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Urban frame no1: The “amputated” Fix brewery and the National Museum of Contemporary Art of Athens.

In the late 1950s the Greek architect Takis Zenetos was hired by Johann Karl Fuchs, the owner of Fix brewery, to redesign its factory in Athens. The building was erected in 1893 beside Syngrou Avenue, the main road axis that connects the city centre of Athens to the sea. The company’s successful development necessitated the construction of various additions to the original edifice.

 

map no1_Fix_Syngrou axis

The design proposal formed by Zenetos in collaboration with Margaritis Apostolidis involved the construction of a continuous outer shell to unify all the successive additions to the initial building. The entire construction work did not affect the factory’s production process which continued without interruption.

The architect’s main design philosophy focused upon the flexibility of every structure. It was important for the building to easily adapt to varied conditions and time periods. In his proposal for the Fix brewery, Zenetos designed a three-dimensional guides grid for the façades of the building. This grid received all the covering elements; transparent or not, specifically insulated or not depending on the use of each corresponding façade. Therefore, the building was able to easily adjust to any future alternations respecting the factory’s production process. The façades’ flexibility also allowed the possibility of different functions to be hosted in the building in the future, namely, office, cultural or commercial uses.  The architect managed to create a flexible outer shell which enclosed the space’s operation complexity. The exact form of this shell could change whenever the hosting function changed.

The building’s final form reflected the basic principles of the modern movement transferred in the still immature urban landscape of late 1950s Athens. Through the particular architectural shape he created as well as the construction details he designed, Zenetos expressed his radical vision regarding what he considered to be the most innovatory construction method of the future, namely, the logic of prefabricated elements.

The façades’ covering elements concealed the structural frame of the building. This design concept created the structure’s intense linearity and reinforced the horizontal dimension of the façades’ elements which seemed to extend infinitely due to the scale of the structure.

The form’s clarity, the structure’s simplicity and the volume’s dynamic scale became a rather emphatic statement in the midst of Athens’ featureless built environment. The building looked like a horizontal skyscraper which invaded the urban landscape in a provocative way and settled in the city’s main highway, thus succeeding in becoming a significant reference point for the next three decades.

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http://www.culture2000.tee.gr/ATHENS/GREEK/BUILDINGS/BUILD_TEXTS/B48_t.html

In the early ‘90s the Fix enterprise went bankrupt. The brewery became the property of the Greek state and was left to decay. Soon, the building was strongly marked by the ravages of time, lack of maintenance and the indifference of the authorities. In 1994 the property was transferred from the Greek state to “Attiko Metro”, the company in charge of the construction of the Athenian subway system. “Attiko Metro” wanted to locate a subway and transit station on the site. As a result, in 1995, with the official permission of the Ministry of Environment, Planning and Public Works and despite opposition from the architecture community in Greece, almost half of the building was demolished.

map no2_Fix zoom

A significant work of contemporary Greek architecture was amputated in order for a parking lot and ticket booths to be built instead. The remaining part of the building was listed as a heritage site and a few years later it was decided that it should host the National Museum of Contemporary Art.

The official statement given at the time to support the decision to demolish half of the building stated that “the building would not lose its architectural value if its length was reduced and Zenetos himself seemed to have wished a similar turn for this particular work.”[1]  Even though absurd, this line of pseudo-argumentation is, sadly, far from surprising. It merely indicates poor knowledge of the subject at hand and incapacity from the side of the state and statutory regulations to secure a proper attitude towards places of historical value.

The Greek State treated Zenetos’ building superficially ignoring the true value of its architecture. Its partial demolition crushed the building’s dynamics and destroyed its intense linearity along the Syngrou Avenue axis and, by extension, along the city’s main straight access to the sea. The building’s continuity was violently cut, its scale altered and its imposing volume, when compared to its urban surroundings, significantly weakened. In an urban landscape where projects of equivalent aesthetic value do not abound, one could argue that it was not just a building’s value that was undermined but also the purpose of an axis supposed to open up the city to its port for the sake of its citizens and become an avenue welcoming the visitor to the city. The building was ultimately transformed into a monolithic ruin.

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http://triantafylloug.blogspot.gr/2014/01/fix.html

The cross section that was created at the amputation point seems like an open wound for both the building and the architectural essence of the city. This section clearly states that the building’s partition was not an unfortunate or random event. On the contrary, it was a process carefully and systematically designed and executed.

This cross section facing the centre of the city comprises in some sense part of the building’s dynamics before its amputation It contains the trace of a form that has vanished. It shows that something that existed is now surgically cut. The memory of the shape that Zenetos designed is still alive through this section, which connects the piece that exists with the one that does not exist any more. It indicates a type of meta-presence only visible by city dwellers accustomed to the sight of ruins and with a desire to re-invent the narrative lost. It is also a focal point still able to salvage part at least of the continuity lost.

In 2002 an architectural competition was launched concerning the building’s restoration and the development of a re-use proposal about the transformation of the remaining building into the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The project was completed and revealed to the public a few months ago. The north and south façades of the building were heritage-listed, therefore they were restored according to the original plans. The south façade was redesigned and the cross section covered.

The south façade facing Kallirois street was the rear face of the factory which now hosts the Museum’s main entrance. The redesign proposal has already caused various reactions among the Greek architectural community. The issues raised concern whether the design choices were successful and whether the concept regarding the virtual reconstruction of the Athenian topography[2] [3]in the south façade of the building is realistic and/or strong enough to support the intervention attempted. It is also under discussion whether the façade can effectively discourse with Zenetos’ architectural philosophy and hence with the two restored façades, the north and the west one, or whether the materials and the colors chosen were appropriate for this particular structure.

It is certainly true that any attempt to confront a building of such magnitude is a hazardous line of work for an architect. The challenge is great but so is the comparison between the original building and the new design proposal. The critical debate concerning a new architectural approach upon an old shell cannot be avoided.

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In this specific example the implemented architectural proposal which won the competition seems to ignore the features and aesthetics of the building it refers to. The south façade, in Kallirois street, is covered with stone, a heavy, rough material which reflects permanency. It is inconsistent with the philosophy of the original building, its linearity, its fine, delicate lines, the flexibility of its original façades.  On the other hand, this new design approach does not form a radically contrasting gesture which could have created a strong opposition between the past and the present, which could have shaped an innovative proposal that, would have dared to compete and even clash with the restored façade of Syngrou Avenue. The newly designed façade simply keeps the original lines and replaces the covering elements with ochre limestone. The argument given that this design gesture intends to revitalize the lost Athenian topography is hardly convincing when it comes to an innovative, minimal, original structure.

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The northeast cross section is covered and transformed into a conventional façade as if the building actually stopped there, as if the structure was not originally almost twice as long, as if the violent and wanton amputation of a great architectural piece never occurred. That cross section would have been the first sight of the Museum for someone heading there from the centre of Athens. It could have been a statement for the building’s past and the invisible thread connecting this very past with the present. It would also have been a figurative denouncement against the unjustified and inconsiderate amputation of Fix brewery, a brave gesture fit for Zenetos’ design philosophy as well as for the building’s new function as a place hosting contemporary art, a form of artistic expression which surprises the public, breaks ground with its innovative works and fights off the status quo.

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The two heritage-listed façades facing Syngrou Avenue and Franzi Street have been completely and successfully restored according to Zenetos’ original plans. The outcome is rather impressive and their form gives a hint of the past image of the building when it was still unharmed. Still,unfortunately,this is not enough.

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Kanelia Koutsandrea

 

[1] Filippidis D., Μοντέρνα Αρχιτεκτονική στην Ελλάδα, Μelissa publications, 2001, p.186.

[2] “The main entrance’s façade, in Kallirois street, is our synthetic proposal, it is newly designed. We tried to somehow reconstitute the area’s natural surroundings by covering the façade with natural stones and a fine water curtain which will remind the course of the river Ilissos.” V. Stylianidis (member of the designing team), Athens Voice, 25/4/12

[3] Illisos was one of the city’s major rivers. However in the late ‘50s it was casted in and covered with the current road network of Athens. It still flows underground below some of the city’s main highways including Kallirois street.

Read the Greek original article here.

 

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