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When Athens was a diamond of Europe

02 November 2014 / 10:11:10  GRReporter
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An exhibition featuring Athens in the 1960s is opening at the Hellenic American Union in a few days. No one has ever studied the decade during which Athens changed its skin – literally.

Author Nikos Vatopoulos, well-known for his insightful pieces about the Greek capital in the Kathimerini daily, has tried to do exactly that. But with this exhibition opening in the evening of 3 November, the prominent journalist comes out in a less known capacity – as a collector. Ever since his early school years Vatopoulos has hoarded magazines, newspaper clippings, postcards, stamps, photographs and a lot else, which today forms a vital part of the exhibition “Athens. The Spirit of the ’60s: A changing capital”. Other private material has been used for the exhibition as well.

This isn't a photographic exhibition per se – nor is it architectural; Vatopoulos has captured a page of Athens’ history and filled it with the flavour of the era. The process is helped by covers of the Eikones (Pictures) magazine and the typical advertisements of new consumer goods that entered the Athenian households back then.

Vatopoulos has chosen the 60s for a personal reason as well: his first childhood memories blend with the sea of changes that rocked Athens during that time. His child’s eyes have registered both the mass-scale demolition of old houses and the quick emergence of a new culture flooding through new consumer habits, fresh aesthetic codes of advertising, the steadying of the middle classes and an ever powerful promise of a prosperity so far unseen – and all this was taking place just a few years after the end of the Civil War that had brought Greece to its knees.

This unique metamorphosishad  already become subject to discussion in the late 1970s. But those were mostly theoretical analysis of the era’s political climate, which had generated the changes. Emotionally, it was dominated by denunciations of the ‘destructive’ paradigm of new developments, which ‘razed’ Athens and most other Greek cities. Yet something was missing. Public debate has not yet managed to find a more relevant balance by rightfully placing the positive and typically underestimated aspects (fast economic development, cultural prosperity) of the time into the picture of the demonised ‘Athens of Karamanlis’. Thus, generations of Greeks have found it hard to understand the glee in the introductory parts of so many Greek films pouring scorn on the new image of Athens.

It is worth remembering that the pace of Greek economic development from 1960 to 1973 (when the first oil crisis hit) was comparable to China's today, placing Greece among the fastest developing OECD members, on a par with Japan and Spain.

The spectacular facelift of the prewar city was based on the rapid economy during that time, which fed expectations for prosperity and made palpable the end of poverty for a major part of the Greek population. Back in 1958 or even 1963, today’s glossy appearance of the renovated neoclassical buildings was not prevailing at all. On the contrary, the old housing – most of it in a bad state of repair and, if we put it mildly, a problematic state of hygiene – was synonymous in the public mind with misery and deprivation.

The modern tenement blocks, where the flats smelled clean and fresh, were a message a few Greeks of the occupation generation could ignore. Without making the addressing of old imbalances its conspicuous objective, Vatopoulos’ exhibition conveys a more comprehensive and even-handed image of the city and revisits for the audience the spirit of an era at a more profound level. It remains vulnerable to condemnations as it replaced the neoclassical city, which can be seen in older Greek films and photographs.

Syntagma Square in the early 60s, before its reconstruction

"Athens. The Spirit of the ’60s: A changing capital", Hellenic American Union (22 Massalias St.), 3 November – 13 December 2014. Opening hours: Monday-Friday: 12:00 – 21:00, Saturday: 10:30 – 14:30. Also organized as part of the exhibition: talk by Nikos Vatopoulos entitled "Athens during the 1960s”, on Friday, November 21st, 2014, at 19:00 at the Hellenic American Union Theater; tour of the exhibition guided by Nikos Vatopoulos, on Friday, December 5th, 2014, at 19:30. Free entry.


Tags: Athens exhibition the 1960s era modernisation
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