chapter  11
28 Pages

Migrant builders and craftsmen in the founding phase of modern Athens*

The formation of the Hellenic state in the third decade of the nineteenth century is widely known for having marked the offset of the grand historical project of national integration for all Greek people. However, it is less known for the multitude of practices that it fostered in the small scale of life, culture and administrative policy in view of a balanced form of government and a manageable transition from a premodern to a modern cultural state.1 A major concern on the part of the Greek authorities was to ensure loyalties, social cohesion and a sense of community for their subjects. To that end, they invested with nationalist and ideological rhetoric any act aiming at the creation of institutional infrastructure or the repairing of the ravages left by the recent war. Among the instrumental tools that the agents of change used in order to reinforce emotional attachment to selected parts of the country’s history was their appeal to myths of origin and the language of symbols, while casting in shadow some of the people’s living traditions. Some authors regard such a self-conscious political programme of historical coercion as a sufficient and necessary condition for nation building. ‘It is the state which makes the nation and not the nation the state’, writes Hobsbawm.2 Others take a more moderate stand by advocating that the nation, in its modern institutional form of nation-state, is not a deliberate construction or ‘an imagined community’ but ‘the successful end result of a dialectical process’3 in which all the pre-existent bonds of identity, culture and tradition among its members play a role by feeding into the new socio-cultural framework. If we believe then that the latter was the case with the Greek nation-state in the nineteenth century, we should seek to define the particulars that formed a transitional condition rather than a historic break. As a matter of fact, people’s divorcement from a decentralised and multi-nuclear system of government, like the one to which they had been long accustomed as subjects of Ottoman rule, in order to conform to the homogenising directives of a new sovereign authority, was neither radical nor uniform as one would be led to believe under the spell of state rhetoric. It was subjected to the complexities of a centralised bureaucracy, which employed rational forms of control, organisation and selfmanagement, whereas at the same time it subsumed in many of its functions

residual cultural patterns of communal subsistence, such as domestic economy, cooperative and skill-based labour, and fluctuating migration. This chapter undertakes to illuminate part of post-independence Greek

history, which bears vivid the signs of this transition, that is, the world of building practice as related to its paramount agents, the builders and craftsmen. Most of them, having flowed from various peripheral areas to Greece in search of new work opportunities, had a significant, yet often understated, share in the country’s restoration and modernisation process. The chapter probes into the conditions of life and work of those people, both before and after Independence, with a special eye on the institutional framework within which they operated at a time when the building profession was redefining its nature vis-à-vis a rising architectural culture. In doing that, it aims to fill a gap in the literature of architectural history, the grand narrative of which is customarily monopolised by a state-centric perspective including descriptive accounts of public monuments, interpretations of ideologically driven architectural symbolism and architects’ biographies. Being only part of a larger project, this study intimates an alternative to this conventional approach to architectural history as it proposes to contextualise its subject-matter. The case in point is Athens, the leading city in Greece at that time, which within a

few years was promoted from a small agrarian town to a modern capital of a Western appeal. Its architectural makeup, heavily drawing upon its classical antecedents and gaining power through its symbolism, became a strong component of the government’s aforementioned programme of political cohesion. Building construction created a robust labour market for several decades, which occupied builders and craftsmen of all specialties, many of whom belonged to those migrant groups from the broader region. It is in this context of heterogeneous influences that the new city of Athens emerged as a metropolis, aiming at, yet never attaining, the crystallised image of a neoclassical city. Given that the primary documentary source available is the building contract for

a consistent period of 15 years (i.e. 1835-50),4 the inquiry profits from the textual validity and statistical recurrence of various data related to construction activity in order to configure the identities of the building agents, some of their labour conditions, work procedures, technologies and materials, building prefigurations, and most importantly patterns of development and change. At the same time, it is subject to the limitations of the textual source (i.e. the work deed), which bears witness of intentions, terms and conditions, but not of the actual outcome of the work. In fact, the ‘building-referent’ of each document more often than not is either absent (i.e. demolished) or unidentifiable. As there was still no street naming or lot numbering, the individual property was specified through its landowner’s name, the district and the nearest points of reference. Unfortunately, none of these data are sufficient to identify structures dating 150 years back and more. This, however, does not diminish the value of the evidence, which in all cases helps recreate the contextual framework of building history, with the human agents forming an indispensable part. It is to this part that the present chapter is turning its attention.