Of course, Athens is blessed with architectural treasures from the ancient world. Yet, when people first gaze on the modern city, they’re rarely impressed. Sure, the many crumbling neoclassical buildings have their charm and the sun-bleached concrete sprawl has its fans, too. But while the influence of classical Greek architecture is evident around the globe, the development of modern Athens is usually seen as an example of how not to do things (at least from an urban planner’s point of view).
I joined a group of architecture students on a bespoke tour that traced the design, development and gentrification of Athens’ working class neighbourhoods, and then explored the influence of Le Corbusier and his contemporaries on Athenian architecture. The tensions between their architectural idealism and the urgent pressure to house a rapidly expanding population ultimately shaped the Athens we see today.
Gazi: from gas factory to nightlife district
We begin the day in Gazi, a formerly industrial area that’s now a nightlife hot spot in Athens. Our guide, George, explains that the area is named after the gasworks whose chimneys tower over Persephone Square. Built in 1857, the gasworks shut down in 1984; today, it’s the Technopolis arts and culture complex.
“Gazi, Metaxourgeio and Psirri were once the productive sectors of the city,” George explains. “They used to have workshops, light industries or factories; but in recent decades, industrial activities have made way for cultural activities and the entertainment sector.”
Keramikos: the birthplace of neoclassical Athens
Gazi boomed in the late 19th and early 20th century as people flocked to find work in the growing industrial area. It skyrocketed after the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, when 400,000 people flocked to Athens, doubling the city’s population. Many immigrants found shelter in informal housing in Gazi, some of which survives today.
In neighbouring Keramikos-Metaxourgeio, we discover that the vision for modern Athens was very different. Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1822. In 1834, the capital of the young nation moved from Nafplio to Athens - which at the time was a small, sleepy backwater. The newly appointed King Otto, a Bavarian royal, tasked architects Stamatios Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert to design a modern plan for the new capital. They devised the triangular city centre that survives today, bordered by Pireos, Stadiou and Ermou avenues.
To decide the location of Otto’s new palace, meat carcasses were allegedly hung up around Athens and observed to see which would take the longest to rot. Keramikos won out. This prompted wealthy Greeks to build mansions around Avdi Square.
In the end, the Royal Palace - now the Greek Parliament - was built on Syntagma Square. “After Ottoman rule, the Bavarians felt they were bringing the neoclassical spirit of the ancient Greeks back home,” George explains. During the late 19th century, architects Theophil von Hansen and Ernst Ziller created a wealth of neoclassical buildings, such as the National Observatory of Athens, the Academy of Athens, the National Library of Greece and Zappeion Hall.
Exarchia: where Athenian modernism began
Over lunch at an old-fashioned taverna in Exarchia, the focus shifts to Athens’ modernist architecture. George explains that in 1933, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and other leading figures of the modernist movement travelled by ship from Marseille to Athens. In the Greek capital, the group discussed their theories about living, working, recreation and circulation in the city. Le Corbusier’s “The Athens Charter” had a huge impact on urban planning across Europe after World War II.
Afterwards, we peek inside some of the early modernist buildings around Exarchia. These 1930s blocks were built for Athens’ elite and many have separate areas for servants. Despite the rundown exterior (and the fact that it’s no longer blue), the most impressive building is The Blue Polykatikia, built in 1932–1933 by architect Kyriakoulis Panagiotakos. The facade has faded, like everything else nearby. But with its varnished wooden doors, porthole-style windows and colourful kitchens, inside The Blue Polykatoikia is wonderfully well-designed.
George explains how housing laws passed in 1927-1929, allowing separate owners for different floors, paved the way for the polykatikia, or apartment building. The polykatikia really boomed in the 1950s and ‘60s, as hundreds of thousands of Greeks flocked to Athens after the Civil War (1943-49). They were housed primarily in mass-produced, multi-storey apartment buildings, much like those envisaged by Le Corbusier with his Dom-Ino House. British architecture critic Kenneth Frampton has argued that Athens is the “most modern” city in the world, due to its embrace of modernist principles; ignoring high aesthetics and using readily-available materials, like concrete to provide high-quality accommodation for the masses.
The polykatikia certainly helped to meet intense demand for housing in the post-war era. But the rushed, unplanned development ignored the modernists’ emphasis on creating functional, pleasant and cohesive cities. “Arguably, the polykatikia represents the ‘banalisation’ of modernism, as the civil engineers and contractors who erected the sea of apartment buildings overly relied on replication and cheap materials,” George explains. “One could say that the postwar city that emerged was almost accidental in its making.”
What’s the verdict?
This tour will leave you with an appreciation of how both the neoclassical architects and the modernists who followed them set out with noble intentions to engineer an ideal, modern city. As so often in Athens, reality took the city on a different course.
- Duration: The Greek Modernists: 2 hours 30 minutes Urban Fermentations: 3 hours
- Cost: From €200 for 2-4 people.
- Time: Tours are private and arranged on request.