Athens: A Soulful Survivor

June 2, 2023
How an ancient city is moving forward

Once the guiding light of the Classical world, Athens has repeatedly come through challenging times, including a near-halt and a mass exodus of talent from which it is still recovering. But Athens is an addictive city and it’s reemergence teaches us that even facing the future, cities do well to remember their past.

Athens is no stranger to crises. The cradle of Western Civilisation — which, it is good to remind ourselves, emerged out of its arts, culture and philosophy supported by seafaring trade (and not the other way around) — was once the glory of the Classical world. Its ancient port of Piraeus has made it a crossroads for goods, people and ideas ever since. The city’s importance meant it was fought over throughout its history. Sacked multiple times, its population was reduced to only a few thousand after the Greek War of Independence in the 1830s. Nevertheless, Athens’ identity and aura was so strong that it was chosen as the capital for the new Greek state, largely for sentimental reasons. It is an identity that still pumps life through the city’s veins today.

Virna Koutla is an architect and artist who lives in Athens and, like many others, she feels a strong sense of attachment to the city and its history. “For me, Athens is very particular in that sense. There are so many layers, but they are not hidden, they’re out in the open. You walk past marbles that are centuries old. You take a right turn and you see the Parthenon. It’s part of the city narrative. It’s what draws you back here. If you’ve lived in Athens, the spirit of the place always draws you back to it.”

The spirit of Athens is one of perseverance and inventiveness that is, perhaps, rooted in the Greek sentiment of philotimo. Literally translating to “friend of honour,” it’s unclear meaning is usually rendered as feeling pride in doing the right thing. Yet, as Greek philosophers and their disciples might interject, that requires a definition of what is ‘right’, which may vary considerably from one person to the other — to the point that philotimo goes hand-in-hand with lamoya: a drive to find loopholes, to wiggle through the system.

What is clear, according to Vassilios Vertoudakis, a lecturer in Ancient Greek philology, is that — consciously or not — “philotimo has become one of the building blocks of the Greek disposition because of the unique standing of Greece in relation to what we call the West.” For Vertoudakis, Greece’s position between Europe and the Middle East, and its long subjugation to the Ottomans, made Greeks more inward-looking and bound by localism. “Instead of developing the kind of institutional consciousness seen in Western Europe, Greek communities were imbued with philotimo, which was triggered not by law and logic but intense emotion and some degree of intimacy.”

Virna reflects on this dichotomy between East and West in another way. “There is always a question of belonging and that has created many problems. When you don’t know where you belong, you can’t know who your allies are.” So is the ‘right thing’ about the wider community, or does it concern oneself and one’s immediate circles?

“Are we part of Eastern Culture or Western Culture?” Virna asks. “There is always a question of belonging and that has created many problems.”

According to some, the drive for self-preservation contributed to Greece’s latest crisis. On the brink of financial collapse brought about by a dysfunctional state riddled with corruption, the country saw an unprecedented ‘brain drain,’ as well as the closure of many shops and companies. Those who had the means — or no other option — left the country for greener pastures: to London, Berlin, New York, even to Lisbon or as far afield as Medellín. Life, in Athens, had come to a near-halt.

Anything goes

But there was still a pulse. With the state fettered by its creditors’ financial impositions, Athenians’ resilience led to many bottom-up initiatives. Those who chose to stay repurposed buildings, like the founders of Latraac, a skate-bowl, garden and café set up in a 19th century courtyard. Crafts and the production of physical objects returned on a small scale. Restaurants were opened that quickly garnered international acclaim. Take Nolan, for example, opened by Sotiris Konzitas in 2016, and whose Greek-Japanese fusion cuisine turned its address on Syntagma Square into a foodie magnet.

Or Ama Lachei, housed in a former school building whose terrace is a beating heart of edgy trendy Exarchia district. But much as in ancient times, it was Athens’s culture that re-made its name: run-down neighbourhoods were taken over by artists (not only Greek) and now boast some of the most exciting vibrant galleries (Bios, Breeder). Two of Greece’s shipping dynasties, the Onassis and Niarchos families echoing Athens’ former patrons, have both created large foundations for the arts. And in 2017, the city played host to the first-ever off-shoot of Documenta, an exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years in the German city of Kassel.

Athens became attractive once again and a sense of homesickness drew back many of those who had left — like Virna herself, who had found work abroad, first in Lisbon in 2012, then in London. The slow economic recovery, fuelled by foreign capital and European bailouts, along with an incentive programme to lure back talent with international experience has buoyed the city’s bounce back. Increasingly successful tech start-ups employed Greeks from the diaspora, gradually helping them to return to the city. As one report notes, “in the midst of a historic crisis of our country, a new generation of tech companies emerged, that not only directly helped the asthenic Greek economy during its dark years, but also created a new paradigm and an example for the years to come.” The grassroots grew and bore fruit.

The energetic, chaotic life that is characteristic of Old Athens re-awoke. “Antique shops, underground places for music, flea markets, bars, craftsmanship,” Virna describes the neighbourhoods of Plaka, Monastiraki and Homonia – known as the Ancient Triangle, “you can find anything. It is bustling, eclectic, a wunderkammer. There’s no zoning, it’s all together. There are conversations, there is surprise.” Her voice grows passionate as she encompasses the spirit of Athens: extroverted, unorthodox, idiosyncratic; her love for place palpable. Echoed by many, it is this attachment to Athens and to its spirit, one feels, that really drives its reinvention.

An Unorthodox Spirit

Kostas Bakoyannis, the youngest mayor to be catapulted to the top office of Athen’s City Hall, doesn’t “do utopias”. What interests him is “real life”.
A municipal overhaul of what other cities take for granted is offering both residents and visitors recreation in public spaces.

The restoration of Omonia Square to its former glory with the reinstallation of it’s emblematic fountain creates a city oasis and point of reference. The program also includes the recently announced 6.8km city walk dubbed “Megalos Peripatos” (Grand Stroll) due for completion in 2022 which will become one of the biggest urban transitions of two avenues and pedestrian lanes uniting for the first time the historic neighbourhoods of Athens, its world-class archaeological treasures and trade centre.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center by visionary architect Renzo Piano in the district of Kallithea (which means “good view”) definitely has views of a spectacular variety.  Footpaths  lined with fragrant Mediterranean herbs lead to a 42-acre park, with playgrounds, water jets and vegetable gardens.  A 400-metre sea-water canal, where people can learn to sail or kayak, creates a cooling microclimate; after dark, it’s a backdrop for live jazz or tango classes.

All this is free, as are tours and activities including crafts, petanque, chess and gardening lessons giving value to life in the city and making Athens an even more attractive destination.

Resilience, untamed

The government (national and municipal) is trying to encompass grassroot initiatives, to provide portals and funding. It made foreign investment easier, for instance by creating so-called Golden Visas that offer a European passport to those who buy properties above a certain price. In a crisis, the options are limited but, as Virna finds, “much of this happens on a short term and then it’s like nothing happened.” It is clear, from her tone, that she means both the state and the people.

The danger of crises often lies in the lure of quick fix solutions. When there is a lack of foresight, resilience can turn into a source of problems. Airbnb offered a lifeline to many in the city who, if they were fortunate enough to have kept their job, were largely underpaid. Offering the flats they owned on the platform, for many, was the main source of income, but that is now leading to unaffordable rents. Where even students and young professionals used to be able to afford a flat by themselves, they now have to split the cost and share flats. The Golden Visas brought in funds which allowed the government to support entrepreneurs, but they are now leading to uncontrolled development that threatens a core aspect of Athens’ identity: the omnipresent vistas of its monuments. “We seem to be lacking a plan,” Virna observes.

Top-down regulations and government support are essential, and it is for them to provide a long-term plan that fosters the new while preserving the old. In Athens, looking into the future will always mean keeping an eye on the past.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the city at the worst of times, just as it was coming out of its dire financial crisis, like a severe frost on the buds of spring.  But the need to respond at pace gave everyone, including the bureaucrats, the opportunity to shine. The swift advancement of the Great Walk of Athens, which saw segments up and running within a month of the project’s announcement, reveals what could be seen as a turnaround and an unexpected upside of this flexible way of thinking. However, there remains a huge debate in Athens regarding the purpose of the project, its scale, and the means (or lack of) to enable it to have been deployed in such a short period of time

In Athens, it seems there is always controversy. Yet Virna remains hopeful towards the city’s future and her own. “Athens is unique: it’s a set of components. To me, it’s about the freedom I feel when I’m walking around, that I can find anything I want. It’s a juxtaposition, it’s a city of conflicts and tensions and contradictions – on every possible level. But that’s what makes for a great energy.”  There is struggle, there is grinding, and yet the place binds you. It makes you want to be part of it. Another resident in love with Athens, Afroditi Panagiotakou, the director of culture for the Onassis Foundation, sums it up. “Athens is beyond good and evil, beyond beauty and ugliness. Athens is alive. It is a city that is changing all the time.” It is for both its citizens and government to harness the creative energy of resilience and to structure it. As Greek myth teaches us: even in chaos, order emerges.

Follow Virna Koutla on instagram @virnoulos

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