Sunday, 20 August 2017

To the Side of the Acropolis: the Gazi Neighbourhood in Athens

Text and photographs by Maria Abadjieva   
It is the end of November. It is still warm in Athens and tourists are still roaming around. The metro is jam-packed, but only to the Akropoli stop. I get off at the next one. I end up in a massive, concrete underpass. Concrete dominates the landscape outside too. Noise comes from a large boulevard. Chimneys and cranes stick out. The city’s industrial zone used to be situated here – now this area is known as the Gazi neighbourhood.

The place I’m trying to find is a former gas factory. Built in 1857 by the French Gas Company, the Gazi Factory was initially used and managed by it. Thanks to it, the city got its street lighting. Later, because of the Olympic Games of 1896, the factory expanded and started to supply most of the households and companies at the time with gas.

A hundred years after its construction, the factory stopped working because of other energy sources’ entry. After the contract with the French expired, the factory became the capital’s municipal property. It remains such until today. About ten years ago, the Athens municipality decided to turn the complex of buildings and machinery which had not be used for almost half a century, into an extravagant, cultural centre. The project was assigned to the Greek architect Alkis Premis.

The warehouse spaces were turned into galleries, the former administrative quarters became bars and restaurants, the workshops – stores, the enormous reservoirs – performance stages, the pipes – painted in pastel colours, pass from the external to the internal spaces and back out.

Among the chimneys and furnaces, seminars and workshops are organised. Along the small streets, sculptures and installations are displayed.

In addition to all this, this place has the status of a monument of culture and a museum. A wise and extremely intelligent decision by the municipality, executed in a perfect architectural way. With all due respect to the factory’s history. A kind of a bow on the part of the city to the place that once gave it light.

Just across the boulevard from the factory, there is a large trolley bus depot.

This building until recently was quite a nondescript, old hall, with crumbling paint and an abandoned appearance – also municipal property. That is, until the municipality decided to place its walls at the disposal of Athens’s graffiti artists. It announced a contest and financed the execution of the best proposals. That managed to turn the depot from a building by which one passes by quickly to one by which one can’t help but stop.

The compositions – in a playful and elegant way, include the nearby boulevard, with its trolley buses, cars and scooters zooming by. The images of underground characters flow into a cityscape. On that background, the passers-by look as if they are walking through the painted space, which gradually merges with the real city.

Everything is intelligent, artistic and welcoming, fitting in perfect unison with the place’s environment, but at the same time changing it completely.

Things that are well-made have the power to inspire and generate more good ideas, with which to push such things to happen in other places too. Thanks to those initiatives, the Gazi neighbourhood has filled with restaurants, galleries, bars and clubs with live music, turning it from a place where nobody wanted to end up at night to a centre of the city’s bohemian night life.

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