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Reviewed by:
  • Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens by Ioanna Theocharopoulou
  • Eliana Abu-Hamdi (bio)
Ioanna Theocharopoulou
Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens
London: Artifice Books on Architecture, 2017.
192 pages, 154 illustrations (maps, color plates, print media, photographs).
ISBN: 978-1-9089-6787-9, $39.95 PB

Ioanna Theocharopoulou’s Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens is a historical study of development in Athens, one that traces the theoretical roots of construction, design, nationalism, class, and gender. In so doing, her analysis offers a comprehensive view of the city’s political history, well supported by a tableau of empirical and archival evidence. Each chapter is grounded in archival documents, offering a springboard to primary analysis, from which Theocharopoulou expands the critique, often with her own insight as a local resident of Athens. Theocharopoulou argues that Athens is historically overshadowed by its monumental past, so much so that its modern self, its modern architecture in particular, is not seen as emblematic of the city’s development. Instead Athens is seen as an embodiment of a historicized Aegean rural architecture— its vernacular roots. Theocharopoulou’s significant contribution is in her examination of the term vernacular, turning its traditional use on its head, arguing that not only can modern development be vernacular, in turn the fabric of a modern city can be understood as vernacular as well. In so doing, Theocharopoulou does well in expanding the definition and conventional interpretation of the vernacular.

The methodology to advance this argument is presented through a new set of tools, ones that recognize urbanism as a mode of life and that the intricacies of planning are nuanced practices along a spectrum of politically and socially motivated development decisions, ones that transcend the general paradigm of formal versus vernacular, planned versus chaotic, and modern versus classic. As an example, Theocharopoulou uses the construction of polykatoikia, multifamily dwellings, as a unit of analysis capable of presenting a historical and theoretical account of planning and construction in Athens. The polykatoikia is the embodiment of family structure, class structure, development, and, most importantly, the role of the builder and the professionalization of architecture in Athens.

The book traces the historical development of a major point of contention in Athens’ identity: its European or neoclassical roots. Neoclassical style imported from elsewhere in Europe in the nineteenth century had a long-enduring impact on local culture and memory in Athens. While the nineteenth-century middle class welcomed the adoption of the neoclassical style, viewing it as a symbol of pride and prestige, Greek scholars considered the style a destructive departure from old “Athenian” houses and a source of alienation from Greek culture and origins. Ultimately, to them, neoclassical architecture was self-orientalizing, a colonization from within.

Though to the middle class the adoption of neoclassical style was heralded as a “national rebirth,” informal development, namely the domination of the home builder, persisted as a stylistic opposition to European influence. The tumultuous political history of Greece throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries disrupted the rules for builders and architects in the race to accommodate the numerous refugees who relocated to the city, causing a major housing shortage in Athens. For this reason, home builders dominated the development arena, constructing residential units without restriction by development policy or building code. Construction was largely craft based, and embraced the multifamily style of the polykatoikia, systematically sacrificing single-family neoclassical houses for this more dense and efficient residential unit.

Construction by experienced craftsman persisted in Athens up to the mid-twentieth century, but it faced opposition upon the return of internationally educated professional architects, schooled in the science of design and construction. The professionalization of architecture introduced a formal process of design, but also caused confusion, as the role of the architect had to be reconciled with the dominant role of local craftsmen and builders. The city, lacking any formal policy or building restrictions, decreed that builders could continue to construct homes without the council of engineers, the scientifically educated architects of Athens. During this time, a hierarchy of builders developed, from master builders, responsible for procuring materials, projects, and building contracts, to those who executed the actual construction...


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pp. 117-118
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