Modernism in Athens
Updated: May 10
A guided walking tour past some of Athens’ best modernist architecture devised and led by Big Olive.
Modernism visited Athens in person in 1933 for the 4th Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne – CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture), although modernist ideas had infiltrated the Athenian architectural intelligentsia some years earlier. Upon their arrival, the elite of European modern architects were warned that they shouldn’t be deceived by “the surrounding neoclassical buildings, with their columns and pediments – tragic representations of a vanishing world”. Athens back then aspired to evolve into a Modern metropolis.
Similarly, all visitors of Athens nowadays should be warned: Don’t let the postcards deceive you; Athens is definitely a modern-day metropolis. Surrounding its wonderful and precious ancient relics is a dense urban fabric of modern buildings.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some 15 years behind other parts of Europe, Modernism eventually hit Greece. The arrival of Modernism coincided with multiple waves of migration, most notably the refugees of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922. The refugees built themselves huts and shanties on the outskirts of town. The state was forced to take measures in order to cope with the housing crisis, and so it created whole new neighborhoods of utility housing in the empty spaces at the fringes of the city. During the ‘30s while moving away from Bavarian Classicism and Eclecticism, young Greek architects went on to design a series of emblematic Modern structures. Ranging from welfare infrastructure to various types of housing, Modern architecture took numerous forms and left a significant mark, both in Athens and the Greek province.
Still, the departure from both Ancient Greece and other forms of vernacular architecture was never absolute. Le Corbusier, perhaps the most influential modern architect worldwide, in his second visit to Athens, confessed: “It’s the Acropolis that made me a rebel.” Simultaneously, both foreign and Greek architects of the interwar period were acknowledging that the white prismatic traditional houses of the Greek islands were “archetypes for modern architecture”. These peculiar liaisons rooted Modern Architecture even further in Greece of the 1930s and brought forward the question of “Greekness” within it, which to this day has received a broad spectrum of answers and remains an important issue for Greek architects.
Many blends of international and local forms have been designed and built over the years, constantly aiming at a perfect balance between Modern, Classical and Traditional in the Greek context. The resultant building of Athens represents and retains this ongoing debate. The areas around Strephi and Lycabettus hills (namely Exarchia and Kolonaki) were known to be the first areas of experimentation for Modern architecture, which thereafter spread all over Athens and Greece.
Athens walks: The path to modernity
One of the best ways to explore Athens’ international, modern and postmodern movements is via a walking tour and Big Olive‘s team of wisecracking docents has carefully designed an architectural walk around town. This walk aims at re-assembling and narrating the adventures of Modern Architecture through Athens and understanding its varied transformations and expressions.
Starting with the birth of a Modern Greek avant-garde movement in the 1930s, we will follow its subsequent popularization and the dense build-up of Athens in the 1960s, followed by various experimental counter-proposals in more recent times and the final
formation of the polykatoikia, the typical Greek housing unit that came to be the building block of the city. This 2 hour walk is ideal for architecture buffs as well as anyone with a simple interest in the buildings of Athens.
Text by Nikos Magouliotis Photo: Le Corbusier, Sketch of Acropolis from his Trip, Le Voyage d’Orient, 1911, Athens.