A Palimpsest of Abandonment
Every house looks forlorn when its owners move out, if only because it is scattered with tokens of abandonment. Even the most scrupulous of us picker-uppers will leave behind traces of our residence, and not only the things we forget or leave aside in the final mad rush as the movers finish taping up the last of the cartons.
We leave behind as well the physical signs of our presence: the yellowish grey film on a now-not-so-fashionable wallpaper that speaks of smoke-filled parties and burnt roasts, the cracks and gouges in a kitchen workbench, the grey outline on the wall that marked the presence of a sideboard. Our lives are witnessed in the warp and blisters and cracks in the space that was once home. A house may be a vessel for living, but it is one with a skin, and these marks contain a story just as the scars of surgery and accidents do, or the threadbare upholstery and sagging cushions of a worn sofa.
But they are stories without a narrator. When we come across such forsaken rooms—as in Anthony Hernandez’s photographs of an abandoned Los Angeles housing project in Aliso Village or Kleopatra Haritou’s recent exhibition at the Benaki Museum of photographs of the Prosfiyika Housing Estate—we have only an assortment of clues. We must use them to construct our own tales, to narrate (as Haritou says) “the secret private moments of unknown heroes”.
Haritou was given the keys to the over 200 (mostly) abandoned apartments in the Prosfiyika housing estate. She took them and wandered through the complex, taking photographs of the apartments and common areas, such as stairwells. The keys actually were later to form part of the exhibition, hung on a wooden panel on hooks set above labels with the names of the owners. Presumably this was to tell the visitor, “this a work of documentation”. The same intent must have been behind the moss-green of the walls in the main exhibition room that recapitulated the color of some of the interiors in the photographs. It also explains the presence of a period sofa, ironically enough, without the signs of wear that old furniture, and especially the items captured in Haritou’s work, display.
But the fifty interior shots (the other 50 are of stairwells) are less documentary photographs than architectural still-lives . The memento mori here is not skulls and insects but instead abandoned toys and a pair of crutches. In one photograph we see a hook-studded grid of light and shadow that testifies to a gallery of family portraits that is no longer there. In another there is a telephone carnet in a room without a phone, in yet another a single soiled mattress.
We know nothing about the people who lived here other than they lived modestly, if we are to judge by the wire hangers, fold-out cots and old TV sets. We can perhaps also see that some may have left suddenly under the unhappiest of circumstances. But the photographs tell no story. Instead they are rich in suggestive detail, the domestic equivalent of the “empty road scattered with cannon balls, the mud encrusted on the caisson’s wheels,” of a wartime photographer who arrives at the scene of a battle only after it’s been fought (Szarkowski).
Haritou doesn’t pretend these to be a neutral, unmediated documentation of facts, or at least I hope not. They make too dramatic use of light and shadow. Some shots must have been staged, the objects re-arranged for greater effect. She’s also obviously fascinated with color, texture, surfaces and patterns, which is why so many of them are wonderful photographs. The really interesting details, for me, were less the furniture and utensils than the pitted marble of a kitchen sink, the ridges of paint inexpertly brushed on a turquoise wooden table, the riot of patterns in a pastiche of wallpaper and coverlets.
These photographs are not “acts of remembrance”. The associations they trigger in the visitor may not have much to do with the circumstances of the specific people who lived in these apartments. They are proxies for the refugees in our own families, and this works precisely because the place is laden with such historical significance.
The Prosfiyika housing estate bears witness to the Asia Minor catastrophe and the massive influx of refugees it occasioned, which in turn transformed the culture and society of mainland Greece. It also literally bears the mark of the civil strife that followed the end of World War II: the walls of some of the buildings are pockmarked with the holes left by mortar shells from the Dekemvriana, a series of bloody street battles that erupted when British-backed government forces opened fire on a demonstration organized by a coalition of left-wing organizations.
But the Prosfiyika are also important as architecture and social planning. As Nikos Belavilas and Vaso Trova note, the design and construction of the estate was “perhaps the only time in Greece when state policy regarding public space worked in line with the architectural innovation of the time.”
Built in 1933-1935 as part of a larger state plan to house refugees from Asia Minor, the public-housing complex featured 228 modest-sized apartments in eight apartment blocks. The blocks were set in rows facing each other so that each apartment would look out onto a shared open space. Perhaps the original architects in the employ of the Technical Service of the Ministry of Welfare, Kimon Laskaris and Dimitris Kiriakou had envisioned gardens to be planted in this common space, as was the case in the social housing projects designed by their contemporaries in Germany and the Netherlands, most notably Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner, Walter Gropius, and Jacobus Oud. Certainly, the Greek architects must have had similarly progressive notions of what public housing should be. The apartments, though small, are airy and well-light (they were also designed to conform to progressive standards of hygiene at the time). Laskaris and Kiriakou also shared the Functionalist aesthetics that these visionaries had embraced and given such beautiful form to housing estates like the Blitz “Horseshoe Estate”, the Siemensstadt, and the “White City” (all three are part of the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates and figure on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list).
The façades of the Prosfiyika are devoid of ornament, save for the lip of a narrow balcony that protrudes from each of the apartments. The only exception to the visual austerity of the complex is in the interior staircases, whose sinuous sculptural calligraphy is a flight of high Bauhaus imagination. An old black-and-white photo of the estate highlights the affinity of the complex with the more ambitious (and better financed) social housing estates in Northern Europe.
Haritou pays due tribute to these aesthetics in her marvelous photographs of the stairwells, which are hung in a smaller adjoining room. They are a celebration of form, of winding helixes and elegant, graceful curve. The sheer visual pleasure they provoke is a fitting counterbalance to the interiors of abandonment in the photographs in the main exhibition hall.
There are no photographs of the façades. There didn’t need to be any; we have all passed by the estate at one time or another.
The exteriors are crumbling in a state of utter disrepair. The fate of the estate was in doubt as early as the junta in 1967, when the Ministries of Justice and Public Works modified the Athens Master Plan to reclassify two of the apartment blocks as “public space” in view of the eventual construction of a new Athens Court Building. (For more on the history of the estate, see the study published by the Greek National Center for Public and Local Administration).
Rumors that the buildings were slated for demolition periodically surfaced in the press. In this climate of uncertainty owners had little or no incentive to maintain their property (or at least the exterior), and by the late 1990s the buildings were in disrepair. The State Housing Authority gradually acquired apartments through eminent domain. By 2008 it had ownership of four of the eight blocks. There was talk of demolishing all but two of the blocks but faced with growing protest from neighborhood and citizen groups and the Architectural School of the National Polytechnic, the Ministry of Culture’s Central Committee on Contemporary and Modern Monuments characterized the entire complex a landmark monument in November 2008.
Knowing this doesn’t make the stories that lie within these interiors any more accessible. It deciphers none of the narratives in the palimpsest of traces left by those who once lived there and captured so deftly by Haritou in her photographs. But it doesn’t need to.