As part of my project for the Talent Grant, I interviewed several inhabitants of Athens’ inner city. Based on their experiences and stories, I wrote a number of ‘biographies of space’. One of the interviewees was T. (55). Living almost all of her life in Athens and working as a professional architect, T tells about the spatial configuration of Athens, that did not follow a masterplan.
Every time when I have a look over the city from Stefi hill in Exarchia, I notice the slightly curvy grid pattern of modern Athens’ urban development. The city exposes itself as an undifferentiated mass of similar, yet slightly different shapes based on the same building typology. The dense spatial layout of the Greek capital is the result of ‘Athens’ flat-for-land’ or antiparochi system, legislated in the 1930s, but taking off when the population in the city more than doubled with the arrival of rural migrants and refugees in the first three post-war decades. In a relatively, short period of time, more than 1 million people arrived in Athens. The antiparochi system was established with a law according to which small landowners could turn over their individual property to a private developer – usually small-scale construction companies – in order to replace their detached house and surrounding land for new multi-storey apartment blocks, called polykatoikies. Polykatoikia literally means multi-residence. The landowners received in exchange an agreed number of turnkey apartments in the building. Since the government couldn’t afford to invest directly in a social housing programme for all the new inhabitants of the city, it supported this type of semi-formal urbanism, allowing citizens to rebuilt their homes in order to create favourable conditions for the expansion of the city. The policy of tax benefits made it a big success.
Between 1950 and 1980, the antiparochi system produced around 35 thousand apartment blocks. The structure of the polykatoikia building can be seen as an evolution of Le Corbusiers Dom-Ino system, built up of a reinforced concrete frame with columns and a core of stairs. The flexibility of this plan allowed for the accommodation of a variety of uses within one apartment block. While the facades of polykatoikies often look quite similar, the interiors show an enormous variety with shops, home offices and different apartment seizes based on the individual wishes and demands of residents.
The urban development of antiparochi affected the built environment of Athens in two ways. First of all, a large part of the neoclassical buildings in the city has been demolished in order to create space for the development of polykatoikies. This is why there are relatively few old buildings in Athens today – only the very big and important historical buildings have been spared. Secondly, the antiparochi system led to a high percentage of individual landownership and resulted in a lack of public and free spaces. When the new Greek State was created, almost all of the land was privatised since the State donated land as a reward to people who for example had served the country in the army. Usually the citizens who received the land divided it in smaller pieces and sold these plots to individuals. Subsequently, in the course of time, on these smaller pieces of land, polykatoikies were built, creating even more owners of the same land. The once large public areas such as Syntagma, Monasteraki, Omonia and Koumoundourou Square, underwent several adjustments due to the building pressure and densification, resulting in narrow streets and smaller, fragmented squares. Compared to other cities in Europe, Athens has the highest percentage of landownership and the lowest percentage of green/open space per person.
The antiparochi system never had much room left for the development of urban visions beyond the individual building. Due to the high level of landownership, the municipality and the State are not able to carry out big urban plans, because they always have to deal with the many owners of the land. On the other hand, the high percentage of homeownership and the flexible structure of the polykatoikia buildings gives people freedom, security and responsibility. One could argue that the antiparochi system created a diverse and resilient environment that is not easily affected by economic or demographic fluctuations and change.
Today, Athens is going through an urban crisis, which is the result of the recent economic- and migration crisis, but also that of the decades long procedure of overbuilding and neglect of public space. While almost 30% of the buildings in the city centre is empty, the city is unable to deal with the social housing needs. Architects and planners have to think how a new social contract could be created that once more could encourage the interactions of citizens to produce urban space, as the antiparochi system once did. They should design an informal legal protocol or intervention that this time would focus on common space instead of small private property. One inspiring example is a law that was created by the socialist party PASOK in 1981 but was never implemented. This law was called Energo and was designed by the minister of urban planning, Antonis Tritsis. It proposed that inhabitants of an apartment block could create a small community and decide together about the ‘free space’ of their building. The law gave them power and some financial support to create collective spaces in and surround the building. I always have to think of all the unused rooftops, courtyards, arcades, and other leftover spaces in Athens and their potential, looking over the city from Strefi hill.