If the construction of Brasília and Chandigarh has been explained—in James Scott's seminal work—as the outcome of “seeing like a state,” then the twentieth-century transformations of Athens can best be understood, Ioanna Theocharopoulou tells us, from another point of view.1 As the title of her book Builders, Housewives and the Construction of Modern Athens hints, one must appreciate “seeing” like a builder, or a rural migrant, or a refugee—a person who is cash-short, in urgent need of shelter, and distrustful of a state whose officials, in turn, are eager to accommodate private initiatives and turn a blind eye to quasi-illegal urban developments. One must also understand, Theocharopoulou continues, “seeing” like a housewife who is coming to terms with her own modernity in the midst of these and other circumstances.
Theocharopoulou's meticulous analysis connects the Greek authorities’ apparently erratic attitude toward planning with specific historical circumstances and cultural idiosyncrasies that produced the Athenian metropolis. Incorporating tools from social history, anthropology, and gender studies, her book provides a valuable historical perspective on Athens, one that highlights the entwinement of dwelling and urbanism and shows that the city's anonymous residential architecture has a distinctive character and historicity: it emerged in response to internal migration and refugee influx due to war, cash shortages, particular legislative frameworks, linguistic debates, entrenched gender roles, and deregulation tactics—all combined with canny actions by both residents and administrators (such as the notorious variances on building codes). All these disparate factors, Theocharopoulou shows, were bound up with issues of identity, nationhood, urbanization, and modernization. Even as these issues changed in nature and intensity from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, they created the conditions for the proliferation of the type of multistory apartment building known in Greece as the polykatoikia, which constitutes the quintessential element of the city's urban landscape.
In historicizing the building culture of Athens through multiple filters—the images give rich flavor to the fascinating archival material the author has investigated—the book skillfully synthesizes existing knowledge about the polykatoikia and its urban role. Further, it extends local and international scholarship that has contemplated the underappreciated qualities of the scale and diversity of Athenian apartment buildings. (Essays by Kenneth Frampton and Dimitris Philippidis are cited, but more recent discussions of the polykatoikia by Pier Vittorio Aureli and his colleagues also come to mind.)2 Theocharopoulou also draws on urban theory in discussing the benefits of the “part-exchange” system (a process whereby the owner of a piece of land could exchange it for units in a polykatoikia to be built there by a developer) and the social integration processes initiated by the polykatoikia (which allowed rural migrants and refugees to enter the lower middle class). These reflections highlight the Athenian polykatoikia as an alternative to the shantytowns of other rapidly urbanizing cities of the global South. Although more direct engagement with the insights of geography could be included, the book is a testimony to architectural historiography's interdisciplinary achievements and its capacity to provide in-depth investigations of urban space.3 More important, this multifaceted investigation demonstrates how different actors have produced different forms of modernity. This is a crucial contribution. Among other things, it helps challenge interpretive models focused on the “transfer” or “importation” of planning and architectural strategies—problematic perspectives that characterize not only the agendas of twentieth-century modernization but also some of the architectural and urban histories of modernization.
Of particular importance to the book's argument are the processes of improvisation that created the polykatoikia type and what Theocharopoulou refers to as “informal urbanism.” Intriguing propositions that allow new ways of contemplating both the history and the current resonance of the polykatoikia include the assertion that it might be seen as an example of Bernard Rudofsky's “architecture without architects” brought to an urban sphere, and the observation that the polykatoikia anticipates the more recent adaptable building types of Alejandro Aravena's Elemental in Chile. Conversely, it would be vital to further unpack notions of improvisation, spontaneity, and informality, especially in light of larger critiques of ad hoc, bottom-up, and self-help processes that remind us that informality does not necessarily equal neutrality.4 Even if one does not apply a Marxist critique—which might argue that the “individualization” of housing let the state off the hook, had a politically conservative effect in giving people “a stake in the system,” and celebrated as freedom of choice what was actually “compulsion in the absence of alternatives”5—one still wonders about the merits of an urbanization that made housing construction and laissez-faire individual interests the chief drivers of the city's economy.
In a similar vein, it would have been beneficial if Theocharopoulou had problematized the issue of modernization in as nuanced a way as she treats the issues of nationhood and identity. She is of course correct to highlight the polykatoikia as a modernizing agent, and perhaps right to argue that the modernization of Greek society was quite locally particular. But as it was elsewhere, modernization in Greece was subject to tensions between empowering potentials and processes of social control. While the polykatoikia became a mechanism for accommodating refugees and former rural dwellers, did it not also insert urban life into the logic of the market and economic speculation, with immense environmental and other consequences? Recognizing such paradoxes embedded in processes of modernization would not necessarily require reverting to the critiques of Athens's urban character as random and inconsistent—critiques that Theocharopoulou rightly dismisses at the outset. Recognizing the paradoxes and ambiguities of modernization would, for example, allow a closer examination of other possible substructures of power, funding, and influence that shaped modern Athens. These ambiguities begin to surface in the chapter on housewives, where the author unpacks gender and social tensions.
Other chapters could push such analysis further. One wonders, for example, did not the United Nations or NATO have a role in Greece's experience of the Cold War, which the author highlights as important in shaping the polykatoikia? The United Nations is acknowledged only in passing, even if it was instrumental in advancing the view of housing as nonproductive, an idea that was widespread internationally, and, as Theocharopoulou tells us, also professed by the Greek state. Even if foreign consultants were not responsible for the emergence of the polykatoikia, did foreign influences have no impact on the infrastructures, industries, economic models, and development policies shaping urbanization and modernization in Greece? Similarly, it would have been helpful if the author had supported her archival research on specific figures involved in Greece's modernization with broader critical perspectives on modernization and development. Such an approach might have allowed one to unpack further the political investments behind claims of comprehensiveness and local empowerment and to elucidate how Greek architects’ ethnographic interests and “detailed analyses of local building culture” (95) are not merely reflections of sensitivity to a locale. The discussion of modernization could have been supported by systematic engagement with current theories and critiques of the assumptions and tactics of development, informal or otherwise.
Theocharopoulou does well to insist on understanding Athens “in its own terms” (9). Indeed, her discussion of the particular significance of neoclassicism to the Greek context, analysis of debates on the Greek language, and investigation into the role of housewives, as well as the insightful connections she draws to the anthropological analyses of shadow theater, are all key to the contextualization of urban transformations as “expressions of Greek culture and everyday life” (15). One comes away feeling that the book successfully explains why housing in Athens did not take the direction of, say, the Berlin Mietskaserne or the Lima barriadas.
Still, in reading this book, one is reminded that a similar combination of factors (massive migration from rural areas and quid pro quo processes in which multiple small investors pool their resources, pursue exchanges, or push for amendments, all in the absence of direct government investment in housing construction) has had powerful influence on urbanization in other parts of the globe from the twentieth century to the present day. Although the Athens case is important in and of itself, an attempt at charting parallels with housing processes in other cities of the global South would allow for further contextualization, a historiographic pursuit that Theocharopoulou correctly emphasizes as important. For example, what are the differences between the type of “builder-developer” encountered in Athens and the yap-satçi (builder-seller) of Istanbul, particularly in terms of how individual actors employ funding mechanisms and state policies?6 The pursuit of such questions could enable a more comprehensive and broader understanding of Athens's urbanity.