Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A community-led approach to historic restoration focuses on crumbling 19th century buildings.
In a city where beautiful buildings are crumbling, it’s not enough to sit around and hope for the authorities to take action. Sometimes, you have to take the initiative yourself.
That’s the rationale behind a small but inspiring art project in Athens, Greece. Seeking to restore dilapidated historic buildings for community use, a group called Communitism is working to restore and revive Athens’ historic but rundown Metaxourgeio neighborhood.
The group has already taken over a grand but threatened neoclassical building (with the landlord’s permission) for use as an artistic and social center. Now it plans to develop as a platform for rolling out restorations across the neighborhood. Its objective: bringing long-term residents together with groups including craftspeople and refugee-support volunteers to make sure that buildings in the area are saved and put to good use. So far, Communitism is notable for its impressive ethos, rather than its size. By taking matters into its own hands, it could provide a model for activists working in cities where government cash or goodwill is absent.
The problem that Communitism hopes to address is a pretty big one. Walk around the older parts of Athens (excluding the touristy Plaka area, which is in better shape) and you’ll see many elegant neoclassical buildings cracking and crumbling, careworn remnants of a late 19th and early 20th century boom when Athens burgeoned as the capital of a newly independent Greece. While many can be repaired, some buildings’ roofs have fallen through, creating shells that are extremely costly to restore.
Metaxourgeio, the area where Communitism is active, has more than its fair share of dereliction. The once prosperous area built from 1870 onwards has since developed a reputation for poor security and dilapidation. Metaxourgeio’s streets are pockmarked with rundown buildings, which form an estimated 20 to 30 percent of its fabric.
Under the graffiti and crumbling plaster it can be hard to see how handsome these buildings could be. They remain unquestionably beautiful, however, in a way that’s subtly different from neoclassical buildings elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps because the original classical models were so close (you can see the Parthenon in some parts of Metaxourgeio) Greek neoclassicists created a style that cleaved more closely to ancient models. Equipped with details as antefixes and acroteria that are relatively rare elsewhere, Greece’s urban neoclassicism has a distinctive antiquarian austerity that makes it stand out.
Who on earth would leave such beauty to crumble? These buildings aren’t necessarily empty because no one needs or wants them. They represent the cash drought that stems from Greece’s ongoing financial crisis, in which many causes compete for meager funds. As Communitism founder Dida Dourida explained to CityLab, the dereliction often has a practical underpinning. The expense and length of the restoration process (and limited potential profits afterwards) deters the building owners from taking action:
“The process of getting restoration plans drawn up and approved can be expensive and time consuming — a landlord could be looking at 18 months before they can even start on the restoration process. That means many landlords give up, preferring to let their building fall apart so they can demolish and rebuild something new. But Metaxourgeio is a protected cultural heritage area, so they couldn’t necessarily get permission to rebuild anyway.”
This is where Communitism hopes to step in. The group can facilitate and streamline the restoration process for landlords, at the same time proposing and shepherding these buildings toward artistic community-friendly uses. In practice, this could mean taking on the necessary paperwork, making a restoration plan based on expert opinion, and connecting landlords with possible sources of funding. As a quid-pro-quo, Communitism could secure the use of the building for a community use, at the very least for a period of time, and possibly permanently.
So far, the group has used its grand dilapidated headquarters to build a network of local and international artists, community activists and active citizens. It hasn’t necessarily had far to look. Central Athens already has many committed activists, whether they’re community artists or volunteers running hostels for refugees in disused buildings. Around these groups there are members of what Communitism calls the “creative audience” — people who are interested in participating in and support community arts projects without themselves taking a major role in activism. Using their close connections with these community groups, Communitism is scouting out neighborhood buildings and drawing up plans to cut through restoration red tape and attract funding. This is still a step-by-step, laborious process, but it’s highly possible that without their efforts, the buildings would slip further into disrepair.
There’s a central question that hangs over all neighborhood regeneration projects like this. Who is the restoration for? Is it to improve conditions for locals, or to attract newcomers? Both are technically possible, of course, but the well-worn story of refurbishment bringing higher rents that push existing residents out has now become so common that — depressingly — it’s become almost banal. Given Greece’s difficult circumstances, Metaxourgeio isn’t likely to morph into Williamsburg any time soon, but the area has become a home for artists and creative workers, plus the usual smattering of bars and restaurants. Can Communitism succeed in promoting this transformation without helping to kickstart the usual displacement process at the same time?
“Gentrification and displacement are issues we think about a lot — and there is a lot of resistance to them from the local community.” says Dourida. “For example, a real estate agent tried to do an art project in unused buildings in Metaxourgeio and he faced very serious, quite clever resistance from locals. They threw buckets of water at some visitors or splashed art installations with paint. We, however, are trying to do something different, to make spaces for the community not just make commercial projects for luxury housing — and the community seems to trust us, perhaps because we are a part of it. We suspect that eventually money will come (possibly from outside Greece), to restore the neighborhood. When it does, we want to be in place and as active as possible before that happens, so we can help to make sure that the investment serves the community.”
Tellingly, Communitism itself has already become a victim of sorts of the community transformation it is trying to bring about. In revitalizing one neoclassical building that a local landlord let them use free of charge, the group proved so successful that he now wants it back. The project has persuaded him that his property might be worth something after all, and now the group is looking for new digs. Thanks to good community connections, it has found other suitable locations to use for meetings nearby. Is this an example of the model failing itself? Not necessarily, says Dourida:
“We want people to realize that these buildings are valuable and useable — and it seems we have succeeded!”