Architecture in Metaxas’ Greece – Excerpts from a book

These are some excerpts taken from a chapter of the book “Greece: Modern Architectures in History”, written by Alexander Tzonis and Alcestis P. Rodi and published in 2013. This chapter, titled “Hard Times: The Third Hellenic Civilization, War and Reconstruction” revolves about architecture during the Metaxas years. We have selected some of the most illustrative excerpts.

eksoterikon kratikou peripterou ektheseos thessalonikisIoannis Metaxas declared the ‘Third Hellenic Civilization’ at 8:oo p.m. on 4 August 1936. Pretentiously named, the ‘Civilization’ lasted just four years, with no distinctive ‘civilized’ cultural output. Yet it was a historical episode that marked the development of Greek architecture. The Third Hellenic Civilization was not a universally welcomed. As the poet George Seferis reacted in his diaries: `We are no more in Greece… this… is not our place, it is a nightmare. Nothing more bitter than to be nostalgic of your own place while living in your place.’ Like Seferis, Metaxas was an obsessive diarist, but in the hundreds of fascinating pages in which he recorded his thoughts, which contain many shrewd as well as paranoid observations about political events and personal details, there are few references to buildings.

Perhaps there was not much to say about architecture in those days: the golden era of building schools, apartments and hospitals was almost over, and in 1936 Greece faced severe economic difficulties as well as, like the rest of Europe, the cost of intensive military preparations. Metaxas increased the state’s defence expenses threefold from it had been in 1931. During the same period, with the exception of road building (which doubled), public works decreased three times.’

Although construction had shrunk, and Metaxas appeared alienated from his public (he often referred to them in his diary as ‘those people’), one of his most important preoccupations was the physical planning of the capital. During the four years of his regime, he spent time, though very little money, trying to establish some administrative order over the city and organize urban life. Some of these interventions were pathetically ineffective; others lasted until the late 1950s.

In addition, being a fascist leader, he was also concerned with the possibilities the city could offer as a platform supporting public spectacles to hammer home the regime’s legitimacy and collective identity. To satisfy these needs, on 15 September 1936 Metaxas founded a new ministry for the administration of ‘the region of the capital’, a centralized post with broad responsibilities covering the whole of Attica. He housed the new ministry in the prestigious Old Palace, and having already appointed Konstantinos Kotzias mayor of Athens in April 1934, made him Minister Governor of the Capital.

Kotzias was to be assisted by a Director General, the architect Kostas Biris, and a Director of Technical Projects, the civil engineer Elias Krimbas. The appointment appeared successful: as mayor, Kotzias had proven to be a zealous organizer and passionate showman.

Metaxas also established a new Supreme Planning Organization of the Capital with two branches, architecture and city planning. Echoing the urban ambitions of Kemal, Mussolini and Hitler – the three leaders Metaxas admired – he appointed himself President of the Ministry’s Supreme City Planning Council.

Kotzias was a charismatic figure with a totalitarian mindset, but at the same time he tolerated, and even understood, radically opposing views as long as they did not infringe directly on his projects. His great passion for the theatre also transcended his political views. As Minister Governor of the Capital he saw buildings and squares as potential theatrical stage sets for state spectacles glorifying the Third Civilization. By temperament an activist-impresario rather than a planner, most of his urban schemes did not materialize into concrete projects, although his work as chief image maker of the regime produced tangible results, including numerous theatrical-political performances in Athens, in Thessaloniki, and across the country.’

Paradoxically, Kotzias’s hyperactivity could mean destruction for architecture and the theatre: the original Demotiko Theatre of Athens, a neoclassical building designed by Ziller, was demolished in 1937 for no serious reason other than a desire for renewal. The daily newspaper Acropolis had warned on 9 July 1936 that ‘Athens is losing its beautiful mansions. This evil must stop’.

These actions were indicative of the regime’s general lack of appreciation of the nation’s architectural heritage and the vacuum of a broader and deeper cultural vision.

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Naturally, support for the theatre involved commissions for the design of new venues; these, however, were few and somewhat limited in scope. In a meeting on 11 February 1939 that included Metaxas and Kostis Bastias (the first Director of the newly founded division of Letters and Fine Arts at the Ministry of Education), Kotzias asked the young architect Constantinos Doxiadis to design open-air facilities for 8,000 to 10,000 people for the Royal Theatre on Philopappou Hill, Athens. The previous year (May 1938) Bastias, in close collaboration with Doxiadis, had been busy putting together a long proposal to the government for an ambitious national programme of theatre-building. In the same month Metaxas responded in I Kathimerini, officially approving the proposals. Following developments in Italy, France and Germany, Kotzias studied…..

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Most of the very few public buildings constructed during the Metaxas era had been conceived and commissioned before he took over power, and thus they cannot be seen as products of the spirit of the regime: they include Trapeza tis Ellados (Bank of Greece, 1933-8), by N. Zoumboulides, D. Tripodakis, and K. Papadakis, and the Agios Savas Cancer Hospital (1936), a modern building in all respects albeit with a monumental axial entrance designed by Angelos Siagas. Similarly, the glass, steel and grey Kokkinaras marble Ford Show Room and Service Station (1936-7) by Kontoleon – indeed from a compositional point of view the most conservative and formalist of his buildings – cannot be blamed on the conservatism of the regime but on the global anti-modern mood of the time, which reached from Michigan to Moscow. However, in about 1933 Kontoleon designed the Kyriakides residence, a highly modern scheme reminiscent of the Casa Malaparte in Italy.’

There is no indication that the regime disapproved of such buildings. Indeed, Metaxas, at a meeting of the City Planning Council, declared that ‘the Greek State will support art, whatever its style’. And while he recommended that Greek artists be inspired by ‘those things that the land of the whole of Greece supplies’, on another occasion (August 1937) he argued that it was not the business of the government to ‘put constraints on art.’ It appears that Metaxas was sincere in this, for the same opinion is to be found in his private diary.

Two of the most important modernist undertakings completed during the Metaxas period were the Army Share Fund Building and the Rex movie house and theatre complex. The original scheme of the Share Fund Building was submitted by Vassilios Kassandras and Leonidas Bonis as an entry to a competition in 1924 that had a prominent but conservative international jury, one of whom was Sir Reginald Blomfield. The background of the two architects is interesting. Kassandras was born in Athens in 1896 and went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, graduating in 1927. He worked with Leonidas Bonis, who had also studied in Paris, at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture, graduating in 1928. Like the mature buildings of Nikoloudes, their Share Fund Building scheme skilfully packaged multiple heterogeneous uses – offices, an arcade, shops and restaurants on the ground floor, parking, and two theatres. The expression is monumental. The facades are ordered spatially according to the classical canon but decorative elements are virtually absent; the

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Metaxas’s Supreme Planning Organization of the Capital had no clear urban or planning ideas traditional or modern. Its attention was scattered over specific problems without advancing Athens as a modern city. In 1938 Metaxas, Kotzias and Doxiadis met to address a major and urgent problem, the establishment of an Industrial Zone for Athens. Industry was gradually becoming a major factor in the development of Greece, for most factories were placed close to where labour was easily available, i.e., in the middle of residential districts.

None of Metaxas’s planners were in any way knowledgeable about planning. The outcome of the 1938 meeting was to place industry opportunistically in whatever under-used sites existed or in sites close to refugee settlements: the area behind the port of Piraeus, the western periphery of Athens, the Botanical Garden, and various dispersed locations in Patissia and Ilissos. Indeed the regime was accused of paving over the bank of the Ilissos river, destroying irreparably one of the most significant world cultural heritage sites.”

As for city growth, Metaxas, much like his predecessors, even as prime minister-dictator, was not potent enough to manipulate the multiple mighty forces controlling the city legally or illegally. The privately initiated settlements in greater Athens of Psychico, Kypriadou, Ilioupolis, Cholargos, Vrilissia, Nea Alexandria (Philothei) and Ekali continued to expand as middle-class suburban developments. Building inside the city, a new phenomenon for Athens, required demolition of the nineteenth-century buildings. The newspaper Akropolis announced on 9 July 1936 that `Athens is losing its beautiful mansions. This evil must stop.’ But it took more than four decades for that to happen.

In addition there were also the areas given over as refugee settlements, in which, despite the establishment of a national organization for housing, the refugees continued to live under the same temporary conditions as when they had first arrived.’ Bert Birtles wrote that he found people living in one settlement in Tambouria, Piraeus, in ‘mud brick whitewashed two room sheds, with no water connection and no toilets’. There were also pockets of land inside the city where buildings appeared without any plan or regulation.

In 1940 the architect Patroklos Karantinos published his plan for the capital. It contained some fragmented suggestions and marginal improvements but contributed very little to the future development of Athens with the exception of the establishment of a site near the Acropolis for folk-dance performances. Such plans are reminiscent of the remark made by the architect Vassilios Tsagris back in 1918: ‘New Athens was built and it continues being built, left at the mercy of God, without the help of the people.

Doxiadis moved to the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works, leaving Karantinos in his place and retaining his personal association with Kotzias. It was a shrewd move by an ambitious young man: it was becoming clear by then that the new-founded Ministry of the Capital did not have much of a future. In addition, parallel to his successful civil service activities, Doxiadis started preparing for a different kind of future endeavour. He began to plan a vast research project, a multi-volume publication on the cities of Greece, intended to present Greek architecture juxtaposed to the International style, combined with guidelines for a regionalist architecture that reflected the Greek way of life as determined by economic, social and environmental conditions, similar to studies he claimed were happening at that time in other countries, such as Great Britain, Germany and Russia. The project never materialized, but the process of its gestation yielded results, as we will see later, in other unexpected domains.

By 1940 the regime had no time or energy to think about New Athens, the big question being not if, but when, the cataclysm that was the Second World War looked to engulf Greece. Further fueling general anxiety was a second, related question: with whom was Greece going to side? Greece had a strong left-wing movement by then but also a mass of supporters of Western liberal democracies. Adding to the ambiguity and to the bewilderment of the police was the presence, towards the end of the 1930s, of a flock of Germans, Italians, Britons and Americans, including the cosmopolitan writer Henry Miller, all demonstrating their love for the country, its history, its landscapes and its architectural heritage, including its vernacular tradition, which was becoming increasingly fashionable following the CLAM Congress. Herbert List photographed classical land-scapes and vernacular buildings during the 1930s. Miller visited ancient and vernacular sites. Vrieslander studied the architecture of Hydra. They all met in and around Ziller’s Grand Bretagne Hotel. By the middle of June 1940 many were leaving, some having been told to depart by the authorities.

The uncertainty was finally over when Metaxas was woken up in the early hours of 28 October and, still wearing his night robe, rejected an ultimatum from Italy demanding the right for its forces to occupy strategic locations on Greek soil. The Greco-Italian War began well for the Greeks. They managed to halt and reverse the Italian armies that invaded from Albania, but this Axis setback brought Nazi Germany directly into the conflict.

Unexpectedly, in the middle of the tense winter months, Metaxas died on 29 January 1941. On 6 April his successor, Alexandros Koryzis, spurned a German ultimatum and Germany immediately invaded both Greece and Yugoslavia. Less than two weeks later, 18 April, Koryzis was found dead. It was suicide. He had served as Prime Minister for exactly 80 days. Kotzias was asked to form a new government. But the Germans penetrated Thessaloniki on 9 April and it was clear that the king and part of the administration were going to be forced to leave Greece.

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The German army entered Athens six days later. In the meantime the king, his court, most of his government and a few civil servants and military chiefs embarked for Egypt via Crete. A large number of architects as well as academics at the Polytechnic, including its School of Architecture, joined the emerging movement against the Occupation as Greece replaced an era of construction with its opposite, which had a major impact on the modernization of the country and its architecture.

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