Agios Dimitrios, (often referred to with its pre-1928 name, Brahami) is one of the most densely populated suburbs of Athens – a density that’s comparable to that of Cairo, or Seoul. The typical expedience and maladministration that characterised post-war Greece has left its indelible mark in the suburb’s architecture: its arbitrarily arranged streets define pocket upon pocket of unimaginative apartment blocks that connect to those of surrounding suburbs to form a veritable sea of concrete and tarmac.
This is the result of the “flats for land” legislation of 1929: it enabled owners to give up their pretty neoclassical houses in return for a flat or two in uninspiring polykatoikies, the concrete tenements and high rises that soon began to blot out the quaint early 20c. suburban landscape. The desperate measure was initially brought in to manage the pressing housing needs of destitute immigrants from Asia Minor in the 20s and 30s: the 1.6 million displaced were joining a country of 5 million. This summary convenience was extended to solve later rapid urbanisation problems, such as the Axis occupation and its aftermath. Throughout the 40s and 50s, people fled the Civil War and the prospect of a hard life in their devastated villages, and sought a better future in the capital – whose extant high density infrastructure had been equally ruined in a month of tenacious urban confrontation between Communist guerrillas and Government forces (the Decembriana of 1944).
This short term, anarchic character of Greece’s urban planning mentality was deeply troubling for Takis Zenetos. Born 1926 in Athens, and active there for most of his life, he must have witnessed the entire devastating process first-hand: the consequence of conflict in the capital’s urban grid, coupled with the inexcusable sloppiness of the state managing it. The occupation interrupted his studies at the National Technical University (the Metsovion), but in 1945 he moved to Paris to continue at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts under Otello Zavaroni. He was influenced by the order and principles of Modernist architecture in France, before coming back to Athens to practice in 1955. For the next decade, Zenetos designed and built sensational, distinctively Modernist factories, apartment blocks and private villas, always in partnership with his friend Margaritis Apostolidis.
In 1962, Zenetos presented his theoretical concept of Electronic Urbanism: founded upon his understanding that science and technology will revolutionize human living, he imagined the new social interaction and communication protocols of the future world: his ideas describe, in principle, what we know today as email, video calling and cloud sharing. His faith in the catalytic influence these would have in our daily lives was well ahead of its time, and informed his architectural designs. His “Furniture 2000”, a multimedia lounge chair for controlling the connected household of the future won a honourable mention in at the Interdesign 2000 competition in 1967.
Zenetos envisaged futuristic networked cities, evolving around frameworks of massive, flexible cables. These web-like networks would solve the problem of urban regeneration once and for all, allowing the constituent components of the urban landscape – such as buildings, services, or amenities – to attach and detach, becoming replaceable parts of a whole that would easily adapt to the flow of an evolution driven by technology. At the same time, the natural environment would remain at ground level, unaffected. It would have been a landscape pure from infrastructure, with high-tech cities literally hanging from the skies.
We can see a glimpse at this unconventional approach, the capacity to innovate, his desire to disrupt the grim post-war urban architecture of Athens at the Round School of Agios Dimitrios. The Modernist rotunda is perhaps his most ambitious surviving work, and the one that still remains closest to his vision – since many of the private residences and factories he designed have either been demolished by municipal authorities on a whim and without consultation, or significantly altered. The reason the school survives mostly unaltered can be credited to the way Zenetos infused the built structure with his vision.
The rotunda revolves around its foundational “web”, and matures in tandem with time and technology. The circular frame of the building accommodates a series of glass panelled classrooms which are designed to easily change in size and scope, anticipating the evolution of the educational needs. The characteristic concrete blinds on the circular roof allow the right amount of sunlight in the classrooms. The central patio area is not merely a courtyard for breaks: underneath it there is a gymnasium and assembly space, planned to accommodate future technologies. [[Takis Zenetos]] imagined that advances in science would eventually transform this central drum into a high tech node, a communications centre where electronic audio-visual equipment linking up all constituent parts of the school with each other but also with the greater community. This is a dream that hasn’t failed to materialise as years went by: today, the Round School is an IT equipped, wi-fi networked modern school. Its courtyard is frequently used as a performance space or even a summer cinema, bringing pupils, staff and the local community together in extracurricular activities.
But there’s also a visual message. A new language emerges in the refined way the Round School’s Modernist curves disrupt the sea of high rise blocks that surround it. This is an empowering environment of uniqueness and self-determination, and an anti-hierarchical symbolism designed to unclutter the young minds from the institutional architectural cues they are confronted by in educational spaces. It’s a bastion against the inner city uniformity of Agios Dimitrios, of any Greek town. By raising the bar well above the Ministry of Education’s typology of schoolhouse ergonomics, Zenetos created an outstanding building that facilitates communication with its occupants, and a space that attunes them to the concept of individuality. His message hasn’t been lost to many generations of students, many of whom still reminisce of their journey in learning at the Round School with feelings of immense pride and appreciation.
The Round School is also perhaps a more personal statement from Zenetos, a defiant stand against an overwhelming standard of mediocrity. There’s no other Greek school like it, either before, or after this veritable piece de resistance. It is different, inspiring, a beautiful affront to an entire country’s post-war urban architecture manual. It is the product of a vision lost, but not entirely forgotten. Zenetos grew increasingly alienated by the lack of appreciation for his futuristic vision by the establishment: frustrated by his inability to influence the change he believed in with all his heart, he took his own life in 1977.
- a version of this article appeared on Architectuul’s Forgotten Masterpieces #37 in July 2020
- Main image by ©Dimitris Vosios. With regret, I haven’t been able to source the copyright of some images in this article. If an image belongs to you, I will be very happy to add your citation and/or link to your work.
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