Unsung heroes of Athens cityscape

Header Image

Words:
Pamela Buxton

The unassuming apartment buildings that proliferated in the Greek capital after the Second World War represented a new idea of modern life and Greek identity

Man contemplating the expansion of the 20th century city, Athens, 1957.
Man contemplating the expansion of the 20th century city, Athens, 1957. Credit: Benaki Museum, Costas Megalokonomou Archives

Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens is a book for those of us who, blinded by the classical wonders of the Acropolis, have never given much thought to the nondescript cityscape below.

This is not about architect-led building design but an effort to understand the positives of Athens’ 20th century urbanism, warts and all. The heroes of the book are the polykatoikia – the prolific post-war apartment buildings that were built at impressive pace using reinforced concrete frames with masonry infill.

While their white facades, flat roofs and horizontal lines bore some similarities to the forms of modern architecture, these were, as author Ioanna Theocharopoulou points out, extremely simplistic versions. Polykatoikia differed from modern architecture in important ways. Not only did they lack the modern movement’s political and aesthetic agenda, they relied on informal ‘quasi-craft’ processes of construction and avoided innovation, precision and standardisation. Typically they had commercial uses on the ground floor with a marble lobby and staircase leading to a few floors of balconied apartments above. A roomier version was popular in middle and upper middle class areas, often with a maid’s room and a penthouse.

  • Panoramic view of Athens showing the Old Royal Palace and Mount Lycabettus, taken between 1850 and 1880.
    Panoramic view of Athens showing the Old Royal Palace and Mount Lycabettus, taken between 1850 and 1880. Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress
  • Polykatoikìa construction, Athens, early 1950s.
    Polykatoikìa construction, Athens, early 1950s. Credit: Benaki Museum, Costas Megalokonomou Archives
  • Lycabettus Hill, c1950, with, below, a typical street in the upper-middle class area of Kolonaki with neoclassical and early 19th century domestic buildings, just starting to be developed with new polykatoikia.
    Lycabettus Hill, c1950, with, below, a typical street in the upper-middle class area of Kolonaki with neoclassical and early 19th century domestic buildings, just starting to be developed with new polykatoikia. Credit: Benaki Museum, Costas Megalokonomou Archives
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While there were exceptions, the design of this building type was the domain of the builder rather than an architect. It was, says Kenneth Frampton in the foreword,  ‘built for the people, of the people, by the people’.

These were ultra-desirable as symbols of modern city living, especially when combined with the then groundbreaking domestic appliances. This was lifestyle living, 1960s style, that represented progress, optimism and access to ‘the good life’.

The book sets polykatoikia firmly in the context of the preceding century as well as the strife of war and civil unrest of the 20th, and the densification and expansion of Athens. We learn how home ownership swelled as these apartments were constructed as joint ventures between developer and landowner. Typically this involved replacing 19th century neoclassical villas that had gone firmly out of fashion, with the landowner donating the land in exchange for a few units in the new development. In time, the migrant tradespeople working on the developments would become those buying the apartments.

There was a culture of ‘craftiness’ with regard to construction, with the 1955 Building Code legalising existing illegal construction and itself prone to amendments and deviations. Self-built humble dwellings on the city outskirts in time became ‘up-lifted’ to larger buildings as their rural immigrant owners  acquired the money to build polykatoikia and become landlords themselves. Here, the author draws links with the work of Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental practice today in designing homes that facilitate incremental construction and expansion.

  • Polykatoikía for E Pantikidis, on 5 Metamorphosis Street, Athens.
    Polykatoikía for E Pantikidis, on 5 Metamorphosis Street, Athens. Credit: Ioanna Theocharopoulou
  • Women’s Almanac: Tasty Kitchen and Modern House. The subtitles map out women’s fields of expertise: 'Cooking, nutrition, new ingredients, fast and economical specialties from Greece and abroad. Decorating. Organisation. Colours, ideas, celebrations. Parties. Behaviour', 1973.
    Women’s Almanac: Tasty Kitchen and Modern House. The subtitles map out women’s fields of expertise: 'Cooking, nutrition, new ingredients, fast and economical specialties from Greece and abroad. Decorating. Organisation. Colours, ideas, celebrations. Parties. Behaviour', 1973. Credit: Ioanna Theocharopoulou
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Rather more interesting, to me at least, is the account of the social dimension of the polykatoikia and their representation in popular culture. Photos show women involved as labourers in the construction of the apartments but it was inside that they really held sway as interior stylists and consumers. Of course they were still doing all the housework, even if they did now wear a mini-skirt and wield an ultra-modern vacuum cleaner. Men, we learn, might have their own ‘masculine corner’ or room where they could relax in a comfortable leather armchair. Some might even have their own bachelor pad apartment.

Polykatoikia were important as representing a new idea of modern life and of Greek identity, and in doing so, says Theocharopoulou, blurred the previously separate realms of ‘informal/formal, local/foreign, traditional/modern’.

Polykatoikía registering protest.  The side wall of a polykatoikia in Athens, near Syntagma Square, painted with the old 'no signal' image from the national channel ERT, after it was forced to close, 2013.
Polykatoikía registering protest. The side wall of a polykatoikia in Athens, near Syntagma Square, painted with the old 'no signal' image from the national channel ERT, after it was forced to close, 2013. Credit: Ioanna Theocharopoulou

This informative – although sometimes a little dense – book closes with a look at some of the more innovative, recent architect-designed polykatoikia buildings and consideration of how a new generation of civic minded urban activists are responding to Greece’s financial crisis and huge influx of refugees. Some are renovating abandoned polykatoikia as housing, proving once again the resilience and adaptability of these buildings. Faced with such economic and social challenges, Athens needs the resourcefulness, wit and economy of means that this unlauded building type embodies. 

Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens by Ioanna Theocharopoulou, foreword by Kenneth Frampton, Artifice, £24.95