- Greece: Modern Architectures in History by Alexander Tzonis and Alcestis P. Rodi
The insert in my review copy of Greece: Modern Architectures in History listed 1 May 2013 as its publication date. Even if unintentional, 1 May makes a fitting date for introducing this engaged study. The book is part of the Reaktion series “Modern Architectures in History,” each volume focusing on the architecture of a single country. Most English-language books have focused on the main centers of modernism—London, Paris, New York—and their respective countries. Accounts of the architecture of modern Greece—or Turkey, Finland, and Brazil, for that matter—have been non-existent or peripheral at best. Covering both more and less well-studied countries, this series makes a significant contribution to modern architecture, cultural history, and area studies.
Through a detailed review of new architecture, the book chronicles the country’s history, struggles and tragedies, and successes and aspirations. Unfolding chronologically, each chapter is organized around a central theme: 1. Architecture of Revolution (c. 1830–1880); 2. “Forward”: Infrastructure, City Plans and Buildings (c. 1880–1922); 3. Open Wide Windows, Let the Sun Come in! (c. 1930–1936); 4. Hard Times: The Third Hellenic Civilization, War and Reconstruction (c. 1936–1950s); 5. Halcyon Days (1950s–1967); 6. Architecture of the Junta (1967–1974); 7. Modern Architecture Comes of Age (1974–c. 2010); 8. Whither Young Architect? As the authors Alexander Tzonis and Alcestis P. Rodi underscore, the “study of Greece and its modern architecture offers insights into many current debates about globalization versus regionalism, community participation versus centralized control, universal values versus Balkanization, one-dimensional, libertarian, short-term economic growth versus normative planning that aims for social and environmental prosperity in the long run” (10).
As the first study to cover modern Greek architecture until the 2009 economic crisis, the book makes a seminal contribution not only to the Anglophone literature, but also to the field of modern Greek architecture in general. For those familiar with the extensive scholarship in Greek, it contributes significant new material, while also revisiting many familiar themes, such as the question of national identity and the interplay between regional and modern architecture. Many of these themes had also formed the core of an earlier and equally pivotal book by Dimitris Philippides, Δημήτρης Φιλιππίδης, Νεοελληνική αρχιτεκτονική: Αρχιτεκτονική θεωρία και πράξη (1830–1980) σαν αντανάκλαση των ιδεολογικών επιλογών της νεοελληνικής κουλτούρας (Modern Greek architecture: architectural theory and practice, 1830–1980, as a reflection of ideological choices of Modern Greek culture; Athens: Melissa, 1984). Writing about thirty years apart, the authors of both books examine the relationship of the built environment within its political and cultural context and contribute their own passionate positions to major architectural debates.
Greece: Modern Architectures in History offers a comprehensive overview of major new buildings, especially those of noteworthy design and social relevance. For example, the school-building program under the direction of Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis resulted in the construction of 407 new schools, built between 1898 and 1911 according to the plans of engineer Dimitrios Kallias. An impressive, albeit “unsatisfactory figure,” note the authors, “for a country whose population by then was [End Page 465] close to six million” (44–46). Literacy rates by 1933 showed that “36 percent of the male Greek population and 52 percent (perhaps as many as 70 percent) of the female were illiterate” (81).
During the twentieth century, Greece sought to construct a new architectural identity inspired both by regional traditions and the modern movement. But as the young architect Isaac Saporta noted, “new architecture without the understanding of a new way of life is impossible” (114). Saporta was representing the Greek delegation at the fourth international meeting of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) that convened in Greece in 1933. In his novel Αργώ (Argo; Athens, 1933), Giorgos Theotokas remarked that in Athens, which lacked “institutions, state organization, ideologies,” they were “building everywhere heavy concrete houses” (119).
In the early 1980s Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre coined the term “critical regionalism,” an important if sometimes vague concept that describes new architecture inspired by local materials and building traditions...