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  • The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth
  • Neni Panourgia
Eleni Bastéa , The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999. Pp. xix + 280. $80.00.

This volume is the latest addition to a long series of shorter works (articles, chapters, references in books on other subjects, and exhibition catalogues) that deal with architecturally designed and built urban space in nineteenth-century Greece. This, however, is the first book-length treatment of the issue, and a welcome addition at that. It is a beautifully made book of larger-than-usual format, on glossy paper with captivating photographs, reproductions of rare and better known architectural plans for Athens and other Greek cities, maps, and nineteenth-century paintings. [End Page 293]

The issues driving discussion of neoclassical architecture in Greece should be the following: How did Athens, whose ancient ideal had become foundational in the construction of a European identity, become a modern city in the course of the formation of the modern Greek state? What were the forces and needs behind the formulation of a discourse that sought to incorporate modern Greece in the family of nineteenth-century European nations? Although referred to in The Creation of Modern Athens, these questions do not constitute the heart of Bastéa's argument. Instead the book's problematic unfolds on the following two axes: (1) that neoclassical architecture in Greece (and, despite the title of the book, not necessarily Athens, as there is almost as much time devoted to analyzing other cities) was the way in which the modern Greek nation could exhibit its nationalistic progress; and (2) that the rebuilding of neoclassical Greece, although it originated with "foreign-trained architects," involved the participation as well as the resistance of the local population. Of these two arguments the one that is followed and treated in an exemplary manner is the second. Bastéa clearly demonstrates not only the various tensions involved in this conflicting relationship but also the mechanisms through which these tensions materialized. Her first argument, however, is more problematic.

The collusion between neoclassical architecture and nationalism has, with few exceptions, been the thread linking most work on the subject. From the first polemical piece by Christos Iakovidis, picked up by Michael Herzfeld in his 1980 article on "Disemia," and articulated again by Iakovidis in his 1982 , through Jill Dubisch's reproduction of this argument, and M. Christine Boyer's chapter on neoclassical Athens in her 1997 The City of Collective Memory, neoclassical architecture in Greece has been analyzed within the parameters of nationalism. However, what was adequate, revolutionary, and a necessary foundation in the development of a critique of nationalistic discourses in the early 1980s, is inadequate when reproduced in 1999 (or in 1997, for that matter). This argument, correct and necessary in examining neoclassical architecture at a later historical moment (especially from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards), does not account for the complex role that neoclassicism played in the development not only of the modern Greek state but also of a shared idea of Europe. From this standpoint, we need to look at neoclassicism in Greece not merely as a matter of Neohellenic nostalgia for ancient glory driven by a subaltern inferiority complex in the face of external pressures of the Philhellenic ideal. Instead, we need to look at it as a European affair linked directly to the European project of modernity, a project that unfolded by means of a dialectical quirk: the very act of looking forward was predicated on colonizing the past; the gaze towards the future passed through a rearticulation, reformation, and repossession of an antique ideality. Thus, neoclassicism, a product of the Enlightenment that encapsulated the construction of the modern, became in Athens the crystallization of Europeanism.

The study of the aesthetization of history, this particular fetishization of the past, this exact commodification of the aesthetic, has colored the analysis of neoclassicism in Greece for some time. Our purpose, now, should be to go beyond this coloring, to cut through ideology, and arrive at the point where the [End Page 294] politics of the aesthetic circumscribes the aesthetics of the political. What lies at the core of...


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