A little bit of Paris: Beaux-Arts Classicism in Athens January 23 2015

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Iris Movie Theater of the Athens Student Club (1926-1931) by Alexandros Nikoloudis. Image (c) ΠΟΦΠΑ.

From the 1890s until the 1920s, Greek architects trained at the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts created grand classical structures with a decidedly eclectic flair. The Beaux-Arts style combines Greek and Roman with Renaissance forms resulting in theatrical and heavily ornamented structures. Many of Athens’ most prominent landmarks exemplify Beaux-Arts Classicism: the Student Club (1926) and Atticon Cinema (1916) by Alexandros Nikoloudis, the Ionian Bank Headquarters (1925), the Benaki Museum (1867) and the Hôtel Merlin de Douai (1893) of the French Embassy by Anastasios Metaxas, to name a few.

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Ionian Bank Headquarters (1925) by Anastasios Metaxas.

Two of the best Athenian examples of the Beaux-Arts tradition stand within a few blocks of each other:  the Officers’ Club (1924) by Alexandros Nikoloudis and the “House of Phoebus” by Ioannis Moussis.

The “House of Phoebus”

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The House of Phoebus is the official residence of the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Greece.

The “House of Phoebus” is one of the finest examples of early 20th-century homes in Athens. The general character of this two-story building is in harmony with other Athenian townhouses constructed before prestressed concrete.

The architect of the building remains unknown. Between the years 1916-18 modifications were made to update the house as the then owner wished to enhance the sumptuousness of his residence’s appearance. For that reason he called on the architect Ioannis Mousis, who was known for his somewhat pompous and neo-baroque style, to add grandiose architectural elements. Mousis proceeded by adding a grand entrance and staircase, key features of Beaux-Arts architecture.

The architect Ioannis Mousis drew on the ancient Greek temple of Erechtheum at the Athenian Acropolis for his inspiration. The doorway is closely modeled on that of the Erechtheum; the corbel entablature of the original was replaced with a laurel leaf garland and Apollo’s bust. The inscription reads Phoibou Doma (Φοίβου Δώµα, Greek for “House of Phoebus”). This romantic appellation refers to the neighboring Lyceum, a grove sacred to Apollo Lyceus (Λύκειος, Lykeios, from Proto-Greek λύκη, “light”). These visual references to classical times were more than aesthetic choices, they were meant to suggest connections between the modern Greek nation and ancient Greece.

The Officers’ Club

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Officers’ Club (1924-1932) by Alexandros Nikoloudis. Image (c) Wikimedia Commons.

The Officers’ Club Building is recognized as a premier example of the Beaux-Arts style. Completed in 1932, it is one of the last Beaux-Arts structures erected in Athens. Architecturally, the buildings’ elevations are divided into a rusticated base and a colonnade of paired Ionic columns with an entablature and balustrade, a scheme inspired by Claude Perrault’s East front of the Louvre. The interior contains grand, well ordered and richly detailed spaces thus providing a dignified environment in which numerous dinners, receptions and other social functions are held.

Towards a new architecture
Revivalist architecture (i.e. Neoclassicism and Beaux-Arts) was a style perfectly suited to a young and irredentist nation, founded on an assumption of continuity with ancient Greece. Classicist architecture represented this continuity in architectural form. After World War I and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, which gave an end to Greece’s imperialist aspirations, the Classicist styles began to find major competitors among of the new generation of architects who adhered to more progressive, modernist styles. The excessive formalism, disregarding considerations of structural truth and advanced aesthetic theory of revivalist architecture was criticized by the architects of Modernism who were instead looking to the future, not to the past, to draw inspiration.

Written by: Nicolas Nicolaides

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