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Benaki Museum exhibit shows how ‘the Crisis’ affected Athens

Depression Era exhibit features many images of ‘non-places’ – contemporary ruins, abandoned buildings and sites where the fabric of urban life has come apart.

The Benaki Museum's pink marble Annex, on an otherwise dull stretch of Athens's bustling Pireos Street, sprang up during the city's delirious building boom before the 2004 Olympics. That event now seems a distant dream to many Athenians, after six years of the economic and political misery known to everyone here as the Crisis. Some Olympic sites, now abandoned, have even become symbols of the country's fall. A few of them make an appearance in Depression Era, the Benaki Annex's expansive show of photo-based works about the effects of the Crisis on the social and urban landscape.

The exhibition features work by a collective of 36 artists and writers who spent three years documenting the trauma, and trying to see a way past it. There are lots of images of "non-places" – contemporary ruins, abandoned buildings and sites where the fabric of urban life has come apart. Some riff on postcard ruins such as the Parthenon, ironically echoed in Yiannis Theodoropoulos's image of an unfinished concrete garage.

Other photos show people who have been cast out, either from their apartments or from a country grown wary of non-Greeks seeking asylum. Hard-eyed images of some artists' families seem to portray the last, tight-knit refuge within what journalist Costas Iordanidis, writing in the Athens paper Kathimerini, recently called "a country of complete inertia where virtual reality reigns supreme."

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Many of the photos reach after what has gone missing from Greek life, or was never fully there. A placard near the door mentions "the collapse of public systems [and] the emergence of the Commons." This is a new and somewhat utopian concept, of a civic space to fill the traditional void between clannish Greek individualism and centralized power. Civic consciousness has never been strong here. As one Athenian told me, "There's an old saying: The Greek woman has a clean house, but the streets are dirty."

But Athens has gone through at least two utopian phases in its modern history, when the dream of a shining polis galvanized the town. Two other current or recent exhibitions look at those golden episodes, both of which left lasting marks on the city.

Hellenic Renaissance: The Architecture of Theophil Hansen is a reminder of the days when the Bavarian Prince Otto, installed by the Great Powers as king of the Greeks in 1834, arrived with a plan to make Athens a neoclassical showplace. War with the Ottoman Turks had left the town in ruins, with only about 4,000 impoverished citizens. That didn't stop Otto or his court architect, the Dane Theophil Hansen, from building grand imperial structures in the new capital.

Hansen's exquisite architectural drawings, and those of his architect brother Christian, make up almost the whole of the show at the B & M Theocharakis Foundation. They include plans for Athenian public buildings such as the current parliament and university, as well for Copenhagen and Vienna, where Theophil designed the famous Musikverein. Remarkably, the Hansens's official neoclassicism filtered down into vernacular building, and evolved into the default Athenian architectural style. "By the end of the 19th century, Athens had more neoclassical buildings than Vienna and Budapest," writes art historian Janina K. Darling in her book, Architecture of Greece (2004).

Many of those neoclassical buildings were destroyed or neglected during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. Explosive economic growth and lots of American aid convinced Greeks that their country, devastated by the Second World War and the civil war that followed, could become a prosperous European nation. Athens: The Spirit of the '60s – A Changing Capital, a show at the Hellenic American Union's Kennedy Gallery, celebrates "the most exciting decade in the modern history of Athens," curator and journalist Nikos Vatopoulos says. His show is mostly ephemera – postcards, magazine covers, news photos – almost all of it promoting the new vision of Athens as sleek and up-to-date.

Unfortunately the 1960s also brought the Colonels' dictatorship. It was not a regime fond of thinking, and paid little mind to the consequences of rapid urban growth. "When we woke up to the new democratic regime," Vatopoulos says, referring to the elections of 1974, "we looked around and saw that the city was dull and problematic. So a huge nostalgia started for the old neoclassical Athens." Its ruins can be seen all over central Athens, in boarded-up "ghost houses" with fluted pilasters (flat column-like decorative features) and wrought-iron balcony railings.

No doubt nostalgia of all kinds is a popular food for thought in Greece, where the unemployment rate is 26 per cent, and the whole population feels the sting of EU-enforced austerity. But Vatopoulos thinks he can see signs of civic rejuvenation, such as the Commons referred to by the artists of Depression Era.

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"We have seen a renaissance in the city in many aspects," he says. "We have started to see groups of people getting organized to do something, no matter what, for the city. There is a new urban civic consciousness coming up, mainly among young people. And that is very hopeful."

Depression Era continues at the Benaki Museum's Pireos Street Annex through Jan. 11. Hellenic Renaissance: The Architecture of Theophil Hansen continues at the B&M Theocharakis Foundation in Athens through Jan. 18.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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