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Typical polikatoikias in Piraeus, the main port district of Greater Athens.

Typical polikatoikias in Piraeus, the main port district of Greater Athens.

Photographer: Kypros/Moment via Getty Images

CityLab
Design

Behind the Accidentally Resilient Design of Athens Apartments

Athens polikatoikias — concrete apartments with tiered balconies — were built quickly to create affordable housing, but their design has stood the test of time.

(This article is part of our ongoing series exploring the iconic home designs that shaped global cities. Read more from the series and sign up to get the next story sent directly to your inbox.) 

On first glance, a typical Athens polikatoikia doesn’t necessarily look like the answer to a host of urban issues. Built quickly and on the cheap — mainly from the 1950s to the 1980s — these modernist apartment buildings (pronounced “Pol-i-kat-i-KEE-A”) line street after street in the Greek capital, their repeated concrete facings and endless lines of unfurled balcony awnings giving the city an appearance of remarkable consistency. They may lack the elegance of Athens’ earlier neo-classical housing, but they have helped to create a city that is vibrant, socially integrated and (until recently) affordable, in which most residents’ housing offers broadly good living conditions. It’s probably fair to say, however, that the buildings have managed all this more or less by accident.

When the polikatoikias (the term simply means condominium) were spreading across Athens in the 1950s, they did so in a city with urgent housing needs and little money to spend. At the time, people were flooding to Athens from the provinces — a trans-European phenomenon made more intense in Greece by the civil war that finally ended in 1949, which provoked many to flee a partly devastated countryside. New Athenians needed homes fast, but the state lacked the funds and will to construct public housing, and banks were offering few loans.