[MGSA-L] Benaki Museum exhibit shows how ‘the Crisis’ affected Athens

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Tue Dec 16 20:06:10 PST 2014

Benaki Museum exhibit shows how ‘the Crisis’ affected Athens


ATHENS — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Dec. 15 2014, 3:32 PM EST
Last updated Monday, Dec. 15 2014, 3:32 PM EST

The Benaki Museum’s pink marble Annex, on an otherwise dull stretch of
Athens’s bustling Pireos Street, sprang up during the city’s delirious
building boom before the 2004 Olympics. That event now seems a distant
dream to many Athenians, after six years of the economic and political
misery known to everyone here as the Crisis. Some Olympic sites, now
abandoned, have even become symbols of the country’s fall. A few of them
make an appearance in Depression Era, the Benaki Annex’s expansive show of
photo-based works about the effects of the Crisis on the social and urban

The exhibition features work by a collective of 36 artists and writers who
spent three years documenting the trauma, and trying to see a way past it.
There are lots of images of “non-places” – contemporary ruins, abandoned
buildings and sites where the fabric of urban life has come apart. Some
riff on postcard ruins such as the Parthenon, ironically echoed in Yiannis
Theodoropoulos’s image of an unfinished concrete garage.

Other photos show people who have been cast out, either from their
apartments or from a country grown wary of non-Greeks seeking asylum.
Hard-eyed images of some artists’ families seem to portray the last,
tight-knit refuge within what journalist Costas Iordanidis, writing in the
Athens paper Kathimerini, recently called “a country of complete inertia
where virtual reality reigns supreme.”

Many of the photos reach after what has gone missing from Greek life, or
was never fully there. A placard near the door mentions “the collapse of
public systems [and] the emergence of the Commons.” This is a new and
somewhat utopian concept, of a civic space to fill the traditional void
between clannish Greek individualism and centralized power. Civic
consciousness has never been strong here. As one Athenian told me, “There’s
an old saying: The Greek woman has a clean house, but the streets are

But Athens has gone through at least two utopian phases in its modern
history, when the dream of a shining polis galvanized the town. Two other
current or recent exhibitions look at those golden episodes, both of which
left lasting marks on the city.

Hellenic Renaissance: The Architecture of Theophil Hansen is a reminder of
the days when the Bavarian Prince Otto, installed by the Great Powers as
king of the Greeks in 1834, arrived with a plan to make Athens a
neoclassical showplace. War with the Ottoman Turks had left the town in
ruins, with only about 4,000 impoverished citizens. That didn’t stop Otto
or his court architect, the Dane Theophil Hansen, from building grand
imperial structures in the new capital.

Hansen’s exquisite architectural drawings, and those of his architect
brother Christian, make up almost the whole of the show at the B & M
Theocharakis Foundation. They include plans for Athenian public buildings
such as the current parliament and university, as well for Copenhagen and
Vienna, where Theophil designed the famous Musikverein. Remarkably, the
Hansens’s official neoclassicism filtered down into vernacular building,
and evolved into the default Athenian architectural style. “By the end of
the 19th century, Athens had more neoclassical buildings than Vienna and
Budapest,” writes art historian Janina K. Darling in her book, Architecture
of Greece (2004).

Many of those neoclassical buildings were destroyed or neglected during the
boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. Explosive economic growth and lots of
American aid convinced Greeks that their country, devastated by the Second
World War and the civil war that followed, could become a prosperous
European nation. Athens: The Spirit of the ’60s – A Changing Capital, a
show at the Hellenic American Union’s Kennedy Gallery, celebrates “the most
exciting decade in the modern history of Athens,” curator and journalist
Nikos Vatopoulos says. His show is mostly ephemera – postcards, magazine
covers, news photos – almost all of it promoting the new vision of Athens
as sleek and up-to-date.

Unfortunately the 1960s also brought the Colonels’ dictatorship. It was not
a regime fond of thinking, and paid little mind to the consequences of
rapid urban growth. “When we woke up to the new democratic regime,”
Vatopoulos says, referring to the elections of 1974, “we looked around and
saw that the city was dull and problematic. So a huge nostalgia started for
the old neoclassical Athens.” Its ruins can be seen all over central
Athens, in boarded-up “ghost houses” with fluted pilasters (flat
column-like decorative features) and wrought-iron balcony railings.

No doubt nostalgia of all kinds is a popular food for thought in Greece,
where the unemployment rate is 26 per cent, and the whole population feels
the sting of EU-enforced austerity. But Vatopoulos thinks he can see signs
of civic rejuvenation, such as the Commons referred to by the artists of
Depression Era.

“We have seen a renaissance in the city in many aspects,” he says. “We have
started to see groups of people getting organized to do something, no
matter what, for the city. There is a new urban civic consciousness coming
up, mainly among young people. And that is very hopeful.”

Depression Era continues at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street Annex through
Jan. 11. Hellenic Renaissance: The Architecture of Theophil Hansen
continues at the B&M Theocharakis Foundation in Athens through Jan. 1

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com
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