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The famous Blue Apartment Building September 19, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece, Books Life Greek.
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Created by an eminent architect who longed for innovation, it recalls the heroic avant-garde that was crushed in the tragic 1940s


 

The apartment building on the corner of Arachova and Themistocleous street in Athens.

The Blue Apartment Building isn’t blue anymore; a pale, grubby azure-gray covers what was once the vibrant cobalt blue that made the building famous 73 years ago. The building has earned the right to be written with capital letters since it belongs to the history of the city, with sentimental ties reaching back to the interwar period.

The flagship of the modern apartment blocks that began to be constructed with greater frequency from the early 1930s on, the Blue Apartment Building on the corner of Arachova and Themistocleous streets in Exarchia area was one of the most striking, daring and modern residential buildings built in Greece before 1940.

The monograph > Designed by architect Kyriakoulis (Koulis) Panayiotakos (1902-1982), the building owes its original name and color to the artist Spyros Papaloukas (1892-1957), whose studies of vernacular architecture and post-Byzantine icon painting had a truly revolutionary expression in its blue facade. The Blue Apartment Building became a popular legend, not only because its many inhabitants loved it so much, but also because it recalls the heroic avant-garde that was later crushed by the tragic 1940s.

The monograph of the Blue Apartment Building, which has just been published by Libro with photographs by Giorgos Gerolymbos, is a welcome addition to the literature on Greek modernism, and is also the fulfillment of a debt by Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, who researches and teaches Greek architecture at the National Technical University. Panayiotakos was her uncle and the Blue Apartment Building is his best-known work.

“The idea for the book came from seeing similar affordable editions in France about buildings that are of importance, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie” explained Kardamitsi-Adami. “The market in Greece is small and most good architecture books are expensive. I thought that a series of small monographs about key buildings would be attractive to both architects and the general public. The Blue Apartment Building is the beginning, and after that I’ve thought of doing Kolonaki Square in all its historic phases, the Hilton, Iliou Melathron and the Byzantine Museum.”

With the Blue Apartment Building, Panayiotakos became an innovator, not only by presenting a new middle-class residence, but with a complete rearrangement of the household. He designed everything, down to the smallest drawer and closet. In the early 1930s, household management was undergoing rapid changes as technology made housework easier.

“He paid attention to every detail,” said Kardamitsi-Adami. “Panayiotakos had in mind the convenience of the housewife of that time. Everything was well-arranged and he made everything to perfection for her.”

The apartment block is in fact two buildings connected by shared light wells. Panayiotakos had originally planned to put a swimming pool on the roof terrace, with its marvelous view of Lycabettus and Strefi hills. It didn’t happen, but it was a revolutionary idea for the Athenian lifestyle of 1933.

Born in Athens with its almost entirely neoclassical style, Panayiotakos had adopted Le Corbusier’s philosophy of revitalizing tired cities and, like many of his generation, embraced the radicalism of the new architecture. When Le Corbusier visited Athens, he saw the building shortly before it was completed and he wrote in the entrance, “C’est tres beau.”

An archival photograph reproduced in the book shows the Blue Apartment Building at the time it was built. Its bulk looks almost overwhelming, surrounded as it was by neoclassical houses and simple one-story domiciles.

“I have the feeling that people at that time didn’t understand what it meant to fit in with the environment,” commented Kardamitsi-Adami, half-jokingly. “The Blue Apartment Building struck a blow to the fabric of the city. But those people had courage and the belief that what they were doing was good. They had ideals.”

It was an era with different priorities: In the interwar period, middle-class apartment blocks usually belonged to one landowner or entrepreneur and the were usually named after their owner. The Blue Apartment Building belonged to the Antonopoulos family. “It’s worth noting the decision by the entrepreneur Antonopoulos, who dared to assign a major project to two young men, Panayiotakos and Papaloukas. They had the freedom to do more or less as they pleased. And the architect wasn’t afraid of telling the artist, ‘Come along now and paint my work.’”

Papaloukas painted the building a deep blue, which probably retained a lot of heat in summer. Nobody recalls precisely when later layers were painted in a lighter blue. Kardamitsi-Adami does not remember ever seeing the original color, but one of the present residents, architect Nikos Moiras, found some of the initial blue under flaking plaster. It is a surprising blue, a deep, solid, Renaissance blue. Gerolymbos took a photograph of that scrap of the original color and included it in the superb illustrations that tie in with Kardamitsi-Adami’s text. Gerolymbos, a photographer who has a degree in architecture, has become a specialist in architecture books, which he pursues at the same time as his own creative photography.

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