Athens, the capital of in crisis Greece, is going through its urban crisis too. Urban decline and de-population, more intense in the central –west areas of the city, are not just the result of the recent economic collapse, which just exacerbated it, but that of a decades’ long procedure of abandonment and degradation due to overbuilding and over-exploitation of urban space.
The center of Athens was built mainly during the 60s and 70s, responding to a huge post-war internal migration wave, without any masterplan, as the product of a semi-informal urbanism practiced through small scale building activity of its residents. The 1959 law of antiparochi was a milestone for the building burst that occurred afterwards. In the absence of bank loans for housing, or social housing policy by the state, antiparochi served as a legal innovation that spurred the enormous construction activity of 60s and the intense urbanization of Athens. It enabled the exchange of land by small land owners, with apartments in the newly built polykatoikia by small construction companies, without any taxation and state intervention.
The architectural form of polykatoikia became the dominant typology for Athens (80% of the building stock) constituting a legal as a social protocol as well, with the vertical social stratification that enabled the coexistence of all the social classes in the center of the city. Unplanned as it was in the large scale, the urban environment of Athens, in the scale of building unit was strictly regulated by a building code which dictated the repetition of patterns, concluding to the production of an homogeneous urban landscape which absorbs social differences.
Densely built, overpopulated and with a lack of public spaces, the center was abandoned for the suburbs, just as soon as it was a built. In the place of former lawyers’ offices, there are now only immigrants’ shops and a vast array of empty buildings that deteriorate through the time, surrounded by a degraded public space. The Athenian building stock stands in a limbo, unable to address the changing social–housing needs, with 30% of it staying empty. The chronic vacancies combined with the small fragmented private ownership and the lack of interest or need for it makes it hard to exploit.
At the same time the human geography of this dense urban environment has changed dramatically. The Athenian all-inclusive social balance and the polykatoikia’s vertical stratification of classes, while not extinct, have given place to a horizontal segregation per area based on a common spread bias of rich suburbs against the poor- immigrants’ center, with the exception of “creative” tourists-artists-students central areas.
The housing & building patterns of the past cannot be recycled intact, but must be recomposed in order to respond to this transformation of the city’s social strata. At this point, the question inevitably arises as to what the new aesthetic which emerges will be like, what alternative uses will be able to insert themselves into the empty ground-floor shops, and, finally, what the catalysts will be which will bring to life again the empty neighborhoods.
“ … What use are all these rooms, the ‘sitting/dining-room’, the bathroom, and the WC? Or the balconies with the shutters down, where nobody sets foot any more, where someone might appear to hurriedly hang out some washing or smoke a cigarette? What do we want with so many balconies in this city? And the rooftop terraces, the old washhouses, what’s going to happen to all these?”
(from interviews with residents)
At a critical moment, in the middle of a deepening crisis, during which a new neoliberal model is imposed through legislation and deregulation of planning, the challenge is to reverse the degradation of the center while in the same time ensuring the social inclusion of those in need, all the former middle class that now moves below the poverty line. The issues to be faced are:
- Insecurity of housing, high taxation and housing maintenance costs
- Shift from small ownership to big ownership
- A big percentage of inactive, empty properties, apartments which cannot be used, sold, or rented
- Ageing, bad-quality, building stock with a life-time limit and big cost of renovation
- Loss of the city’s productive base- unemployment & poverty
- Lack of social welfare, funding & state support
Proposal/ From small joint ownership to common ownership
A new social contract should be invented that once more could incentivize the synergies of citizens to produce urban space, as antiparochi did some years ago and through which modern Athens was built. Exchanges of land, property, work and expertise should be enabled again on the basis of an informal legal protocol, that this time would prioritize common space against small private property, which through the previous protective model took over every free space in Athens. The project aims to develop new ways of coexisting through co-housing and collective management of urban land. In this proposed model of domesticity, shared values are important, and investment in the procedure is inevitable.
The research focuses on these areas of the center of Athens that suffer more, those more vulnerable to a big-scale gentrification, with the biggest concentration of empty buildings. The research proposal investigates a model of common ownership that would accumulate in the form of a neighborhood land bank, whole buildings, separate apartments, entire floors in polykatoikias to be inhabited by those who already live there, inviting also new ones, Athenians, refugees, immigrants, short-term visitors, students from the countryside, involving them as owners and producers of their city,. This model should be conceived autonomous from the State regarding the unstable political situation- collaboration and participation seem as our only way to a better urban living condition.
The zone under examination is situated in the center of Athens and extends from Victoria Square to Kato Patissia, between the axis of Patision street and the lines of the train. The flats visited are on whole buildings and apartments on various floors, all of them offered for sale at prices which fluctuate around 200-350 euro/ sq.m. (Median price offer ~700/sq.m. for these areas). The potential buyers of these apartments are either foreigners, small investors from abroad who are willing to buy very cheap apartments to transform them in airbnbs, either immigrants with their families who have lived for years in Athens and want to settle down close to their community, or people from the provinces in Greece who want to invest now, due to very low prices, in a flat in Athens where they can stay occasionally when they visit the city, instead of using a hotel.
Polykatoikia is the dominant building typology in the area as in the rest of Athens. Its architectural expression ranges from the luxurious 30s ones built by and for the bourgeoisie, to the 2storeys humble, unadorned, small scale polykatoikia of 50s, to the cheap 70s 5-7 floors constructions, which make up the majority of them, to newly built 10storeys of 90s’ and 00s’ pro-crisis euphoria. In their shadow a lot of neoclassical buildings have survived, some of them quite impressive, but most of them in a very bad condition. Their coexistence on the urban grid of Athens with the narrow streets and the lack of green works against each other, most of the times. The typical housing unit of the 3rooms-polykatoikia-flat, which prevailed back in 60s and 70s, was designed with as much economy as possible to address the needs of the typical nuclear family of 3-4 persons.
The next unit in the hierarchy of urban after polykatoikia, the building block, is characterized too by small size, extreme fragmentation, and a big density of building mass. The shared spaces of the polykatoikias, as well as the shared public spaces between the building blocks are limited to the absolutely necessary for the circulation-transportation. They are usually the left-overs of the built volume, almost unplanned without any design-improvement intentions, with a lack of green, thus creating a suffocating urban environment.
The human geography of the research area has transformed from the Middle War Era bourgeoisie of Victoria sq. to 60s middle-class Kypseli & Patisia to what is deemed now to be an immigrants reception area with a low income profile.
(The first part of the research, published here, was made as part of Co-Hab Athens participation in the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture, with the Greek pavilion #ThisIsACo-op)
Historical Evolution and Plans of Urban Regeneration
Statistics & Data
Uses & Users
Typologies of Buildings/ Typologies of Vacancies
Interviews with Residents & Real Estate Agents
Online map of vacancies from in situ observations