Athens Tower – The First and Only Real Athens Skyscraper
This thread is dedicated to Athens Tower (1971), still the tallest building in Athens. The pictures were taken in different periods but most of them are new. However, I included many old ones as a reference. Whenever the photos are not mine, due credit is given.
In short, the Athens Tower was the first (and to the opinion of many, the only "real") Athens skyscraper and the tallest building in the Balkans at the time of completion. What follows is a comprehensive account of the history of the building, giving credits to the men that built it and literally committed their lives in completing it. For it is because of the visions of a few good men that that building was completed, still constituting one of the few recognizable icons in the Athens skyline, tall and proud like the bold minds that made it a reality.
...35 years before the time of this writing...
I. Introduction: Historical Background
The decade of the 1960's is still looked upon with controversial feelings from many Greeks. These years, Greece had already signed an agreement for entry into the then EEC which would later culminate in the granting of a full membership status. From a social as well as an economy standpoint, the country was in an unparalleled upward spiral with building construction being (since then) one of the traditional sectors fuelling this somewhat anticipated post World War II development. The end of this decade though, was marked by significant historical events amongst which the most serious was the coup d' état that took place in 21 April 1967. This day marked the beginning of a dictatorship that lasted seven years until the military surrendered their powers to the politicians with a coalition government to be formed immediately thereafter to lead the country to general elections, the first in a decade.
One of the major concerns of the newly established regime was the continuing effort, following the initial post-war development, for Athens to become a cosmopolitan and financial center. This trend has already been expressed in some modernistic attempts in earlier years with the construction of the 14-storey Hilton Hotel (1963), as well as a number of smaller, yet notable buildings that were built along the major Arterial roads such as Syggrou Avenue, Panepistimiou and Stadiou streets, etc, marking the first attempts for a novel and cosmopolitan architecture that would embrace modernism with a an ever-present "classical" touch.
Up until that moment (1967), Athenian buildings could be separated into two categories: The usual 6-7-storey blocks of flats that were already establishing their image in most inner-central Athenian neighborhoods, as well as office buildings which at a first glance in their majority they looked like blocks of flats but were actually a couple of stories taller and had more glossy appearance compared to their residential counterparts. Expectedly, these buildings did not have as many balconies and were covered with pieces of marble, a material that exists in abundance in the mountains surrounding Athens. Even today, marble is still used extensively for inner and exterior decorative additions in construction. Overall, this repetitive trend resulted in the visible formation of a 6-8-storey urban ocean extending for many square kilometers on every side of the Acropolis, coating until today large chunks of the Attica plain, interrupted only by some wide streets or the new boulevards that were crossing the city from north to south.
However, from the early years of their ruling, it became apparent that the dictators had more grandiose plans about this city. Based on earlier studies that had been conducted by the Doxiades bureau which was appointed to devise a master plan in the early 1960's, the junta announced its will to make Athens a major metropolitan center, immediately starting discussions about the construction of a new airport or the extension of the then existing one (Hellenikon) deep into the sea off the coast of Hellenikon/ Kalamaki region. Actually, one of the target locations for the new airport was Spata, where the new award-winning new Athens International Airport "Eleftherios Venizelos" is located. Other plans included superhighways driving through Athens (what finally developed as the Attika Road system). Plans also included a mega-stadium of 100,000 seats which was eventually built years later, after the collapse of the junta (1982) with less seating capacity (75-80k) to serve the European track and field championship games of 1982. This later developed into the well known Athens Olympic stadium (the dictators were obsessed with stadiums as they believed that a youth into sports would mean less youngsters in the streets where they were in danger of being approached and indoctrinated by the communists ).
Ah, and there was another visionary dimension, which is usually commonly admired by all dictators and thus gives a bad name to the relevant constructions: Height.
One of the first moves made by the Greek dictators was to allow unrestricted construction in a particular plot of land, under the condition that the structure would be free from all sides. This was, as mentioned in another post (see my Athens Skyscrapers and Highrises main thread), decreed by the new "development law" (αναπτυξιακός νόμος ) Α.Ν. 395/68 "on the heights of buildings and free construction" (in Greek: "Περί του ύψους των οικοδομών και της ελευθέρας δομήσεως").
So, the biggest burden on the construction of tall buildings had been removed. But the truth is that although that was the official green light, the mechanisms relating to tall construction had started years before…
II. A Friend of the Family...
During all that time, my family was already living in a house in Papagos, a beautiful Athenian suburb located sat a distance of some 7 Km north-east of Central Athens, on the slopes of mount Hymettus. In the year of 1968, my parents were thinking about adding a floor in our house on top of the ground floor where we were living in. At the time I was going to prep school and even from these days I remember a sympathetic man coming frequently to our house with big rolls of paper. This man, whose identity was made clear to me at a later age since I was 4 to 5 years old at the time (1967-1968), was named Tasos Rodanas. A very good friend of the family, Mr Rodanas had a civil engineer's licence for up to three floors buildings since he was a graduate of a public "technical professional school". Now in order to get a full license, he would need to either gain certifiable work experience for a certain amount of time as a civil engineer, or, to take a series of examination papers that would allow him to enroll as an advanced student to the mighty "National Technical University of Athens" (also known as NTUA). So, our friend Tassos (from what my mother recalls), has been lucky in getting a good job in an ass-kicking Greek construction firm and had participated in countless projects in Greece and abroad. Consequently, he was full thrust on his way to be awarded "full" civil engineer's status within the next couple of years, upon certification of his working experience.
The large papers that Tassos was carrying with him contained the drawings of what was to become the upper floor of our house. It was then that according to my grandfather (who is long gone now), that he secretly told my family about something "very big" that was to be built in Athens by his company. He seemed excited about this secret project saying "nothing like this was ever made in this country before" and years may pass for it to be re-made in such a scale and magnitude. Of course, participation in such a project would entail immediate benefits for his career with the granting of the so wanted "full" professional status which would perhaps, open many career opportunities including potentially a fully paid master's degree in engineering project management, or a rapid advancement up the executive ladder. He started making frequent trips abroad to the US, France, Italy and elsewhere, in order to be trained and acquire expertise that was needed for him to contribute to the team in which he was chosen to participate by the company he worked for, Alvertis & Dimopoulos SA. Finally, it must have been late 1967 or early 1968 when Tassos revealed to my parents what this project was: The first REAL skyscraper in Athens!
III. Meeting Challenges
Barely mentioned in ANY recent Greek architecture magazine (OK, with a few notable exceptions) with total silence raising suspicions of intentional hushing up of the fact that this company ever existed, Alvertis & Dimopoulos SA was already an active construction firm with a considerably vast portfolio of built projects in Greece and abroad, being active, years before the junta came to power. Given the size of the Greek economy, they had literally accomplished miracles. Their completed projects portfolio includes the American and the British Embassies in Athens, the Evgenidion Planetarium and Sciences Foundation in Syggrou Avenue, many other notable office buildings in Athens, as well as technical construction work in the Middle East, etc.
It is a well known fact that for quite a long time, Alvertis and Dimopoulos were thinking about building a skyscraper, a building of emblematic height that would be the flagship of the company and will bear their sign forever (or at least as long as it can be…). Top engineers and architects have traveled extensively abroad and I know of the US and Paris where the French were already completing construction of the first generation towers of La Defence (les tours de la premiere generation) which were transforming Paris into a business hub, besides the cultural center that always was and still is). At the time, very few cities in Europe could claim that they had skyscrapers. Milan, Paris, London, Warsaw (thanks to the Palace of Culture and Science), were in the list. In a sense though, Athens pioneered, because the executives at Alvertis and Dimopoulos, as well as their engineering team were committed to novelty and excellence. And excelled they did.
The chosen location was north east of the Athens centre, in the intersection of Messogeion and the end of Vasilissis Sophias (Queen Sophia) Avenues, where Kifissias Avenue begins. A truly strategic and ingeniously chosen location, which at the time was one of the boundaries of transition from urban to suburban regions. Not too close to the Acropolis, close enough to the Lycabettus hill to make a notable, yet unthreatening presence in the vicinity of the 277 meter tall hill whose height still makes a true eternal natural landmark in the traditional Athenian landscape. .
The "star" of A&D at the time, who is still practicing his profession, a young then architect with the name Ioannis Vikelas, was appointed to design a tower to encompass the emblematic character that A&D wanted to infuse in their ambitious structure. When appointed, Vikelas and his team (amongst them, the also known architect Ioannis Kymbritis) tried various approaches to tame the embarrasingly diverse character of his project as an urban icon as well as point of reference for future generations. The challenge of the implications pertinent to the positioning of an artificially sizeable object on a location in proximity to the Lycabettus hill, one of the natural Athenian landmarks was immense and obviously created many headaches to the whole of the design and engineering team as at the time, it constituted some work to be carried out at an unprecedented, yet monumental scale for Athens, posing a challenge that few European cities had faced at the time. He knew he would have to fight the ever existing part of the public that are biased against tall buildings, and all that, without any previous existing point of reference in the Attika plain. From a point of view his work was destined to mark the acceptance or the demise of novelty in Athenian architecture. Did he succeed? Read on…
In his own words, Vikelas describes his early attempts to design the Athens tower as follows (see Vikelas, I. (2006) High-rises in the Modern World and their Short-Lived Athenian Past), in Domes - International Review of Architecture, Vol. # 45/03, pp. 116:
"In our initial deliberations, we concluded that, important as it was to seek to achieve an Athenian high-rise, it would be even more important to seek to contribute to the ongoing debate in Europe than merely address parochial Greek concerns. We submitted a proposal, which, as it turned out, was dismissed since the prevailing view suggested that it was lacking in local character. Having been forced to modify our objective we settled on the version that was actually built."
The following picture depicts the models of the rejected early proposals as they were presented by the artist Mr Vangelis Vlachos in many cities in the context of the "Manifesta, Europe’s Roving Biennial of Contemporary Art" and have been displayed in various cities around the world around the year 2004.
The models have been shown here in an earlier post if I remember correctly but I believe it's time to put them again into perspective. One cannot do nothing but admire the way in which the architects manipulate form in order to achieve perfection. With regards to the wave-shaped design in the back of the picture, now THIS would have made a "Big Bang" in the Athenian skyline since it might have looked utterly futuristic, even by today's standards (we have seen similar buildings in the US later on, from the 1980's onwards). Notably, the closest and the leftmost ones in the picture are much closer to the final design of the Athens Tower, both looking like 1960's skyscrapers in 5th Avenue, NY.
But let us continue with what Mr Vikelas has to say with regards of the attributes of the design finally chosen in view of the revisions and changes that had to be made in the context of a more "local" touch:
"We addressed the classical Greek scheme of 'base, trunk, and crown', subsumed under an overarching sense of a plain and austere rhythm, providing for slightly more complex detailing on the grid than initially intended. Ιn many of the international examples one sees there is a repetitive use of a single module, which not infrequently renders buildings rather tedious and nondescript. For 'the Athens Tower' we strived for a composition that would involve several modules'.
-This is the drawing of the vertical view of a typical floor:
-This is a drawing of the side view of the tower (originally presented here in the very interesting architecture site Paris-London-Athens in http://www.culture2000.tee.gr/
-This is a sketch drawing depicting the final shape of the Athens Tower from the same angle with the above drawing by the hand of Mr Vikelas himself (1968) as depicted in "Domes" architecture review.
…and this is the model as presented by the Mr Vlachos in "Manifesta", which now forms part of his private collection with the other rejected models presented above.
One cannot probably understand the blood rush in A&D's top executives those days in 1967 to 1968. It was not just the mere size of the project that could probably kill any weak stomach. It is also the fact that apparently there must have been some intelligence that other firms were preparing similar projects in their drawing boards. Also, it seemed that at the time, there was an abundance of young engineers that were eager to take challenges and push the envelope further. Despite the uncontrollable expansion, the 1960's was the decade that Athens rode a wave of excess modernism and it seemed that there could be no stop to it, especially if we take into account that the Greek economy was only second to the Japanese in terms of development indexes. Whoever built the first scraper would be the king of the real estate market and all the players knew it.
IV. Bolt from the Blue, Iron and Freedom
In late 1967 a large board was erected in front of the land plot that the Athens Tower was to be built:
"ΑΝΑΔΟΧΟΣ ΕΡΓΟΥ: ΑΛΒΕΡΤΗΣ ΚΑΙ ΔΗΜΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ ΑΕ"
"GENERAL CONTACTOR: ALVERTIS AND DIMOPOULOS SA"
Construction of the Athens Tower must have begun in early 1968 and as it seems, went on on a frantic pace since as mentioned before, going tall was in fashion these days, regardless if was done in style or not. But A&D were the pioneers all the way. A few months after the groundbreaking the building started to emerge above the ground, and when it reached the eighth, ninth and tenth floor, it started being clearly visible from all the top terraces of the neighboring 6-storey blocks of flats, and even further than that. At 15 stories above ground it set a new standard in terms of building height and this certainly was the reason that one of its future tenants, the "Commercial Credit Bank", later to become "Credit Bank" and today" Alpha Bank" advertised their new location while under construction and probably in such a way that as if the whole building was owned by them .
Source: "Αρχιτεκτονικά Θέματα" (Architecture in Greece, Vol. 6/72 )
And the building's top kept up going higher and higher…
Meanwhile, in early 1969, construction on the upper floor of our house had also started in an equally frantic pace. Tassos, "the man with the big papers" as he appeared in my eyes, was coming more and more until, construction started. Then, Tassos would share his time between our house and the Athens Tower construction site. New foundations were laid around our house and 6 new pillars were added to the existing sides of the house to support its structure. Tassos was adamant in that the cement to be used would be of the best quality, despite its higher price. He also employed some of the best builders that were used in the construction of the Athens Tower to work the cement which, in the construction workers' words, was "very thick to work with, what the heck, this isn't the Athens Tower". However, the metaphysical connection was there…
As time went on, Tassos worked with more and more intensity to complete the house since in his view, if construction stopped for any reason, it would have been difficult to be resumed after. He also went on a business trip to Thessaloniki for a few days that must have been in the middle of 1969. When he returned, he went for a full medical check up because he complained for "persistent pain" in the last few weeks. After all, he was working very hard and after the age of 40, fatigue may find strange ways to get to a hard working man and give him a warning to slow down. But it was no fatigue. And the warning – if ever was such a thing, came too late. Way too late.
Nikos Dimou, a Greek writer who keeps one of the best blogs in the Greek blogosphere, in one of his articles quoted the famous English writer and philhellenist John Robert Fowles according to whom a man's life is determined by three factors (which he named in Greek): sideros, keravnos, elefteria.
Sideros (iron) is the limitations of our reality: time, space, our physical built and mental ability; the predictable details of our gradual wearing out long journey to the unknown yet inevitable end awaiting us all; the natural decay of our body with the passage of time.
Eleftheria (freedom) is our finest hour, the moment we revolt and transcend from the Iron Law of Sideros to the Kingdom of Heaven. When we have outdone ourselves and accomplish something beyond us, something to outlive us in eternity, then we attain real freedom.
Keravnos (bolt) is the unexpected. Something that reshuffles the cards on our life's table – or even turns our life's table -for the better– or the worse! A lotto ticket, a car accident, everything that may make us think that life as we knew it is no longer there…
Tassos was one of the few persons on this planet that was bound to live through the effect of all three factors in a very short period of time. I bet there are not many people on this planet that they could testify what this 43-year old man felt when he learned that in his finest hour he was diagnosed with advanced metastatic cancer, some time in mid-1969. A man in his early 40's, father of one little daughter, ready to advance his career in new heights, whilst belonging to a team including the top engineers in Greece, building at the time the tallest building in a region from Italy to Tehran, and from Moscow to Cairo…
Was it morning or afternoon? Was it a rainy day or a sunny one? What were his immediate thoughts? No-one can tell.
What followed from what I can gather from my mother, is that Tassos fought fire with fire. The brave man engaged in a feverish effort to complete the works in our house as well as the Tower, which for him became his life's work. Our house's upper floor was completed in 1970, at a time that the tower must have already been topped out. My mother tells me that at that time they have invited him and his family for lunch on a Sunday morning. He wasn't in a good shape but at least he could still walk. The urban myth says that at some time before the Great Journey he was brought under the tall building, probably on a wheel chair, certainly been supported along the way. Athens Tower, already topped out and being in the middle of the external cladding stage must have looked a real shiny beauty with its contrast of glass and marble covering the spots that the cladding was completed. Tassos looked up towards the blue sky and said in a faint voice "We did it… We finally did it". Nobody knows if any fellow team member told him "See, it's almost over man, we can take it from here. It's time to rest for you now, dear friend".
For him, that was probably a moment of absolute freedom and redemption, one that consummated everything that he lived for to that day. A moment that no mediocre mind can conceive its grace, let alone feel its transcending meaning. The true moment of freedom.
As for me, I still live in the same house and even now, some 36 years after his passing, my mother still remembers him for his kind presence and giving personality.
So, Tassos passed away some time in 1970, after having finally received his licence granting him the right to sign for the construction of large projects. His name remained on the board in front of the Athens Tower long after his death, until eventually the board was removed. For years, every time my grandfather passed from that particular spot at the base of the tower where Messogeion Avenue begins branching out from Vasilissis Sophias Avenue, he would say the same phrase all over again:
"He didn’t live long enough to really enjoy his work completed".
Yet it was one of these times that he said it, back in the mid-1970's when I looked at the building from its base and I was haunted with awe at the works of Man that edify mankind up to higher spheres. I took a picture from the same spot across Vasilissis Sophias Avenue. This is a vertical panoramic composite pictiure made of two single photographs, because it was impossible to fit everything in a single frame.
That day, probably some time in spring 1974 or 1975 was the beginning of my interest about buildings. I was not older than 12 1/2 years old at the time, and I then was beginning to understand what has happened to our family "friend with the big papers". Even today, this building reminds me of this brave man, his visions and his quest for excellence, even when confronting the worse, the ultimate adversity a man may face.
Bolt, Iron and Freedom...
V. The Tower and the City
Anyway, in the years that passed, Athens tower became an icon for the city, a recognizable shape in the city's skyline. Following its construction a new generation of towers appeared in Athens, none matching its height or elegance. As the years went by, the dominant ideology changed and, as I point out in my original Athens Skyscrapers thread,
"...the building became the hate symbol of a whole new generation of skyscraper haters in Greece that turned up in the early 1980's, with their negativism spread evenly between the government, as well as the ranks of professionals, architects and city planners alike. In any case, the building's boxy shape made sure that the skyline of the district of Ampelokipi, some 5 km from the Acropolis and 1.5 km from the Lycabettus hill to the north-east of the municipality of Athens, would never be the same again."
The negative obsession with this building is depicted in the following picture, originally scanned from a high school textbook by our forumer Kostya, where the legend says:
The dilapidated landscape of Attica and the impersonal style of the Greek capital does not object the the excess height or the cold elegance of the structure that abides to the international style of the big European Cities"
(Parenthesis in Greek: Άρες, μάρες κουκουνάρες που λέγανε οι παλιότεροι…)
I continue in the original thread:
"The overwhelming presence of this building was immediately felt and recorded in the press at the time (early 70's). I remember the "Tachydromos" magazine having a story about it some time in 1974, talking about some small houses that were still a few blocks away from it, the last remains of another epoch that even back then, was quickly fading away… . Other papers were talking about a fear of "manhattanization" of Athens, while, when in 1975 the movie "Earthquake" starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner reached the Athenian cinemas, this building was part of many "what if" scenarios appearing in newspaper movie reviews. Also, the fire department of the city of Athens talked about their incapacity back then to reach above the 8th floor of a building and the stories continued when another disaster movie, "The Towering Inferno", starring Paul Newman, also hit the Athenian movie theatres in 1976.
In reality, when in 1981 and 1999 Athens was hit respectively by two serious quakes measuring some 6+ on the Richter scale each, nothing was heard of the building in contrast to many lowrises, which on both occasions, either collapsed or were severely damaged because of the shakes. Probably the haters of the building would like it to collapse so as not to obstruct the "human scale" of its gray-walled lowrise neighbours. To their disappointment, the building stood and still stands unscratched ."
Now, the building looks a bit outdated, despite its emblematic height. Both the small shopping arcade on its base, as well as the whole layout of the plaza would have been differently designed, had a similar building built on the same spot today. Chances are that in a few years, some major renovation work may have to be undertaken. In any case, I believe the exterior needs to be left "as is". It is and will be representative of the times when this building stood like a lone King with its smaller brother, against a whole sea of gray mediocrity surrounding it, stood alone for so many years with no equal in the skies of this city…
ΟΚ, ΟΚ, Pictures
Last edited by gm2263; 16th December 2006 at 07:36.
-Athens Tower and the rest of the Athenian talls in the district of Ampelokipi.
-The "Classic" View of the tower from the top of Lycabettus Hill
-From the top of "Profitis Hlias" hill in Piraeus with a large zoom. The top of the tower is visible behind the Philopappos hill. having the topof the tower next to the Acropolis to the left of the pic, probaboy this is the only photo that justifies Vikelas statement that the tower's design attempted to follow a "Greek scheme of 'base, trunk, and crown', subsumed under an overarching sense of a plain and austere rhythm."
-View of Athens Tower from President Hotel. I like this pic, but it's not mine. Posted by Greekguy Mike in another thread, but after having seen some editing (needed a bit of contrast and rotation, sorry Mike if this is yours ) , this is a heck of a shot.
-As seen from Papagos, on the slopes of the mount Hymettus
Aerial view of the densely built Ampelokipi district depicting the Athens tower in the middle. The observant eye may catch the green coloured football stadium of Panathinaikos FC towards the upper middle part of the picture.
(C) The Air Club of Serres
-Distant view from the Acropolis, amongst its successors
B. Views of the building:
-The Athens Tower complex as seen from across Vasilissis Sophias Avenue
-Looking up from the base... One of my favorite views
-View of the building from the park at the crossroads of Alexandras – Vasilissis Sophias Avenue.
-View of the entrance of block A, depicting part of the main plaza
-View from a pedestrian street in the district of Ampelokipi. This and the following picture clearly indicate how this building made an impact in its surroundings...
-View from between two neighbouring blocks of flats. Impressive picture taken from an open space in the neighbouring residential complex where the "Galaxias" (Galaxy) Cinema is located
-Yet another view from Vasilissis Sophias Avenue:
-An unusual view from the rear, depicting the block B, taken from the sidewalk in front the "Ippokrateion" Hospital
-From the same street after having walked a few meters towards the traffic light in Vasilissis Sophias Avenue
-Another view of the rear side of the building depicting both blocks, taken from Sinopis street
-As if waving goodbye in the evening light...
-A last glance of a night view from an Athenian terrace with the Lycabettus Hill next to it...
Epilogue: Ascension in a Declining World
Every serious student of the history of architecture is aware of the megalomania characterizing structures built by powerful regimes with extensive economic or military influence on a global or even regional scale. This creates the common misconception that because height and size characterizes many structures built during or by an autocratic regime, for whatever reason, they many people tend to make the erroneous assumption that ALL tall and big structures inherently indicate the existence of autocracy in a built environment, seeking to impose their size over a person's relative freedom and beliefs and consequently, through intimidation, deprive him of the willpower to question authority.
True, height and size were used by totalitarian regimes. However their symbolism goes beyond the arbitrary interpretation relating to the symbolic deprivation of freedom. In recent years, tallness has become a new symbol of artful transcendence. If a man cannot transcend physically, then his creations will. Not as a hubris against the greatness of the divine but as an attempt to touch its essence. Height is a tool, as is a knife. As Vikelas pointed out recently in Domes - International Review of Architecture, Vol. # 45/03, pp. 118: "High-rises stand at the pinnacle of technology-driven architecture and are proud monuments to human potential". They are there, tall and proud, standing above their creators, reaching for the skies. And, architecture that reaches for the skies is the product of visionary minds.
As for the ones that do not like tall buildings, I wish them once, just for once in their lives to be in a position to whisper these last words of a man on a wheelchair, yet standing a giant of a man in the respect of his colleagues, having seen iron, freedom and bolt in the last days of his life:
"We did it... We finally did it"…
True creation comes through transcendence, not repetition.
This thread is dedicated to the memory of our beloved friend and civil engineer, Tasos Rodanas (1926-1970).
Last edited by gm2263; 13th December 2006 at 11:42.