Friday, October 13, 2017
Unsung heroes of Athens cityscape
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Text by Pamela Buxton