Beautiful Kypseli and Athens’ forgotten urbanity

published at


The title may seem strange to some; during the last 15 years, Kypseli has been systematically portrayed by the media as the ultimate “concrete jungle” of Athens, sometimes along with Pangrati. Many of its inhabitants have left for the northern suburbs and the empty space has been filled by immigrants. The situation is more pronounced as you move away from the centre (beyond Amerikis square) and less so near the Pedion tou Areos (Field of Mars) park, the courts of justice and Fokionos Negri pedestrian zone, where many original Athenians still live, especially in the top floors.
Kypseli flourished in the mid-20th century; during the period between roughly 1920-1970 it was one of the most sought after upper-middle class areas of Athens. It was second only to Kolonaki. Its architectural heritage is also similar to Kolonaki’s, containing many interesting interwar and early postwar buildings. In contrast to Kolonaki that never lost its status, Kypseli’s buildings after 1970 become undistinguished and boring –like most Athenian buildings of the time.
When Athens embraced modernism so boldly around 1930, Kypseli and Kolonaki were the two areas where it was applied more than anywhere else; hundreds of buildings in Bauhaus or an austere Art Deco style can be found; many of them are multi-storey apartment buildings that many people mistake for post-war ones. After the war, apartments for upper-middle class clients started being built again; the buildings between 1930-1960 have apartments that are well over 100sq meters, even in the lower floors; I have even seen a 275sq meter apartment in an old apartment building in Fokionos Negri!
Kypseli is one of the few areas of Athens outside the historical centre, that was created as an exclusively bourgoise neighborhood; it was not made to house refugees, it was not a result of the country’s internal migration wave. It’s 100% urban and it shows – for those that can see such things. In a city that has vast expanses without any architectural interest, Kypseli is an “anthology of 20th century architecture”, as architecture professor Eleni Portaliou said…a=&id=85421540.

How is, then, to be explained this recent aversion of the public opinion to Kypseli? For me it’s obvious: because the public is not really urban. Athens had 1000000 in 1940 – now it’s over 4. Athens did not absorb the newcomers – Athens was absorbed by them. Its elegant pre-war urban culture was vanished and only now is trying to make a comeback. For all these people, Art Deco or Bauhaus means nothing; the painfully ugly areas of western Athens are never criticised by anyone –maybe because their nondescript 2-storey houses remind some people of their villages. Also right next to Kypseli is Polygono; it used to be a really miserable area with no interesting buildings and not even a grid plan pre-war, and it is being built with new apartment buildings as we speak, on the same crooked narrow roads…nobody minds, because the buildings are new (a Greek fetish). Polygono should have been flattened completely and rebuilt on a new grid with tall buildings far apart. But nobody talks about Polygono’s 3rd world image. Yet Kypseli with its planned streets and interesting buildings is always the target of all bad comments. Its virtue is something that most neoathenians cannot grasp: urbanity. Kypseli could be in New York or San Fransisco. Pangrati has it, too, to a smaller extent though as it’s somewhat more recent. No wonder Pangrati is also a favourite target of all those that keep living in the city, despite the fact that they dream of their villages.
The brain-washing about Kypseli has reached impressive levels; I once read (in SSC) someone saying that “you cannot see a single tree in Kypseli, not even in your dreams”. Apparently dreams were his only connection with the area; for Kypseli, again like Kolonaki, is one of the few areas with rows of real big trees in many roads. Not to mention the Fokionos Negri and Agias Zonis pedestrian zones, not to mention the lovely Pedion tou Areos park.
Even more impressive is the fact that people cannot even see what’s right in front of their eyes; I was shooting some photos and I heard two girls saying to one another “what is he shooting in Kypseli?” So I turned and told them that Kyspeli has many beautiful buildings, and I showed them the one I was shooting. “Yes, but what about those?” they said, pointing to a typical ‘60s building. I said “what about them? Athens is full of them. What’s the difference with Ampelokipi or Exarcheia?” They couldn’t answer. Because there was no answer. They have been conditioned to believe that “it’s different” but they cannot justify it. Sadly, this is the way the public opinion thinks about many things.
Kypseli is not, of course, the model for the future. But that doesn’t make it bad. I mean Plaka is no model for the future either, is it?!? Kypseli is an 100% urban mid-20th century area, full of interesting buildings, with all the pros and cons that urban neighborhoods have in other developed countries. Some people say “old apartment buildings have no parking spaces”. Well, say that to the Parisians; Paris is made of 100-year old apartment buildings. Nobody seems to mind. The aversion to Kypseli is just another symptom of that same disease that makes people call skyscrapers “monsters”: the lack of urban culture. Maybe the arrival of the metro in Kypseli square and the courts of justice will make things turn.
We need urban culture to embrace the part of Athens’ past that Kypseli represents; and we need urban culture to appreciate the future that tall, spaced apart buildings have to offer us in areas such as Elaionas. Let’s hope we’ll regain it eventually. Hope you like my photos!
It will take me a while to upload them all…any contributions are welcome of course!

Eikones magazine from 1967, in a rather gloomy article about Athens’ s prospects (that was the time when Athens was still being rebuilt at a frantic rate, and no respect was shown to old buildings or green spaces) presents Fokionos Negri as a model street. At the same time, it calls Irakleitou in Kolonaki “nightmarish”! Of course Irakleitou is fine, but Fokionos Negri is truly a model street, especially after it became pedestrianized.

60th highschool

Bauhaus residence with art deco elements in the entrance, Agias Zonis


Late neoclassical/eclectic in Amerikis square


The “concrete jungle” in Agias Zonis


In Eptanissou,apartment building from the ’30s by the architects of “Pallas”/City Link and “Rex”


The (still occupied) Villa Amalia in Drossopoulou




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