Source: Guardian, 12 Sep 2017
“The history of Athens is not only about the Parthenon,” says Nikos Harkiolakis, a veteran culture ministry official who now heads an organisation representing listed buildings landlords.
According to data collated by Monumenta, an urban non-profit organisation of archaeologists and architects active on the natural and architectural heritage of Greece, since the 1950 and before the 2009 economic crisis erupted, a considerable amount (c.80%) of 19th and early 20th century buildings in the Greek capital had been destroyed, while more than 1,500 buildings in the historic heart of Athens had been abandoned. Currently, there are more than 10,500 buildings on Monumenta database, which is growing by the day.
The neoclassical edifices of Athens, first adopted with the arrival of the court of King Otto, have been destroyed by a number of historical reasons. The rapid urbanisation that followed the 2nd world war saw edifices both neoclassical and modern torn down almost overnight. More damaging, however, took place in the 1950s when Athenians were encouraged to hand over their family homes in exchange for apartments in the multi-storey concrete blocks that replaced them. In the 60s and 70s, rural migration led to chaotic urban expansion and Athens was transformed into a megacity hosting up to half of Greece’s entire population. Up until 1975 if a building wasn’t classified a ‘work of art’, it stood to be demolished. Those still standing in the city centre are an invaluable part of Greece’s architectural heritage and an integral part of the rich history of Athens.
Against a backdrop of prolonged economic recession, home maintenance has become a luxury few can afford. With bank loans frozen and cuts and tax increases straining budgets, many of the buildings have 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,” says Irini Gratsia, co-founder of Monumenta. And “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” introduced with the bailouts programmes.”
Apart from the lack of financial means to restore the buildings, labyrinthic bureaucracy is such that a permit for maintenance works can take between four to five years. Therefore, some of the last surviving examples of Greek neoclassical architecture and Greek modernism, mostly constructed between 1830 and 1940 have been allowed to fall into disrepair or have been pulled down altogether as their owners can neither afford a renovation nor the augmented property taxes.
However, as the country’s financial crisis rumbles on, many also see it as a lesson of rebirth, of starting anew. In recent years, amid record levels of poverty and unemployment, municipal authorities have stepped in, linking up with private initiatives to rescue buildings from dereliction and collapse. Concerned citizens have similarly raised the alarm on the protection of the capital’s modern architectural heritage to raise awareness among authorities and owners through workshops and tours while large private endowment and foundation funds have grand schemes to repurpose buildings and give them a new lease of life.
At the same time, the rise in non-Europeans investing in properties now selling at rock-bottom prices as a mean of securing a Golden Visa residence permit, including American, Russian and Arab investors rising concerns about owners having no other choice but to either sell or demolish the properties endangering the historic value altogether.
With more than 1,500 abandoned buildings in the historic heart of Athens alone, financial incentives might be vital because restoration costs are often high. “The price of preservation is much more expensive than building from scratch,” says Harkiolakis. Therefore, both Gratsia and Harkiolakis worry that time is running out if Greece’s lesser-known heritage is to withstand the test of time. Without urgent intervention in the form of government grants or EU funds, owners, they say, will simply lack the means to keep up with repairs. “If we want to save these buildings, we have to reduce the taxes on them,” says Gratsia.
Harkiolakis adds: “The Acropolis may belong to the world, it may be the symbol of European civilisation, its conservation may be ongoing and indeed excellent, but it cannot be the only recipient of direct or indirect [state] funding.”
You may access the related article in The Guardian here