Informal, Modern and Sustainable: A New Look at Postwar Athens with Ioanna Theocharopoulou

Interview by: Ilana Curtis

It’s fair to say that Ioanna Theocharopoulou is an expert in the polykatoikía, the apartment typology—from poly meaning “many,” and oikos, meaning “house”—that marked the frenzied development of postwar Athens. While Theocharopoulou’s research extends far beyond the Greek city, her new book Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens documents how the influx of migrants from the Greek countryside and new focus on “modern life” in the domestic realm changed the city seemingly overnight.  

Theocharopoulou sees something meaningful and instructive in the “congested, ugly, and monotonous” streets of Modern Athens that sprawl beneath the Acropolis. After working with notable historians, architects, and theorists like Kenneth Frampton, Gwendolyn Wright, and Hashim Sarkis, Theocharopoulou has developed her own approaches to sustainable urbanism and the informal city that are widely applicable. Theocharopoulou, an architect by training, began engaging more deeply with sustainability at Columbia University, where she earned her PhD in Architecture History and Theory. She has worked on a variety of buildings and research projects in Athens and elsewhere, and teaches at the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School in New York.

In anticipation of the book’s release, Theocharopoulou discusses her new work, the publishing process, and her thoughts on what’s next in her exploration of sustainability, urbanism, and design.

Ilana Curtis: What initially drew you to architecture?

Ioanna Theocharopoulou: I would say that my father was a big influence. He was a civil engineer who worked with a lot of architects, including Constantinos Doxiadis—whom I write about in my book—in Beirut and in certain areas in Iraq. He met my mother in Beirut. So there’s a whole cosmopolitan element to the story.

It was in Beirut that he also met and worked with Anastasia Tzakou, one of the few prominent female architects of her generation, who went on to design our own house in Athens. I actually quote her in Builders, Housewives because she made some incisive observations in an article about the polykatoikía in the 1970s. I grew up in that house and remember her coming to visit my parents when I was little. She apparently looked at my drawings and told my mother that I would become an architect one day. Whether this family lore influenced my decision to study architecture I’m not sure, but I found that I never wanted to study anything else. After I graduated from the AA School of Architecture in London, I worked as an architect in Athens for a few years before applying to the Advanced Architectural Design Program at Columbia’s GSAPP.

Panoramic view of Athens showing the Old Royal Palace and Mount Lycabettus, taken between 1850 and 1880. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

a black and white photo of Athens, aged at the edges - in the foreground is a sprawling city, and in the background is a large mountain

You have done extensive research into the polykatoikía, the model for apartment buildings that became widespread in postwar Athens. In your book you argue that the polykatoikía is a good example of informal but sustainable development. How might similar types of informal settlements influence our understanding of the city?

There are different levels to the answer of that question. One of them would be that understanding the informal city expands how we understand cities more broadly. It’s important to consider not just the “experts” who shape urban space, but all the different actors who contribute to it. Along with that, we might think about how design and architecture help societies transform and renew themselves. These are important questions in other cities around the world as well. No single answer or philosophy can apply to all places, but the right set of questions can.

Thinking through these questions would be a first response. Next we need to understand what role the polykatoikía can play in helping Athens become a much more sustainable city. Even though a lot of these buildings were built quickly by people with no formal training, they are quite high-quality buildings compared to similar informal housing in North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. First of all, they are built much more solidly than buildings we usually think of as “informal.” They use concrete, a material that was plentiful at that time, both because its component materials were sourced locally, and because concrete production was (and still is) one of the very few large-scale industries in Greece.

There are so many positive attributes to these buildings that people are quick to write off as ugly, mundane. Because of the financial process commonly used at the time, known as antiparochè, families were able to use these spaces to generate income for themselves. Other positive qualities include the relative ease of construction and the small scale of the development that never took on the negative characteristics of massive social housing developments in other cities in post-war Europe and America that were so difficult to maintain. In fact, as I try to show in the book, the success of the polykatoikía rendered it as a kind of social equalizer.

These aging buildings can be improved, of course, with some updates and some thought, and there are many architects who are thinking in those terms today. A studio called Point Supreme have playfully suggested new ways of perceiving the polykatoikía and its role in Athenian urbanism. Some of their suggestions include “monumentalizing” the polykatoikía through provocative collages, arguing that it is an important and unique urban artifact, and working on projects that utilize the ground level and the roof level of existing polykatoikía buildings, what they call “a balanced merging of the extravagant and the generic.”

Thomas Doxiadis, a landscape architect, has done some really interesting projects centered on repurposing the existing city. One of his suggestions is to use the ubiquitous flat roofs characteristic of the polykatoikía, transforming them into a “green carpet” that would significantly improve the air quality and reduce the urban heat island effect, among other outcomes.

It’s amazing how this typology spread across the city so quickly, overturning the neoclassical city. Are there examples of cities that developed similarly to postwar Athens?

There are a lot of similarities around the Mediterranean region and areas with similar landscapes like Beirut, Cairo, and Tel Aviv. The materials are similar, the vegetation and climate also comparable, but the local culture and the processes that contributed to the creation of each of these cities—financial, social, artistic, literary, and religious—are completely different. Still, this could be a fascinating point for further research.

In Athens, one of the defining characteristics of the polykatoikía is the small scale. This is actually something that I discussed often with Hashim Sarkis, the architect, historian, and current dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, whose essays served as inspiration for my book. He went to Athens with his students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design some time ago. They published a fascinating book with Peter G. Rowe on their research, Isopolis, that I came across when I first began my research. Hashim understood Athens in a way that others had failed to up to that point. He suggested that we may not need to apply the same standards of beauty to this city as to the more canonical urban spaces of Northern Europe. This became a key starting point for my research.  

A view of Lycabettus Hill, ca 1950. Below, a typical street in the upper-middle class area of Kolonaki with neoclassical and early nineteenth-century domestic buildings, just starting to be developed with new polykatoikía. © Benaki Museum, Costas.

a black and white image, aged at the edges, of a white rectangular building shaped like steps near the upper floors. the building rests on an incline with 3 sets of stairs in front of it

Your research and teaching touch on a variety of professions and disciplines. Which of these helped shape your narrative for the book?

When I was in the PhD program at Columbia I was able to study a variety of subjects including philosophy, anthropology, and art history, taking classes with some extraordinary professors such as Rosalind E. Krauss and Andreas Huyssen, who completely inspired me. I then taught in the Modern Greek studies program there, which helped me stay in touch with scholarship about contemporary Greece.  

What was the biggest challenge you faced in developing your manuscript?

For me the challenge was methodological. How do you pare down these topics? How do you find a logic for the manuscript and order it? Everyone who attempts a PhD discovers that you learn by doing, by writing out your thoughts and working on these drafts endlessly. It is a really long process with much excitement, but perhaps more turmoil until the end. I tried to let my material show me the way to the stories, rather than start with a kind of unifying story or a theory, and then apply the material to that theory. I remember having extensive dialogues about my doubts and my work with my advisers, Kenneth Frampton and Gwendolyn Wright, and also Karen Van Dyck from the Hellenic Studies Program at Columbia. Karen would  always listen and encourage my “hunches” and intuitions about aspects of Modern Greek culture, no matter how uncertain I was about my ideas at first.

Developing the dissertation into a book manuscript was also a huge challenge since I had to look at the material again after a long period of time and try to make it more clear and accessible to a wider audience. I had many false starts until I met Sarah Rafson, the founder of Point Line Projects, who was also able to convey her enthusiasm for the project, help me find a publisher, and help me see the project through to the end.

Housing is always an important topic, but even more so now given rising inequality and the need for communal spaces.

Absolutely. I think it is fascinating how some of the more interesting practices today, such as Alejandro Aravena and his firm Elemental, have developed ways of working with incremental housing projects, like the ones they’ve built in Chile and Mexico. Their idea, which has attracted lots of attention, is to help people build the basic structures and then let them fill in the rest themselves as they save money and their families grow, letting the homes grow organically. That is very much what happened in Athens with the polykatoikía. These buildings weren’t planned by the architects—the city underwent an organic, incremental urban development driven by small-time developers and informal builders. This idea is gaining traction around the world today and is something the US should consider adopting, although this may be a contentious argument for some.

 In 2008 you organized ECOGRAM: The Sustainability Question, a lecture series at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). How do you integrate ideas from that series into your work today, including your historical work on modern Athens?

I started ECOGRAM with my colleague Mitchell Joachim, cofounder of the non-profit architecture firm Terreform ONE. We were both teaching at Columbia at the time and, amazingly enough, we were among the few teaching sustainability and design.

We organized four big annual events. The first one was a sort of open question: “What is sustainability?” We had people from different disciplines, including Saskia Sassen from sociology. That’s how we started working with her. The second one was focused on cities specifically. I organized the third one, about Africa, with Benjamin Prosky—he was at Columbia at the time. Now he leads the Center for Architecture in New York. That was, in a way, the best one of those conferences because we wanted to emphasize how issues of sustainability in the built environment do not necessarily mean the same thing everywhere. In fact, these issues are so much more dramatic in parts of the African continent. 

The main ECOGRAM event in  2010 featured Okwui Enwezor, an art historian who now heads the Museum of Architecture in Munich, Mamadou Diouf, who is the director of Columbia’s Institute for African Studies, and Faustin Linyekula, an extraordinary Congolese dancer who was at that point trying to create a space where young people could meet and create art, as a counter to the everyday violence and extreme social inequality in that country. They had a fantastic conversation. That conference coincided with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s Small Scale, Big Change exhibition.  We had a great collaboration with MoMA’s curator of Architecture at the time, Andres Lepik. We “shared” participants with that show. Diebedo Francis Kere, one of the MoMA exhibition participants whom Andre had introduced us to, gave a brilliant talk one evening where he physically acted out how the community builds the school buildings he designed and helped fund in Burkina Faso, stunning the audience at GSAPP who are not used to architects who can also perform! It was a really memorable evening that I feel helped students see how we can use architecture as a way to improve lives and empower people. This is a very different way to think of design, and luckily it is perhaps more familiar to us now.

Theocharopoulou in front of her home in Sifnos prior to renovations. Courtesy of the author.

Theocharopoulou, with hands on her waist, smiling in front of new new home - plaster is chipped and falling, the paint on the door and window frames is peeling, and plants are growing in the cracks of building - it looks like the space hasn't been touched in years

Front entrance of Theocharopoulou’s Sifnos home after the renovation. Courtesy of the author.

a drastic change from the previous image where it looked like the building wasn't touched in years, the exterior is now smooth and repainted in white, the door and window frames are painted a bright yellow, and a stone railing has been added. warm light pours from the interior, and it looks nice and home-y

In Builders, Housewives you also discuss Greece’s relationship with the country’s vernacular traditions. You mention folk theater, popular film, and the brilliant work of anthropologists like Angeliki Chatzimichali. Did this influence your work on your own house on the island of Sifnos?

I have always admired the architecture of the Cycladic Islands. Chatzimichali wrote about Skyros, one of the Cycladic Islands, and Anastasia Tzakou, the architect of my family’s house I mentioned earlier, wrote her PhD dissertation about the traditional settlements on Sifnos. It was a huge challenge to work on the small ruined house in the little village of Katavatì in Sifnos that I bought in the early 1990s. Like Chatzimichali and Tzakou, I appreciate so many vernacular elements that I found and restored inside the existing structure. Unlike them, I tried to also think very carefully how one can introduce contemporary features in this architecture to enhance it in a respectful way. 

Now that your book is complete, do you have advice for others developing their own work for publication?

One piece of advice would be to leave it alone for a bit of time. It depends on each individual and the amount of time available, but you want to let the ideas settle before they go out into the world. Then you test some of those ideas, and revisit them with hopefully more maturity in order to distill what is important and what to leave out. You must also present the ideas in academic conferences, discuss them with your peers, publish them in journals. You need feedback and discussion. Then read, read, read! In your reading, you will slowly get a sense of how you imagine your own book to take shape.

 When I was working with Point Line Projects to determine which publishers to approach, one of Sarah’s first questions was, “What books do you like that you’ve read recently?” The first book that came to mind was The Fragile Monument, Thordis Arrhenius’ book about preservation and modern architecture. The book was published by Artifice, a publisher Sarah knew and got in touch with, who we ultimately ended up working with on Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens.

It’s a very long process. As an author it’s easy to lose steam or courage or conviction or time. I had tried to approach academic presses earlier in the process, and they all told me to seek out publishers that work with Area Studies. But I wanted my book to be more broadly applicable than that. Finding someone to be a motivator is a real gift, because they offer a fresh set of eyes and have the ability to keep the project going.

Saskia Sassen also gave me a wonderful piece of advice. She told me, “It doesn’t mean anything if you get some rejections. You have to keep going.” Apparently, her first book was rejected by quite a lot of publishers. Then it won all sorts of awards, it was obviously brilliant. Her point was to keep trying, to not give up easily.

Do you see a second or third book in the near future?

Definitely. I have been working a lot on issues of sustainability. I am teaching a seminar this semester on sustainability and cities, and I’ve done several chapters in colleagues’ books. I would really like to have a more developed position on what sustainability is and how to study it in relation to architecture, design, and cities. Drawing on ideas from this book, course research, and discussion, I’ve realized that my subjects and passions are not unrelated, they’re overlapping.

Featured image: Ioanna Theocharopoulou standing under a building facade under renovation in Athens, 2012. Courtesy of the author.

About the author:

Ilana Curtis (b.Boston, MA) holds a BA in Architectural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and will be pursing her Masters of Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in fall 2021. She is driven by design projects that connect community, people, and place, an interested fostered during her tenure at PLP.

Find Ilana on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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