Inside and Out: The City, The State, and Domestic Life

Ioanna Theocharopoulou

This essay is an excerpt of Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens by Ioanna Theocharopoulou. Published by Onassis Foundation.

To this day almost all descriptions of Athens have at their core a contrast between the grandeur of the Acropolis and the banality of the post-Second World War city. As we see in the image opposite, Athens today consists of a vast, mostly unplanned, nondescript (and polluted) expanse that stands in stark contrast to the cultural magnificence of its famous classical monuments (Fig. 0.1). This book presents a different reading of the city, suggesting that, even if far from perfect, there is something rich and positive to discover in modern Athens that may also help us to understand and analyze other rapidly growing cities around the world.

Fig 0.1

Cities are never tidy. A vast majority of them, particularly in newly industrializing countries, are designed without architects or other urban professionals. Like some of these global cities today, Athens grew as a patchwork of improvisations and adaptations—ad hoc, individualistic and pragmatic. This does not make it—or other such global cities—uninteresting. In fact, architectural and urban historians have long held up the paradigmatic European cities—London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Berlin—as examples of city-making.

Athens fits none of these models. Athens’ urban space did not grow in similar ways to that of other European cities. For a start, Greece suffered occupation for almost 400 years, primarily under the Ottoman Turks (1453–1821). As a province of the Ottoman Empire, Athens was a relatively important settlement of about 10,000 people up until the Greek War of Independence. At that point however, following fierce fighting, especially with the siege of the Acropolis by the forces of the Turkish officer Kütahı just before the end of the war (1826–27), the city was destroyed, suffering great damage to its people and monuments.

Fig 0.2
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[1] I refer to the term afthéreto (random, unplanned). This term is generically used to denote all kinds of informal buildings, both pre- and post-Second World War, both shacks and more solid structures, built with no planning permit at all, very often by people working at night, as well as parts of buildings that were deviously added without permit to existing older structures. In addition, this term is routinely used with negative connotations in relation to urbanism (afthéretē poleodomía).
[2] A philhellene was ‘a friend of the Greeks’; a term coined during the struggle for Independence from the Ottoman Empire. It is still in use today.
[3] Bernard Rudofsky, Eine primitive Betonbauweise auf den südlichen Kykladen, nebst dem Versuch einer Datierung derselben [Primitive Concrete Structures on the Southern Cyclades and an Attempt to Date Them], doctoral thesis (Technische Hochschule Wien, 1931).
[4] More recently, the work of Felicity Scott has shown that Rudofsky “neither simply embraced nor entirely rejected the popular or commercial environment, but he maintained a complicated, critical, and conflicted relationship to it.” Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs (Critical Spatial Practice 7) (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), p. 39.
[5] This article too comes from Vradynē newspaper (March 9, 1957). In this case the headline is particularly graphic. The article ends with the following statement: “One wonders whether all those ‘experts’ do their best to make this urban monster uglier. And there is no one in sight to stop this urban anarchy, someone to put order to this chaos, who will stop this march to the worse.” Kanellopoulos Archive, Hellenic Literary and Historical Archives (ELIA-MIET).
[6] The quotes on domesticity in a polykatoikía apartment are from a special issue of the journal Architektonika Themata/ Architecture in Greece, edited by Dimitris Philippidis who cited these typical quotes about the polykatoikía. See Dimitris Philippidis, “The development of the polykatoikía in postwar Athens” [in Greek], Architektonika Themata/ Architecture in Greece, vol. 12, 1978, p. 105.
[7] The fact that there must be some truth to these rumors becomes even more apparent since the recent excavations for the installation of the Athens Metro line and subsequently, during the work in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games. Digging in the area around Syntagma Square for the new metro line that opened in January 2000, workers discovered large segments of the ancient city, at times only a few meters below the surface of the modern one. Syntagma Square, a site that was developed during the nineteenth century around the first King’s palace, yielded a wealth of finds right under the tarmac of this busy city center. A large part of these new finds are now permanently exhibited in the Syntagma Square metro station, helping us visualize the sectional connection between the ancient and modern city.
[8] “The most feared disability was the paidomazoma (literally child gathering) or janissary levy, the obligation, imposed at irregular intervals, on Christian families in the Balkans to surrender their best-looking and most intelligent children for service to the Ottoman State as elite soldiers or bureaucrats. The requirement on those conscripted to convert to Islam, apostasy from which invariably resulted in death, was particularly feared.” Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, [1992] 1997), p. 14.
[9] George Sarrinikolaou, Facing Athens: Encounters with the Modern City (New York: North Point Press, 2004), p. 3.
[10] This is the only such critical article by Anastasia Tzakou, whose design work occupies an important place in Greek architectural history of the postwar period. Tzakou studied with Dimitris Pikionis in Athens, worked with Doxiadis Associates in the Middle East in the early 1950s, lived in France for a long time, then returned to Greece, taught (briefly) at the National Technical University of Athens (School of Architecture), and had a long career in the public sector. This article was “written from the point of view of Greek architects,” and published in Architektonika Themata/ Architecture in Greece, edited by Dimitris Philippidis, vol. 12, 1978, pp. 131–132.
[11] Peter S. Allen, “Positive Aspects of Greek Urbanization: The Case of Athens by 1980,” Ekistics, vol. 53, no 318/319, 1986, pp. 187–194.
[12] Kenneth Frampton, “Preface to the Greek edition” [in Greek], Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Greek trans. Theodoros Androulakis and María Pangalou (Athens: Themelio, 1987), p. 14
[13] Franco Purini, “Greek Discontinuities,” in Yorgos Simeoforidis and Yannis Aesopos (eds.), The Contemporary (Greek) City (Athens: Metapolis Press, 2001), p. 243 (emphasis in the original).
[14] Hashim Sarkis, “On the Beauty of Athens,” in Peter G. Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (eds.), Isopolis: Addressing Scales of Urban Life in Modern Athens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Design, 1997).
[15] Kostas Moraitis, “The future of the question of modernity: Do we have to always be modern?” [in Greek], Architektonika Themata/ Architecture in Greece, vol. 30, 1996.
[16] Dina Vaiou, Maria Mantouvalou, and Maria Mavridou, “The Postwar Greek City between Theory and Contingency,” in Planning in Greece 1949–1974: Proceedings of the Second Conference of the Greek Society for Urban History and Planning, co-organized with the Department of Planning and Regional Development (Volos: University of Thessaly Press, 2000), p. 36.