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Landmark’s rebirth gives boost to central Athens December 14, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece, Books Life Greek.

Glamour returns to key city block as a historic building rebounds

The Army Pension Fund’s Building in Athens, Greece.  The Army Pension Fund building after all phases of construction were completed in 1939.

The recent reopening of the Pallas Theater has brought new life to Voukourestiou Street, where the Clemente, replacing the old Brazilian cafe, has become a society watering hole from morning to night. Even as the refurbished Spyromiliou Arcade awaits its new tenants, it is obvious what a difference one building can make to city life.

Voukourestiou Street is awash in an atmosphere of prosperity. Near the intersection with Stadiou Street, Athens has never seen such luxury, not only because of the expensive stores but also because of the building itself, its arcades and hallways that link streets and city blocks in an exciting way. The Army Pension Fund building has reclaimed its pre-war place as the flagship of city life in Athens.

Winding staircases, sidewalk benches, elegance, art deco ceilings and society parties are the reference points for a building that has been the setting for many of the city’s stories since 1940, when the legendary Zonar’s cafe opened.

Plans for the massive building were drawn up in 1926 when the Army Pension Fund, which owned the land on which the Royal stables were sited, announced an architectural competition. The stench from the horse stalls was replaced by urban culture, the concept of progress and the incarnation of an ambition.

Architect Vassilis Kolonas has told the story in a book that is a journey through the city’s changing idea of itself, with the birth of a building that in the eyes of Athenians of the time reflected the good life, both material and abstract, and European prosperity.

Kolonas’s “The Army Pension Fund Building,” published by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP) richly illustrates that journey and the author’s research into this chapter of Athenian history.

Greece does not have strong archives, particularly because the country has been through several wars. Yet everything that could be researched has found a place in this book, which parallels the history of the building with that of 20th century Athens and its people, who dreamed of a better life.

The building itself was designed to reflect a certain urban ethos. It is no coincidence that Zonar’s and its neighboring cafe Floca, both of which opened just before the outbreak of World War II, became the focal point for celebrities ranging from politicians to socialites. The building’s hulking size alone was a symbol of development; its impressive dimensions in a city of small properties and one or two story structures as well as its innovative style was a radical yet non-threatening modernization of classicism. The building was also put to good use, heralding a new role for structures of this kind.

It was a great leap forward for the city, considering what Athens looked like in the 1920s, judging from photographs and other sources. Originally conceived of as a large luxury hotel, it was designed to house stores, offices, restaurants, cinemas and theaters as well as an arcade in the style of a modern European arcade, all decorated with expensive, colored marble and ceiling lights, and rows of plate-glass windows looking out onto the city’s main avenues. Filling this open space in the heart of Athens opposite Heinrich Schliemann’s Iliou Melathron, near the Academy and other neoclassical public buildings, was a step towards urban integration. Just down the road, the Bank of Greece erected its own building, giving central Athens a more contemporary urban style.

Yet the Army Pension Fund building was, above all, a concept. Apart from the size of the investment, the building was a theme park of its time, a mall, a plaza, a city within a city and a model and rallying point for the Europeanization of the Athenian bourgeoisie.

But for most Athenians living today, the building represents the thirst for life that swept Athens after the end of the civil war in 1948-1950, when the capital was seeking its place among modern cities. Premieres at the Pallas Theater, often in the presence of the Royal Family, were social events and in that pre-television age, cinema premieres attracted all the city’s glitzy people.

After its period of glory in the 1950s and 1960s, the building began to fall into a state of decline, particularly after 1980, along with the rest of the city center. Just 10 years ago, very few people would have been able to predict the building’s current renaissance, which was brought about by the Piraeus Group and Yiannis Kizis’s architectural firm, part of a new dynamic in Athens at the beginning of the 21st century.

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