Fri, Sep 15, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Misaligned incentives are laying waste to Athens’ modern heritage

Eighty percent of 19th and early 20th-century buildings in the Greek capital have already been destroyed — and time is running out for those that remain

By Helena Smith  /  The Guardian, ATHENS

Illustration: Mountain People

Not that long ago, I received a questionnaire through my door. How had the 1930s Bauhaus building in which I live survived the rigors of time? Who had designed it? Who was its first owner? What were my memories of it?

Circulated far and wide across Athens, the questionnaire and its findings are part of a vast inventory of 19th and early 20th-century buildings that stand at the heart of a burgeoning cultural heritage crisis in Greece.

At least 10,600 buildings in the capital are under threat, as the nation navigates its worst economic crisis in recent times.

Under the weight of austerity — with bank loans frozen, repeated budget cuts and tax rises kicking in — many buildings have already been allowed to fall into disrepair or have been pulled down altogether.

“In the present climate, people just don’t have the money to restore them,” said Irini Gratsia, cofounder of Monumenta, the association of archaeologists and architects that is collating the database.

“There is a great danger that many will be demolished not because their owners want new builds, but because they want to avoid property taxes announced since the crisis began,” Gratsia said.

Monumenta estimates that, since the 1950s, as many as 80 percent of Athens’ buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been destroyed.

At risk are some of the last surviving examples of Greek neoclassical architecture and Greek modernism, the latter scorned as “cement boxes” when they began to fill the great Attic plain.

Mostly constructed between 1830 and 1940, these buildings comprise the rich architectural mosaic of a city — dominated by the 5th-century Acropolis — that often goes unnoticed.

“Just as they say Greece is not only Athens, the history of Athens is not only about the Parthenon,” said Nikos Harkiolakis, a veteran official at the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports who heads an organization representing owners of listed buildings.

However, the destruction of Athens’ urban space is not new. More than any other major European metropolis, the Greek capital has been altered dramatically by the vicissitudes of its tumultuous modern history.

Bauhaus apartment blocks like the one I live in were constructed in the 1930s, when modernism — reflecting social upheaval at the time — suddenly exploded.

The handwritten deeds on my building, set out across 11 stamped pages of elegant handwritten scrawl, name its first owner, in 1934, as Panagiotis Merzotis, a merchant who owned two shops on its ground floor.

According to a hand-drawn floor plan, the building abutted Ottoman and Roman ruins in Plaka District beneath the Acropolis. Each of its three apartments measured 142m2 — a typical size for the interwar years, when a vibrant generation of poets, painters and a mercantile middle class favored modernist architecture for its elevators and central heating.

The rapid urbanization that followed a brutal Nazi occupation during World War II saw edifices both neoclassical and modern torn down almost overnight.

Mine emerged unscathed — although, because of its proximity to the Parthenon, with which Hitler was obsessed, it did not entirely escape the tyranny of the Third Reich.

On the morning of April 27, 1941, the tanks, motorbikes and cars of the German army streamed into Plaka, turning the square into a depot. German military staff took over the top floor of the building, which would later become my apartment.

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