The old, the empty, and the ugly. The story behind architecture in Greek cities.

The Greeks are famous for their architecture, they even invented this type of art. Look at the Parthenon, the temple of Apollo, or the theatre in Philippi. All amazing architecture, and all on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites today. But also on the islands, the architecture resembles an art. The idyllic villages with narrow stone streets. Surrounded by white walls, and blue roofs that match the color of the sky. The Greeks knew what they were doing, but what happened with architecture in modern Greek cities?

A quick history of Greek Architecture

Architecture was born in Greece almost three millennia ago. The White House, amongst so many other political buildings, is inspired by Ancient Greece architecture. But even more important, the Greeks invented the elements that are needed to turn a structure into a piece of art. Which became, and remained, the base of architecture as we know it today, all around the world.

After Ancient Greece, architecture continued to evolve in the land that is now Greece. With influences from the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans, many cities became a combination of beautiful churches, mosques, and castles. But unfortunately, history does not end there. After the Second World War, the country was in ruins. And when years later Greece was finally in an economic situation to rebuild. The country seemed to have forgotten about architecture.

Rapid expansion after the war

In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s the economy in Greece was booming. Many people left their houses in the villages and moved to the cities to work. Quickly, more houses were needed and they needed to be built fast. So instead of letting architects and urban planners design the cities and housing, an enormous amount of apartment buildings were built and designed by engineers. Paid by whoever had the money to make such an investment.

There was no “beauty committee” from the municipality. Neither did the Greeks follow the rules that were there. The reconstruction after the war resulted in a loss of architecture in Greek cities. Everyone could, or just did, build whatever they wanted. What they wanted was the same as what any investor wants. Investing the least amount of money to earn the most of it later.

As a result, the cities became packed with six-story high concrete apartment blocks, leaving no space for parks or proper pavements for pedestrians to walk on.

Lack of maintenance

Although these apartment blocks were ugly from the start, the Greeks did not really take care of their buildings either. The investors knew that there was a shortage in housing so they did not feel the need to maintain their buildings. And since many of the Greeks rented their apartment, they did not care for it either, for the outside at least. A Greek interior is always clean and tidy, but on the outside, paint is falling off, windows are broken and graffiti is covering the facade on the first floor.

In the ’90s Greece became a part of the European Union and with this came money. The Greeks were rich again and ready to invest in more housing. As a Dutch, I would say great! Time to get rid of the now-abandoned concrete blocks and make our cities great again. But unfortunately, this is not what the real Greeks wanted to do with their money.

The old, the ugly, and the empty

Why invest money in someone else’s leftovers if you can build something that is completely your own? While the ugly buildings from after the war were falling apart, more concrete was put in the city by engineers. Until the crisis hit Greece in 2008.

After 2008, not only were many buildings left unfinished, many companies, as well as people, lost their houses. I stayed last February in a hotel in the city center of Thessaloniki. On the corner in front of the hotel I stayed in, there was one abandoned building, one unfinished structure, and one apartment building with only a few residents almost falling apart.

It makes an interesting scenery. All those years of history in architecture in Greek cities, combined with the complete lack of it in modern times. Every time I visit a Greek city the architect in me imagines the potential of all the beautiful old empty buildings. As well as parks and skyscrapers in the places now occupied by the concrete, earthquake-proof engineer blocks. But will Greece ever make her cities beautiful again?