Extending Illegally In The City Of Athens: A Cultural Analysis

Estendendo-se ilegalmente na cidade de Atenas: uma análise cultural

Tsoumas, J.

HOU - Hellenic Open University

Retirado de: http://convergencias.esart.ipcb.pt
RESUMO: A partir de uma perspectiva histórica e social, o autor começa a descrever a base do problema fundamental da extensão da habitação ilegal na cidade de Atenas. No entanto, as principais áreas em causa dizem respeito ao estatuto de construção da capital grega, bem como, o contexto social do aumento fenomenal da extensão da habitação ilegal nos últimos anos e as suas consequências sociais e financeiras relevantes. Tudo acima é destacado com os estudos de caso análogos.
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Extensão da carcaça; Ilegal; Anarquia; Classe operária; Estado.
ABSTRACT: Going through a historical and social perspective, the author starts depicting the basis of the fundamental problem of illegal housing extension in the city of Athens. However, the main areas questioned concern the building status of the Greek capital, as well as, the social background of the phenomenal increase of the illegal housing extension in the recent years and its relevant social and financial consequences. All above are highlighted with the analogous case studies.
KEYWORDS: Housing extension; Illegal; Anarchy; Working Class; State.

1. Introduction

Before starting talking about the modem Greek architecture which consists the basis of the fundamental problem of the lack of housing space in the rapidly growing city of Athens, and its consequent «solution» via the housing extension, it would be useful to go back to history and examine briefly its roots and reasons which derive from a general housing problem in Greece after the destructive Second World War. Our research does not focus on the idea of how to make urban architecture look better aesthetically, but profoundly, on why it looks uglier and less practical, which is a really major issue itself. The research subject is not only a Greek but also a universal phenomenon which is vastly in common in the big urban areas of the planet.


l. The housing history.

1.1 The 1940's and 1950's

The Greek modern architecture is proved to have been heavily influenced by the various socioeconomical and political changes in the modern history of the country. One can understand that by going back to the past and examining, firstly, through a purely statistics prism, the housing situation of the country.
As the total number of buildings in Greece was estimated 1.730.000 in the beginning of 1940, five years later, the count showed 1.329.000 buildings still erect, that is a loss of 401.000 units. In buildings the war cost Greece more than the one fifth of its pre-war stock. To this, one must add about 2.000 buildings destroyed during the first wave of civil war at the end of 1944. The next wave of the civil war, which ended in 1949, brought even more losses in the course of the coming years. This grim reality explains why there are so many newly built structures both in Athens and in the major Greek cities in the early 1950's. According to that new reconstruction scheme the buildings which date from this time are divided in two different types: a) an elementary kind of shabby structures mainly for shelter and less for the industry, basically used by the majority of the working or middle class people and b) a small number of better off apartments, houses and individual residences for the rich [Tzonis1989].
The funds for the reconstruction came primarily through various forms of the American aid which, in contrast to several European countries, were channeled in most part to residential buildings and directly to the private sector. That is there were no significant social housing corporations in Greece and relatively few projects of this kind in relation to other European countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands or France. However, Greece, like Belgium, heavily influenced by American advisors, opted for a libertarian approach to the housing problem. The building boom developed spontaneously but at the same time urbanization became excessive and unchecked. It was accompanied neither by a parallel planned expansion of the infrastructure nor by the industrialization and rationalization of the building components and that is why basic housing needs remained unfulfilled.



Fig. 1 – Illegal extension on the roof of a public estate, Aegaleo, Athens.



Fig. 2 and 3 – The housing development of the big cities of post-war Greece, enhanced  the public estates syndrome, Drapetsona, Piraeus.

However, as the economic recovery of the country proceeded towards the second half of the 1950's, affluence spread to larger groups mostly of professionals, civil servants and young entrepreneurs. That was the time of the emergence of industrious groups yearning to heal the wounds of the past, to overcome the weakness and humiliation of the underdevelopment and dependence of the governmental policy of that time, looking forward to a new creative era with a new and fair sense of community. A closer approach to the social aspect of Greece in the decade of 1950's enlightens the dark side of the problem of the extensive building and housing in the capital and the big cities. The unprecedented unemployment of the rural areas people, the bad living conditions in the province but also the fast development of industry in the big cities of the country -particularly in Athens and Thessaloniki - are the main factors according to which the tremendous concentration of people from the provincial areas to the newly founded,  developing industrial centers can be explained. The matter of fact is that there was a continuous demand of labor which used to be covered by the unskilled immigrants who inundated the capital which consisted the main pole of attraction for thousands of unemployed people. It has been estimated that between 1955 and 1966 320-330.000 people moved to Athens only. The above numbers are equivalent to the 45% of the present population of the city.


1.2 The 1960's.

By the beginning of the 1960's a new era started for the housing development of the big Greek cities. The demolition of the houses built before the First World War or during the interwar period and which are still considered as the masterpieces of the traditional Greek architecture began. They started being replaced with masses of enormous blocks of flats which in less than fifteen years covered the capital and the Thessaloniki areas as the problem of housing had to be dealt quickly and «efficiently» no matter if it was dealt with no care and concern. At the same time the building of houses (detached / semi-detached) was reduced to almost nothing and it was primarily the privilege of the bourgeoisie of the north eastern and western, accordingly, suburbs of the two major cities who constituted the financially powerful oligarchy of the country. On the other hand the working class people had no other option than getting piled in a small flat where the living conditions were considered as much lower to the average. Small kitchen, no ventilation and natural lighting, intense sewage problems and - sometimes - insufficient water supply were the main characteristics of an average-sized flat purposely built to shelter a huge number of people who sought employment and aimed to an improved standard of living in the Greek capital of the 1960's [Stefanidou 1979].                                

The housing problem of Athens became more intense during the years 1967-1974, that is when democracy as a concept, idea and principle was demolished by the power of the Generals who had taken the lead of the country. Then the anarchy in the reconstruction of Athens continued rapidly and resulted to a monstrous totality of high, grey buildings which now dominate its architectural image. The «blocks of flats syndrome» of the late 1960's and the early 1970's soon acquired a major significance as a means of sheltering a huge number of people still coming from the province to the capital. It was then that the new housing development, supported by the government of the Generals, enhanced the idea of the public estates which was the only real representative of mass architecture and applied mostly to the working class people.



Fig. 4 and 5 – The exterior and the interior part of the illegal extension at the rare of the garden built by Kostas S. family.



2. A case study.

Things have not changed much since then and the problem of housing in the capital of 2011 is almost the same as it was thirty years ago, especially in the working class areas. This is why the main characters of this case study represent the typical working class family of modern Athens who are still suffering from the lack of housing space and are hopelessly trying to find solutions through extending illegally with various ways.

Kostas and Mary S. is a middle-aged married couple with three children aged nineteen (female), seventeen (male) and fifteen (male). They came from the province in the mid 1970's and since then the father has been working as a factory worker with a current salary of 950 euro, whereas the mother is a dressmaker with the monthly payment of 520 euro accordingly. They live in a strictly working class area of Athens, very close to the port of Piraeus and within the industrial area of the city of Drapetsona. They own one of the ground floor flats of a five storeyed block built in the early 1970's, which they bought in the mid 1980's just before their wedding and they are still paying off their 25 years mortgage. As a typical flat of the 1970's, it has the main characteristics of modernism which in Greece, as in Great Britain for instance, has come to be associated with the architecture of low-income housing for the public sector that is a tailor-made solution for the working class people of Athens [Doumanis 1987]. It is a two bedroom flat with an average size kitchen and bathroom, as well as a small reception room. The two bedrooms are shared between the parental couple and the two male youngsters, whereas the eldest child who is a University student can not have her own space. When she was younger she used to share the same room with her brothers but now things have changed. The privacy of adolescence and the gender difference between her and the young boys, the «taboo» Greek mentality which imposes a separate, private space for males and females in a family but also her different educational (but not necessarily cultural) background, dictate that the girl should have her own space at home. She has thought of leaving her family just because of this severe problem but she can not cope with the huge financial commitments she is about to undertake living by herself or even in a shared house or flat. A small garden at the rare of the flat completes the structural image of the building which, paradoxically enough is not considered as a common space for all the flats of the block. According to an old Greek law for housing (Act 250/1972), the garden of any block/public estate could be bought by the ground floor flat owner(s) and therefore no tenant or owner of the rest of the flats could make use of this area. Yet, according to the same Act, building or any housing extension was forbidden, but no penalties were mentioned whatsoever. However, this housing legislation has changed since: according to the latest alteration (Act 365/1985) «no tenant or owner of a housing association unit, public or private estate is eligible of buying or using exclusively the common space/garden at the rare of the associated estates/blocks» [Voulgaris, Daras 1991]. According to the same law housing extension with no legal approval was still forbidden and the law breakers would be heavily fined. In spite of all the above the S. family decided to break the law by building a separate entity in the right corner of their garden aimed to be used as their daughter's bedroom.

This case study represents the largest part of the building situation of the capital assuming that Athens is a mainly working class city. The problem of space in the modern estates is severe and thus the citizens can not cope with this legally; so most of them try to find solutions through illegal housing and extension. (However, illegal housing in particular -i.e. building a complete house - a totally different matter from the one concerned, constitutes an extremely augmented problem.)      


3. The actual problem.

As it has been mentioned above, the hasty attempt of the past governments to shelter the province population who migrated to the capital in search of an improved standard of living, led to the quick construction of numerous improper and inhuman public estates. However strange, these people had no choice other than living in these blocks or in the streets, they had to pay an unusually high rent, but at the same time they were given the opportunity to buy that property after some certain time, if they wished to. Places resided by village-born inhabitants, new-comers to these areas who mostly live an individuated and home-centered family life with no intensive neighborhood relations are on the focus of our research. The action of this kind of families seemed to be directed by a basic «migrant ethos» and at the same time, an improvement motivation towards an urban prestige hierarchy determined by material consumption, education, a better job. However, the shift from their previous traditional close-knit communities to an urban situation of rapid change and loose structure, imposed problems of adaptation [Leontidou 1990].
So, a small, two bedroom flat of an enormous public estate (similar to those of the East End or even the Camden or Islington areas in London), could be inhabited by a large family of at least six people (including, in many cases, the parents of the spouse as for the sake of the family tradition which is still particularly strong in Greece, the grandparents can live along with their children and grandchildren). Therefore, living under these conditions made good and prosperous living impossible.
Nowadays, as well as in the recent past, when the place is bought, an intervention to its interior arrangement usually takes place. First most of the families think it will be more practical to «extend» the size of the bedrooms by re-arranging the basic interior structure of the flat. It is usually thought that the kitchen and the bathroom spaces are «less important», so the bedrooms can be enlarged at their expense. As the bedrooms become bigger after the first re-arrangement, another improvisation seems to take place: the bedrooms are divided in two equal parts, making two different entities but still very small. Events like these were more usual during the 1970's when the scared «home immigrants», unfamiliar with their new life style in a big and unknown city, did not dare to extend outside and around their property. However this phenomenon is still thriving, though people have become bolder in housing extension. Extending in the balconies, on the roofs of the estates or in the gardens, is considered to be a cheaper and more practical method than their first thought. Building small, light, tiled rooms with usually huge glass windows, used mainly as bedrooms, is the most common practice [Philippides 1978]. But building small huts, study rooms and even extending their living rooms is a very popular practice, too. These constructions, just because of their illegal nature, do spring out overnight, and this is why they do not follow any rule both in terms of materials and building regulations. However, once they are erected it is difficult to be demolished legally. Everything derives from the financial inability of the owners to find proper ways of housing. Now, it is almost impossible for them to buy a bigger place, even if they have to sell their own, simply because new and more spacious flats are extremely expensive. Additionally, their low income does not allow them to save for the necessary loan payment in the form of  monthly installments, plus interest. Building a house is an equally difficult task to achieve mainly because of the excessive land values and building taxes, which represent together up to the 60% of the total cost of a house [Papanikolaou 1975]. This is probably why the people of the above case study found this popular «solution» to their housing problem.



4. Consequences.

However, the basic social consequences concern almost exclusively the aesthetic, functional and technical form of housing in the city of Athens. Illegal housing extensions can influence the aesthetic aspect of the buildings as they interfere dramatically to their basic architectural plan and principles. This phenomenon acquires a regional character as it seems to affect extremely large areas, mainly in the south and west areas of the capital. The technical insufficiency consists itself a big problem, too, as this sort of extensions are built so quickly and secretly with no professional guidance whatsoever, that in many cases they are improper for use. One of the main reasons is the use of the building materials, as most of them cannot be bought easily without a certain license. Therefore, the flat owners, who become architects and builders overnight, find several substitutes such as plywood, plastic or cheap metal frames and device rough structures which, however, can be dangerous for people's safety. The lack of ventilation and a central heating system make them extremely hot in the summer and cold in winter, whereas their unprofessional finish makes them particularly vulnerable in heavy rainfall, strong wind and earthquakes. Many of these roughly built structures were completely destroyed in the big earthquakes of Athens in February 1981 and September 1999, with tens of victims [Philippides 1980].
The financial consequences of the housing extension both for the State and the people of Athens are diverse and it is quite difficult to find out who is the winner or the loser in this ambiguous socioeconomical game. In terms of the flat owners, there are many cases that many of them make these shabby constructions with the intention to use them as a workplace (mainly as workshops).
Automatically they can save the money of the rent they would have to pay which, according to the current legislation, can be particularly high and at the same time they can save time and traveling expenses.
There are also many cases that the housing extensions are purposely made in order to be let. Many families with financial problems find it as a lucrative source of income, however illegal. In most of these cases the tenants are foreign workers (mainly refugees from Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Pakistan, Iraq or India who live and work in Greece illegally), or students from the province. In both cases the owners pay no taxes as they can not be detected easily by the authorities, but if they are caught, they are prosecuted with no mercy.     



Fig. 6 and 7 – Illegal shoemaker’s workshop on the top of a public estate. Outside and inside view, Peristeri.



5. The State's position.

On the other hand the government's scope to even up the architectural chaos of the capital through the current legislation imposed, but also to catch and prosecute the tax fugitives, has minor results. Greeks are a disobedient people who are particularly negative to comply with any new legislation scheme which may work against their personal benefit and therefore it is very difficult for the State to control the housing problem over a population of more than four million people. Though the new legislation has already had some results in some areas where the problem is not intense (north and east areas and the centre of the city), it will take a lot of time to the present government to impose an architectural order to the existing building anarchy of the rest of the Greek capital. As Kostas S. says there is a very peculiar link between the lawbreakers and the State: the traders of the building materials. According to the Greek law, these people are not allowed to sell any of their goods or to provide any of their services to people who build or extend illegally. However, most of the times they do take advantage of their position and break the law by dealing with the flat owners overpricing both their goods and services and in many cases they even undertake the responsibility to build the illegal extensions by themselves. As we can imagine their financial demands increase and the easy profit makes them responsible for speculation, a crime severely prosecuted. This intermediate «status quo» between the State and the citizens constitutes a big problem for both in spite of the fact that a few of these «businessmen» have already been caught and punished exemplarily [Philippides 1988]. Yet, the majority of them still continue to provide their easy-profit services and to contribute to the vile, endless problem of the housing extension, mainly due to the loose Greek legislation on this matter.
Illegal housing was established with the tolerance and the consent of the State as its indifferent attitude reinforced the domination of a corrosive ideology over the complicated subject of housing based on the easy profit and adopted not only by the building material dealers but also by the local authorities or even by the police. The development of a closed network of corrupted officials thrived and the results of this are still fatal for both the State and the civilians.



Fig. 8 – This hut, an illegal extension, is rented to financial immigrants (Pakistanis), who live under inhuman conditions, Keratsini, Piraeus.



6. Conclusions

Concluding this contradictory subject it would be interesting to state some suggestions according to which the above depicted situation can change. Athens is a fairly medium-sized city which now accommodates three times as much, at least, of its original population and now seems to represent the 40% of the total population of the country and its geographical position (a valley surrounded by mountains) prevents it from expanding in the nearby rural areas. Additionally, it concentrates the 50% of the Industrial power and it also constitutes the centre of cultural activities of the country. Therefore the governmental policy should change radically mainly in terms of focusing on a new decentralization scheme through an effective series of new laws. The social, financial and cultural activities of the city should expand to the rest of the country and especially to the remote, neglected and unexploited areas such as the northern and eastern parts of the country. At the same time people should be encouraged to inhabit and work in other areas except the capital where the standard of living would be of a better quality. Decentralization would make life easier for the rest of the Athenians, as a series of demolition of the public estates would start taking place. Parks and groves should be designated for these areas and new public houses, planned and built according to the current E.U. urban regulations, should be constructed. The destroyed aesthetic, social and economic face of the Athenian suburbs can be eventually restored.

However, there is one more suggestion according to which it would be a great step forward if the State were persuaded to regard the case of extending illegally as an indicator of existing economic and social stratifications rather than as a crime. The housing programs should be revised to answer the specific needs of the citizens. Since the State cannot satisfy the demand for housing, especially in the underdeveloped areas of the capital, they should at least try to stop the real estate speculation and set up programs which will not only offer financial assistance, but also take advantage of the labor that citizens can invest in building finally their own house [Kotsi, Papakonstantinou 1990].                    

As we can understand from the above the problem of housing extension does not consist a problem itself but it is one only part of the general housing problem which, is still pending and unsolved. The above suggestions presuppose a significant cost of time and finance for both, the State and the citizens but they would be worth being thought about.


Bibliographic references

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Leontidou, Lila. “Illegal Housing areas at the Athens fringe–Process of construction of social-economical space”. Architectural Bulletin Date: 1990  pages 243-245.
Papanikolaou, Demetrios. “Domiciles in Salamina”. Technodomiki 8  Date:1975 pages 26-30.
Philippides, Demetrios. “Doorkeepers in Kolonaki”.  Subjects of Arechitecture  Date 1978 pages 15-18.
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Reference According to APA Style, 5th edition:
Tsoumas, J. ; (2011) Extending Illegally In The City Of Athens: A Cultural Analysis. Convergências - Revista de Investigação e Ensino das Artes , VOL IV (7) Retrieved from journal URL: http://convergencias.ipcb.pt