Dimitrios Kyranas in Athens, Greece

A Greek capital crime

I was strolling this afternoon along the wide avenues that crisscross the center of Athens, the Greek capital, perusing its wonderful fauna -- stray cats, dogs, and pigeons -- posters advertising concerts of famous Albanian singers -- there are about one million Albanian immigrants in Greece -- an array of recently built department stores, and koulouria -- the wheel carts of bread salesmen. Aside from the aforementioned curiosa, my eyes could not help but wander to the '50s and '60s blocks of flats that constitute a considerable percentage of the buildings in Greece's urban centers. They were erected hastily in those decades in order to house the thousands of newcomers from the rural areas who sought work and a prosperous future in the cities. This lust for urbanization is displayed in the films of that era, and although it seems absurd today (why would people want to abandon their wonderful villages, close to nature and fresh air?), it was justified at the time. In the 1950s, in most rural areas of Greece, there was no electricity, telephone, or running water in the homes; hospital infrastructure was sparse; schools were not very accessible.... The easiest and fastest way for people to upgrade to the 20th Century was to move to a city, and the most popular destination of all was Athens .

As you can imagine, a construction boom ensued, converting the Greek cities into the ( cough ) wonderful places they are today -- with a few notable exceptions. The most coveted professions for a man at the time were civil engineer or architect, and every girl's dream was to marry one. If they were unsuccessful, they could always look for a charming doctor or lawyer.

This army of civil engineers and architects partnered with self-proclaimed building contractors, purchased most of the available real estate -- thanks to an ingenious law that allowed the owner of real estate to transfer its ownership directly to a contractor in exchange for floor space in the building that would be constructed on it -- shamelessly demolished neoclassical buildings of astounding beauty (and of greedy owners), and bestowed us with cities full of gleaming blocks of flats and a population density unheard of in other countries -- except, perhaps, Hong Kong.

When those buildings were new, they carried some of the Lebendigkeit der 50er in them as well as the incurable optimism typical of 1950s Athens. Now they are neglected, and their façades are dark gray from decades of smog deposits. Rust, washed down from the exposed extremities of the iron rods on the rooftops -- the rods used in reinforced concrete -- draws dreary patterns on their back-yard walls. The roofs are a dismal forest of oxidized 30-year-old TV aerials.

And when the arrogant tourists from London, Stockholm, and Prague come across them, they put on disdainful facial expressions, revolted by the flagrant lack of aesthetic. My question: Is there anything inherently wrong with these buildings? Of course, most of them cannot be remotely compared to the neoclassical masterpieces they replaced, but, still, what can beat the simplicity and efficiency of a rectangular box with doors and windows? I am not an architect, but I believe these structures are...okay, in aesthetic terms. What makes them so dismal is the frustrating lack of maintenance. If their inhabitants really cared about their appearance, they would utilize the unlimited capabilities offered by modern technology: satellite dishes replacing the despicable TV aerials, smog-resistant paint, and roof gardens to make up for the lack of trees.

This high population density made possible by the blocks of flats could become an advantage. I'm not a city planner, but one can find commercial benefits: savings in public transport infrastructure, cost-effective coverage of a large population by optical-fiber networks, etc. Why are people so indifferent? Why do they tolerate living in buildings anyone with elementary taste would mock? I refuse to believe that they are devoid of the financial resources required for maintenance. This may be the case for some, but what's wrong with the majority? Are people in Athens so overwhelmed by the problems of everyday life that they have forgotten that aesthetics are an important part of the quality of life? I don't want them to rebuild Versailles! I'm only asking for some white paint.


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