Ruins have always been a source of artistic inspiration and the Greek capital is replete with evocative examples, both ancient and modern. In the Kerameikos-Metaxourgeio (KM) quarter of Athens – an area associated with merchants, immigrants, hustlers, artists and middle-class activists – newly built or renovated structures alternate with decaying mid-century apartment blocks and low-rise single-family houses.
Since 2006, however, the neighbourhood has been the focus of a wide reaching redevelopment programme, co-ordinated by Iasson Tsakonas, who owns 65 properties in the KM quarter, under the auspices of his development company, Oliaros.
“There has been no recent update of the city plan in spite of the huge influx of immigrants and significant socioeconomic changes,” says Tsakonas.
New zoning was established in 1998, and the government made plans to construct two schools and a pedestrian street network for KM, which comprises of 94 blocks with 1,160 building plots, of which nearly 50 per cent are uninhabited and 20 per cent are listed as protected monuments.
“Our perception was that what was missing was the activation of private space,” says Tsakonas. “We want to develop a context that, in combination with public infrastructure, sets the agenda for the next generation urban economy.”
Oliaros raised funds from private investors to develop private mixed-use buildings to accommodate business start-ups, artist studios, student housing, and serviced apartments, and engaged a team of architecture studios, including Atelier Bow-Wow and BIG, to revamp structures and redesign a street network that augments the quarter’s public spaces, including a new green market.
To help cultivate the community, Oliaros created an online forum so that residents could contribute to plans and it distributed vegetation kits to encourage greening of the area.
“I truly believe that the economic situation is not the problem,” says Swiss architect Harry Gugger, who brought his students from EPFL Lausanne to carry out an historical urban analysis of central Athens. “This is a young nation that is still defining itself, and there is so much animosity between the private and public sectors. Now the task is really to reorganise the society. And I am confident they will come out of it.”
So far Oliaros’s project has helped to turn the derelict neighbourhood into a vibrant arts hub. In 2008 art dealer Rebecca Camhi relocated her gallery from a space on Sophokleous Street, with a view of the Parthenon, to a beautifully restored neoclassical house in KM, with a residence in the back. The Breeder gallery won an architectural award for its renovation of a 1970s building. And in 2010 the Municipal Art Gallery opened in the former silk factory after which Metaxourgeio is named, as a showcase for the city’s modern art collection. A Michelin-star restaurant and funky cafés have since joined the mix.
After years spent navigating changing political administrations, Oliaros recently gained official support from the government of Antonis Samaras and the city’s mayor, Giorgos Kaminis.
In addition, the terms of a €35m low-interest loan to help finance the development of 35 buildings, funded by JESSICA (Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas), are being negotiated with the National Bank of Greece. “We seem to be meeting all the criteria for this programme,” says Tsakonas.