Contemporary Greek Architecture Roots and Conditions of Development
Aristidis Romanos, Architect and Planner
Chapter on Greek Architecture including:
Introduction and Portrait of Six Greek Architects in “581 ARCHITECTS IN THE WORLD”, publ. Toto Shuppan, Tokyo, 1995
Chapter on Greek Architecture including: Introduction and in “581 ARCHITECTS IN THE WORLD”, publ. Toto Shuppan, Tokyo, 1995
The exegesis of modern greek architecture would have been quite stereotypical, in the sense that Greece is a small country on the periphery of the capitalist world, which imports many of the goods it consumes, including cultural ones. This means that in the historical development of architecture there are analogies and similarities with other peripheral and small countries throughout the world. For example it is verifiable in Greece, as in those countries, that the dependence, economic and cultural, from the metropolises of capitalism results in :
(a) a one – way process from the metropolis towards the periphery and not vice-versa,
(b) a considerable lag between the time of production of ideas and that of their entry into the peripheral market, and
(c) inadequate time for the assimilation of ideas, before “new” ideas follow in their turn.
At a closer examination, though, one discovers additional elements that render the relation between greek architecture and international movements more special. Such element is the barrier of language, which has no affinity, even remote, to any other or the geographical and cultural orientation of Greece partly to the east. Certain historical facts, too, little known to the wider public, intensify the particularity of this relation. I quote a few: The modern greek state is only about one hundred and sixty years old. Its establishment followed a disruption of historical continuity, a void in the history of the greek nation that lasted about four centuries. In that same period Europe went through Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the foundations of the modern world were laid by a disciplined humanist-oriented bourgeois class that cultivated the Arts and the Sciences.
Inasmuch as architecture is viewed as a cultural phenomenon, any meaningful and valid analysis of modern greek architecture has therefore got to dwell with special emphasis upon this critical period, when the greek population in the Balkans began (1821) a nine-year long war of independence against the ottoman rulers, which finally led to the founding of the greek state. And to trace the ideological myths and movements that led the people from a state of slavery to that of selfdetermination and economic, social and cultural development.
During the period of oppression (preceding the revolution) the greek orthodox church, which acted both as a religious and as a lay authority, and the local authorities were allowed by the turkish rulers to perform their basic functions. Due to these two institutions, and to the living tradition, certain fundamental elements of cultural continuity with the immediate past (Byzantium) managed to survive: language religion, customs of social life and the vernacular arts, mainly dance and music. During the 18 th century, the period of national awakening, (in Constantinople and in the greek communities of wealthy merchants, scholars and civil servants established in european cities) two ideological movements (Note 1) were evident: one focused on Byzantium as a symbol of religious and national unity and propounded its revival. The other looked upon the ancient greek world as a source of inspiration and as a strong – and internationally recognised and admired – foundation of national consciousness. The latter movement was founded by the rising bourgeois class, imbued with the principles of humanism and of the european enlightenment.
At the time of the greek insurrection, predominant in the european scene was the movement of romanticism. One of its main characteristics was the adoration of the past and the belief in the notion of nationalism. Various romantic scholars and poets expressed their admiration for the greek struggle for independence – a struggle against all odds – and helped the creation of a favourable public opinion in Europe towards the greek cause. In doing this they strengthened the ideology, both among european people and among greeks themselves, of the existence of a cultural and ethnic continuity between the remote and glorious past of classical authority and the rugged peasantry that fought the battles on the mountains of Peloponnese.
In the long search for national identity that followed the establishment of the sovereign state up to the present times, the ancient (classical) past has served as one of the main ideological foci. This search was, in a sense, quite legitimate taking into account the difficulties of the new situation: The geopolitical position of the country, the precarious existence among countries suspected of aggression to the north and the east, the frequent wars with these countries (up to the 1920’s), the antagonistic interventions of european politics in the matters of the declining Ottoman Empire, the fact that the sovereignty of the new greek state was at first curtailed by the patronage of the “Protecting Powers” (Britain, France, and Russia), together with the country’s poor conditions of development initially created a general climate of insecurity and of “defensive aggression”, which found an outlet primarily in looking to the past.
In public life, in politics and in practically every field of cultural activity the ancient world and its direct link to modern Greece constituted the cornerstone of the ruling ideology. The fundamental question that had to be answered was “who are we?”. In art and architecture the problem of identity soon gave rise to the issue of the “greekness” of greek art.
This issue has distressed the development of architecture up to the present times and remains, naturally, unresolved. It has particularly had a negative effect on the degree of acceptance by greek society of various european artistic influences. Foreign ideological or artistic influences with an underlying significance, which may affect national issues, are viewed with prejudice and with reaction rather than response. In that sense to examine how this “indicator” evolved up to now corresponds to reviewing the development of greek architecture.
It is characteristic, that neoclacissism, imported to Greece by the bavarian entourage (including engineers and craftsmen) of King Otto, appointed by the european powers to rule over the new state, was indisputably accepted as a style which returns to its cradle and adapts itself with success into its natural and cultural environment.
Neoclacissism was the exclusive style for all the important buildings of the state, erected in the new capital, Athens, by foreign and greek architects educated in Germany (many of them Schinkel’s students and disciples): The King’s Palace ( Friedrich von Gartner, 1836-40), the University of Athens (H.C. Hansen, 1839-49), the National Library (Theophil Hansen, 1844) the Athens Academy (Theophil Hansen, 1859-1885), the Technical University (L. Kaftantzoglou, 1862-1876) were some of them. Other important architects of the period up the 1900 were Stamatis Kleanthis, Ernst Ziller, Pan. Kalkos, D. Zezos, I. Sechos.
Greek neoclacissism has two marked differences with the european, particularly the german (hellenismus):
(a) it is purer, unmixed, as there is no existing style to mix with. The immediate past, relating to the period of turkish occupation, was totally rejected. This is true not only of buildings designed by greek architects, but also of those designed by foreign architects, who consciously “adapted” their design accordingly.
(b) Its buildings are nearer the ancient prototypes, as many of their architects had the chance to carry on archaeological fieldwork in Athens.
Contrary to classicism, the british Arts and Crafts movement and the revival of vernacular architecture found no fertile ground in Greece, since it clashed with the conscious effort of greek society to efface every sign that recalled the immediate past of Turkish occupation. Besides, there had never been in Greece an established and powerful landed gentry, who would normally press for the preservation of traditional values and the conservation of vernacular buildings.
It was only after 1922, when Greece was defeated in a politically and economically disastrous war with Kemal’s Turkey, when expansionist dreams were curtailed, when the country had to cope with the socio-economic problem of assimilating 1,3 million Greek refugees from Asia Minor, that scholars and architects turned their attention to the vernacular tradition and the anonymous architecture. What was unthinkable before, seemed now – under the influence of the disaster’s shock – quite reasonable; greek society should take a more pragmatic attitude, it should examine the actual state of things, away from the mesmerising effect of the ancestor’s glory; it should return and rediscover the roots of greek culture.
It is therefore in the interwar years, that the research in the vernacular architecture acquires an impetus and the foundations to be tackled without delay. As a rule the greatest part of housing and urban development was undertaken by the private sector, which invested very large amounts of capital in housing, initially in the form of small family savings, and only recently in more sophisticated forms. The pressure for development was very high and the public sector (with less than 10% house production for special categories of the population) restricted itself to controlling development. This it failed to do effectively, as it was not in a position to check the expansion of towns, which was being determined by the dynamics of the land market rather than by a plan. The development of lower-income housing in the form of one or two-storey houses was directed mainly in peripheral settlements, in many cases without technical and social infrastructure. In the centres of towns the terraced block of flats was the predominant building type.
The block of flats is a field that lent itself to the application of experimental design. A lot of architects of the first post-war generation have distinguished themselves in it. Among them Nico Valsamakis holds a leading position, but one should also mention K. Dekavallas, S. Tzakou, J. Liapis and E. Skroumbellos, D. Papazisis, as well as P. Sakelarios, I. Rizos, R. Koutsouris Kapsabelis, E. Vourekas and K. Kitsikis. It should be emphasized that architects who have worked in the private sector have required a lot of ingenuity and talent, but equally persuasion at a personal level and prestige, in order to overcome basic drawbacks of the social and practical framework of architectural practice, namely:
(a) In spite of advances in building technology and the changing quality of building craftmanship, the family remains the mainemployer and small-sized individual plot determines the average scale of urban building, (b) The clients press normally towards maximum plot exploitation,
(c) The form of building and planning standards tend to prescribe the geometry of the building rather than its performance. From the 50’s, tourism becomes one of the important sources of national income. Tourist development, initiated by the state, (the NTO, National Tourist Organisation) was then taken up by individual, greek and foreign investors. Tourism has been another very crucial ground of architectural design.
One of the leading personalities of modern greek architecture, Aris Konstantinides, is best known for his exquisite work in the tourist sector (he has also designed a number of fine individual houses and museums). As chief architect of the NTO he has designed some of the best, and earliest, hotels and complexes in the country.
The architecture of Aris Konstantinidis, mastering the values of vernacular tradition (including most humble types of buildings), confronts the materials, the building methods and the functional requirements with an extreme honesty, ascetic austerity and economy. His buildings attract at both levels: at first sight, as balanced and wisely positioned objects in the landscape, and also at the cerebral level, when you discover the complexity and the mental effort behind the apparent simplicity of his grids. The influence of Konstantinides’s work and writings is very broad, and it can be traced to some of the most noted modern greek architects. Among them Suzanne and Demetri Antonakakis, whose reputable work and full of sensitivity architectural creations recall, though with more softness and less rationalism, Konstantinides’s effort to merge tradition and contemporary reality into new form (note 3). It was their architecture that led Tzonis to coin the term “critical regionalism”. In this same trend one should mention also K. Gartzos, Kl. Krantonellis and K. Krokos.
A small number of greek architects seems to stand beyond the perennial dichotomy of tradition-modernity, whether preoccupied with building technology or with architectural rationalism or formalism.
An exceptional figure of this trend was surely Takis Zenetos, an ingenious architect, designing iconoclastic, pioneering and technologically inventive buildings and carrying scientific research into visionary total urbanistic-architectural-building systems accommodating future urban life. The economy of materials and of energy that Zenetos was striving for is an element relevant to our ecology-conscious days.
In the 70’s and the 80’s the architectural world in Greece became more conscious of two things: first of what was happening in architecture beyond the greek boundaries and second, of the underlying ideologies behind forms. Architects began to apply Logos to the image and to the matter. This made the whole scene more eloquent and the disputes over the recently imported post-modernism and de-construction more meaningful.
This expose of modern greek architecture is based on the hypothesis that the crucial issue in its development was “greek identity vs. foreign influences”. This issue has functioned as an architectural neurosis for about 140 years. Few architects managed to bypass the issue: by functioning, above all, as architects and by treating the question of “greekness” as a symptomatic and pragmatic situation.
NOTES: (1) Both movements were strongly rooted in the past: the former was the child of a christian Empire, the latter had its origins in the neoplatonic “hellenizing” movement in Byzantium. (2) See Savvas Contaratos, “Modern greek architecture and tradition; from the demand for greekness to contemporary problems”, ed. Kastaniotis, Athens 1986 (in greek). (3) See Dem. Philipides, “Contemporary Greek Architecture”, ed. Melissa, Athens 1984 (in greek).