Aluminium of Greece (AL) was launched in 1960 as a joint venture between the government of Greece and an industrial conglomerate led by the historic French firm Pechiney, a world leader in aluminium manufacturing. As a result, the first aluminium production facility in the country opened on the northern coast of the Corinthian Gulf in 1966. Capitalising on the nearby bauxite ore mines (one of the largest deposits in Europe), the vertically integrated manufacturing process ranged from raw material extraction, to the delivery of a range of secondary bauxite and aluminium by-products. It was an ambitious and successful industrial project that created new opportunities for employment for those prepared to settle there. The sheer scale of the industrial unit and its ancillary facilities, however, created an urgent need for housing the employees, prompting the creation of a new settlement nearby. They called it Aspra Spitia (White Houses), and to this day, it remains a model for small scale urban planning with a unique blend of Modernist yet distinctively traditional Greek aura.
The urban planning, layout and design of the settlement was masterminded by Constantinos Doxiadis and his associates, who also delivered the first phase of the project. Doxiadis, an experienced urban planner who held various Public Works related government posts for the Greek government between 1937 and 1951, was a leading figure in the country’s post-war reconstruction effort. His private practice has been rising in international prominence since it was founded in the early 50s: by 1959, he was appointed as chief urban planner for the city of Islamabad, Pakistan, while his firm was involved in numerous local and international projects, prompting him to construct a new headquarters in Athens to house their now 400 strong team of urban planners, architects, and engineers.
Still, Aspra Spitia was a challenging brief: there was nothing but olive trees and a few vernacular shacks inside the tiny seaside valley. The first wave of French engineers settling at the newfound community were disheartened: this rugged slice of paradise had yet little to show in the way of creature comforts. And there was a looming danger in choosing to deliver a typical, prefab industrial settlement, with identikit housing units built around amenities: that choice of plan was expected to mark the marvellous landscape irreparably, presenting an unsuitable urban continuation of the industrial landscape at the nearby factories and mines. The new resident workers might feel disconnected, transient, and without a sense of belonging to the very habitat they might end up spending their entire career.
However, Doxiadis had a clear vision about Aspra Spitia. His plan was informed by his Ekistics philosophy, first proposed in 1942 and constantly developed since. Through Ekistics, Doxiadis approached human settlements as complex biological organisms – capable of forming connections with each other, constantly evolving, merging and scaling in orderly harmony with the natural environment. And preserving the purity and beauty of the hills, the seafront, and the olive tree fields within the planning scope of a factory, mines and a worker’s settlement at Aspra Spitia became a key challenge. These very different, both natural and man-made constituent units demanded to be re-shaped into a natural fit. This wouldn’t be about forcing an irreverent, modern smudge in the landscape: it’d be about the foundation of an orderly, organic urban environment.
Thankfully, Doxiadis’ Ekistics already proposed such a scalable hierarchy for ordering urban settlements – an arrangement that social and biological sciences concluded was important for the avoidance of chaos. And at the beginning of the scale, there was Anthropos – the individual. It was expected that the aluminium workers would be mostly recruited from the nearby rural areas. Therefore, understanding the familiar traditions those new settlers were expected to carry with them was a crucial design element, as well as preserving the individuality of each constituent unit: each house, each cluster, each neighbourhood had to feel fresh and special, but still flow with identifiable tradition and heritage, also retaining a degree of deference to the natural environment. And the whole ensemble needed to remain functional for its intended purpose, without reverting to picturesque anachronisms.
All these elements were carefully infused into the inverse L-shaped city plan, which follows the organic contour of the landscape closely: The long leg is flanked by hills, while the short leg is laid across the seafront. Within the resulting space, four neighbourhoods were created, each circled by a peripheral road. The civic, business and administrative forum of the city is located at the junction of the legs, while a recreation and tourism area is laid along the seafront.
The design of the residences and public spaces is where it all comes together. Twelve unique house designs were utilized, each standardized with interchangeable elements that enabled the architects to alter the design in intermediate stages of construction. This technique increased the resulting variety of house types to twenty five, while further variations were achieved by mixing-up the properties of each street in terms of house orientation, elevation, set back, and corner placement. Therefore, each home and each neighbourhood looks unique, but also retains a thematic familiarity with the whole ensemble of the town.
Both natural and modern materials are utilized, concrete, wood and local stone. The walls and stone are mostly whitewashed, offering a traditional Greek visual clarity to the settlement. Some stone walls remained natural with intent, in cases where these blended visually with the surrounding olive groves. The preservation and integration of existing olive trees in squares, yards and street layouts was prioritised, and supplemented by re-planting as well as new plantings. Stone fences, pergolas, steps and pavements complete the textured landscaping of each neighbourhood, while well placed cul-de-sacs, squares and public thoroughfares complete the harmonious balance of private and public spaces.
Aspra Spitia was completed in three phases, and now boasts 1072 residences housing approximately 3.000 residents. After the completion of the first houses and amenities by Doxiadis Associates, the city expanded both vertically and aesthetically with additions by C.Lembessis, P.Massouridis and M. Photiadis. A series of high rise, larger apartment blocks as well as specific amenities for the individual needs of the workers and the families were erected. These include a business centre, a nursery, and even a Catholic church for servicing the religious needs of the French settlers. One of the most ground breaking amenities was the installation of a sewage water treatment plant, which was the first of its kind in Greece at the time.
In terms of administration, Aspra Spitia is not far from the purpose-built, model socialist towns of the former Eastern Block. The settlement belongs to Aluminium of Greece (AL), and working in the mines or factories is a prerequisite for obtaining a house or a flat. A point system exists to help fulfil housing needs accurately, allocating the right type of property per household size. Residents are only required to pay a token monthly rent, while all property maintenance and upkeep is handled by the company. Naturally, these privileges last only for the duration of employment.. Workers who wish to move on to another company or reach retirement age aren’t eligible to stay anymore: they are required to vacate their house, after making all necessary alternative arrangements. This is a town where people are not expected to grow old, and the reason why a cemetery was never planned as part of the urban grid (the nearest ones can be found in surrounding villages).
If Ekistics is about approaching urban environments in biological terms, then Aspra Spitia possibly holds the secret for urban immortality: free from the mortal vestiges of permanence and ownership, this is a model town that is, and will remain as fresh and tidy as planned over half a century ago.
Photos in this post come from astronayths.blogspot.com , photiadis.gr , doxiadis.org . The provenance of some photos was impossible to establish. If these photos are yours, please contact me and I’ll be happy to update the citation.
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