The Birth of the Polykatoikia 1929-1940
Athen’s population exploded, from 453,000 in 1920 to 802,000 in 1928, following the arrival of refugees from Asia Minor.1 This rapid population growth generated an urban expansion in the Greek cities through the creation of informal refugee settlements. During the interwar period, social polarization was evident in Athens. The most important axes of polarization were those between natives and refugees, the rich and the poor.2 The refugee settlements were separated into working class districts, while the bourgeois communities still lived at the nineteenth century neoclassical city center.
A decisive model in the development of Athens was the adoption of the law of horizontal property in 1929, which enabled the invention of the antiparochi system. According to the Greek legislation, the owner of a plot is to be compensated by the contractor who builds on his land with apartments. This unique property-swap system received tax privileges and soon became the principal method of real estate transactions in Greece.
The first multistoried apartment buildings were built in the 1910s, shortly after the introduction of the reinforced concrete technology in Greece. But the Greek apartment building known as the polykatoikia was born in the 1930s.
Designed by a group of young architects—Kyriakos Panayotakos, Vassilios Douras, Georges Kontoleon, Thucydides Valentis, et al.—connected to the pioneers of the modern movement, these early structures were commissioned by prosperous and cultured landowners who sought social recognition.3
Invented in order to meet the needs of the social and economic elite, the polykatoikia very soon became the dominant building typology and led the massive dissemination of the modern vocabulary in the Greek city.
The Greek City of Repetition 1949-1989
World War II (1940-1944) destroyed Greece. Moreover, the Civil War that followed (1946-1949) cast a long shadow over the local society. The social and ideological differences of the interwar period were accentuated during the early stages of the Civil War, when Athens was divided among the conflicting parties. Combating communism was one of the main objectives of the postwar governments.
Between 1951 and 1981, the population of the Athens urban area more than doubled, from 1,379,000 to 3,027,090.4 Internal immigrants moved from the rural areas to the cities in order to find employment in construction and the industrial sector, but the Greek State was unable to cope with the huge demand for housing. The appropriation of the new concrete technology by unskilled and inexperienced workers and the local production of building materials led to the creation of a flexible construction industry. The new industry was supported by the State through tax privileges and a loose control over the implementation of building regulations, and soon became one of the key pillars of the Greek economy. Post-war reconstruction followed a selective appropriation of ideas of the modern movement through a vernacular process. The collaboration of landowners with self-taught contractors in the construction of polykatoikias drove the bottom-up development of the Greek cities under the State’s tolerance.5
The infinite repetition of polykatoikias produced a “form-less, border-less and placeless urban landscape”6 that has covered the whole Attica basin. Every single piece of land that was possible to build on was built on. New urban blocks were built on the sloppy surfaces while street infrastructure has covered the natural water network of Attica. Only the tops of the hills, the coasts, the archaeological sites, and a few public spaces have escaped development. The rest of the landscape has been transformed into a dense, small-scale urban environment.
Architects had limited involvement in the production of polykatoikias during post-war reconstruction.7 Thus, the architecture of the typical polykatoikia has been very simple. The repetition of the typical plan produces the apartment building while the repetition of the linear balconies duly produces the façade. The structure of the typical polykatoikia has been an evolution of Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino system, with a reinforced concrete frame of columns and slabs, plus an elevator shaft and staircase, that allows for flexible floor plans. During post-war reconstruction, the typology of polykatoikia was hardly affected by changes in family structure. In most cases, the apartments were designed for nuclear families with children. Studios for single people were usually offered at the lower floors and the backsides of the buildings.
The most decisive factor in the evolution of the Greek polykatoikia, though, was the changes in building regulations. Some of the most distinguishable characteristics of the typical polykatoikia, such as the linear balconies and the erkers, were specified by the appropriate regulations. In the same way, the skyline of the Greek city, which is typically stepped, has been reformed due to the frequent change of height limitation.
The flexibility of the plan allowed for the accommodation of a variety of programs in the polykatoikia. Most small-scale businesses and services, such as lawyers’ offices, notary’s offices, and dental clinics were established among the residential apartments. Street life has been extended through the arcades and the shops, which are usually located on the ground floors, and the rest of the public programs dispersed on the upper floors of the polykatoikias. At the same time, many domestic activities take place outdoors on the balconies, extending private life over the public street. In contrast to the new towns that were built in post-war Europe, the mix of uses that was achieved in the “semipermeable” Athenian urban block has contributed to the creation of intimate, safe, and vibrant neighborhoods. The “osmosis of private and public spheres”8 that takes place in a modern urban context has been the strongest output of the informal urban development in Greece.
The Greek city introduced a new way of living through the endless repetition of polykatoikias. A new ubiquitous lifestyle was constructed that emphasized modernity, hygiene, and new amenities such as central heating, over the economic and ideological differences of the recent past. Home ownership became one of the most important elements of identity for the newly formed Greek middle-class. The development of Athens and the booming post-war economy obscured the class differences and contributed to the social integration of all those who suffered during the Civil War.9 A homogeneous city was produced for the rising population that has avoided “ghettoization” throughout the century. Under this perspective, reconstructing the city has been more than a response to the demand for housing. The bottom-up development of Athens has been a bio-political project that created a new city, a new social structure, and a new way of living.10
Globalization of the Vernacular City 1990-2008
Since 1989 and the collapse of the eastern bloc, Athens has been affected by the conditions of globalization. A big inflow of immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in Greece in the early 1990s, soon followed by immigrants from Asia and Africa. Since 1981, the population of Athens has stabilized, reaching a peak of 3,534,608 in 2001.11 The immigrant population is estimated to be around 12% of the total population in the urban area of Athens and 20% in the municipality of Athens.
At the turn of the century, economic growth along with cheap borrowing brought about a rise in living standards. Consumerism and wellbeing have constituted central elements in the identity of local society. The population of Athens has been socially polarized, divided by ethnic origin, religion, and income levels. Nevertheless, the city’s residential areas have remained relatively mixed in terms of social class. Contrary to the dominant assumptions, a paradoxical coexistence of increasing social polarization with decreasing segregation has taken place in Athens.12
The organization of the 2004 Olympic games was an attempt to improve the position of Athens in the ranking of world cities. Olympic Athens was made up of major infrastructural projects, such as the new Athens International Airport, the Athens Metro, and the new Athens Ring Road.13 The new infrastructure allowed for the diffusion of the city into the rural periphery. New shopping malls and leisure areas were established along the new motorway, in competition with downtown commercial activities. Their proximity to the suburban residential areas offered a substitute of public place to the upper middle-class population, in accordance with the consumerist ideals and standards of the lending-based economy.
The diffusion of Athens created a major gap in the traditional center and generated opportunities for the new city contenders. The first groups of immigrants formed their communities in the abandoned central districts. They were soon followed by the leisure industry. Many districts, which had been abandoned by manufacturing activities or services, were soon transformed into hip areas filled with nightclubs, cafes, and tavernas. The diversity and vibrancy of the multicultural areas, the colorful markets and the ethnic restaurants, attracted the newly formed creative class of the city: mostly young people, well educated and internationally oriented, who set up their living spaces, design studios, and art galleries there.14
At the turn of the century, the newly formed urban culture and the emerging lifestyles redefined the generic architecture of the polykatoikia. The outdated floor plans could not satisfy the living requirements of new types of users.15 For the very first time in Greece, there was a strong demand for new housing typologies and new ways to express cultural diversity through design. New residential typologies thus appeared, like polykatoikias with loft-like apartments and medium scale apartment complexes, while innovative reuse of the old buildings has become a challenge for architects. During the last years of economic prosperity, opportunities were offered in order to disrupt the monotony of the city through architectural design. Very often, the late examples of polykatoikias stand out of the homogenous city, creating moments of tension in the formless context. Under the conditions of globalization, the city of repetition has given way to a city of diversity.
The City of Repetition in Decay 2009-2013
Winter 2008 was a moment of violent awakening for Athens. The global economic crisis unveiled the weaknesses of the Greek economy and the fictitiousness of the prosperity that was based on borrowing. Greek society, hypnotized by the hunt for good times, has been shaken to the core by the outbreak of the economic crisis and social unrest. Since 2010, the country has been under the rule of the European Union, the European Central Banking, and the International Monetary Fund. The collapse of the economy and a contestation of national sovereignty ushered the country into an era of depression. During the last four years, Athens has been in the spotlight of international media, while Greece has been ruled by international organizations. The Greek capital has thus become a “global city” in the most undesirable manner.
The population of Athens has decreased for the first time, dropping to 3,089,698 in 2011.16 The limited demand for new housing has left thousands of newly constructed apartments empty. The construction industry has collapsed since the completion of the Olympic projects. The antiparochi system has practically died after the imposition of value added tax in real estate transactions. Real estate has become even more unprofitable due to the new regulations of energy efficiency on the old buildings. Moreover, the imposition of property taxes and the mortgage debt accumulation has put the private property in jeopardy.
The consequences of the financial crisis and the prolonged economic austerity measures are reflected in the urban space of Athens. The homeless population has increased. It is very common to see people collecting cans in shopping trolleys and well-dressed people begging for money. Poverty-stricken immigrants inhabit the former middle-class neighborhoods. Furthermore, the appearance of Golden Dawn, a far extreme right wing political party, has created conditions of horror in public space, carrying out acts of violence against immigrants, ethnic minorities, and political opponents.17
Economic recession along with the construction of large shopping malls at the periphery has ravaged small-scale commerce, deserting the ground floors of the polykatoikias. The porosity of the building blocks has been canceled, as life does not take place anymore through the Athenian arcades. Another way of living takes place just a few meters away at the thresholds of the polykatoikias, where the homeless people spend their nights quietly.
The collapse of the middle class has created tension among the residents of the polykatoikias. Many residents cannot afford the shared heating expenses, while jobless households cannot even afford the electricity expenses. Many indebted families live under the fear that they may be evicted from their households. Home ownership, the once dream-come-true for the middle class, has now become a source of fear. In the 2010s, polykatoikia has become the locus of the “indebted,” “mediatized,” “securitized,” and “represented” subject, that has been described by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book, Declaration.18 Isolated in guilt and misery, chained by communications and social media, living in constant fear, without access to effective political action, the impoverished Greek middle-class silently endures the depression era.
The conditions of globalization, the failure of Greece’s economic model, and the neo-liberal policies that Troika has imposed have put an end to the bio-political project of the twentieth century Greek city. The conditions of development of the city of repetition have expired; the mechanisms of production have been canceled, and its social structure is under threat. Polykatoikia, as a generic building typology, is dead at the moment. However, its legacy is still offering a useful lesson for the development of future cities. The flexibility and porosity of the small-scale housing, the “osmosis” of the private and public domain in the urban block, the bottom-up urban development, and the high percentage of homeownership, has been a successful recipe for producing vivid and safe cities, resilient to social and racial segregation.
The crisis that is underway is more than a debt and fiscal crisis; it is a bio-political crisis. The world will overcome this crisis only when a subject capable of producing and sustaining a new democratic urban space emerges. Contemporary Athens is a laboratory where the subject of the 21st century city is being formed.