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The canyons of Athens

There are no natural canyons in Athens. However, there are countless man-made ones.

I’m talking of course of the typical Greek urban architecture of high-rise blocks of flats lining narrow streets. The effect is very much like a canyon.

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The reasons

This architecture is the result of – what else? – history. After WW II, the civil war that followed and the economic hardship that lasted throughout the 40s and 50s, people flocked to the cities in droves, in search of a means to make a living. With most houses destroyed during the wars, and the population influx that followed, the housing problem was explosive. The authorities opted for the easiest and cheapest solution to it, one that had the added advantage of being “modern”: blocks of flats.

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The method

Anyone who had a plot of land or a house could simply replace it with a block of flats. If they didn’t have the money to finance the building themselves, they could come into an arrangement with a contractor, who would get a percentage of the building in exchange for building it. The rest would go to the original owner. The arrangement suited everyone – the owners could replace their drafty old home with a modern flat with indoor plumbing and make a profit (in the form of extra flats to rent). The constructors got the best deal, getting half a building to themselves at the mere cost of construction. The buyers also benefited, moving out of crowded rentals into homes of their own at reasonable prices.

The drawbacks
It was only after the skyline started filling up with one block after the other that the drawbacks of this system started becoming apparent to everyone. Nobody had thought of redrafting the city plan – the narrow streets that were fine for one or two-floor houses, suddenly seemed too narrow for 6 or 7-floor high buildings. The views that are so essential to Greeks disappeared. Soon, the only view available was the flats across the street. Lower floors got very little light. The Acropolis ceased being visible from every part of the city. Then people started buying cars, which began to line the streets; nobody had foreseen that ordinary Greeks could ever be able to afford such a luxury and no space had been allocated for them.

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Adaptations

In the summer, the concrete-covered city became a stifling hot spot. When the summer sun made the walls too hot to touch, only balconies offered a respite and a breath of fresh air. Retractable awnings were deployed as a very efficient means of cooling homes down; they were the only one until the advent of the air-conditioner in the 1980s, and are still used, saving enormous amounts of energy. During winter they’re up to let in as much sunshine as possible, in the summer they are down to provide a welcome cooling shade.

It is nearly impossible to sell or rent a flat without a balcony in Greece, even a tiny one. They are called upon to fulfill all the functions of the gardens that don’t exist and then some. They are a place for children to play, for adults to socialize, for parties and barbecues and, of course, they’re perfect for hanging out the washing and store all the mismatched belongings that won’t fit in the cramped space of a flat.

In my next post I’m going to talk about the most striking – in my humble opinion – aspect of Greek urban architecture, balconies.

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