Ten years after the Asia Minor exodus, a slum clearance project produced a series of model settlements. The Prosfygika Housing complex was among them, built between 1934 and 1935 in the Greek capital of Athens. This marked a period for the construction of some of the best social housing in the city. The complex was characterised by a rational layout, consisting of eight blocks totaling 228 apartments and two apartment types. Socially this was a place were refugees were to be secluded. The generous open space was never tended to, and no initiatives were put in place for the complex to be incorporated into the city.
The complex was both physically and symbolically set apart from the city. Residents had to face a hostile and unfriendly environment. Formless outdoor space was left to surround and contain the blocks. However, over time, residents appropriated the space through their own common or private activities that could not be contained within the buildings. A rich, evolutionary, common life transpired from the complex. Gradually, small courtyards began to evolve. Trees were planted providing shading, while makeshift playgrounds and meeting places were created. The value in this evolutionary life is explained by John Frow: ‘The formation of value, and exchange occurs within specific regimes where desire and demand, reciprocal sacrifice and power interact to create economic value in specific social situations.’(Frow, 1995)
Cultures developed throughout the complex, but this was almost blown apart in 1944 with the Greek Civil War. Members of the ELAS fought in defence of the Alexandras buildings that were attacked by Royalist groups. The buildings were shelled, the marks from which, one can clearly see on the buildings façade today. One can begin to understand the significance of the space within Athens both spatially and historically. As explained in Naomi Steads writings, the buildings’ gradual decay adds to the value of its ruined state: ‘Speer’s ruin becomes even more “whole” as it gathers the aesthetic layering of dilapidation.’(Stead, 2003)
Residents witnessed the agonies of post-war Athens, the hopes for a better future crushed by the civil war. Over the years the complex has been the subject of several governments, who tried to tear it down or change its use. The complex has been added to the register of listed buildings, but is still a sore point in the political world. As John Frow describes: ‘Regimes of value are mechanisms that permit the construction and regulation of value – equivalent and indeed permit cross-cultural mediation.’(Frow, 1995)
As the 2004 Olympic Games were approaching, the State decided that the complex would be demolished. The street, Alexandras Avenue, on which the blocks are located, was to be one of the main Olympic thoroughfares and thousands of cameras from around the world would be looking in. The Greek State feared that the dilapidated facades of the complex would discredit the city. They began to remove residents of the complex to allow for commencement of demolition. However, a group of thirty homeowners resisted. Architect Evtaxopoulos Dimitris led the group. In 2004, two blocks were listed as historic monuments, but just before the Olympics the fate of the other blocks was still not settled and the façades facing Alexandras Avenue turned into a tragicomic spectacle. Doors and windows of homes were barricaded with wooden boards, shutters and coatings were falling apart and politically engaged artists drew on its walls to protest. This led to the buildings facing on to Alexandras Avenue being covered with a huge sheet, with the Acropolis main stage in the image covering the buildings’ façade.
Essentially, the history of these buildings is perforated by the discourse of time. They could have become the prototype for modern urban living in the city of Athens. Instead they were allowed to crumble. This element of decay was and still is encouraged by the Greek state. While the complex may be an eyesore to Athenians, it is ripe with potential for others. The value system plummets from one end of the scale to the other with regards to Prosfygika.
Packed into their modern buildings the residents were both outside the city and outside the prevailing ethos. However, they managed to perforate the separating spatial and temporal membranes. While Prosfygika is just considered a prime piece of land to be sold by the Greek State, for others it is home, a shelter, their community or part of their culture. Prosfygika bears the scars of the Greek Civil War; its walls house the palimpsest of Athenian history yet is considered worthless to Greece. But as explained in The Social Life of Things: ‘Value, for Simmel, is never an inherent property of objects, but is a judgment made about them by subjects.’(Appadurai, 1998)
Walking through Prosfygika one can see clearly the value it has to its residents, who range from flat owners to squatters to refugees. It has a strong sense of place and culture. People take pride in the place; there is a constant cycle of repurposing. Even in economic crises it offers shelter to people. Meanwhile the Greek State pours money into propping up the Acropolis; their ‘perfect’ ruin. These ‘values’ are directly juxtaposed to each other – a resonant theme, throughout Athens and the Greek State. Or to put in other terms: ‘The economic object does not have an absolute value as a result of the demand for it, but the demand, as the basis of a real or imagined exchange, endows the object with value.’(Appadurai, 1998)
One wonders will the value system adjust dramatically when it comes to commemorating the Civil War, potentially for the centenary? Will the complex become recognised as a monument? Will it flourish when the demand for the complex completely changes? However, a housing complex is not a monument built to represent a single glorious event. A housing complex absorbs history through its porous walls. Memories seek out traces, mostly however, memories interpret and re-interpret traces. Houses accumulate memories, monuments, separate them. The Prosfygika complex provides the material for a geology of historical time.
Housing can, in contrast to the ‘perfect’ ruins of the city, offer a palimpsest, a layering of urban history. The complex offers the experience of ruptures and turning points in personal as well as collective time.
1 – Appadurai, A., 1998. The Social Life of Things Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press. Available at: http://townsendgroups.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/appadurai_social_life_of_things_0.pdf.
2 – Frow, J., 1995. Cultural Studies & Cultural Value, J. Frow, ed., Oxford.
3 – Stead, N., 2003. ‘The Value of Ruins: Allegories of Destruction in Benjamin and Speer’. Available at: http://naomistead.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/stead_value_of_ruins_2003.pdf [Accessed October 11, 2015].