“He was important after all,” said an architect with a strong background in academia as we toured the exhibition on Emmanuel Vourekas at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex, with a hint of self-reproach in his voice.
Vourekas (1907-92) was never a darling of the Greek architecture scene nor was he a member of its leftist establishment, like most of his Greek peers. No one doubted his skill, but to many of his contemporaries, Vourekas appeared too bourgeois, both in terms of his background and the work that he did. Most of his projects were large middle-class apartment blocks in central Kolonaki, mansions in the upscale neighborhoods of Kifissia and Palaio Psychico, office blocks and big hotels. After World War II, when he started working in a more complex idiom that blended the modernist visions of his youth with classical elements, Vourekas was accused by Greece’s architectural establishment of being too conservative and of having compromised his edge in order to hold onto his wealthy clientele. As the Athens Polytechnic churned out revolutionaries – in politics, architecture and engineering -- Vourekas appeared out of rhythm with the drumbeat of the times.
The exhibition at the Benaki annex, which runs to December 2, takes Vourekas out of the dustbin of history, dusts him off and presents him in his entirety: prolific, multifaceted, productive and very fruitful. Though it may have not have been the initial intention of curator Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, this exhibition affirms Vourekas’s place among the most influential Greek architects of the postwar period and reveals him as an instrumental player in the formation of the Athenian urban landscape of the 1950s and 60s, especially as seen in classic films from that period. Almost all of the iconography of that time bears Vourekas’s mark: well-dressed men parking new cars outside newly built and imposing apartment blocks in Kolonaki; businesses wearing their success like a badge by having offices in one of the new blocks on Syntagma Square; couples having secret trysts in the gardens of stately homes in Filothei, flirting in the nightclubs of swanky new hotels and taking a dip at one of the many organized beaches that cropped up at that time along Athens’s southern coast.
With more than 200 projects under his belt, Vourekas is behind some of the Greek capital’s most emblematic buildings and the wave of modernization that transformed Athens in the late 50s and through the 60s: the Athens Hilton Hotel (in cooperation with Prokopis Vasileiadis and Spyros Staikos), which Conrad Hilton considered the most beautiful of his 53 units worldwide, the Athens Concert Hall, the former Athenee Palace Hotel on the corner of Stadiou and Kolokotroni streets near Syntagma, the modernist apartment block that economist Xenophon Zolotas had built on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, numerous apartment buildings in Kolonaki, and, of course, the beach facilities at Glyfada and Vouliagmeni (also collaborations with other architects).
In a triumphant review in September 1954, Kathimerini wrote that the beaches of Glyfada and Voula were transforming Athens’s southern coastline into the country’s very own Cote d’Azur, knocking the most luxurious beach at the time, at Bati in Palaio Faliro, right off the first-place pedestal.
Before Vourekas’s transformation, Adami explains, the Glyfada beach had nothing more than “a long and narrow row of cabins, which were often dirty, and just a small strip of sand to lie on.” Three years after the opening of the revamped beach, the then-popular lifestyle magazine Ikones published a showcase on the beach, showing it full of people and life, describing it as a beach that “even foreigners would envy.”
As far as the Hilton is concerned, at the time of its inauguration in 1963, local media branded it a scandal involving political cronies and vested interests, but the people of Athens fell in love with it at first sight. Yiannis Kerofylas, a well-known scholar of Athenian history, notes: “The reception for the inauguration [of the Athens Hilton] was attended by every socialite who had managed to get an invitation as well as many more who tagged along, as is often the case at such events. The men were all dressed very formally and the women ushered in the spring somewhat prematurely with their colorful hats, which had cost them a pretty penny at Athens’s milliners.”
The Benaki exhibition, titled “The World of Emmanuel Vourekas,” is one of the best architectural shows this writer has ever seen in Greece. According to the curator, the aim of the exhibition was not just to showcase Vourekas’s work, but also to put it within a social, historical, economic and political context. Instead of a purely architectural exhibition, the Benaki offers a satisfying kaleidoscopic narrative of an entire era that also includes billboards and other advertisements, film and television clips, as well as cuttings from newspapers and magazines.
Catering to a new lifestyle
Emmanuel Vourekas was born into a middle-class family in the southern Athenian coastal suburb of Neo Faliro in 1907. He studied architecture in Dresden and then returned to Greece, with his earliest works reflecting the principles of the modernist movement, which was prevalent among architects at the time.
However, Vourekas soon changed his style, as, according to curator Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, “he was probably not entirely convinced of the truth of the modernist movement, in contrast to his Greek contemporaries, or maybe simply made adjustments to his style in order to please his high-class clientele.”
Vourekas’s brand of “classical” modernism was more fitting in terms of aesthetics and functionality to the demands of the growing middle and upper-middle classes in Athens, people with whom he socialized at a time when Greece was undergoing a rapid and impressive transformation from a small, war-ravaged nation to a proud part of modern Europe.
“He managed to convince influential businessmen like Antonis Benakis and Georgios Averof to leave their luxurious mansions and move into apartments,” says Adami. As she explains in the Greek-English bilingual catalog of the exhibition, “Vourekas did not do architecture for architecture’s sake. His homes are ‘vessels of life,’ of a life that was different to that in which the likes of Aris Constantinides [a leading nonconformist of the 1960s]. It was the life of the typical middle and upper-middle class Greek of the postwar era.”
Vourekas’s success, however, cannot be attributed to his social milieu or his affable character, because above all else, he was simply a great architect.
Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos, tel 210.342.3111. Opening hours are Thursdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
info by: Dimitris Rigopoulos ekathimerini.com