the storeys. This standardization also is also manifest for facades).
  2. The first State Construction Code (GOK 29) went into effect. The first general rules are introduced that govern construction, and the first regulations reinforcing its standardization. At the same time, the institution of the “antiparochi” [repayment method] appears, in which the building-contractor undertakes to finance the entire construction project, granting a portion of the structure to the owner of the property.

This event is considered to be exceptionally important in affecting construction quality in that it introduced the so-called Golden Rule of the contractor:

– Minimization of cost (hence, of quality)
– Maximization of profit (accompanied by the degeneration of the structure).

Finally, we take note of the revision of the General State Code (1934), which strengthened what we have noted to this point.

Protection of Buildings/Monuments and the State: The Activities of the Ministry of Culture (YPPO)

The responsibility for the protection of monuments has belonged, in various periods, to the Ministry to the President and the Ministry of Education, until the Ministry of Culture (YPPO) was created in the decade of the 1960s. The legislation for the protection of monuments, however, is older.

In 1932, Law 5351 was passed, but applied only to Prehistoric, Classical, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine monuments. With Law 1469/1950, post-1830 structures and works of art were protected.

In 1977, a Presidential Decree established the Ministry of Culture (YPPO), which created Departments and Supervisory Bodies responsible for the protection of Contemporary Monuments. The Department of Cultural Buildings and Restoration of Contemporary Monuments (DPKANM) consists of three sections: (i) Programming and Building Sites, (ii) Research and Project Oversight and (iii) Restoration of Contemporary Monuments. All three sections are concerned with issues that deal with the composition or supervision of studies related to projects for the maintenance, stabilization, reconstruction, rehabilitation, and development of contemporary monuments, which are the property of YPPO, the Public Sector, or Legal Personages and Private Citizens.

Also, permanent specialized work teams conduct repair and reconstruction interventions for buildings belonging to YPPO. The supervision takes place in collaboration with the seven Supervisory Bodies for Contemporary Monuments, covering the entire Nation.

From its formation in 1979, the task of the Department, as defined by Law 1469/50 and the YPPO Organization, consists in the protection of preserved heritage buildings constructed after 1830 to the present day, which are of particular architectural and historical interest. Buildings of the 19th century, as well as the beginning of the 20th century, constitute for all of us the critically important set of architectural structures, with the Neo-classical ones paramount.
The neo-classical and neo-classically influenced buildings serve as a bridge between the pre-revolutionary period and the rebirth of the new Greek State. Their human scale instructs us about the harmony between façade and floor plan, enriched by various forms of decoration.

Thus the task of the Department is the protection of our cultural heritage. The difficulties, however, are enormous. The changes in the social, but also economic sectors which took place between the Asia Minor Catastrophe and World War Two, necessitated the movement of a significant number of Greeks and the alteration of the relations between city and countryside, causing drastic changes in the scale and shape of Athens. Urbanism, overpriced land and easy profit were the most important factors in the catastrophe.

There have been many who have attempted to save the continuity of our culture, with results sometimes positive and sometimes negative. The state has played a helping role, without however being able to intervene aggressively. The remains of other epochs draw the most attention. The monuments of more recent periods are still alive, they participate in social and economic intercourse and have not become rare and ancient. The task of saving them is difficult, but not impossible. We must evaluate the buildings, in order to rank them in accordance with their architectural-historical value and their importance, not only locally, but on a national basis. We must compromise in order to preserve.

The studies which are submitted for approval for the most part require changes in use which, as mentioned above, are attributable to changes in the organization of the city. We can rank them in accordance with the following categories, depending on method, material and use:

  1. Repair and Reconstruction with the repair and replacement of all of the structural materials in harmony with the existing ones, without a change in the use of the building.
  2. Repair and Reconstruction of sections of the building (e.g., façade, staircase, decks) using contemporary building materials, mainly inside the building, with or without changes in use.
  3. Preservation only of the façade and construction of the internal structure in instances of change of use for the installation of offices.
  4. The repair costs are a very important factor. The specialized teams and materials required for proper intervention in the monument are a significant budgetary burden.

Unfortunately, the small budgets made available for Culture do not allow for payments to owners. The “Pilot” program for the city of Kalamata was an exception, whereby, after the catastrophic 1986 earthquake, the following measures were taken:

  • An immediate census of the city’s old buildings took place and the characterization of the most valuable is moving forward.
  • The creation of an Office (YPPO Team) in the city which facilitated contacts between interested parties and YPPO.
  • Funds were made available for the symbolic payment of citizens for the elaboration of studies for projects to repair and reconstruct the facades of preserved heritage buildings.
  • The above-mentioned measures resulted in the repair of two-thirds of the 123 preserved heritage buildings of the city and, thereby, the salvaging of its historical memory.

YPPO’s intention is to also implement the program in the prefectures of Ilia and Achaia. We must mention that the collaboration of YPPO with YPEXODE for the purpose of heritage protection and maintenance has yielded significant results. The imposition of special criteria for construction, and the reduction of contributing factors have discouraged the demolition of buildings, since in many cases, the utilization of the existing building is more profitable per square meter.

From 1979, when DPKANM was created, studies, both comprehensive in nature and for individual buildings, have been organized and conducted. Indicatively, since 1980, it was decided the removal of non-permitted structures and inscriptions on buildings of the Plaka, while department architects have conducted inventories and drawn detailed architectural plans, and methods of intervention have been proposed and implemented in accordance with the law. Furthermore, the program for the unification of the archeological sites of Athens has enabled us to include valuable buildings owned by YPPO in the restoration program, thereby highlighting our rich architectural heritage.

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